Whenever we think of elk hunting during the rut, we think of monstrous, screaming bulls, bugling and chuckling as they canter after cows and chase off all challengers to their reign as kings of the mountain. We fantasize about calling them in, about standing just behind a tree and bugling to them as a big bull full of piss and vinegar answers us walks into shooting range. It’s a fantastic and majestic moment in any elk hunters life. However it doesn’t always go that way, because sometimes the elk remain silent.
During the late-season when the peak of the rut has begun to drop away or when warm weather and a full moon makes most of the rut activity nocturnal, those bugling bulls that we all dream about will often fall silent. They won’t respond to any call a hunter sends out and sometimes are even driven away from the sound. It can be a very disappointing and incredibly frustrating thing for hunters dreaming of giant antlers for the wall and filling their freezers with elk meat. However, our elk riddled dreams can still be fulfilled when the elk go quiet, all it takes is a bit of leg work and a few well planned strategies.
Go Hard with Your Spot and Stalk
Spotting and stalking is almost always a part of elk hunting. Even when they’re being extremely vocal, you generally spot a bugling bull in the distance and then move into position to call it in to you. Yet, when bulls are being silent, you have to go to them not try to bring them to you. This means a lot of extra time glassing on the binoculars because you not only have to spot the elk, you have to spot a way to get close to them.
Granted, this strategy is a challenging one and won’t always work out. Many times you may find a herd of elk that is simply unapproachable. Herds in open fields with no cover and too many eyes to spot your approach, groups of elk in untraversable terrain, elk in thick noisy cover where you couldn’t possibly approach without being detected – all have to be ignored. This means that a hunter has to be extra patient, spending more time with their eyes glued to the lenses of binoculars and spotting scopes than they normally would, not just looking for that perfect bull, but for that bull that can be stalked.
Once an approachable herd with a shooter bull has been found, you have to then pick your path. Try to find a route through your binoculars that will keep your movements hidden from the elk. Look for lines of trees, paths through the brush, and even depressions in the open such as ditches or creek beds that allow you to stay out of view and approach within shooting range of the bull.
Set Up An Ambush
Most of us like to hunt elk while we’re on the move, but sometimes it’s more effective to stay still. While this can be a nightmare for an elk hunter, having to sit and wait patiently for a bull to walk within range, it can be an incredibly effective strategy. Just as if you were hunting whitetail, you want to find a spot or trail that the elk are frequenting and actively using, such as a path between a food or water source and a bedding area, and then find a spot to set up.
There are a lot of options here when it comes to setting up an ambush point. You can simply find a convenient stump, rock or log to sit on. You can set up a ground blind, or even a tree stand in a spot of your choice. Look for spots close to feeding areas on morning hunts and close to bedding areas on evening hunts. However whatever you plan on doing, do it quickly. Even though this may seem similar to deer hunting, it’s important to remember that elk are not deer. They are herd animals, who will frequent and area for a few days, using the food and water sources available, and then move on. Watch a herd for a day or two, note their travel routes, and then move in the late afternoon to find and set up your ambush. Be sure to use a lot of cover scent and disturb the area as little as possible when you do. Elk are quick to change their habits when they feel that an area they are comfortable in has been disturbed.
Just because the elk are silent doesn’t mean you have to be. Often, especially in the late season when bulls are beginning to break off in search of any cows they haven’t covered, elk will silently approach or react to calls and come in without saying a thing. All a hunter has to do is convince a bull that they are a herd of elk, which is best done by blitz calling.
Like setting up an ambush, blitz calling is a non-traditional form of elk hunting, one that calls for a patient elk hunter who is able to read sign. It consists of finding a good area that the elk have been frequenting as well as good line of sight for an approaching animal, ideally giving you 360 degrees of vision, as approaching bulls will often circle in downwind before approaching. Once a good spot has been found, begin a calling session.
Cow call, calf call, and even give a few weak chuckling bugles. Break some branches, roll a rock or two and do your best to sound like a whole herd of elk. Don’t stick to one cadence or pattern but mix and match, using different calls at different frequencies and volumes. Repeat this session for 15 or 20 minutes and then go silent, keeping your eyes on the surrounding trees and brush and then wait. It’s a game of patience. Often elk approaching your calls will take an hour or more to arrive. If you still haven’t seen anything after an hour or two move over a few hundred yards and start again, covering the whole area. Blitz calling doesn’t always work, but when it does, wandering bulls will move in quickly so be on alert.
The Best Laid Plans
One of the true beauties of hunting is that it doesn’t always go as we planned. Weather moves in, animals move out, and sometimes things just fall apart. So it’s up to the hunter to adapt and overcome if they want to find success and it is in learning to do so that they become better hunter. The best elk hunters know how to set aside what they want to happen and will do whatever they have to do to bring home their bull.