Elk Hunting Tactics: Hunting Bulls During the Post Rut
It should be no surprise that for me there is nothing that compares to hunting elk during the rut. The forest mystically comes alive with the piercing, three dimensional sounds of bugling bulls. The crisp autumn air is filled with the sweet aroma of pine, juniper and spruce as well as the musky odor of rutting elk. I guess you’re addicted when you love the smell of elk urine!
As fun as rut hunting can be, I’ll have to admit that post-rut elk hunting is more difficult and offers a different challenge. As a hunter, when you have met and overcome the challenge of succeeding on a late hunt the sense of accomplishment is indescribable and overwhelming. Big bulls are never easy to harvest. Even during the rut, they typically have an army of cows watching out for them. Once the rut has ended, big bulls become very reclusive and don’t tend to be standing out in open meadows or pounding wallows during shooting light.
A big bull has survived at least five or six hunting seasons with us chasing him around. A bull does not get to this age by making mistakes during hunting season. So, to tag a mature bull you must have a game plan and be determined to put out a maximum effort in order to be rewarded.
Make Glassing Your Friend
One of the most important aspects of post-rut elk hunting is to adapt your hunting strategy to the terrain that you will be hunting in. For a late hunt I prefer to hunt or guide in areas that lend themselves to glassing. To be glassable, the country needs to contain mountains or rolling hills so that you are able to gain elevation and potentially glass up elk. Keep this in mind when are trying to determine what hunts to apply for, especially if you are a rifle hunter planning to hunt during the post rut. If you are hunting an area that does not lend itself to glassing, you will need to implement still hunting or ambush hunting into your strategy which I will also discuss.
During late seasons I definitely prefer hunting areas that are rolling or mountainous and contain juniper, pinyon (JP) and browse such as mountain mahogany, cliff rose, or oak brush. During the late season, elk will switch from being grazers to browsing heavily. The reason I prefer to hunt this kind of country during late season is that it naturally lends itself to glassing.
The key to glassing on late hunts is to use quality binoculars mounted on a quality tripod from a good vantage point. If you can afford Swarovski’s, Leica’s, or Zeiss you have made an investment that will make a huge difference on your hunts for many years to come. If these brands are too expensive for you, save for an extra year or two or buy the absolute best glass that you can afford. Never skimp on your optics – your hunting will suffer for it!
I prefer to use a Bogen or Swarovski tripod to mount my binoculars to. A quality tripod, no matter the brand, should have lots of adjustment range of the legs and a smooth panning head. I have tried bargain-priced tripods and found them to be difficult to set up and adjust, and very prone to falling apart when put to the test- something you don’t need to find out during your hunt! If you are unsure of how to mount your binoculars to a tripod, consult with a good sporting goods dealer for help.
Different people have different preferences, but I like to scan big elk country with my Swarovski 10×42 EL’s and then use a spotting scope to judge a bull for trophy quality once I have spotted him with my binoculars. There are those that prefer twelve or fifteen-power binos for scanning and that’s their prerogative. I just like the wide field of view that I get with my ten-powers for glassing elk.
Another good investment is topographic maps of your hunting area. These maps will allow you to identify potential glassing locations within your hunting area. Once you arrive to scout you can then determine which locations are the most prime. Of course, on public land hunts you could have company at good vantage points so be prepared for that.
Find the Right Position
Once you have chosen a location to glass from make certain that you are in position and ready to start looking right at first light. If at all possible, I prefer to have the sunrise at my back or off to the side. Glassing into a glaring sunrise is annoying and nearly impossible to deal with. It should also go without saying that in order to get to your glassing spot you’ll be climbing a hill or mountain in high elevation so start hiking, walking, or hitting the treadmill right now or you will pay a heavy price during elk season.
hunting bulls post rut
Right at first light, the first thing I’ll do is look at all of the areas that I believe would most likely contain elk. During the first fifteen to twenty minutes of light, I am scanning and looking at these areas with no real pattern. Don’t expect to always see the full body of an elk, but rather parts of it such as a leg, the rump or parts of a bull’s antlers. If I don’t find a bull “scanning” I will then settle in and “grid” the country. I like to glass across an area horizontally rather than vertically. Once I have methodically glassed across at one level I will adjust my binos down slightly allowing for a little overlap of what I just glassed and then pan back across horizontally again.
If you have ever glassed this way for two, three or five hours straight you will undoubtedly understand why I stress buying the highest quality glass that you can afford. Poor quality binoculars will bring on a major headache within a half hour of intense glassing. If you do have bargain brand binos don’t forget to throw some Advil in your pack! Also, carry a cushioned pad to sit on while glassing. You will do a much better job of glassing if you are comfortable.
Closing the Deal
A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to guide a great hunter named Dave that I’ve since nicknamed “The Shootist.” We were glassing together in the mountainous country of northwest Arizona on day four of his hunt. After about an hour of glassing, with very little luck, I finally spotted a bull on a shaded northwest slope. The bull was about a mile and a half away and even at this distance I could tell with my 10×42’s that he was a big bull. When I mounted the spotting scope on the tripod I could see that he was indeed a heavy, mature, 6×6.
The Shootist and I quickly decided that this was a bull that we wanted to pursue, so we formulated a plan and began a grueling hike to get ourselves within shooting range of the bull. Once we got closer to the bull, as generally happens, we began to encounter sharp draws and other obstacles that limited our ability to close the distance. We ultimately managed to get one ridge away from the bull and spotted him feeding out in the open. I told Dave that this was as close as we were going to get without losing our vantage point and spooking the bull. I ranged the bull at just over 500 yards and then settled in behind my binoculars to spot.
The Shootist wedged himself into a juniper and found a solid rest on a limb that cradled his custom .300 Weatherby rifle. When his first shot rang out I watched it hit just low. The bull did not know where the sound had come from, but was now edgy and ready to bolt. I told Dave to elevate his aiming point ten to twelve inches and shoot again. Seconds later another .300 missile crumpled the bull in his tracks and earned Dave his new nickname. What a challenging yet rewarding hunt for both of us! Dave was able to take this bull, because he had a “gamers” attitude, the right rifle and had practiced at a long range shooting.
Another tactic that I have used with success time and time again is "still hunting." This involves slipping along slowly through areas where you will likely encounter elk. For this type of hunting, eight or ten-power binoculars are the glass of choice with eight’s probably getting the nod. I will use a wind checker to constantly monitor the currents and thermals and then hunt patiently and slowly through the timber, pausing often to glass, listen, and smell the air. When you are hunting this way, be patient and methodical and let your instincts dictate your pace. If you encounter heavy sign or smell elk, slow down and become a predator. During my hunt with Dave, we were easing along one afternoon through a fairly heavy stand of junipers on the shady side of a gradual slope. All at once we both smelled elk. We turned our noses into the wind and crept ahead one step at a time. After about 75 yards of creeping along, we eased around a big juniper and as I looked to the left there he was - a bull bedded under the shady side of another juniper at less than fifty yards. The problem was that he was looking at me too and before I could get Dave on him he busted out of there and was gone.
Sometimes if I feel the time is right while still hunting, I will cow call occasionally as I ease along. I don’t do this every time, but when I do, it does seem to pay dividends. I have had several bulls actually bugle at me during late November and a couple come into the call. Calling in November or December should not be overdone by any means. I like to blow a light, nasally cow call once or twice when I feel the time is right.
The year after guiding Dave, another hunter, Joe, and I implemented still hunting and some light cow calling to score on a nice 6×6 bull in some flat JP country that would have otherwise been unhuntable during the post-rut. We had still hunted for the better part of a mile when we found an area with heavy elk sign. When we heard what sounded like an elk walking we stopped, setup and I used some light calls on a Primos Hyper Lip Single to coax the bull into a small opening where Joe made a perfect shot with his .300 Ultra Mag to dispatch the bull.
I would stress that calling can work, but it can also hurt during a late hunt if used at the wrong time. Sometimes calling can actually alert elk to your presence and spoil your opportunity to sneak in on them. If in doubt, don’t call! It’s tough to give you hard and fast rules about calling during late hunts other than to say use it very sparingly and when you do, be subtle about it. I mostly use calls on late hunts to settle elk down when the shooting starts, allowing my hunters to take follow-up shots if necessary.
The Path of Least Resistance
Over the years, I’ve learned over the years, especially during late hunts, is to key in on natural funnels or crossing areas that elk will utilize. Elk are just like us, they like to conserve energy and when at all possible they will choose the path of least resistance. Look for saddles, benches, ridges or other breaks in the terrain that would allow elk to cross from one drainage or canyon into another. If you are hunting in flatter, thick country try to find fence crossings that elk are utilizing. I have been in thick JP’s and seen fence crossings where the elk had practically worn a trench in the ground! If you are in country that is not glassable and you are worn out from still hunting, find a good fence crossing and watch it. You just might be surprised at what jumps the low spot in the fence!
Elk still need water during the late hunts but are not nearly as dependent on it as they are during the rut. If not pressured, elk will still sometimes use water sources during shooting light especially when a full moon is not present. However, keep in mind that larger bulls are reclusive during this time of year and will not saunter into water during shooting light if they sense human presence in their environment. It’s been my experience that on most late hunts there is usually too much hunting pressure to count on killing a big bull over water.
So, in a nutshell, during a post-rut hunt you’ll want to glass or still hunt for your bull. And, lastly, don’t forget good old-fashioned hard work and determination. Many times my hunters and I have succeeded late in the hunt by being persistent and not giving up. I promise you that you’re not going to kill an elk from your couch. Attitude is everything! Have the mind set that you will hunt smart, hunt hard, and, if necessary, hunt until the last few minutes of your season if necessary to fill your tag. You will have the rest of the year to either regret or relish in the memories of a fine elk season. Make it happen while you can and have no regrets!