Archery Elk Hunting
The archery season begins this coming Saturday in Colorado, and many other states as well, and I am extremely excited to go on my hunt on September 15th. Hunting elk during the archery season is an incredible experience, especially when the rut is in full swing, which it should be when I go on my trip. Understanding some things about elk during this time will help you fill your tag, as their behavior is very different than other times of the year.
During the summer, bulls’ velvet-coated antlers grow with incredible speed, and growth usually stops in mid-to late August, when testosterone levels rise. The velvet falls off naturally and is also rubbed away on brush, usually a single-stemmed sapling. At this time the antlers are bloody, but they quickly turn white. More rubbing produces mahogany, tan and brown hues, caused by staining from contact with vegetation. If you see rubs, you know bulls are in the area. Sometimes you can gauge the size of a bull by studying a rub. One year I found a rub on a small tree that easily reached 9 feet high.
Bulls are sociable much of the year, living in bachelor herds. But as late August approaches, they separate and begin the process of gathering as many cows as possible, called “harems.” These harems will be jealously guarded by the herd bull for the duration of the rut. This cow-gathering activity may be well along by late August but typically picks up as September progresses. Vocalization increases, with more bulls sounding off as the rut approaches, the peak is generally the last two weeks of September.
Hunting Strategies: In late August and early September, bugling may not be effective. The days are long and hot, and elk retreat to cool hideouts in the timber. Because of the heat, they’ll often travel from bedding to feeding areas in the night or at the very end of shooting light, when it’s cooler. In arid areas where there are few streams and ponds, such as in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, elk may head to water before they feed in the afternoon. Look for hidden water holes away from well-traveled roads and trails, and watch them until the end of legal shooting hours.
Elk are fond of wallows in the heat of the summer, often frolicking in them late in the afternoon. Look for wallows around marshes and beaver dams and wherever you see lush green vegetation in the timber, signifying a wet spot. Wallows may also be in and around high-country meadows. If the water in a wallow is muddy, elk are using it. I have a favorite wallow I will be hunting in a few weeks, I’ve seen bulls throwing mud in that wallow as far as 10 yards out and 20 feet high, they really go nuts in a wallow! If wallows aren’t present, set up on a trail in late afternoon between the timber and a meadow where you’ve found fresh elk sign. Consider the wind when you select a stand location. Try a bugle call occasionally, as well as a cow call. You might interest a bull who is looking to build an early harem.
The peak of the rut varies with elevation and latitude, but generally it occurs around the first day of fall. Bow seasons are in full swing in most states, and in Colorado the muzzle loader season is usually the third week in September. The rut typically begins in early September and runs into the first week of October or later, when rifle hunts begin in a few states.
Elk Behavior: The early stages of the rut can be a wild time in the woods. Bulls are crazed, thinking only about breeding cows. To this end, bulls challenge each other for rights to cows by bluffing or by outright battles in which slashing antlers determine the victor. The loser rapidly retreats, and some battles result in death.
A herd bull seldom eats or sleeps. He spends most of the day and night guarding his precious harem, running off lesser bulls or dueling with bigger animals. As each cow comes into estrus, the bull pursues her until she’s ready to breed. When she’s bred, the bull then turns his attention to other cows that are ready to come into estrus. Solo or satellite bulls have no cows, and spend all their time trying to sneak into a harem or find a cow or two of their own.
Hunting Strategies: This is a magic time in elk country, when calling is at its best. Be in the woods long before first light, and listen for bugling bulls. Get away from roads and well-used trails, since elk are wary of humans in high-traffic areas. Penetrate as deeply as you can in the timber. Bulls may be silent if you call from far away, but they come unglued when you get into their backyard. Keep moving until you find sign such as freshly rubbed trees or hear elk vocalizing. If a bull answers your bugle call, quickly set up for a shot. In the timber, an elk may sound like he’s half a mile away. Don’t be surprised if he shows in a few seconds; he was probably closer than you thought.
Use a cow call frequently. A herd bull may shun a bugle call, moving his cows away. He wants to breed them all, not fight another challenger, but he might run in for a look at the cow caller. The same applies for solo bulls who are looking for cows. They’re far more likely to come to a cow call than a bugle call. If you’re hunting where there’s heavy hunting pressure, bulls may be call-shy, refusing to vocalize or respond to calls. Try listening at night. Bulls are active in the dark, and often do much bugling then. If you hear one, try to get a general idea where he is, and then head there before shooting light. Don’t call until you’re close to where you heard him. Before making a bugle call, try some soft cow chirps for 15 or 20 minutes. If you get no response, try a bugle call. A bugle is a great way to locate a bull with a herd, but I prefer cow calls after that.
As I mentioned earlier, you have to get deep into the forest, and be prepared for some intense hiking. Elk prefer thick timber and step slopes. I can’t tell you how many times I have found elk and snuck up on them, yet could never get a shot because of the thick forest. But to me, that is really as satisfying as harvesting an elk, almost. While it is good to try to be quiet, don’t worry if you snap a twig once in a while, elk do that all the time. More unnatural sounds such as clothing scraping on tree branches are more alarming to elk than a twig snapping under your foot.
As always, pay close attention to the wind, and keep in mind the effects of the mountains on wind direction. In the morning as the air starts to warm up it will rise creating thermal drafts going up slope. As the air cools in the evening it will sink, creating down slope thermal drafts which will carry your scent.
Best of luck to anyone getting out archery hunting this season!