SCOUTING REPORT: When Elk Talk … and When They Don’t
by Mark Kayser
Elk are a chatty bunch sometimes. Know when to use that to your advantage and what to do when they go silent.
This wasn’t right. The October bugling was bold, nonstop and sounded just like what I had heard weeks before in the rut-frenzy of September. If this kept up, tagging a bull was going to be as easy as ordering a Big Mac. Unfortunately the dense timber combined with the evasive nature of elk pushed my hunt beyond the opening-day timeframe. It didn’t help that the terrain allowed hunters using trucks and ATVs to access every fire road in the forest. Elk were bumping into orange behind every pine.
Three days later I couldn’t buy a bugle. I knew it was over when I did back-to-back midnight runs to see what I could hear under the cover of darkness. Even the moonlighting elk were zipped tight. The October bugling was over. How was I going to put some elk steaks in the freezer?
Elk hunters dream of September. It’s the height of the rut across North America. Apart from being incredible to listen to, bugling lets hunters zero in on whereabouts of herds and amorous bulls. As cows come into estrus, the vocal intensity tends to increase every day. Even hunting pressure can’t completely clam up a bull when it has a snoot full of cow perfume.
A similar bugle fest spikes in October. It too is based on cows coming into estrus, but instead of a nonstop lineup of willing females, it focuses on the few that haven’t bred. Those few cows that slipped past the noses of bossy bulls can attract the attention of every October bull within smelling distance. Bugling and even fighting may ensue for breeding rights. In such a scenario, you may feel as if you’ve magically flipped the calendar back a month.
October bugling also increases as herds begin milling together in preparation for their migration down to winter range. Big bulls may still be found in the presence of these herds, but as the October days slide off the calendar, more and more mature bulls go off by themselves to safer and often higher haunts. This leaves rambunctious adolescents in charge, and their enthusiasm oftentimes gets the best of them. And of course they bugle.
The first time I witnessed this was during a hunt in October. I’d been hunting a big herd bull with about 30 cows in its harem but couldn’t get close enough for a shot. Occasionally I’d hear a bugle, but nothing like September’s frenzy. The next day I returned to the same lair and to my surprise the joint was jumping. Bugling bulls, screaming cows and mewing calves greeted me. Was the the big bull still in the rut? The answer was a resounding “no.” Overnight the big bull had abandoned his post and a trailing satellite bull quickly stepped up to the captain’s position. The satellite bull ramped up the herd’s enthusiasm, giving me an October window of opportunity. Realizing that finding the previous leader was now going to be a needle-in-haystack affair, I opted for the satellite. I tagged him a day later using a simple ambush highlighted by the bull’s boisterous bugles.
Hopefully you’ll revel in screaming bulls during your September or October hunt. But be prepared for the silent treatment. Predators, including you, most definitely can have a hushing effect on a herd. Remember that predator numbers, such as wolves, are increasing in many areas across the West. This adds increasing pressure on prey to veil their presence. And one of the most efficient predators dons blaze orange. Once in the woods, you and your fellow hunters will likely curtail vocalization. Most bulls only come flying into hunters’ bugles once or twice before they get a whole lot more cautious—and quiet.
A seven-year study recently released by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Montana State University confirmed wolves and bears do have an impact on elk behavior. They also confirmed you, the hunter, also influence elk movement.
“Wolves influence elk distribution, movements, group sizes, and habitat selection to varying degrees in different areas, but hunting activity and hunter access have a greater impact on elk distribution, movements, group sizes and habitat selection than do wolves,” the study reports.
It makes sense. As hunters, we listen for elk vocalizations to narrow our search. Wouldn’t another equally cunning predator, like wolves, do the same? And if elk bump into predators time and time again after a vocal love exchange, wouldn’t they soon assume their auditory clues were giving them away? Hunters using bugles and cow calls are no different in an elk’s mind.
Realizing that late September and October bugling could shut down at any moment, you need to make the most of your hunt, particularly on opening-day during rifle season. This requires scouting, research and planning to be in the right place for what could be a short bugling window. Unless you’re hunting a low-elevation elk herd that doesn’t migrate to wintering grounds, you’ll have one ace in the hole: migration tradition. Elk descend from most high-country areas from September into early November as snow drives them out of elevated refuge and into winter range at comfortable altitudes. Many studies note that elk return to the same ranges annually. Many follow the same routes to those winter ranges. Others may hopscotch around. But ultimately they go where they have for hundreds of years.
It’s up to you to locate where herds may land via game and fish agency inquiries, online research and firsthand sleuthing. Just remember that transitioning into October, herds will likely be in passage to winter range, so your ambush will be most effective if you take into account the entire route. You’ll likely be targeting a herd somewhere between summer and winter range.
Take into consideration traditional snowfall, hunting pressure and most likely travel routes. Elk usually vacate high country when snow is knee-deep. If you need tire chains to get into elk country, it’s likely the elk are or soon will be descending below that line. Plus, herd matriarchs remember areas of opening-day bustle, sidestepping the buzz of hunting activity before it even starts.
If your planning works, you could land in a beehive of elk bugling activity. Use it to your advantage. Since elk are in a shift from smaller rut herds to larger winter herds, your calls, both bugle and cow, won’t sound threatening. If you hear nonstop ranting from cows and bulls, bust in with a bugle and use it to veil your stalk. If the talk is more reserved, switch to a cow call and act as if you want to join the herd. You simply need to get to within shooting range and have your target expose itself, so don’t get carried away with detail in the conversation.
If your opening-day strategy fails, you need to be even more diligent in your location selection. Take your scouting information and select a possible migration route with the highest probability of finding elk without vocal cues. This means scouting for an area with enough open areas to allow you to spot herds as they feed or travel between blocks of cover.
Although you want to focus on open country, don’t opt for an entirely treeless environment. You still need some cover to veil your approach as you cut the distance. Areas characterized by numerous parks and brushy, south-facing slopes offer ample viewing and stalking conditions. Preseason scouting pays off when elk go silent.
When you do find animals, resist the urge to call. If the elk are silent it may well be that breeding is over within the herd. It’s even more likely they’ve been pressured by hunters—orange or four-legged. Travel routes will tend to deviate from the highest hunter densities, so keep that in mind as you mark possible elk traps going beyond the September rut.
An elk call now could be as shocking as a car alarm. Instead, assess the herd and plan an interception. It’s best to make your move behind cover and when the herd is on the move. Elk bedded in the open with ample vantage points rival any security system. On the other hand, elk on the move are preoccupied with feeding and other elk distractions, in addition to security duties. Lastly, be patient. Elk cover lots of ground, even over the course of a day. They may be on the move for migration, fleeing from hunting pressure or simply crossing canyons to get to better feed. You can be aggressive, but too much “running and gunning” can eat up your calorie reserves and burn you out before you even find elk.
On my October hunt, I was wishing I’d been more aggressive when the bugling was still ringing through the timber. With no vocalizations to rely on, I moved to an old burn, both for the clutter-free view and the fact the local elk used it for a nutrition base in late fall.
By chance, I spotted a small herd exiting the area at dawn one morning and plotted a course to intercept them in the next canyon. The shortcut gave me just seconds to find a good shooting rest as I watched cows spit out from the timber below. A young six-point bull followed silently, and the hunt ended with the sound of my rifle breaking the morning stillness.
Wyoming-based writer Mark Kayser lives at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains with his wife Sharon and children, Cole and Katelyn. He is a frequent contributor to Bugle.