Find the ladies and the babies in early summer, and you’ll likely find the wide-beamed bachelors, too. Simply finding actual elk to hunt can be even more of a challenge than actually getting one of the massive creatures out of the woods and into your truck. Early-season hunters are no stranger to this test, especially those looking for a heavy-racked bull. Early-season bulls are often maddeningly silent, remaining tight-lipped until cows come into estrus. When cows do hint of the breeding season to come, bulls may advertise with a bugling frenzy. Yet that changes by the day, sometimes by the hour. If you scout in late August or hunt during the initial days of September you may not hear a peep, and with leaves still on all the brush and trees, glassing can be fruitless, even when great bulls are in the area. To avoid a no-show elk hunt, scout for summer herds. These large concentrations of cows and calves may not be on your hit list, but they have the ability to lead you into the zone of a nearby bull—bugle or no bugle.
Cow elk traditionally return to the same general area year after year to give birth and raise their newborn calves. Characterized by high-country meadows with lush vegetation and nearby escape cover, these areas can attract dozens, even hundreds of cows and their young. Alpine zones with aspen groves for refuge fit the criteria, as do vast parks at high elevations ringed by pine, fir and spruce. As young calves gain enough strength to follow the herd, cows band together to protect their young. The large assembly of adult females helps defend offspring from hungry predators and gives each cow a chance to graze heavily and meet the extra needs of her nursing calf. It’s communal babysitting behavior that’s been successful for thousands of years.
Continuing to gain strength, calves follow the herd around high-country nursery zones seeking nutrient-rich forage to prepare for a long winter. These herds often stay in and around the same summer range through the early days of September until the beginning of the rut. Locating established elk calving and summer ranges can be key to finding bulls in the early season.
It’s common knowledge that mature bulls don’t immerse themselves in summer nursery herds. But these bachelor herds oftentimes set up camp nearby. More than once I’ve taken a perch on a high vantage point to view a herd of cows and calves, and then swung my binocular to an adjacent canyon only to discover a bachelor group of bulls less than a mile from the gal pack.
The reason is simple. Bulls also require nutritious feed. Cows rely on high-quality forage for optimum health and milk production for their young. Bulls are invested in piling on fat reserves for the rut and growing antlers, nearly an inch a day during the peak of the summer. Both of which require tons of good green feed.
One nursery herd I keep an eye on in Wyoming consists of several hundred cows and calves spread out over a large park zone. It usually only takes me a few hours of additional scouting in adjacent canyons to find bulls, and only minutes from the summer nursery herd. Scouting cameras placed along adjoining trails, water sources and nearby natural mineral licks can document the presence of neighboring bulls using mutual resources. A good friend of mine in Colorado puts trail cameras into play to watch water holes for thirsty bulls. Surprisingly the trail cameras reveal both bulls and nursery herds using the same resources, but at different times of the day. Know your state regulations, though. In many states, trail cams aren’t legal during hunting season.
If you don’t have the luxury of preseason scouting, you can still acquire valuable information using the phone or by going online. State wildlife agency big-game biologists note the location of summer herds for several reasons, including monitoring herd recruitment and analyzing the health of summer range among others. Contacting biologists through a simple phone call or email can put you on track to areas hosting these summer herds of elk. Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s online site includes an interactive map atlas that outlines game management units, land ownership information and the location of elk summer and winter range. RMEF’s own Hunt Planner also illustrates summer and winter ranges. Online research combined with conversations from biologists in the field can corroborate the location of these summer herds. You can use this data as a starting point to locate nursery herds of cows and calves, remnants of those herds, and interested bulls waiting in the shadows for the rut to spark.
Simply locating traditional summer range for cows and calves is a smart start, but it may not put you in the exact zip code. Seasonal variations such as drought or early snow may move these herds prior to the hunt, plus human scouting and hunting pressure could nudge elk to more remote locations. As shorter days spur the herds to break down into smaller clans, bulls may seize the opportunity to take charge of a harem and possibly relocate. This is where good mapping skills come into play. Play the odds and bet on minimal herd movement away from summer range in early fall. Now use basic scouting criteria. Check for roadless areas, rugged terrain, nearby quality food sources, plus the heads of drainages herds may use as jumping off points prior to the winter migration.
Break it down further and be on lookout for remote, dark-timber areas near the main summer range and forage sources. North-facing slopes attract bulls for cool, shady bedding cover. Creeks that meander and create wetlands in openings also attract bulls for water and wallowing, and they may well be adorned with newly rubbed trees. Plus, snoop for heavily used trails leading from dense bedding cover to all adjacent meadows and parks. Regardless if you land upon a large herd or trace elements of the herd, it’s a sure bet that as September days click by, any remaining cows will be a magnet for bulls.
Can’t locate a bachelor group of bulls near the gals? Don’t worry. That large herd of cows acts like gravity, and any bull in the region can’t fight the attraction. Sooner or later the large herd will begin to disband, but not without a bull in tow. As summer daylight diminishes, it triggers bulls to begin the search for a harem of cows. Mature bulls may join a herd early or wait until a few days before the cows begin cycling in estrus. Young bulls commonly join the herds immediately during the early stages of the rut. Nevertheless cows will soon be in the company of a bull, and when you begin to hear frequent bugles the harems will likely be ruled by a nice bull.
On a recent archery hunt, my partner and I kept tabs on two different summer herds. One consisted of more than 200 cows and calves while the other tallied about 100 in size. During the opening days of the season, the group of 200 attracted the most hunting attention due to their visibility from a road. So we focused on the smaller group. By the second week of the season that herd had splintered into four main groups, each taking up residence in a series of creeks that drained from their higher summer range. On a fast-paced archery hunt, one bull lost itself in the rut frenzy and walked right by my partner at 30 yards. It was a great ending to a hunt we had started much earlier, scouting summer herds.