The Elk Rut

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As I’m packing for my muzzleloader hunt, trying to squeeze in an entry before I leave, this seemed to be as good a time as any to talk a little bit about the elk rut, early season hunting and the need to pace yourself or time your hunt as best you can.

Throughout most of the West, archery elk seasons usually begin either the last week of August or the first week of September.  These are typically long seasons, so it’s important to pace yourself.  I understand the temptation to be out on that opening weekend or taking advantage of the Labor Day weekend.  However, these are some of the least productive times to be afield as an archer. 

It was interesting to watch the early phases of the rut develop in Wyoming and Montana last week while sneaking out in between phases of my brother’s rehearsal dinner, wedding and other family commitments to look for elk.  The first day, all I saw were raghorns living with the cow herds as they did all summer, with skinny necks and not showing any signs of the impending rut.  Two days later, big bulls started to arrive, hanging out with the cows, and thrashing their antlers about.  One particularly large bull that I was watching was doing a lot of aggressive posturing, but still never uttered a sound.  I was really hoping that with the cold snap and this sudden change, we’d get some bugling soon.  Sure enough, the next morning, the bulls were out bugling in force and making early attempts at gathering cows.

Here in Colorado, it appeared the elk were still a day or two behind.  But this week, I was getting more reports of bugling bulls.  These bulls were still not interested in coming to a fight, just establishing their presence amongst the cows.  Of the hunters I talked to, none had success calling bulls in, but a few had success in stalking bulls that were bugling, or getting them to bugle again with a little cow call.  The previous week, hunters were getting bulls to come in with a little calling, but when they come in silently, few hunters are generally ready for them.

Understanding what the elk are doing should dictate your hunting style.  Instead, most hunters try all sorts of tactics during these early seasons that either serve to educate, scare off the bulls, or are otherwise counterproductive.  Though the elk are starting to bugle right now, they aren’t looking for a fight yet.  They are only casually gathering cows and establishing their presence.  The rut is a gradual process linked to fluctuating hormone levels, and whose intensity can vary as much as an individual human’s personality can vary. 

What I’m getting at is the fact that these first few weeks are often so unproductive for the archery hunter that I wouldn’t bother with going out after elk yet.  This coming weekend, the bugling and gathering activities should continue to increase (that’s what I’m hoping for, cause I’m going out anyway), but the bulls still won’t be very interested in a fight.  As only an occasional archer, but more of a muzzleloader hunter (I really love my rifles, and have a hard time getting excited about the equipment involved in this early season stuff), I can take advantage of this early bugling and casual herd gathering.  I only need the bulls to give away their location to me.  I do not need to call them in.  Besides, I only have a cow tag this year, and just want to close in on a herd in the timber.

Sure, you can call bulls in this week, but the real peak of the breeding is occurring the week after next and into that first week of October.  If I were bowhunting this year, it’s these next couple of weeks that I’d want to be out in the field.  States like Montana will let bowhunters hunt all the way up until late October, when the rifle season starts up.  Other states, like Colorado end the archery hunt at the end of September.  With that being the case, I’d simply forgo hunting all these earlier weekends, tiring myself out, avoiding the hot weather, getting frustrated with the lack of responsive elk, getting frustrated with competing against the muzzleloader hunters and whittling away any vacation time I might have.  Instead, I’d focus it on that last week of archery season here in Colorado.

But it seems many hunters have a hard time controlling themselves and insist on being out sooner than they ought to be.  It’s understandable, but for the nonresidents who are only going to get one week to hunt, you really need to spend your efforts timing the rut for a period when the elk will be more aggressive.

Opening weekend out here always has a ton of Texas and Wisconsin plates at the trailheads (I’m not blaming them, just implying that they are likely to be less experienced elk hunters than if I see a Colorado or Montana plate).  Many of these inexperienced elk hunters are under the impression that elk are either in rut, or not in the rut, despite the fact that they know how their deer rut develops.  And since the rut starts in September, they assume they need to be here as soon as possible.  As the week wears on, those hunters get more and more aggressive, due to the lack of response to their cow calls, they serve to educate the bulls, driving them further into the backcountry and thick timber.

So, for future reference, save your strength and your vacation time for a more productive period.  I think most hunters would rather have one or two great weeks of hunting instead of two to four weeks of heat, sweat and frustration.  Oh and one other great thing about hunting later in September is that you are more likely to get snow.  And since snow and bugling are the great game changers for elk hunters, combining the two is like heaven on earth.  DIY hunting on public land is a far tougher game than what it looks like on the TV shows.  We’re dealing with call shy, educated animals on our public lands, so it’s best to hunt them when they are at their most vulnerable.

Good luck out there, but pace yourself.


niceshot_smitty's picture

Elk hunting, little alone rut

Elk hunting, little alone rut elk hunting!!  I love to just say the word Elk!! Here in where i am very luck to leave 15 mintues from about 6000 head of Elk.  I get the chace to go out anytime and just listen to the magic sound that they have made for years.  Yeah i would say i was lucky to live down the road from the Valles Caldera.  A elk hunters dream!  I get the chance to go out to the 100000 acre a few times a year during the bulging season and i get a smile every time i hear that first bulge.  Doesn't matter if i am hunting or out to take pictures.  I love taking people first time to hear elk just to see there facal exprestions.  Not to forget how amazing the elk looks.  I am glad i get the chance to hunt every year, and glad people like to share the same feelings about elk hunting.


Ca_Vermonster's picture

As usual, another great

As usual, another great article from you!  We always appreciate the in depth look that you give us!

Even though I want to give myself the best chance for success, and go rifle hunting next year, there is a part of me that thinks I should go during archery season just to experience the elk rut.  Seeing those big guys tearing up the woods with their bugles, running all over, chasing the ladies, surely makes it an attractive proposition.

But, I figure I will get a regular hunt under my belt before I take that on.

GooseHunter Jr's picture

Great articile, thanks for

Great articile, thanks for the read.  I just spent the weekend camping in some OK elk country.  Not alot of elk there but they are there.  Ran into some archery and muzzleloader hunters and none had had any luck as of yet and none had even heard a bugle yet.  I group was even pack in 4 miles and had seen some elk but they wwere qute.  It is starting to get pretty chilly in thr early mornings and at night, so i am sure the rut will get into to full swing here pretty soon.

numbnutz's picture

Great article. I'm hoping the

Great article. I'm hoping the rutting activity picks up in my area in the next 2 weeks. I'm leaving thursday the 18th and hunting for 10 days pretty much till the end of our archery season. Its been in the 90's the past week but staring in 2 days its gonna drop 20-30 degrees. I'm really hoping the cooler weather will get the bulls jump started. It should be fun either way. happy hunting and Good luck with your smoke pole hunt.

Jdizzle's picture

Great article. It is

Great article. It is priceless info for those that are planning a trip for bow season. Would really suck to take time off, drive all this way and not even get a chance.