You’ve located a bull elk … now what?
By Scott Haugen, author & outdoorsman
Once you locate a bull elk on your hunt, think before making your next move.
Later in the season, elk that have been pressured by fellow hunters grow wiser and more reclusive. Herd bulls have also taken more control over their harem, meaning younger bulls are looking for opportunities to breed with cows. There’s great potential for hunting success, but you don’t want to make a rookie mistake.
You’ll want to take a few conditions and circumstances into account before you make a move.
What to do when you locate a bull elk
Assess the wind conditions
First, assess the wind to make sure it’s not blowing toward the herd. You’ll never fool the powerful nose of an elk, so you want to be sure you’re downwind.
When evaluating wind direction and speed, do so immediately around you, but also look at the trees to see which direction the limbs are moving. Wind travels in layers, so what’s happening on the ground can be different than what’s happening higher on a mountain or down in a canyon.
If the wind is blowing toward the herd, back out and come in from a different angle. You can also wait for the thermals to shift and come back later in the day or the next morning.
Count the elk herd
Next, determine roughly how many elk are with the bull. Sometimes a bull might have a half-dozen cows, sometimes over two dozen. The more cows there are in a herd, the harder it can be to pull a bull away from them.
Knowing the number of elk also helps you determine your chances of stalking in for a shot or deciding where to set up and call. The more eyes in a herd, the harder it is to stalk closely for a shot — in that case, your best option is calling.
Option 1: Stalk in on the bull
Assess the situation once you know how big the herd is. See how the elk are behaving and determine how the wind and weather may affect your position. The harder the wind is blowing, the greater your advantage of getting close. Better yet is a rain that covers your sound and masks your scent. If the weather is calm, you likely need to wait for the wind to pick up so it covers the sounds of your footsteps and moves your scent away from the herd, so they can’t smell you.
When stalking, stay in heavy shadows, be silent, and keep a low profile so elk can’t see you approaching. Use breaks in the terrain along with trees and brush to help you get as close as you can for a shot.
The recipe for success comes through spending time in the woods, since conditions and situations are continually changing on a hunt.
Option 2: Call the bull
Even if you plan to call the bull out from a larger elk herd, it’s most ideal to get within 100 yards of the herd prior to calling. Given the wind, terrain and elk herd dynamics, you might not be able to get that close; many elk hunters do call in bulls from several hundred yards away.
When calling elk in mid- to late September, the chance of calling in a younger satellite bull increases. Satellite bulls hang on the outskirts of elk herds, waiting for any opportunity to move in and breed a cow. They often respond to cow calls and young-sounding bull bugles, used in conjunction. You don’t have to be a master caller to bring in a bull, just proficient enough to sound like real elk.
If setting up to call in a bull, using a cow elk decoy can help. Montana Decoys makes a series of great elk decoys that are easy to carry and set up. Placed behind, in front or to the side of you, an elk decoy can encourage a bull to approach. It takes their focus off you, the caller, and puts it on the decoys, which creates the perfect shot opportunity.
The key to slaying the bull: Take your time
Once you locate a bull, take your time. Assess the situation before making your next move and adapt your plans accordingly. After all, this is hunting, where there are no set rules as to how things will unfold.