5 of the best early season elk hunting tactics before the rut

When the weather's hot — think outside the box

Ron Elmer

For some of us archery elk hunters, and to be more direct, Utah elk hunters, we have to deal with hunting elk during the early part of August and early September. This means hunting them way before the rut starts and, usually, before the bulls have gathered cows and may still be living with other bulls. Now, if you're the guy that lives and dies for hunting elk while they are screaming their guts out and chasing cows all day, this can be a huge shock. Utah elk will prove to be almost impossible to hunt successfully like you would in states with later hunt dates. Over the years, I've had to find ways to hunt them without any rut action and without the use of calls or the opportunity of chasing bugles. Below I will outline five of my favorite tactics for early season elk hunting.

1. Taking Elk Utilizing Spot and Stalk

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If you're familiar with spotting and stalk mule deer hunting then this first tip could prove to be the way to get an arrow in an early season bull this year. With elk, hunting them using the spot and stalk method can sometimes be very effective and, in many ways, a lot easier than stalking a wise old muley buck. You can put them to bed and wait for the wind currents to steady by late morning or mid day and try your luck at arrowing him in his bed. I will warn you: this can be very hard to do with elk. As most elk hunters know, elk prefer the timber to bed in and it can prove difficult keeping the glass on them while they choose a bedding area. A different tactic that has proven to be more successful is stalking them while they are feeding. Over the years I have found that I can get away with a lot more movement with elk than I can with deer. Elk are big animals and it's amazing how focused they can get on feeding this time of year. If you can get the wind right and move fast you can get within bow range of a lone bull a lot easier than you can a feeding muley.

2. Locating and Hunting Transition Areas

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One major opportunity to keep in mind with elk is they have to water everyday. Unlike deer that can go a day or two without water, elk are big animals and need water everyday. This has proven to be a huge weakness for elk over the years. Typically, I will watch them for a day or two in order to find out where they are watering. After I have established a water source I will set up in their transition areas between water and bedding. This works for either coming off the water in the morning or heading to water in the afternoon. When doing this, be aware of the wind. They will typically move with their nose into the wind and, if this is the case, do not get too discouraged. I'll go back to the spot and stalk technique while they are feeding and I'll possibly sit lower or higher on the mountain. After they have passed one direction or the other I will flank them while they feed to or from the water source.

3. Sitting a Water Source or Wallow

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If there is no possible way to sit a transition area or stalk them to or from a water source, I will inspect the water they are using as an option to lay in wait to arrow a bull during the midday hours. This can get a little tricky if you're hunting drainages or in steep terrain due to wind currents. Almost always, the wind will swirl over water sources. Whether it's in a bottom of a canyon or in the middle of a ridge I have found it difficult, but not impossible, to sit a water source for a length of time without the wind giving up my position. This is not my first option, but it is possible to arrow a bull off of water if the situation is right. If you’re aware of scent control and cover, it can be done.

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4. Slip in Early and Hunt Bedding Areas

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Bedding areas can be money if you have done your homework with some prior scouting and know where the bull or bulls are bedding everyday. I have taken advantage of this for more than just hunting elk. I have hung trail cameras in these areas and captured some amazing photos. These bedding areas are very effective for killing a good bull if you know that he is going to be there. You should realize, though, that you will most likely get only one chance at him and he will never bed there again. The beauty of these bedding areas is that the elk are usually on the water or feeding up a ridge in the morning. If you set up your camp right you can slip in early as the sun rises and the elk will follow shortly behind. This has honestly been the most effective way I have harvested both cows and bulls during the early, and hot, dates we deal with here in some of the western states.

5. Establishing Mineral Sites

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I'll start this tactic off by saying that you should check your state regulations and see if it is legal to hunt off of a mineral site. If it is, this is another great opportunity to do more than just hunt, but also scout and hang trail cameras to get an idea of the caliber of bulls you're dealing with. A good mineral site and a few good trail cameras can do a lot of homework for you so that you know if the area holds the bulls you are looking for. I will generally get a site going mid June and check it once in late July or early August. If it's getting hit hard and I am finding good bulls on the camera, then I will add more mineral to the site and consider sitting down wind, depending on the time of day the bulls are visiting the site. If you choose a site to begin with that has cover in most directions and the elk are likely to hit it between water and bedding, you can harvest bulls off of the same site year after year. Elk are suckers for a good mineral like salt or salty sweet smelling mineral powders like Black Magic. If the site is chosen wisely, then this is also a good place to set up a tree stand for a young hunter to get his or her first shot at an elk.

In Closing

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Although all of us elk junkies would strongly prefer hunting a big bull while he is chasing cows and bugling his guts out, sometimes, we don't have that option. Don't let that stop you from harvesting a bull or a cow in an over-the-counter unit you can hunt every year with early dates. There is a lot of opportunity to hunt elk during early seasons and, with a little out of the box thinking or approaching the hunt like a mule deer hunter, you can be just as successful during these dates as you can during the peak of the rut. Try out a few of these tactics that have worked for me over the years. Good luck in the next few weeks as the western archery hunts start to open.

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