Tips & tricks to find archery bulls in thick timber

All photo credits: Chris Neville

Elk habitat is amazingly diverse, ranging from deserts to wet jungles, from open sage to deep dark timber. In many of the western states, elk are found in very open to partially open terrain and can be seen traveling from dark timber to open grassland. If you are hunting one of these places, you should see elk daily; however, you’ll likely struggle to get one on the ground because they can also see you daily. There are also places that elk live that are so thick and timbered that an elk will almost never see daylight during the summer. Both of these vegetation covers can hold healthy herds of elk even though both are vastly different. This is why it makes sense that we hunt them differently, especially during the rut. Here are a few tactics you can use to hunt bulls more effectively in thick timber during your next September hunt.

Night bugling

The hardest part of hunting in thick and nasty jungles of the West is finding elk — even during the rut. You have done your research and you know there are elk in a specific unit, but, specifically, where are they? It can be really disheartening to drive to an e-scouted spot, hike a few miles deep and hear nothing day after day. You start doubting and wondering if the elk are there or are you in an empty basin? Should you go in deeper or pull out camp and try another basin? It becomes the battle of patience versus your gut feeling. Some people have all the patience in the world when it comes to elk hunting and some do not; however, both of these types of people can be wrong a lot when dealing with the ever cunning elk. 

One really successful way to find elk and give yourself the confidence boost you need in order to be patient and stay in a basin is to night bugle. As you know, elk are most active during the night and also, consequently, most vocal then, too. Night bugling involves driving and hiking some back country roads, forest service roads, logging roads and trails to pre-selected locations that seem good. Once you are back in where you think the elk are, shut off your vehicle, do a small walk away from the road and wait a few minutes. Then, let out a locate style bugle in an attempt to hear if there are elk in the vicinity. If you hear a bugle back, you can either set up camp there or mark it on a map as a confirmed bull elk spot. If you don’t hear anything after a few tries, then move on and mark the location as no bugles. If you do this during a few nights of your hunt, you will have a better idea where more bulls are than a lot of people and have the information you need to stay tight in a basin. This will make your patience well worth it.

Using your senses

Once you have located some elk in a thick basin, it is important to use your senses and elk knowledge. Search topographic maps for north facing benches near where you heard bugles. These benches will often be on the top third of the mountain in some dark timber. Then, be in that vicinity the next morning, being careful to approach in a way that your wind is in your face in order to spook fewer elk. When you are close to where you think you will find elk, use all your senses. Listen for the sound of elk walking, cow calling or bugling. Watch for any slight movement through the timber. Smell the thermals for the scent of a bedding area or approaching elk. If you use your elk knowledge and your senses, you will have a pretty good way to get in close to elk habitat — even in the thickest of timber.

Trail watch

One more passive way to get on elk on densely forested slopes is to monitor trails. Many times, we have a good idea year after year of elk bedding, behavior and food; however, elk are unpredictable animals. It seems like you can never have them pinned down to a certain pattern in dense forests because you can’t watch them like you can in open terrain. One way to combat this is to set up multiple trail cameras during a summer scouting trip or first day of your hunt. After a few days of the trail cameras doing their work, you should have an excellent idea of what elk are doing daily and what trails are most active. Then, all you need is a well executed plan, a good wind and maybe even a treestand to put a bull on the ground without ever getting out your cow call. The more time you can leave your trail cameras in the backcountry, the better intel you will have so do not be afraid to get them out early — even well before season. Tip: Be sure to lock up your trail cameras because people seem to get a little handsy when they find a camera multiple miles into a basin.


Overall, hunting elk in thick forest can have its challenges. Most of these challenges come from not knowing where elk are or having the confidence they are there. Night bugling, using your senses and setting up trail cameras may just be the tickets you need to know there are elk in the vicinity so you stick around to find them. Ultimately, there are some perks to hunting thicker forest. Elk don’t get hunted as hard in thick timber as they do in open terrain because people lose hope and don’t like hunting multiple days in a row without laying eyes on a bull. Another advantage is that the elk are used to using calls to communicate more than their vision. When the timber is thick, they have no choice, but to rely on their ears and their noses. This makes them more susceptible to calling; however, make sure you have a good wind and a good setup because they will blow out quickly in thick country. Take advantage of these nasty, thick-timbered honey holes and get after these dark antlered bulls in September.

More elk-related articles you might want to read: 



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