Decisions Abound in the world, and we had just made a crucial one in determining the size of the bull my hunting partner Jason Coulter would target. The elk rut was a month in the rearview mirror, but you wouldn’t have known it based on the bugles emanating from across the canyon.
It was mid-October in the Wyoming backcountry. Sporadic bugles accompanied by the sight of tan bodies mater-ializing for brief seconds in patchy, lodgepole pine openings signaled a herd on the move toward evening grazing. How did that scenario set the tone for the antler expectations? Large herds accompanied by bugling are a common component of the post-rut elk life cycle. Not surprisingly, most of the bugling is crooned by bulls dubbed as “satellites” a month earlier. These and other details of mid-season elk help you plot for the trophy of your choosing in the post-rut.
SETTING YOUR MISSION
If you’re a veteran of post-rut elk hunting, you know the difficulties you face. Colorado has more elk than any other state: approximately 280,000, according to recent statistics from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Even with many units at management objectives, it’s still not a LeBron James slam dunk to tip over an elk in Colorado.
The state hosts four rifle seasons that kick off in mid-October and extend through mid-November. During the 2018 rifle seasons, 162,031 hunters spent 728,954 recreational days pursuing wapiti. When you combine the harvest of bulls, cows, and calves, that hunting band of brothers and sisters experienced 22 percent success. Single out the bulls-only success rate for the post-rut and the figure drops by half to 11 percent.
Expect even less success if you set the bar for a brawny, 6-point bull. Nevertheless, setting your mission objective before the hunt gives you time to map a strategy for weighty or garden-variety racks. If you question the reason for setting the bar high or low, you need only reference the lifestyle of post-rut bulls. Some bulls enjoy the company of others while others favor a reclusive existence. In brief, millennial bulls oftentimes prefer the herds and baby boomer bulls desire a smaller amount of cohorts for a more private existence.
Like whitetail bucks, bull elk build up fat reserves in summer for the rut, recovery, injury, and to survive the winter. The book North American Elk: Ecology and Management conveys just how rigorous the rut can be due to its short time period.
“Fat deposition by bulls is required not only to subsidize energy demands during the rut, as bulls reduce feeding, but also to heal massive injuries they sustained during the battles over breeding opportunity. Each bull can expect about 50 antler punctures per rutting season, and each cow about a half dozen.”
This reflects the post-rut state of most bulls, but particularly mature or herd bulls. And since elk hold their antlers until nearly spring, they stand out in a crowd. Further analysis in the book explains this dilemma and why it associates with your antler mission.
“Exhausted bulls, healing their many injuries, are not likely to have the stamina that cows have in running, which surely would be detected and targeted by predators.”
The explanation continues with a domino effect scenario in which predators would continue to look for antlered bulls in the herd to target due to their exhausted nature. On the contrary, younger bulls do not deplete as much energy as a herd bull and can keep up with the females and young of the herd. Mature bulls separate out and take up residency in refuges strewn with stumbling blocks to aid in their escape from focused predators.
This information is the decisive theme in any post-rut hunt. Do you want to hunt a mature bull, or will you be pleased with a raghorn? In general terms, do you want to hunt large herds or track down an elusive gang of survivors? Make that decision and your hunt plan begins to come together.
Now that you have focused your plans on either a mature or a more tender backstrap, your hunting methods will require adjustment. Setting your sights on a raghorn is often accomplished by hunting for a herd. After the majority of breeding concludes, the herd patriarch jumps ship. Nobody understands that better than 50-year elk hunting veteran Jim Glines.
His elk addiction has taken him as far south as Arizona, but most of his hunting adventures have roots to his home in the Black Hills of South Dakota and neighboring Wyoming, and Montana. To date, he’s been involved in 71 transfers of woodland elk to garage-stationed freezers.
Locating large herds isn’t always the issue for Glines. The biggest issue when a young bull is the objective is to maneuver into shooting range with hundreds of eyeballs scanning for trouble.
“When young bulls immerse themselves in the herd the entire group moves like a big flock of sheep,” said Glines. “The herds are oftentimes easier to find because they have to visit big, open areas for grazing, like some of the more massive burns common in recent years. These herds are even exposed simply by listening to the chatter, but shooting a bull from their midst is definitely a challenge.”
Glines recommends high ground and a sentinel post at daybreak in known elk feeding areas. Once a herd is located, he goes into shadow mode with a downwind approach. His goal is to follow only with a watchful eye for any stragglers that may sound a surprise alarm. By midmorning the herd begins to loiter. When cows begin bedding, he knows the herd feels comfortable, and that’s when the hunt begins.
“After the majority of the herd beds, I try to use timber or terrain to close the distance, particularly toward a bull we’ve targeted,” said Glines. “Then it’s a wait-and-see approach, but you can bet throughout the rest of the day elk will get up and graze, usually away from the herd. When a bull does that, you may need to make a short move, but if you planned right, there’s a good chance he’ll wander into shooting range.”
Cat and mouse is a great way to play the post-rut elk game if you have access to herds. In many environments, elk are forced to feed in the open at some point in the day due to their grazing diet and the dozens of hungry mouths that canopy cover can’t support. With patience and chess moves, you can slowly position for a checkmate ending once they emerge from the timber.
The stakes grow when you set your sights on taking a mature bull that has seen five or more years of orange-clad wannabees on the mountain. Mature elk are a totally different critter once the rut fizzles and the few surviving bulls have ample opportunity to disappear.
One year, I was perched on a Montana ridge looking onto an adjacent bench when my SIG binoculars spotted a whopper, post-rut bull sneaking into a deadfall disaster. He promptly dropped and disappeared in the bedroom tangle. Testing the wind and binocular-mapping a veiled route; I set off on an hour-long stalk. When I finally rose up for the shot, the bull was MIA. How that bull sensed my presence or had the instinct to sneak off mystifies me to this day.
That bull chose a solitary lifestyle — at least for that day. Often you’ll find mature bulls in the company of a handful of other like minds and may even include several millennials to round out the group. On the other hand, you rarely find a mature bull hanging with a large herd of cows and calves. For Glines, finding a mature bull frequently is about being a weather watcher.
“The one thing that dictates where you find mature bulls is the weather,” he said. “While hunting with my brother-in-law in Wyoming recently, we were surprised to find that snow hadn’t hit the high country. Even though the cows, calves, and small bulls moved to the sagebrush country below, the bulls were staying high until forced by weather. We ended up hunting in alpine country between 11,000 and 12,000 feet to find the bulls.”
After spotting a group of bachelor bulls at dawn, Glines and his brother-in-law watched the group disappear through a rocky gap. The hunting pair circled above, and it put them in a sniper position to end their hunt. That bachelor herd had discovered a box canyon hideout, and it even held a depression of water to fulfill sanctuary needs. Had Glines not spotted the bachelors disappearing into the chasm they would have never known the herd existed.
Whether high or low, Glines looks for high ridges or mountaintops characterized by steep, south-facing slopes. Sheer terrain helps keep areas free of snow, and Glines understands that whether or not snow covers the landscape, elk appreciate the eagle perch to spot predators, including hunters. Snow appeases the thirst of elk, but in snowless habitats, elk typically prefer to be within a short walk of water, a half-mile or less, according to several studies. Keep that in mind as elk not only require lots of feed, but also typically need two or more gallons of water daily.
In some vertically lacking areas Glines has hunted, like the Arizona unit he drew, mature elk simply burrow into thick cover for sanctuary. He’s seen them take the cottontail approach even in the mountains of Wyoming. On one occasion he was 30 yards from a bull, but basically could see it only from the knees down. The bull never knew he was there, but a wannabe band member of another hunting party ambled in with nonstop bugling to spook the bull. No shot was presented, but Glines had to laugh as the other hunter never saw the cagey bull slip off.
And you can forget about calling in a mature bull after the last cows are bred said Glines. They may sound off to your locator calls, but any conversation attempt on your part typically falls on deaf or paranoid ears.
“Late in the season, a mature bull may say something now and then to proclaim pecking order, but it’s better off if you don’t call back to them after you hear a bugle,” he said. “They really don’t want much to do with cows or other elk after the breeding shuts down. For them, it’s all about survival, and if you can find rough country with some grazing, you’ll stand a better chance of locating an older bull.”
Jason understood the antler circumstances linked with the herd and that following the bugles likely meant a lesser bull. He also understood the diminished odds of success for jumping into the unknown and hoping to find a tired, mature bull. His nod of approval sent us off a cliff edge into the canyon abyss below in hopes of catching up with the fading bugles. Pursuing elk and chasing shooting light simultaneously raised our anxiety. The hunt might easily end with a disappearing herd or darkness.
When we summited the other side, a wave of relief smacked us with a mew dead ahead. Plus, a quick glance at the wrist revealed nearly 30 minutes of opportunity as we continued winding through the pines. From my past scouting, I knew a park lay just beyond. As grazers, it was the logical stopping point for a hungry herd loitering all day in a world of pine needles. Pines dwindled to sagebrush as we crouched and then crawled to peer over a juniper bush. The sight was shocking. Elk sprawled from one end of the park to the other and more than a half-dozen young bulls waded through the antlerless mob. The minutes were ticking by, and cloud cover wasn’t helping extend shooting light as we surveyed the herd for the best bull.
Dropping my binoculars, I pointed and said, “That’s the best bull, and he’s inside 300 yards.” After another brief look, Jason concurred and rested his rifle on his pack for a firm hold on the 6-point bull. The SST bullet rocked the bull on the quartering-away shot, and there would be no tracking tonight because the bull dropped on the spot. The bull was better than we had expected, and although he wasn’t the herd elder, he was more than respectable for a post-rut bull on a public-land DIY hunt.