The rut is a fantastic event. Big bulls let down their guard, chase cows and become more vocal and visually available to hunters than at any point in the year. Because of this vulnerability, most rut hunts are limited to primitive weapons like archery and muzzleloader. After the rut, rifle hunters must adapt their tactics in order find those big bulls.
As the rut winds down, things change quickly. It’s necessary for hunters to develop a strategic game plan. Post-rut bull elk aren’t vocal and they won’t be moving as much as they were in September. This can make them very difficult to find. On the other side of that coin, post-rut bulls can be more predictable and easier to stalk without a herd around them.
As we prepare for rifle seasons and the pros and cons of hunting elk after the rut, here are a few tips to remember:
1. Get to Know Elk Behavior After the Rut
The rut is a taxing event and it drains the energy from bulls. They lose weight and strength and often incur severe wounds while sparring for breeding rights. This leaves them at a caloric loss and drives behavior towards feeding. While some bulls will jet straight back up to the safety of steep and nasty country, others will hang out low and capitalize on high energy food sources like alfalfa fields and lush river bottoms. Look for public land access in areas close to quality food sources. They will need this to quickly regain strength and energy.
The dominant bulls expend the most energy during the rut. They are especially in need of a post-rut refuge with access to food and water. The smaller bulls use less energy and are more apt to stay on the move while being somewhat more visible. This can make the solitary, mature bulls more difficult to locate.
2. Try a Locator Call
The rut is over and your odds of calling in a bull are slim. That doesn’t mean they won’t respond to a random call. When the going is tough, send out a bugle and you might get a response that reveals a general location. Using this technique at night while driving back roads can help to narrow down a more focused hunt area.
Get to a high point where you can hear from multiple directions and where you’re away from the noise of creeks or vehicles. Send out a location bugle and then listen carefully for a response. If you’re hunting with friends, spread out a little bit. Multiple sets of ears will make it easier to pinpoint the location of a response. If you don’t get a response, don’t be tempted to overdo it. Move to the next ridge and try again.
3. Head for the High Country
Many mature bulls will hold out in the high country until the weather forces them to lower elevations. If the snow is accumulating up high, you have a chance at catching bulls as they move to find available food. If the snow isn’t deep enough, they will hold out in high basins. Hunters should plan on hiking to reach these difficult areas.
While bulls can be found at a variety of elevation zones after the rut, the high elevation areas with difficult access provide sanctuary and are worth exploring. If backpacking into these zones is not feasible, focus your day hunting energy on ridge tops and steep slopes with dark timber. The timber provides cover and the late season grasses are fresher in these sheltered areas. Even after snow begins to accumulate, bulls can still be found high up on windblown ridges or south-facing slopes where grass is still accessible.
4. Use Your Glass
Hunting post-rut bulls can require spending a lot of time behind the glass. Put your binoculars on a tripod for more comfortable and steady glassing. After the rut, bull elk like to hang in places where they don’t have to travel far between food, water and security. Unless pressured, don’t expect them to be out and about in wide-open areas. Focus your glassing on timber edges, the edges of burns and skinny avalanche chutes. Be persistent. They may only feed out into the opening for a few minutes before they disappear back into the timber.
If you spot a bull, even for a moment, the game is on. Unless pressured, these solitary elk aren’t likely to travel far. That spot where the bull fed out into the open is probably where you should be for the next morning or evening hunt.
5. Know Your Area
Scouting ahead of the season and getting to know the area is a major advantage. Ideally, you’d begin scouting in the spring and early summer. Watching the elk migrate from winter range back to summer range is a big help. Getting to know these routes up the mountain allows you to hunt these same travel corridors after the rut.
However, it’s not realistic for many of us to watch the elk year-round. At the very least, spend time at home scouting with tools like OnX Hunt and Google Earth. Mark roads, access points and likely areas where post-rut bulls might find sanctuary. Identify likely glassing points where you can watch those timber edges or avalanche chutes.
The more familiar you can become with the landscape, food sources, escape routes and travel patterns, the better informed decisions you’ll be able to make during the hunting season.
New Rifle Season Gear
Before you get out there this rifle season, take a look at our new Caribou Gear Bullet Wallets. Made with tough ballistic Cordura fabric, we designed these bullet wallets with a slim, streamlined folding design that still protects soft and polymer-tipped rounds. Check out the video to learn more:
Of course one of our primary goals this rifle season is to come home with high quality wild meat. So make sure you’re prepared to take care of it. Our Wapiti game bag set is perfect for backcountry hunts. This set will hold an entire bull elk with bone-in quarters. It includes four 23”x40” quarter bags and a 16”x30” meat parts bag. Click here to learn more about the Wapiti set.
Alternatively, our Elk Magnum Pack is great for anyone hunting from a base camp, horses or who simply wants the additional features. These Magnum Pack game bags are cut slightly larger than the Wapiti bags for increased airflow. Plus, the Magnum Pack includes two additional bags: a cape bag and a camp meat bag. Click here to learn more about the Magnum Pack.
No matter what species you’re hunting or where you’re hunting this season, we have a specific set of game bags that’s right for you. Explore all of our available game bags here or contact us with any questions.
By Zach Lazzari and Ryan McSparran