Tips for Hunting Early-Season Bulls

Aug 16, 2021 | Elk Hunting, Tips & Tricks | 1 comment

Don’t Discredit Early-Season Hunting

BaseMap Ambassador Zach Bowhay, the author of this article, behind one of his early-season archery bulls.

When daydreaming about elk, most bowhunters are undoubtedly picturing a big bugling bull advancing toward their cow calls or bugles. I for one am in this camp and there are not many things I love more than chasing bulls in the heat of the September rut.

However, in many states out West seasons start much earlier. For example, Idaho starts August 30th, Wyoming begins September first and most states start in that same general time frame. Then there are states like Nevada and Utah that start in mid-August, well before the rut. For the most part each state has their prospective bow hunts start before the heat of the action. As hunters we have two choices, wait for the middle of September to hunt, or figure out how to hunt pre-rut elk and extend our seasons.

For me, if the season is open, I want to be hunting. Due to this I had no choice other than figure it out, so I have spent the last 20 years chasing elk in all time frames of the rut and have found all to be productive with the right tactics.

In this article we are going over early season tactics and how to improve your game. Over the years I have found quite a bit of early season success, and although it’s not my favorite phase of the rut, I look forward to it each year. The following are some tactics you could use to improve your early season hunting skill set.

Ditch the Calls

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One of the best tactics for hunting pre-rut bulls is spot and stalk. Before the bulls start chasing cows, they can be predictable. Getting up high or to a vantage point where you can see them and make a move can be a very effective method. You have two options here, and both can work well. First option is watch until they bed and then make your stalk while they are feeding.
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Don’t forget to check your wind when pursuing a spotted bull or when investigating a bugle. For a fast and easy approach simply: 1. Tap on “Tools” 2. Tap “Check Wind” 3. Tap “Place Wind Cone”.

Bedded Bulls

Get the thermals right and move in. While they are feeding and moving, I take more of a “stalk and ambush” approach. Without calling I move into position in their general path and move as needed. Calling draws attention to your location and can spoil your plans. Keep the wind right and move when they aren’t looking – it is surprising what you can get away with.

Hunt Deep-Timber Bulls

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Although elk in general will be out feeding in the early morning and late evening hours, the hot temps of the early season will often drive them to deep timber during the day. These bulls usually won’t be super vocal, but if you get close enough to them and bugle, or cow call, they will often answer.

Usually it’s a half-hearted response and they don’t come charging in. If you move toward them and call just enough to keep them paying attention you can eventually get them to come and investigate. I never get aggressive on my calls in this scenario, instead just quiet cow calls and low volume bugles with no chuckles.

Patience is the key in this type of calling. Once a bull answers, be patient. Let out a few calls, then wait for 15 or 20 minutes. If he comes closer, stay put. If he doesn’t seem to be moving, move a short distance closer and repeat. Patience, patience, and more patience. I promise, it pays off.

I will often spend my mornings glassing and trying to find a bull to stalk and if that doesn’t pan out, I will head to the dark timber and work the thick stuff trying to turn up a lazy bull.

Locate Water

Elk are big critters and they require water in their day to day lives. This is true throughout the whole fall and during the early season they will generally water every day. Depending on your area, they might only have to travel a few hundred yards to several miles for the closest water source. If you can figure out where that is, you can be in about as high a percentage position there is as far as elk hunting goes.

I am not a huge fan of heights, so I take a portable ground blind with me on every hunt, instead of a tree stand, just in case I find a good place to set it up. Sometimes I don’t use it, but it never hurts to have it in the truck, just in case. You can also build a blind from natural foliage in the area, but I have found that portable ground blinds do a good job of containing scent, which is paramount in mountainous terrain with ever changing thermals.

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– LAYERS –

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Treestands can also be a good option and can get your thermals above the elk in many areas, but not always. On top of ridges or in more flat terrain I feel like treestands are probably more effective. In steep country or in bowls where the wind is swirling around a lot, I feel that a ground blind is a better way to go.

As I mentioned, elk can travel great lengths to water. Often this happens in the last few minutes of daylight. In areas without a lot of water, this can even be out in the wide-open sage brush a good distance from the nearest timber. Investigating these areas for tracks can give you a good idea if elk are visiting the area.

Putting it All Together

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Mid-season can be a more exciting time to hunt elk, but the early season can be very productive as well. With the methods above you can plan full days around spot and stalk hunting, mid-day deep timber calling and sitting water in the evening. I would almost guarantee this would produce some action and lead to more elk encounters. Bowhunting elk is a game of numbers and more encounters is the best course of action to punch more elk tags. Regardless of the method, when you finally settle your pin on a bull you will be plenty excited, regardless of the date on the calendar.

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1 Comment

  1. Your take was very interesting!

    I’ve no experience with Rockie’s, but was able to draw a few correlations to Rosevelt behaviors. Rosie’s are far less talkative in general. Lots of cow chatter and half hearted two pitch bugles or solo single or double chuckles, also muted
    More distance calling for cows from dominant bulls mid season, but mostly at night.

    I’d love your take on Rosevelt hunting.

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