Hunting Late-Season Elk

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Find the best locations for hunting post-rut elk

In the fading daylight, we used our spotting scope to confirm a herd of elk feeding in a clover field almost two kilometres away. The animals used the huge field to their advantage, knowing most hunters would never spot them in low light. The fact of the matter was, we had seen and shot elk there before and knew it was worth a second look.

In the morning we were set up on the edge of the forest with close to 100 elk feeding in front of us. The cows and calves squealed back and forth as they talked their way towards the cover. We watched a small bull run into the trees ahead of the herd, about 140 metres from us, but sat tight knowing the big guy would be tailing his harem into the same tree line. The regal bull glowed in the early morning sun and we were able to harvest the large-antlered herd bull, dropping him in the field.

The hunt may sound easy, but I considered our success more luck than skill. The hunt was in late September and the rut was still in full swing. Most hunters consider the rut to be a distinct advantage for harvesting big bulls, but I’d beg to differ. A shy, smart bull will go out of his way to take his harem into the nastiest terrain possible. It isn’t so much a strategy to avoid hunters, but a line of attack to avoid rival bulls. You can often call in the smaller rivals, but the big herd bulls would rather round up their ladies and head for different ground than get into a battle and potentially lose them.

Knowing how bulls act throughout the rut gives me the edge when the breeding is done. Bulls are often run ragged, and with winter quickly approaching they need to find and take in a significant number of calories to rebuild reserves before Old Man Winter delivers buckets of snow and miserably cold temperatures.

A big, mature bull will be noticeably larger than the cows and therefore needs more groceries to not only sustain himself, but also to put something away in reserve in case he faces harsh conditions. The only way to take in the calories is to spend more time eating.

The secondary rut for elk is in the middle of October. The bulls have a mini-rut to finish breeding cows that weren’t successfully bred earlier. The event is short lived, and once finished you will see a noticeable social change in the elk. The big boys simply vanish from the areas where bigger herds of elk live. They form small bachelor groups and find the quietest holes in the backcountry where they can get the basic food, water and shelter they need. Yes, they feed all night by traveling to agricultural fields or high-protein forage. However, they don’t simply head into the woods and bed for the day once the sun comes up.

Elk have tremendous memories for where they find good feed. They are primarily grazers and browse when the right goodies are available. With the network of cut lines and pipelines available, there is always good grass in close proximity and some of the late-season honey holes for elk are hard to get in and out of, which is why the elk are there.

We found one of those honey holes last November and watched elk work their way back into heavy timber during the day. With a series of cut lines that ran through their preferred area, they got comfortable in their travel plans and didn’t alter them much, unless the weather changed.

We spent several days following tracks and trying to determine the best place to set up and intercept elk during the day. Being patient and putting in some boot work allowed us to find the perfect ambush spot to simply set up and watch. I found it interesting to note the number of wolf tracks in the area and the fact that we actually saw the large canines on two separate occasions. I never thought about watching for fresh wolf sign to tell me where to hunt elk, but can tell you there is a direct correlation.

We set up on the rise of a hill to watch a crossing area on a wide pipeline. The elk came through, but when they reached the open expanse they ran to the cover on the other side. There wasn’t time to pick out a bull or make the shot, so we were back in place that evening. The elk didn’t materialize and we snuck out at dark so we wouldn’t disturb the area. We came back the next morning and waited patiently for the sound of elk coming through the trees. Elk are anything but quiet and if you set up in the right location you should be able to hear them coming. With the sun at our back there was no way the elk would be able to see us or hear us. They showed up and started to file across the line. It’s always hard to know which bull is the biggest, as you only get to see one or two at a time and don’t know how many there are in total. A tall-antlered bull walked out and paused momentarily, giving us just enough time to make a decision and a fatal shot.

Our plan worked flawlessly, but the biggest question was lingering: where do you find these so-called honey holes? It’s not easy and the best advice I can provide is to look for areas where access is extremely limited. Steep riverbanks with no access roads are extremely productive; large tracts of timber without any dissecting roads, and the fewer the cut lines the better, are prime for finding solitary bulls. Technology has really helped increase success – using Google Earth to get an aerial view of an area can help pinpoint the largest blocks of habitat where there is little or no access. Even areas that have muskeg or are extremely wet in the fall are prime locations.

One of my all-time favourite ways to hunt late-season elk is to stalk them to their beds. This isn’t always possible, as you need ideal conditions to make it work – you need fresh snow on the ground, and you need fresh tracks made within hours of you finding them. I simply get on my walking boots and follow the tracks. You need to move slowly and carefully, always watching ahead of you. I often spot the elk feeding or moving in the trees, and if they have bedded for the day you should be able to read the sign to tip you off and get ready. All the fresh elk tracks I’ve followed always hook back downwind, where they can lay and watch or smell their backtrack. As soon as I see the directional change of tracks, I know immediately it’s show time. I always carry a cow elk call and a couple of pleading mews, like a straggler looking for the herd, always helps to keep elk from bolting as they wait to see if what they heard is real. Even if the elk are spooked, I immediately cow call and have had them come right back to try and bed again. It is one of the most rewarding ways to take an elk. Fresh snow and hot tracks makes for exciting late-season elk hunts.

You will learn a tremendous amount about elk by following their tracks: where they like to travel, what they avoid, where they prefer to bed and where they eat in heavy cover. I like to follow them just to learn more about their habits and preferences, when given the opportunity.

Not everyone is adventuresome and wants to walk lots of kilometres each day to find an elk. And, not all areas have a honey hole with little or no access. Our elk herds are expanding and we now find them in places we never expected them a few years ago. In those cases, hunting for sign, learning the area and setting up smart are the only ways to fill your tag. I’ve never counted on dumb luck with elk and have rarely seen one standing in an open field within gun range during the day. With long hunting seasons, by the time November rolls around most elk are more than well educated about hunters.

When all else fails, spend your days looking in the hidden corners of productive agricultural fields. You aren’t likely to find elk, but if you can find were they are feeding you’ll know where to set up. Again, check aerial photographs or mapping systems to determine if there are cut lines, pipelines, open meadows or other points where you could potentially intercept elk. The strategy is easy: set up and watch. You might have to put in several days to find an intercept point in the forest to catch elk during legal light, but if you stick with it you will find success. Make sure you are in place an hour before legal light. Elk don’t seem to be bothered by movement in the dark and are often out in the field where they can’t even hear you.

I love the calm, cold mornings when you can hear the cows chirping and talking as they head back into cover for the day. You know it’s only a matter of time before they head your way. The bulls are often in the lead, being the first to leave the field. I try to set up with my rifle propped up and ready for a quick shot. Even a slow-walking elk will cross an open cut line in a matter of seconds. Stay alert and be ready at all times. Anticipate the shot opportunity at any second and when antlers come into view you’ll be able to settle your crosshair on the vitals without even moving.

If you ever find large shed antlers, you know it is a spot where big elk spend the winter. Chances are extremely good the area is a prime location for late-season hunting. Make sure to check it every year when you return to hunt.

Elk hunting doesn’t have to be done only during the rut. A late-season hunt with snow on the ground is often the best time to find a large-antlered bull to put your tag on, as there are fewer hunters and the elk can be much more predictable. The key is to know where to look, how to find animals and using your skills to get close. To top things off, meat care is never an issue with the cooler temperatures and the snow can make it easier to haul your bounty out.

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