There is no shortage of elk hunting information out there these days. The internet is full of advice on tactics, calling strategies, shooting tips, and gear. In fact, with so much information readily available, it is easy to get overwhelmed or stuck in "paralysis by analysis.”
What we sometimes need is less confusion and more action. With that in mind, let's consider the three main strategies to hunt elk. These strategies are especially relevant to bowhunters pursuing elk in August and September, but can also work well at other times and with other weapons.
It is your job, as the hunter, to understand which strategy would have the highest chance of success for each scenario when you see, hear, or smell elk. And if you are hunting but have yet to locate elk, think about how the terrain, conditions, hunting pressure, and anticipated elk behavior will influence which of these strategies will help locate and hunt the elk you're after.
Call and Wait
This is the strategy that many of us used to watch on elk hunting videos and television shows. You know, those glorious videos where elk hunting looks easy and giant bulls come running into the hunter's lap.
In an ideal call-and-wait setup, you find a good spot near elk or close to where you think the elk are. Then you set up with the correct wind, having a calling partner positioned in a way that will draw a bull elk by the shooter and hopefully give the shooter an undetected broadside shot. This setup can also work solo, but a shooter-and-caller setup has significant advantages.
This strategy generally works best on unpressured elk — think private land and ranches, low-pressure hunting units, or uneducated young bulls early in the general hunting season.
For public land hunters, especially those hunting over-the-counter tags with lots of hunter activity, this strategy won't be as easy to employ. For this strategy to work on these types of hunts, you will truly have to be in the right place, at the right time, and have the right bull who's ready to respond. In general, you'll have to be quite close to the elk, have the right mix of cover to make the bull feel safe enough to move in, have effective calls, and of course, have the right wind. Even then, the bull has to be in the right "mood" to come in.
If you encounter fresh — and I mean VERY fresh sign — that's a good time to consider giving this type of setup a shot.
This strategy takes a lot of patience, so be prepared to give it time. And don't think that nothing is happening if you don't get an elk to respond to your calls; bulls can easily sneak towards you without ever making a sound.
Common “Call and Wait” Mistakes: Setting-up over elk sign that is too old. Not being mindful of shooting lanes when establishing your position. Setting up behind cover, instead of in front of it. Giving up too soon, and/or making too much movement or noise that can alert non-vocal elk that are approaching.
Bugle and Move
This strategy is more than just running ridges and screaming through your bugle tube.
Bugling can be a great way to help you locate elk and "cover country" where your boots or optics can't reach. If you're lucky enough to bugle and get a response from a bull, that's when the real strategy comes into play. Do you move? How fast? How much? Call again or stay quiet? There are a lot of variables to consider here.
Keep in mind, though, that the strategy is called bugle... AND MOVE. When you have a bull that is very vocal and responding to your bugle but doesn't seem to be getting closer to your location, it is time to move.
Close the distance as best you can, and often as quick as you can. And always keep the wind direction in mind. Once you feel you are approaching within close vicinity of the elk, keep an eye out for movement — including from satellite bulls or cows that you may not have been aware of previously.
If the bull doesn't respond further or you need to get a better gauge of his distance or direction, you can bugle again and try to get another response from him. Although you may have only heard one bugle initially, keep in mind that satellite bulls may quietly approach from other directions while you are focusing on the "target bull" that was vocal.
The big idea with this strategy is to use your bugle to locate elk and then close the distance. How quickly you move to close the distance and how much you call again while closing the distance are often judgment calls that need to be made in the moment and for each scenario.
Common “Bugle and Move” Mistakes: Not closing the distance towards elk and waiting for elk to come to you. Being too timid and overly concerned with making noise while approaching, especially if you come from a whitetail hunting background. Not positioning the shooter closer to the elk than the caller, and also having the shooter’s position account for wind direction and shooting lanes. Or, when hunting solo, remaining too stationary after calling instead of advancing your shooting location.
Spot and Stalk
This strategy is largely determined by the type of terrain you're hunting in. Some elk hunting units are best approached from a distance and covered via binoculars or a spotting scope, instead of burning the sole of your boots.
With this strategy, you spend a ton of time behind your optics to locate elk — often a herd of elk — and then develop a carefully crafted plan to stalk into their location or intercept them along their travel route.
If done correctly, the elk will be unaware of your presence and behave naturally right up until the point that a bullet or broadhead makes impact.
One of the most important aspects of executing this strategy effectively is the planning of the stalk. Before you ever leave your glassing location and head out towards what you hope will be your shot opportunity, you need to carefully pick your route, identify landmarks to reference along the way, judge the wind and thermals, look for other animals that may bust your movement, and keep cover and concealment in mind for your route.
If there comes a point where you can't close the distance any further, you can consider switching strategies and using calls, or back out completely and wait for a better opportunity to close the distance.
Common “Spot and Stalk” Mistakes: Not planning your stalk with concealment, cover and wind in mind. Not pre-determining landmarks and reference points for the stalk before you move. Getting too focused on the target animal and not being mindful of other animals (even other species) that you may alert during your stalk. Rushing the shot opportunity once you have closed the distance.
The Perfect Strategy
Unfortunately, there is no one perfect hunting strategy. Every hunt, and every elk, seems to be different than the next one. However, by keeping these simple strategies in mind, you can make informed decisions on how to approach your next elk hunting opportunity.
And always be ready to adapt. If you plan on stalking, but aren't able to close the distance, consider trying to call the bull in range. If you hoped to run ridges and bugle to locate bulls, but can't get a response, consider finding fresh sign, slowing down, and then calling and waiting. If you didn't plan to stalk elk, but happen to see a herd on a distant ridge, don't default to calling at them — make a plan and execute a stalk.
Use the simple strategies as guides to help you make decisions and take action on your next elk hunt.
Jake Horton grew up in rural Pennsylvania hunting deer, bears, turkeys, waterfowl, and everything in between. His annual western hunting trips were the highlight of his years, so upon graduating college he decided that Colorado would be a great place to live with his wife Gina and four daughters. Now he enjoys hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and photographing wildlife just minutes from his home. He loves to share his passion for the outdoors with men and women who are just trying to get started in the western hunting world in order to help them be successful. If you want to follow along with Jake and his western hunting experiences, follow him on Instagram @wildernesspeak.