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Late Season Elk Hunting

Tactics & Tips for Filling Your Tag

By Steve Chappell

Few animals can test a hunter’s will and fortitude like late season bull elk.  Succeeding on a post rut elk hunt on public land means overcoming the odds and is an incredible accomplishment.  Tagging a mature bull on this type of hunt is most often the exception and not the rule.  How we hunt can play a major role in success or failure.

Why are late season elk hunts tough?  There are several reasons why hunting bulls in November/December is difficult.  First, in most states there are more tags issued for this season.  The Game & Fish Departments know that success rates are low for the late hunt so you must compete with hundreds of other hunters in the field in the name of hunter opportunity.

Tracking through the fresh snow produced this mature late season bull for the author and his hunter.

Second, bulls are no longer bugling so their location is not being given away.  Third, since the bulls are no longer rutting, they become reclusive and hard to find.  Fourth, the bulls are typically in rougher, harder to access country during the late season.

Where to find Late Season Bulls:

Knowing where to look for mature bulls during the late season and utilizing the proper tactics are the keys to success.  Hunting bulls after the rut involves seeking out and hunting more remote, rough areas.   Bulls move to these secluded areas to avoid pressure and because their diet has changed from grasses to mostly browse which is typically found in rougher, steeper country.  Browse such as Mountain Mahogany, Serviceberry, and Cliff Rose occurs more frequently in canyons and on mountains and hillsides so this is where to find them late in the year.

This is my rule of thumb.  If I can glass an area without hiking in approximately a mile or more, usually mature bulls won’t be there.  I seek out areas that can’t be driven directly to.  Mature bulls will over the years learn to survive by avoiding areas with vehicle activity and hunting pressure.  If you can glass an area from your truck, you are probably not going to see a mature six point bull.

Bulls are also not nearly as dependent on water during this time of year.  I believe that if they sense pressure, bulls can go for several days without watering and when they do, it will be under cover of darkness.  The key element is pressure.  If a bull detects no pressure he may water more frequently and possibly during shooting light.  Don’t count on this during late rifle hunts in Arizona!

Late Season Tactics:

There are several methods of hunting elk during the late season.  I choose my method based on the type of terrain being hunted.  Below are my most used tactics for late hunts in Arizona.

Spot and Stalk hunting in difficult terrain yielded this great bull.

If I am hunting mountainous terrain or canyon country I will mainly use spot and stalk tactics.   There is nothing more effective than mounting quality binoculars on a tripod and methodically picking apart the landscape for elk.  Finding reclusive bulls will be your biggest challenge during the late season.  During the first 30 minutes of light I will cherry pick the most likely areas for bulls.  After that, I settle in and grid back and forth horizontally so that nothing is overlooked.  Remember you may not see an entire elk, but just pieces.  Look for legs, rumps, or parts of antlers.  I try to avoid glassing directly into a sunrise or sunset but rather try to glass from an angle that keeps the glare from being in my eyes.  Usually, bulls will be on the shady side of the mountain or canyon so I pick my glassing spot accordingly.  The exception to this is when temperatures are extremely cold.  If temperatures dip into or below single digits, elk will often feed on the sunny side of a mountain well into the morning.

I use either my Swarovski EL 10X42’s or my Leica Duovid 10-15X50’s if the distance is greater than a mile.  I back these up with a Swarovski spotting scope.  Quality glass will allow you to look for hours uninterrupted and without eye strain.  I consider my optics lifetime investments and take exceptional care of them.

Using low quality binoculars or hand holding them will decrease your glassing success tremendously because you will quickly fatigue.  The importance of using a tripod is proven and cannot be stressed enough.   Another useful piece of gear is a cushion or small chair to sit on while glassing.  The more comfortable you are, the easier it is to be successful.

Usually a stalk is most effective after a bull has bedded down and someone can be left spotting while the hunter sneaks into position to shoot when the bull gets back up.  I’ve said it before; using hunter orange on the hunter makes it very easy for the spotter to keep track of the hunter in relation to the bedded bull as he stalks in.

If I am hunting in fairly flat pine country I will Still Hunt or Track if there is fresh snow.  Still hunting and tracking require patience and monitoring of the wind.  Always carry a wind checker so you are not hunting with the wind at your back.  For still hunting or tracking, eight or ten power binoculars will serve you well.  I move along at a fairly slow pace, stopping often to scan with my binoculars.  If you find an area with good elk sign or you smell elk, obviously slow down and hunt slowly.  This is when you don’t want to rush.  If you can spot a bull before he spots you, then you have the upper hand.  Remember that most often bulls are not alone during the post rut.  There could be one or several more nearby.

If there is fresh snow I will look for good size tracks crossing roads, saddles or ridges.  A mature bull’s track is easy to distinguish because it’s large and blocky looking compared to less mature elk.   The dew claws are also very apparent behind the hoof print.

When tracking, be prepared to put out a major effort.  I’ve tracked elk for several miles before catching up with them.  The most difficult part of tracking is to stay focused and not get sloppy when you get tired.  Try to stay stealthy and watch the wind.

Drives or Pushes can also be effective during the late season if done properly.  This tactic requires extra people since the hunter will be posted at a good elevated vantage point and the drivers will walk through the area where the elk are anticipated to be.   Safety is the main concern with this method.  All drivers must absolutely wear hunter orange so there is no chance for mistaken identity.

If you don’t have extra people along, you can sometimes use other hunters to push elk by you.  I call this Post Up or Ambush Hunting. As with a drive, you will post up at a good elevated vantage point in order to ambush elk as they pass by due to hunting pressure.  Take advantage of saddles, ridges, or natural funnels in the terrain that lead to heavier cover as these will be likely escape routes for elk.

I don’t use calling nearly as much during the late season as I do during the rut, but I always carry my calls.  Cow calling or bugling will always give you quality, standing shots at elk.

I distinctly remember being with two late hunters a couple years ago and having a bull come busting out of a canyon due to another hunter spooking him.  As the bull ran out in front of us, I cow called and stopped him at 60 yards broadside.  Both hunters fired at the standing bull, and I watched in disbelief as the bull ran off unscathed never to be seen again!  He was a picture perfect 340 class 6x6 with a gorgeous chocolate rack.

On late hunts, open reed style calls should be kept dry and warm.  I will carry the call on a lanyard under my outer layer of clothing.  This keeps the reed up to temperature so it won’t condensate and stick when you need it to work!

Many times succeeding on a late hunt comes down to good old fashioned persistence and determination.  Time after time, my hunter and I will succeed on the last couple of days of the season after most of the hunters have gone home.  Late hunts rarely go exactly as planned so be mentally and physically prepared for a tough hunt.  Determine what tactic you will use based on the type of terrain that you are hunting.  If what you are doing is not producing results, try something different or move to another area.  Keep your positive attitude and stay focused.  Good things happen to those who put out the extra effort in order to succeed.

Remember, your first shot is always your best shot.  Make it count!