Opening Week Elk Hunting

The secret is in the preparation

Truth be known, most of the elk I’ve shot and those of my partners have been taken during the first week of the season, regardless of when it opened. Only once have we tagged an elk during the last week of the season. Why? Because the hunts went according to a plan that was calculated based on scouting reports assembled prior to the opening date on known elk ranges.

Elk tend to have traditional key home ranges, so once you figure out these ranges, you’ll more likely be successful year after year. Successful elk hunters are no dummies – they know what they’re doing and that’s why they consistently tag out. They aren’t “just lucky.” They make their own luck by hunting strategically, regardless of when the season opens. They do their homework and don’t rely on chance opportunities.

Elk.

Elk Hunting Regulations

According to a spokesperson with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, elk hunters must take into account the following regulatory framework when planning their hunts:

  1. Most of the province opens the elk hunt on Sept. 1, including the Okanagan and Kootenay regions, and most of the Omineca and Peace region.
  2. There are exceptions in portions of the Omineca Region (management units 7-37 to 7-41) and Peace Region (management units 7-42, 7-49, 7-50 and 7-57) that open on Aug. 15. For more information, visit: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/sports-culture/recreation/fishing-hunting/hunting/regulations-synopsis.
  3. Antler restrictions are generally in place to ensure hunting stays within sustainable levels.
  4. Six-point antler restrictions have shown to maintain hunting opportunities, while balancing sustainable bull-to-cow ratios; overall, this is working well as a management tool.
  5. Supply and demand also play a role in these types of seasons. If the demand for a specific population of wildlife exceeds the supply, then restrictive hunting regulations may be enacted, such as antler point restrictions, limited entry hunting, reduced bag limits, etc.

I take several important steps to improve my odds of tagging out during the first week of the season, based on a working knowledge of elk behaviour, activity, hunting pressure and weather conditions.

Pre-Season Scouting

All successful elk hunters spend time on scouting trips prior to the open season date, to look for elk and elk sign. They’ll check for trails that are being used by local herds, search for droppings (fresh) to judge if a herd is actually nearby, scout out beds as an indication of how many elk might be in a herd, and keep an eye open for rubs on trees to determine if bulls are present. The size and height of rubs is a good sign how large bulls might be. They’ll also look for feeding craters – elk tend to chomp on fescue grasses and leave a crater in the grass as a hallmark.

Check for rubs, where bulls have polished their antlers.
Check for rubs, where bulls have polished their antlers.

Scientific studies indicate that elk herds are most often located at least one ridge top away from human activity, such as logging or mining – more often two ridge tops. Don’t waste your time scouting areas where industry is at play, these are low-percentage areas. Elk are secretive and like to stay in areas that are remote and quiet. You won’t shoot many elk near a road. Granted, you can use all manner of mining and logging roads to get into elk country, but once you’re in striking distance you’re going to have to do some walking as part of the scouting process. If possible, avoid areas that have high hunting pressure where the odds are not in your favour.

Bulls are attracted to wallows prior to and during the rut, where they’ll often coat themselves with mud and urinate on their hind legs. Photo by Dreamstime/Mikael Males.
Bulls are attracted to wallows prior to and during the rut, where they’ll often coat themselves with mud and urinate on their hind legs. Photo by Dreamstime/Mikael Males.

Elk Behaviour

Elk are herd animals and while they are known to browse, they’re primarily grazers. They’ll even eat bark from aspen trees if grass is in short supply, but that’s a last resort. They’ve even been known to eat aspen leaves. They’re large ungulates and require a lot of food for their sustinence; consequently, they’ll feed actively on a daily basis, except for rutting bulls. It is not uncommon for hungry elk to feed for hours each day, which is when they’re usually most vulnerable.

Elk are the most vocal of all big game animals in British Columbia – they call out to each other when in herds and cows and their calves communicate routinely. When they go towards local feeding areas, you can often hear them chriping and mewling from a great distance. Cows will bark when alarmed. Also, in timber a herd can make a real racket when the go to water, in the evening. Young bulls do a lot of sparing to test their strength and the noise of clashing antlers can be herd from a long distance, especially on cold mornings when sound travels well. Bulls will bugle prior to the mid-September rut, during the rut and long afterwards, on occcasion into late October and even November. Listen for the sound of bulls bugling whenever you’re hunting elk and you’ll be surprised how often they’ll call. They routinely call at night, so it’s not a bad idea to scout in the evening, no matter how dark it is outside. Bulls are attracted to wallows prior to and during the rut, where they’ll often coat themselves with mud and urinate on their hind legs. Elk have a pungent smell, bulls especially after they’ve been to a wallow, and this scent will often hang in the air if winds are calm. I don’t know how many times I’ve smelled a herd of elk before I’ve spotted them.

Activity Associated With The Rut

A dominant bull will assemble a harem of mature cows and their calves during the rut and defend his status until all the cows are bred. A herd bull is likely a six-point animal that’s large in stature. Remember, adult bulls tend to have a darker mane than cows, with a paler body colour than females. Also remember that it can be hard to see dark antlers against a dark background. Smaller, often juvenile, bulls will hang out around the perimeter of a harem. They’re called satellite bulls and will often call randomly at any time of the day. Most often, the herd bull will return the call but won’t bother to challenge a satellite bull. The satellite bulls are usually smaller bulls, which won’t have six-point antlers. A herd bull will often keep a herd together for a couple of weeks before all the breeding is done. It’s often hard to stalk a herd bull when his harem is surrounded by satellite bulls, but it can be done.

Time spent feeding is the Achille’s heel for elk.
Time spent feeding is the Achille’s heel for elk.

Post Rut

Following the rut, bulls gang up in bachelor herds until the following spring. It’s not uncommon to see several mature bulls in these bachelor herds. Also, after the rut most of the bulls are badly run down and will feed actively prior to the onset of winter. You might see bulls out at any time of the day following the rut, so let your optics do the walking and spend time glassing for bulls. They’ll often bed down in the open near cover and soak up the sun during the day. Bad weather during an elk hunt is not a deal breaker because they’ll feed prior to, during and following storms – elk are tough animals. 

Opening Day, Closing Your Tag

You don’t have to always take “opening day” literally – while the calendar opening day might be optimal, you might not be able to hunt on this particular day if the weather has been adverse or you couldn’t get off work and have family commitments. If you’ve done your scouting, you’ll know where to be on your first day afield, regardless if it’s not opening week. You’ll be able to connect the dots where you’ve seen key elk sign and should have been able to figure out where they’re feeding and which trail(s) they use to head back to their bedding area. This isn’t complicated, it’s simply figuring out what the local elk are most likely going to be doing in advance. Based on your scouting, hunt where you think elk are going to be, not where they’ve been.

Hunting Pressure

If you’re not sure, do some research into how much hunting pressure there is in particular management units before you decide on where to hunt elk. The lower the hunting pressure, the more likley you are to be successful.

Essential Gear

In conclusion, a word about elk hunting gear is important to locate, shoot a bull and get it back to the trailhead. My mantra is to hunt light, but you can’t skimp on some items. You’ll need (at least) 10-42X binoculars and a mimimum 20X spotting scope to locate elk, and if they’re any distance to confirm antler points on legal bulls, especially when light is poor. And, while the choice of rifles is personal, one capable of bringing down a large animal is key. I’ve shot several elk with a .270 rifle, but I have switched to a .300 WSM rifle using a 180-grain bullets that has better knock-down power and a greater range. I use a 3-9X variable rifle scope, which I’ve found adequate for elk hunting conditions likely to be experienced throughout British Columbia. Bulls are huge animals and it’s best to hunt with at least one partner to deal with a downed animal.

Elk Communication

By Brian Harris

An elk bugle is one of the most thrilling sounds of a misty mountain dawn, and is likely one of the things that draws an elk hunter back year after year. A bull bugles to announce his territory and dominance, to challenge other bulls and to call cows to him. It is likely the most familiar of elk vocalizations, but not the only one. Elk are the most vocal of the deer family and both sexes and all ages participate in the communications. The range of these vocalizations can be roughly grouped.

Elk are the most vocal of all big game animals in British Columbia.
Elk are the most vocal of all big game animals in British Columbia.

Chirping is similar to the friendly chatter at an office coffee break. The whole herd may participate while they are relaxed and mingling.

Mews or cow calls are a more specific communication. Bulls may mew, but mostly this is cow-to-cow talk. A calf often mews to its mother.

With a loud estrus scream, a cow announces her willingness to mate. Bulls immediately pay attention.

A bark is a short, sharp call that warns other elk of danger. This is not the call that a hunter wants to hear.

A chuckle is a short series of grunts that a bull may make following his bugle call.

For a hunter, mimicking these vocalizations is one of the most effective methods of locating and calling elk, but it has to be done correctly. Fortunately, there are many sites online that demonstrate these sounds and how to mimic them, plus a huge choice of devices to help a hunter make more realistic elk calls in the field.