Tips for hunting late season migratory elk
I’ll be the first to admit that elk hunting is tough. It’s not always the glam show that is portrayed on social media and there are many hours during a hunt spent wondering just what in the hell you have gotten yourself into. Still, the possibility of success at the end of a very rough road is enough to keep bringing those that are elk obsessed back into the woods every year. Out of all of the different elk hunting endeavors available, one of the hardest has to be hunting late-season migratory elk.
During the late season, elk are on a full-on food chompin’ mission. After a long and exhausting rut, the bulls are looking to pack on precious fat as they prepare for the approaching winter. Along with this, bulls will actively seek out the most rugged and reclusive country they can find and dig in for the winter. I’ve spoken to biologists in western Montana who have observed mature bulls via satellite collars that stay within a 300 yard radius for an entire winter. With thousands of public land acres, this is the equivalent of finding a needle in a stack of needles.
Locating late season bulls can definitely test the mettle of any hunter, but success is attainable to those willing to work. Those simply looking for a legal bull will find easier success than those looking for a mature bull, as with most other seasons, but experiencing the hunt for a mature animal is an incredible experience in these harsh conditions. Whether you still have a late season tag in your pocket or are planning for 2019, these strategies will help you find success in hidden pockets when the temperatures drop. Note: A lot of these strategies can be modified for late season cow elk hunts too.
Above all else, the biggest piece of advice to be given for late season bulls would be to stay committed to your success. These hunts are not easy and having a strong mental game will be key. We all know the local guys who have bumped into their bull of a lifetime, but the simple fact is that the key to consistently punching tags on mature bulls requires a good familiarity with being cold, miserable, and lonely. On a recent hunt, we averaged ten miles per day of hiking with an additional three to five hours of glassing on top of that and it still took five days to find success. The simple fact here is to stay steadfast to your goals and embrace the process. The hours of hard work and sweat only make the story that much sweeter.
Colder weather, heavy gear
Along with mental and physical struggles, hunters will also be faced with cold, wet and, at times, straight up brutal weather conditions and having the correct gear with you can drastically reduce the time you spend wishing you were home. First and foremost, clothing selection will be number one. The biggest struggle I’ve faced in this category was finding the happy medium between staying warm and not packing ten extra pounds of clothing. Late season clothing selection can be a daunting task but really is pretty straightforward.
When backpack hunting, you will also be forced to fend off the frigid temps with the added weight of heavier sleeping bags or even ultralight backpacking stoves. Warm food or drinks aren’t a necessity, but a small pack stove provides a serious morale boost that easily negates the weight penalty. Be flexible in your approach to your pack and don't be afraid to try new things. Everybody's needs are slightly different and we all want or need something different.
This whole thing is going to boil down to location and finding the right area for late season bulls is usually characterized by long hikes and sore legs. Every elk is different and will “winter” different, meaning that while you might find pockets of bachelor bulls in areas, there are also bulls out there who would just assume go it alone and live like a hermit. Really, elk can winter in a number of areas throughout a unit and hunters need to be willing to stay flexible and mobile. After being pressured for the past few months, many of the mature bulls are going to retreat into some dark hole in a place that is no fun to hike into. Bulls at that time of the year are interested in three primary things: cover, water, and food—all of which must be in very close reciprocity.
I will generally look for north facing slopes with rough access in the form of steep ridgelines, rock fields, blowdown, and so on. These are the types of areas that will make a bull feel secure while consequently keeping most other hunters out. These areas can be close to roads or deep in the backcountry; the primary factors are finding the right ingredients for a good hidey hole more so than distance from the road.
Snow levels in the high country will really dictate where most bulls are found. Usually, the areas plus or minus 500’ vertical from snow line can be safe bets to start with, but don't be surprised to see bulls in snow deep enough that their chest is dragging or down in the low country living it up with the cows. Sometimes, if the country is open enough, it's possible to glass into drainages from a distance, but, generally, the best way to establish a good starting point is to hike into the high country while making notes of elevation bands where sign is found.
Escaping crowds can be difficult at this time of the year, but savvy hunters should be able to find mostly unpressured elk with a little bit of effort. I like to look into weird or out of the way areas that may often get overlooked due to closeness to roads, the difficulty of access, or simply that the country is ugly. Steep climbs, river crossings or unpleasant conditions can all make for hidden gem areas. In some areas, livestock use may be much higher and simply avoiding areas accessible by horse trails can make all the difference in the world. I always go back to the old adage of “elk are where ya find ‘em.” We all want to kill the bull on the gorgeous high mountain face, but, sometimes, it has to be in the downfall invested creek bottom full of devil’s clubs and grizzly tracks. We are the unfortunate servants to the elk in this game and adapting to the knowledge gained each day can put you into elk faster.
At the end of the day, the main things I'm looking for are:
- Tough access points.
- No roads, trails, etc.
- Dark timber on north facing slopes.
- Small pocket meadows or open ridgelines.
- Nearby water source; running water generally stays open longer.
- Generally thicker and nastier terrain (blowdowns, steep, rocky, etc.).
Among all things, your optics will likely be one of the most important gear choices for the hunt. Finding key glassing points can turn six hours of physical hell into thirty minutes of a relaxing glassing session. Even in the late season, mature bulls will tend to bed early in the morning and not move very much until the last hour or so of daylight. Reaching glassing points before daylight as well as staying at them until last light can make a huge difference.
As grazers, elk cling to a mostly grass diet for as long as possible before moving to browse foods. Pocket meadows and windswept ridgelines and faces can be excellent places to begin glassing during the first and last hour of daylight. Pay close attention to treelines as mature bulls tend to hang close to cover. Sometimes bulls can be found in meadows the size of your garage so being meticulous, even in the timber, will be important. Binoculars mounted on a tripod can make a world of difference over glassing off your knees when picking apart timber. Watching over large and prominent saddles can also be good places to catch elk as they transition between bedding and feeding areas. Sometimes bulls may not present themselves during daylight for a number of reasons and hunters will need to shift tactics accordingly. Often this is going to mean gaining a bunch of elevation and glassing down into north-facing slopes.
Depending on the vegetation cover in your area you will more than likely be spending a large portion of your day living behind your spotting scope or binoculars. Having good glass will not only help you spot more game in deep shadows and behind cover, but also save you from some nasty headaches due to eye strain. Some types of country may even require higher power binoculars. The main thing to keep in mind is that being patient and glassing over an area will usually yield far more animal sightings than wandering blindly through the same area.
In areas where elk herds migrate heavily, there’s a lot of merits to simply sitting on glassing knobs and watching prominent ridgelines and saddles all day. The days following a good snow storm can be excellent for this.
With conditions constantly changing during the late season, a big factor to keep in mind is that the elk could be continually moving and it will be important to follow suit. If I have good snow and put in a solid day of covering and or glassing a bunch of country and come up with little or no sign I will move on. If these areas looked promising even with the lack of sign I may return in the following days so I still like to keep these marked in my GPS. Before leaving on your hunt try to have three to four solid hunting spots laid out in case Plan A doesn’t work out.
When conditions are just not conducive to glassing or bulls are staying treed up, a very effective, but more intense option, is still hunting through dark timber patches. This usually entails locating tracks or seeing elk from a distance in a given area and then slowly trailing the animals. Hunters will need to continually monitor the wind and move very slowly, glassing every few steps or so. This can be an awesome way to hunt with fresh snow and is actually very fun. When conditions are just right, it is surprisingly easy to sneak up on elk, even when bedded.
Enjoying the hunt
This will be one of the hardest hunts out there to stay motivated. Some days, you might find ten bulls and other times you may not see an elk in ten days. Keeping your head in the game can be very difficult. A good hunting partner is invaluable for these types of hunts, but even small creature comforts can really help. Pack foods you like, take warm clothes and build fires during the slow times of the day. I've recently begun investing more of my time in photography and have found this as a fun way to take a 20 minute break from staring at the world at 10X.
It’s always easier said than done, but, really, this hunt is all about slowing down and embracing the suck. This hunt will test you to the core, but the reward will be something like no other.