Why you should hunt elk during the pre-rut phase

Photo credit: Sam Sarbacher

For some states, elk hunting starts in the middle of August and, for others, at the beginning of September. This means that all states start their elk hunting seasons well before the rut — some even before the pre-rut. During these early days, elk may still be in bachelor groups or just separated, bulls will not have sought out and found cows yet and, typically, September archery strategies may not be effective yet. The days are long and hot, elk activity may seem stagnant and bulls are not yet vocal. Though this sounds like a lot of reasons not to hunt these early days — including the pre-rut — there are a few reasons you should and some strategies to do so.

Why hunt pre-rut?

Before we dive into some strategies and techniques to be successful prior to the pre-rut and during the pre-rut, let’s talk about why these are some great days to be afield. The first reason is the lack of pressure. Most hunters do not want to hunt the pre-rut. Instead, they save their vacation days for the peak bugling and breeding days surrounding the fall equinox. This means that most bulls haven’t changed their regular behavior and you might find bulls entirely to yourself still in their summer pattern. There are also fewer eyes. Since the bulls have not started gathering cows yet, they are typically in smaller bachelor groups or solo during this time of year. If anyone has ever tried stalking a herd of elk, you know that many eyes are looking out for danger. It is super difficult to move within bow range while numerous cows and satellite bulls scan their horizon for predators. When it’s just one bull or two, you have a better chance of getting close. arly season is also excellent because bulls are still in their summer patterns. Though elk often change their activity daily, based upon wind, you can find them generally doing the same thing day after day during the early season. An ambush or stalk on a patterned bull can be effective once you know what he wants to do day after day. The final, but not least reason to hunt early season, is because the camping weather is the best. Warm days and cool nights may make for some more challenging elk hunts, but some great camping days.

Strategy 1: Water

During a rut hunt, elk typically want food, water, cover,and breeding; however, during a pre-rut hunt, elk only want food, water and cover. Since there is one less need for a bull, there is a better chance you will get him to come to water. Combine an elk’s natural need for water and hot days and you will find that most elk will get up and get a drink mid-day. This is why finding a good water source and being patient can really pay off early on. To find a good water source, consider that elk do not want to travel too far from their bed and would rather stay in cover than go out into the open, especially during a hot day. This means that any high elevation spring, pond, creek or stock tank near or in thick timber may be a perfect spot to set up. If you find a water source that seems to look good, look for fresh sign. If there is no new sign, then the chance of a bull using it midday is low and you should continue your search. Some signs to look for include tracks, scat or muddied water. Once you find a good source with fresh sign, set up a blind, build a blind or find a place to wait downwind of the elk’s bed, elk’s travel path and the watering hole. Even the thirstiest bull will not come in if he smells you near his drinking spot.

Strategy 2: Spot and Stalk

As previously mentioned, early pre-rut activity often means that bulls are by themselves or in small bachelor groups. Finding these bulls might require some time behind the glass at first and last light, which is where pre-season scouting can pay off. Once you find bulls, you can ambush them by setting up along their travel path or spot and stalk bulls. I prefer to spot and stalk bulls as they travel, essentially trying to get to an intersection point just before they do, always keeping the wind in my face or at least away from the bull. Some hunters prefer to stalk elk in their beds. This requires an extremely slow pace and a great deal of patience; only moving closer under perfect conditions. Elk, especially big bulls, tend to bed in some dense timber where every step you take cracks a branch or two. However, spot and stalk can be successful since fewer elk are on the lookout. A day with a solid prevailing wind can definitely help stalking success rates.

Strategy 3: Hunt Their Bedding Areas

Since early season bulls have been pressured less, are typically moving solo or in small groups and are only concerned with eating, drinking,and bedding in cover, you can find success by hunting their bedding areas. A lot of times — unless conditions drastically change — bulls want to bed in the same general area — if not the same beds. This is especially true if they have been unpressured for months and living in the same basin or timber patch. If you can play the wind right and slip into their bedding areas well before light, you can find success by patiently waiting for a bull to come into his bedroom. Once a bull makes it to bed, you will already be close with a favorable wind and be able to move in and take a shot or even try coaxing the bull the last few yards to you. Patience goes a long way when hunting in tight quarters; however, be aware that swirling winds can also end a hunt before it even begins.

Though hunting the opening weeks and pre-rut might not be everyone’s favorite time to be afield, you can be successful early on. Bulls are typically in bachelor groups or solo. They are generally patternable and need water every day. Hunting pressure usually is less and the camping weather is the best. If you are out hunting, consider hunting over water, spot and stalking bulls or hunting their bedding areas. No, this will not be a bugle-fest type of hunt, but if you come home with a rack in the back and a freezer full of meat, I do not think you will care. Consider chasing bulls in the early season this fall to be successful before the rest of the hunters even pack their bags to go hunting.

This article was originally published August 24, 2021


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