Frustration was really starting to kick into high gear on us. With a lack of elk, and more and more miles being put on the horses, our hearts, minds and stock were getting worn down to the breaking point, and now we were starting to fight amongst ourselves, a true recipe for disaster. As stubborn as we could possibly be, we were sure those bulls we had seen in September had to be in here somewhere. Our desperate searches had turned up piles of cows and small bulls but the big guys were nowhere to be found. And add to this, there seemed to be a giant late October snow mass rapidly boiling over the top of the Tetons. Our desperation turned to anger as we both realized this hunt was just about over for all involved. These bulls would be as safe as ever as the elk season was set to close in mere hours amidst a classic Gros Ventre whiteout. The fact of the matter was, these bulls, wherever in the hell they are were as safe as Fort Knox gold for this year.
Not having a solid game plan and lack of understanding of elk behavior had cost me yet another elk hunt on my home turf in the Teton Valley of Wyoming. A sure elk Mecca had dealt me yet another blow to the ego and now I had a ton of calculus homework to catch up on before morning. The good news, I was only 17 years old and had a lot to learn about elk, with an entire elk hunting career ahead of me. This setback, while devastating at the time, was sure to be temporary. But college in Indiana was ahead of me, and my elk learning curve would be postponed for the better part of a decade. Rule numero uno in elk hunting is of course patience.
Back then my learning curve as an elk hunter was just starting. Now with nearly 35 years of elk hunting under my belt, that hunt would have surely turned out differently. What I failed to realize then is the behavior of bulls and it changes throughout the month of October. The month of October is a transition month for bull elk, as they go from nearly peak rut activity in the first week to nearly complete isolation during the final week of October and well into November.
Each week of the month will present a different behavior pattern and the effective hunter must alter his or her hunting strategies slightly to adjust to these changes.
The First Week: This week is probably the favorite by far for most elk hunters. This week the elk will usually be doing elk things, the rut. The bulls will still be with the cows and running around like mad trying to breed every hot cow left in the herd. The bull knows the rut is winding down but he is not ready for it to end. The strategy here is mostly to look, listen and feel. Glass for elk herds in the meadows, slides and bare ridge tops. The elk will gravitate to the best feed. Water is no longer a huge issue in most areas as the frost and snow have come home to roost for the winter. With the cold temperatures, the elk seem to like the south-facing slopes more and more, and the dark deep timber we hunted in September is now longer the top of the ticket. Listening for elk deep in a pocket or canyon is very effective. I try to do much less calling now and more listening and glassing. These elk will be very patternable and less likely to travel like nomads from drainage to drainage like they did in September’s hot Indian summer days. Once you find a herd, be patient, size up the bull and make a game plan that is rock solid. These elk will tend to stay put for days on end so you have the time to work them properly.
The Second Week: This is where the elk herd structure we have come to know so well during the month of September begins to show signs of disintegration. As the herd cows show signs of disinterest the bulls begin to think about abandonment in search of second cycle loners. In my opinion, this could be the best time to kill a giant bull since the first week of September. As the herd bulls pull off and begin their travels, they begin to cruise the drainages in a desperate search for one last piece. This bull is very callable. The bigger he is, the more aggressive he will be to a call. A cow call will usually do the trick here, but add in a squeaker bull call into the mix if necessary. This bull is like a shark searching for prey, once he finds elk he will tend to snoop around to see if he can turn up a hot, unbred cow. Keep in mind however, sometimes this bull will expect a cow to come to him. A hung-up bull here can be waiting for the cow to come his way instead of visa versa. Big bulls know their place, and it is at the top. After chasing cows hard all month sometimes he wants to sit back in the safe thick timber stand and have a hot cow come calling to him. Move in slow and take your time on this bull. He is smart and will be awaiting your arrival. Try not to get too close. Frustrating him can be the edge you need once you break inside the 100-yard mark. The basic initial strategy here is to find the cows and watch them. A big bull will be nearby at some point even if it takes a few days. Mother Nature is very efficient and thorough, but patient and on her own time. I like to find three or four herds of cows and check them each day if possible waiting for a big bull to turn up. One you find a big bull here, you will have to work him quickly. He will be here today and gone tomorrow. This bull is the ultimate deadbeat dad. Be on your toes, this is a very dynamic time to hunt elk, you must remain mobile, flexible and take advantage of the situation quickly if presented with an opportunity. Be on your toes, at all times. A mid-day kill is certainly not out of the question here.
The Third Week: Slides, pockets and spur drainages. These are the ticket for this week. This is my favorite week to hunt elk in an elk area I know well. The rut has now wound down and damage has been done to these bulls. They are beat, broken and burned out. This is the equivalent of spending a month in Las Vegas and then heading home to put your head in a closet for a week to decompress. These bulls are tough to find, but very, very predictable. Their routine will consist of feed, bead, and feed some more. Feeding mid-day here is not out of the question right now. A big bulls body fat has decreased to nearly zero and will look very gaunt in some cases. But he has a lot of catching up to do, before winter. I like to look for secluded pockets and spur drainages within a few miles of the heavy rutting grounds to find these reclusive bulls. They will group back up in pairs or even threes or fours. The best feed, close to heavy cover is the ticket here. Cool north slopes and drainages with pockets to feed in are the perfect place for this bull to hide out. Bulls that hang in and around burns is always a great place to start your search here. These bulls will tend to stay put for days if not weeks on end in one spot if possible. They will bed close to the feed and once you find where they like to hide, they will tend to hide there each and every year post rut. These spots can be the true definition of a honey hole once you find them. We have killed nearly half a dozen bulls in one of these holes in western Wyoming over the past two decades. Once you find a big bull or two here, sit back, watch and wait. Patience on when and how to make a move here is critical. If you manage to blow it here, you will probably never see these bulls again until next year. Take your time and make it count, they will be very predictable and routinized. Watch your wind and don’t try to get too close. This is a sniper’s dream come true.
The Final Weeks: The final weeks of October will lead us into the transition to the late season elk hunts. In my opinion, this is probably the toughest time to hunt a big bull of all the weeks in the entire fall season. These bulls will begin to peel off and drift toward the winter range areas. Having somewhat charged their batteries a bit, these bulls will slowly, and I mean ever so slowly drift out toward the wintering grounds as they group up into bigger bull groups along the way. This process can take weeks to occur in some places and these bulls can be extremely hard to find. As nature would have it, these bulls will travel a lot at night and under the cover of deep dark timber to arrive at their final wintering destination by mid to late November. Glassing, glassing and more glassing is the ticket here. A cold snap or snow storm can push the bulls off their routine and out into the open during this phase and is often just what the doctor ordered here. Knowing the travel routes and migrational patterns of these bulls is a huge plus here. With this knowledge, a hunter can put himself into the right drainages and transition points to capitalize on these traveling giants. As a general rule of thumb, if you are seeing cows, calves and small bulls you are in the wrong place. The big mature bulls will often choose travel routes that are much higher in elevation than the other elk. Never underestimate how much snow a big bull can tolerate and actually operate effectively in. Many times, I have found a group of big bulls nearly 1,000 feet above a group of cows and rag horns making a fine living in belly deep snow, and loving every minute of it. Be in the right place and look for tracks. The bull’s tracks will both tell you where they are headed, how many and at when they were there.
Had I known these basic behavioral facts on that long weekend back in 1988 I would have probably killed a big bull on that final elk hunting season before college. We were hunting much too low in the country and did not have a good grasp on the migrational travel routes of those migrating wilderness elk. Knowing what I know now, we were two creek drainages to the South of what could have been our dream bull at the time. Our horses didn’t seem to care however, I think they were glad to be back to the grain bag before dark that evening, an occurrence that certainly would not have happened if we would have spilled blood in the snow that evening.