7 Ways To Score On Late-Season Elk

The elk have been hunted hard and they know it. The clock is ticking down. Can you beat the odds and taste late success? You bet.

by Mark Melotik

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

The elk have been hunted hard and they know it. The clock is ticking down. Can you beat the odds and taste late success? You bet.


Few hunters look forward to the late season, particularly when it comes to elk. The animals have been harassed for weeks by hunters, making them as elusive as Sasquatch. Dropping temperatures, sometimes accompanied by feet of snow, make travel and access a challenge that sometimes can even be life threatening. Lastly, elk oftentimes have reached safe havens by now, including large, private ranches with no trespassing signs posted on the perimeter. Yes, the odds are stacked against you when the late season arrives for elk. Despite the Rudy Ruettiger outlook, you can, much like the unlikely former Notre Dame football player, give it a Rudy try and win. Here are seven ways to score when the two-minute warning arrives for elk.

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Tip One: Map The Migration. Nearly all elk migrate. Even prairie-loving elk move to south-facing slopes to suck in sunshine and access feed that is not covered by snow. High country elk migrate miles and miles. Take a few hours and use available resources to map out the track elk take to find hospitable winter digs. Wildlife biologists, game wardens and even seasoned locals know routes elk take to winter range. Most elk migrations are noted and elk annually follow the traditional routes. Elk typically migrate when snow reaches a depth nearing two feet, but today they oftentimes head to safe havens on private ranches when prodded by hunting pressure along with the weather. By knowing valleys, canyons and mesas elk use as pathway you can set up an ambush along the way when the big move begins.

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Tip Two: Focus On Food. By the time the late season arrives elk are definitely focusing on food and where they can find the best grazing with the least amount of hunting pressure. In backcountry settings look for bowls and basins that haven’t been overgrazed by domestic livestock. Parks and meadows sporting a variety of grasses and forbs receive full attention of elk. If it’s been a dry year elk may switch to shrubs and trees early to pad their diet. They oftentimes find this food supply on mesas or steep, south-facing slopes. Lastly, look to the valleys and bottomlands farmed by ranchers for alfalfa, winter wheat, small grains and other silage crops. These agricultural buffets attract herds and bachelor groups of bulls that are beginning to rejuvenate as the rut becomes a distant memory. Of course, keep in mind that any areas with deep snow will be abandoned as elk seek out an easier main course.

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Tip Three: Keep Using Those Calls. Sure, the rut is over, but elk have been known to talk throughout hunting season. Mature bulls may begin to abandon herds in the late season, but satellite bulls often move right in and announce their presence with a boisterous bugle. You may not call in an elk with your calls, but they still work as a locator. That’s a welcome help when there is nothing in sight, but suddenly a bugle sounds from the timber below. Cow chatter also can be heard year-round as herds communicate during daily travel. Clues like that put you on the road to a future meal of elk venison.

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Tip Four: Hunt The Refuges. In the past some of the best hunting was in and around Yellowstone National Park as elk migrated from the well-known national sanctuary. You can still find good elk hunting around the park, but don’t overlook refuges big and small across the west. Scattered across the west you can find various federal and state lands set aside as winter range for big game. Some are open to hunting while others are closed to human entrance. Even those that are closed lands may sit adjacent to other public lands, where you can catch animals drifting to or from the protective area. Find a strategic overlook watching fences and boundaries for your chance at a wandering group.

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Tip Five: Hunt Private-Land Borders. Like official refuges and designated winter ranges you can find large numbers of elk seeking safety behind the fences of deeded land. That means you need to be on the lookout for private landowners who may not allow hunting, or only on a limited basis. Elk will congregate on these lands, but may be forced to cross fences to public lands if feed runs out or snow gets too deep. Elk also just naturally wander and could drift to a public area in the midst of a snowstorm as they look for a deeper valley to seek out protection. That’s where the 5-day forecast on the HuntStand app shines. You can see into the future for emerging weather patterns that can help or hamper your upcoming elk hunt. In brief, research all public access opportunities that sit along any private lands that elk call home.

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Tip Six: Hunt Above The Herds. If you’re hoping for a bull in the late season, know that seldom will you find older bulls in the midst of a large winter herd. By the late season most bulls have had enough of the large-group nonsense, and largely live a life of “less is best.” Although mature bulls will migrate to wintering areas, and even follow the masses to get there, they seldom hang low with the herd. Instead, they seek seclusion in nearby rugged haunts characterized by cliffs, steep terrain and pockets of cover. They gather their daily feed requirements from a combination of grass and browse during the day. Some may make a trip to the valleys below for prime grazing, but don’t bet on it. They are tired and if they can subside on what’s at hand nearby, they’ll stay in a rugged pocket for you to find them.

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Tip Seven: Written In The Snow. One benefit that typically accompanies the late season is good snow cover. Use it to track an elk down. Snow provides you clues not viewable during early-season hunts. You may find droppings and tracks in the mud, but with snow you can find for-sure smoking-fresh trails. Follow them with caution using your binocular extensively. They could lead you to a shot on a bedded bull. Snow gives you the benefit of viewing the most-used travel routes, the direction of travel, and a solid estimate of the number of elk. Don’t always look for the packed trail either. Mature bulls return to a solitary or bachelor lifestyle late in the season. Immature bulls may hang with the cows, but tracks that lead away from the herd could reveal the hideout of a mature recluse.

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It’s no secret that the late season poses numerous challenges for those who seek elk success. But if you able to muster a Rudy Ruettiger outlook, and put in a bit more scouting and effort than is the norm, you may well be surprised by the fruits of your season-ending quest.



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