Hunting Post Rut Bulls: Tactics and Techniques
by Kenny E. Marcella
In our hunting experiences, we all find a few of those “old sages” who have been hunting for a long time and lend some great wisdom to those of us who love the chase. Kenny is one of my sages who shares some nuggets of wisdom each time we talk about chasing the monarch of the Rockies. Imagine as you read this piece that we have pulled up a old stump stool by the potbelly stove and visited with Kenny about his experiences hunting post rut bulls.. I hope you will find his comments and wisdom as interesting as I did. - JB
JB- Kenny, tell me a bit about your process for thinking about where and when you will hunt.
Kenny- I still start my hunts and application process every year by standing in the bathroom and looking in a mirror... what kind of physical condition are you in for this year’s season? I open my brochure and consider what time of year I would like to hunt...Ideally I love to hunt the earlier seasons for several reasons. Weather, moon phases, access to area, number of animals available. When I apply I usually have back up plans and those plans include the Post Rut Season for Bulls. I have found it can be as enjoyable if not more enjoyable then the pre-rut, and rut seasons.
If you have a chance, pick up a book called Seasons of the Elk... this book goes through all phases of the life of an elk from birth, to the end, and is very easy reading, and has some information that you can use and keep in your memory. I have found several times something so little made a difference in hunting in certain areas, that the book touches something that you might over look or not pay attention when someone is talking.
JB – Let’s talk about your thoughts on choosing a place to hunt, particularly those post rut bulls in late season.
Kenny - I usually break up elk areas in Colorado into three types:
- High Country Hunts, Timberline and above, or 10,000 feet and above.
- Mid Range Hunts, 7500 feet to 10,000 feet.
- Low Country Hunts, 4,000 feet to 7500 feet.
I feel that hunting pressure in certain parts of the state will determine where the elk go. Each of the three types have animals commonly going into certain areas because of pressure, weather, topography or food source.
If I know I want to hunt post-rut bulls, I find the area I am going to hunt in the spring. I watch the animals, weekly and monitor them and their travels during the spring months, as this will be the same course they take when coming down in the fall from the high country, only reversed. Some of the people I hunt with and talk with have always wondered why I do my scouting in the spring. I just mentioned the most important point of where I hunt and where the animals are going and coming from.
I find long ridges and areas that drop into flats, then I look up the ridges at to where the animals will be spending their summer and fall months, then their escape routes when pressured and the weather changes, then food availability changes. If you think about it, temperatures and snow work the same in the spring as they do in the fall; only in reverse.
Let me start with Low Country post/pre season elk.
Just like in the spring, the elk will be in large fields, flats and lower country. In the spring, all of the elk or most of the elk look the same, no antlers, but in the fall you will see the larger bulls hanging away from the group. You will still see some of the younger, satellite bulls still with groups, but your larger, more mature bulls still stay away from larger groups of elk. By larger bulls, I usually look at the mass of the antler, and the actual size of the animal, younger animals normally have thinner antlers, and not so wide, and are still with many of the cows and young spike bulls. In my opinion a mature bull is over 4 ½ years old on up. You will note this the more you watch bulls you will see several different methods of aging some of the bulls on the hoof. I usually look for mass and I look for the angle the antler comes out of the skull, the flatter angle the antler protrudes the older the bull usually is, but again not always the rule. If you look at young bulls the antler goes straight up like in a spike bull, or nearly straight up for the young 4x4, 5x5 and even some young 6x6 bulls. These bulls have a width of just over 24 inches out to about 30-35 inches. When these elk are in the fields and lower country, you can see this antler configuration a lot easier than in the mid ranges, that have a lot of tree cover and small patches of trees they hang out in.
So if you choose to hunt the lower elevation bulls, look for separation of the animals in the groups or herds. The larger bulls tend to stay back from the groups, and are out usually when the moon is up, not the sun. I look near the edges of the fields where ever the shadows are, both in the morning and in the evening. Again, not the rule, as I have seen large mature bulls in the field at noon. When that happens it is usually on a protected piece of PRIVATE PROPERTY. Know the area and its boundaries. In the lower Post Rut areas, you will run into a lot more private land to deal with, as this tends to be the best farming and ranching land. This will bring the animals onto the property along with safety.
When you find low country elk, and you see them in the fields in the morning, and they will leave shortly after the sun comes up. Going into the fall and winter season the hair on the animal tends to take on a different characteristic. It gets longer, thicker and with that happening, the animals get hot sooner, hence the reason for leaving the sunny flats, heading for the darker timber. When they have left and started heading into timber, I usually look at where there might be dark pockets with little benches or shelves. I look for places where they can see below, and have escape routes out the back side from where they bed during the day. Many times I have found areas that are very small in size and shape... with a little gully just off of a ridge. And a complete herd will stay in one of these little spots. I have noticed when I find them in this situation, the bulls are usually up a bit higher and farther back into the spot, for this reason usually predators will come in from the bottom, the larger bulls are gone and running when the first several elk stand up to look at the intruder.
If you are hunting where there are book cliffs or large cliffs above the fields... I have noticed, especially in the Debeque and Rifle areas, the elk will leave the fields, and go all the way up under the shelves or cliffs and spend the entire day straight up and under a cliff.
If you can find and have access to these areas, it pays to be in good shape so you can hunt from the bottom up, get above these animals well before sun up. I like to leave my camp or start up the ridges around 4:30 am.... this gets me above them and gives me a chance to catch my breath, rest, and watch the world come alive when they start coming up the ridges. I like this method for several reasons. You are above them, and if they decide to bed down in the trees below, you can come in from above and surprise them. If you wait and come from below and they are heading up... you might catch them, but usually you just push them higher, and trust me, they will out walk you.
JB – Thanks Kenny, I guess I have never thought of looking at the early Spring patterns in this kind of context before. Now what about that second category, you call them Mid-Range hunts?
Kenny – In Mid Range hunts, you will be in more forest service units, and might still have some of the private property, but you will find more open areas to spread out in. This is the most preferred type of method for many hunters. I say this because many of the hunters that hunt this range are from out of state and many are not in the condition to hunt the higher elevations physically. I would bet, that most of the elk are in this range. They are in areas that have small parks; openings inside of patches of trees. The animals have food, water, cover, and larger tracks of land to roam around while still staying out of sight by many hunters. There is more access to hunting areas, units, and like I mentioned I would bet most of the elk herd in the state is going to be in or near this elevation. The larger bulls are separated and can travel alone through the corridors and small parks without being detected. I would also bet that nearly all the guides and outfitters have camps set up in this type of area. Success speaks volumes and I think while hunting in the post rut season, these areas are the very most productive. When hunting in these areas, you sill still find ranches and some farms with green fields, and the animals will sometimes resort to these fields for both safety and food. When the bulls are feeding after the rut, the feed a bit longer; trying to restore some of the energy loss from the rut and they can spread out and feed in smaller groups. Some of the younger bulls will still be vocal during the early post rut season... trying and hoping to find one of those late season estrus cows... don’t be fooled, the older bulls and larger bulls are usually done with the rut in these areas. They have bred with cows numbering between 6 and 20, and very seldom the very large older bulls will go after every cow on the mountain. Younger bulls will generally try and have 20 or more cows, those are usually the ones that make a fatal mistake and are in the freezer more commonly. Larger older bulls don’t usually make that mistake; they will stay secluded, and hide in these areas.
I like to hunt this elevation for several reasons, the bulls are there, they are off the beaten path, I get to walk and sneak more through the woods, and they are usually being hunted instead of just being shot at. Hunting in this type of environment, there are many that think the more miles you cover the more animals you will be seeing.... not true. I learned from my father, who is no longer with us on our hunts, God bless his and my Grandfathers souls, they both taught me something about this type of hunt. If you are breathing hard, you are walking too fast and if you sweating, you need to take a break.
Hunting in this Mid-elevation area, you need to take your time, go into the dark timber, and find areas that have small openings, and sit. Look around take in the sights, sounds and smells. When I talk to many of the old time hunters, they have told me, “Heck, I have sat in that same little park for over 20 years, and harvested many elk”, I am not a sitter, but have found the older I get, my grandfather was correct, sitting is relaxing.
In the mid elevation areas, you will find water, springs, little pools, cooler places for the elk to go. Food is more plentiful, cover is more plentiful, and seclusion is more plentiful. The three most important things to an animal to survive.
You will find more access routes, which sometimes can be your curse, as you will probably see more ATV’s. But if you get off the roads, and ATV trails, you can still have an experience of a lifetime and be only a mile from all the traffic. The animals normally don’t like the activity either. They will go in just far enough not to be seen from these roads, and trails. Get a good GPS or Back Track device, and learn how to use it, and have the confidence you can find your way back out.
JB – Ok Kenny, let’s finish up with the High elevation hunt.
Kenny - Now for the most demanding, and my favorite, High Elevation Post Rut Elk hunting area. This hunt is the most demanding in many ways. Elevation, weather conditions, topography, physical ability. The best part of this type of hunt is more access and more land to hunt on. Although there is some private property, that is not usually the case. You will be hunting in areas that there is little to no road travel, or very limited. The snow comes a lot earlier, so you will need to dress and prepare totally different then the lower country hunts.
These elk, especially the lonely, single, LARGE bulls, will be usually alone in these areas. They have done their mating, they have chosen to become recluses again. They have chosen an area that normally they will not be bothered by humans, so they can recuperate from the rut. Many times these bulls will feed a lot longer because the elevation is higher and the temperatures are a lot cooler longer. I have seen them feeding at noon on occasion.
When hunting in this type of area, you again will have to try and get above them, so with this you will have to have everything with you in your pack, yes I said pack, to last you the entire day. This is going to be a long day when you hunt this high, as you can’t just head back to the truck or camp and come back after lunch.
I like to pack a light lunch, and, water. And leave room in my pack to put clothing into from my layering of the clothes I am shedding during the day. I usually start walking and setting up well before the sun comes up. I will find some sort of outcropping to stay secluded, and sit until the sun comes up. I like to have very good optics with me to scout many of the higher bald mountains around me. You will be able to see a long way, so look slowly all around you, move slowly because these animals see you at long distance. I usually find a little rise on the side of the mountain slightly above timberline, but watch near tree line in all directions for these larger old guys to sneak out. They will usually not go straight out onto a large side hill in a group, but they will feed just along the timber, and into very small openings with very good escape routes, usually only several steps away from where they are feeding. With this in mind, I have found, if I can find where there are usually little ponds, trickles of water, willow patches, and little draws...They hang there. Again the best vantage point is above them not below them.
I usually hunt this way until about 8:30 in the morning then I slowly drop down into the edge of the timber. I find that if I slowly walk parallel with the timber (slowly, very slowly) about 15-30 yards in, never in the open, I can find bulls that have bedded down just on the edge.
(Remember these bulls are old and now after the rut a bit lazy. Not always the rule but, I find this to be more the case).
I have also found when hunting in some of the area that are high in elevation, like in areas like unit 45 that has many cliffs high up on the mountain, grassy openings all around with small quaking aspen patches interspersed, those big old boys hang on the shady side of those small cliffs, with a vantage point looking below. Again only 4-10 steps from being in the woods...
The largest bull I ever saw was in one of these areas. I was too young to hunt yet, I was with my father, we were hunting in the Camp Hale area near Horn Silver Mountain, right after a new fallen snow. He had drawn one of the first 25 licenses ever drawn in unit 45 back in the early 1970's. We were heading up a south facing slope that was very near the top, when I stopped my dad, telling him, "Dad, I think I just saw a bull near the cliff, I think he is huge”, my dad said “oh Kenny, there would not be a bull out in that wide of area, he would be seen to easy”. About that time, the bull stood up.... HOLY COW, he was huge. My dad dropped to his knee, put up his rifle, poof, 4 steps, the bull was gone...I looked at my father, his eyes were wide, he told me, “Oh my, that is the largest bull I have ever seen,” He kind of let out a little laugh, looked at me, and said “ Way to go Kenny, You scared him”. I looked at him, I told him, “I scared him, if you would have believed me, we could have had him, let’s go after him, with the new snow, we can find him”. Dad said, “are you sure you want to go after him”? , I said “yes”…To make a long story short, I would not take that day back but, the snow was up to my belt buckle, we chased that big bull clear around until he dropped into a back bowl with the bulls belly dragging in the snow, he was gone...
Hunting these large high elevation bulls is very rewarding when you find one, but the fun ends when you pull the trigger, the work begins. Without the roads and trail access, it means all manual labor to retrieve the big old bull. I like starting my hunts below walking up on these hunts, and I try never to go over the top into a basin. I try to hunt where I can bring down my game instead of having to ever go up. It is very hard to pack an animal on your back out of these woods going uphill in snow. You will respect that thought. Like in many of the areas, when you hunt up high usually the only way you have to go is down... packing a large bull on your back, downhill means you will be able to make it a very good experience and your chances of getting out the complete bull is better than having to have to go back into a hole several times to retrieve it without pack animals.
Hunting Post Rut season bulls takes patience, endurance, knowledge, proficiency, and always remember to tell others where you will be hunting, as this is usually the season that search and rescue is called the most. Planning is very key to hunting this time of year, and the conditions can be more harsh than the earlier seasons.
I have tried to give you some information that I have compiled from over 40 years of hunting for these giants and have learned by doing and going...all are memories from the field.