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T.R.' Tips: Elk Biology & Behavior 

T.R. Michels photo, 400 class bull elk

The Elk Rut

Bull elk over the age of 3 years usually begin bugling shortly after they shed their velvet: from mid-August to early September. Within two to three weeks of shedding their velvet the older bulls begin associating with the cows. During the next few weeks the bulls will try to gather as many cows as they can into a harem, and try to protect them from the advances of other bulls that try to steal them away and breed them. In Minnesota I found that bugling by older bulls starts around August 20th - 24th. Game call manufacturer Larry Jones says he heard his first bugle about August 24th in Idaho in 2002.

The rut (both breeding and bugling) may peak from September 10th to October 10th in different areas, with breeding beginning the first week of September. In Minnesota I found that peak breeding occurs from September 7th to the 21st. While I was guiding in northern New Mexico, I found that peak bugling occurred around September 14th. Well known writer Dwight Schuh tells me peak bugling and breeding occurs from September 20th to the 25th in Idaho. In extreme northern latitudes the rut may occur a week or two later, it may also vary within each state or province. Larry Jones tells me a study done in eastern Oregon showed that peak bugling occurred from September 25th to October 5th. It appears that peak bugling in many areas occurs during the later part of September or early part of October.

The initial breeding phase may last from three weeks before to three weeks after the actual peak of the rut. Information on calving dates for northern elk suggest that breeding will normally last 20 to 45 days. Because spring arrives earlier and fall occurs later in southern latitudes, elk in southern areas may have longer breeding periods; in excess of 50 days for Tule elk in California. Even in northern areas breeding may continue for as long as 65 days, from early September to early November.

When they are in estrus the cows may be sexually receptive for 12 to 15 or more hours. If they are not bred during their first estrus cow may experience estrus again from 21 to 28 days later, with an average of about 21 days. There is usually a second breeding phase three to four weeks after the initial breeding phase, when unbred older cows come into a second estrus. My research suggests that two year old cows my come into estrus one to two weeks after the first of the older cows come into estrus; and that yearling cows may come into estrus two to three weeks after the first of the older cows come into estrus.

There is not much variance in the timing of the elk rut from northern British Columbia to southern New Mexico. If the rut is photoperiodic (dependent on the number of hours of light per day) it would be expected that elk in Montana would rut earlier than those in New Mexico. However this is not necessarily the case. The explanation for this phenomenon is quite simple. Many of the elk of North America are transplants from the Yellowstone ecosystem and still rut when their predecessors did. Because most of these herds are not over a hundred years old they have not had time to readapt to their new environment. There is evidence that Tule elk in California and Rocky Mountain elk in southern New Mexico breed slightly later than their northern relatives, and that their breeding seasons are longer. This is probably because these elk live in areas where fall starts later, which means the calves can be born later and still be big enough to survive the winter.

Bugling Peaks

It has been suggested that peak bugling of elk, like peak gobbling of turkeys and peak scraping of whitetails, occurs prior to and after peak breeding. However, this is not the case. My research shows that peak bugling of elk occurs during peak breeding, when the bulls are trying to attract cows, and when the bulls are competing for breeding rights. One of the ways a bull out-competes other bulls for cows is by bugling. Bulls also bugle frequently when they come in contact with each other as they look for or follow estrus cows. Thus, more bugling occurs when the cows are in estrus, during peak breeding. The Bugling/Bull/5 Minutes graph from my studies shows the average number of bugles per bull per 5 minutes throughout the rut; and shows that peak bugling in 2001 occurred the week of September 14 (during the primary breeding phase) and again on October 5 (during the late breeding phase, which is when subdominant bulls challenge herd bulls for breeding rights). These bugling peaks coincide with peak breeding, but the dates may vary by location.

Herding Strategies

Once the dominant bulls begin herding they may hold from 1-100 cows, plus calves. While the dominant bull is collecting cows several subdominants and immature bulls may hang around the herd trying to cut out a receptive cow, or breed with one of the cows while the dominant is otherwise occupied chasing cows or bulls, or fighting. Some of these subdominants may be as big as or bigger than the herd bull in body or rack size, but because they have not challenged the dominant and beaten him, they do not have their own herd. Because the dominant bull chases and herds a large number of cows, and breeds several of them, and has to fight off the other bulls, it may eventually succumb to fatigue. When the bull is fatigued it may leave the herd; allow other bulls to stay near the herd and breed cows; or it may be driven off by another bull, which may in turn be driven off by yet another bull. Usually the first bull with a herd will have serviced numerous cows and passed on its genes.


Prior to breeding a cow the bull often sniffs the ground where the cow has been laying, or where it urinated. The bull often performs the lip curl or Flehmen sniff when it checks the urine, it may even stick its tongue in the urine stream while the cow is urinating. If the cow is in estrous it may stand, turn and lick the bulls head, neck, antlers or body; or lift her tail. The cow may also mount the bull. The bull may in turn lick the cow's neck, body or genitals. The bull then leans its neck on the cows back, to see if it will stand still. If the cow is ready to breed it will stand still and the bull will mount the cow. Once mounted the bull usually makes several pelvic thrusts, followed by a jump during ejaculation. During the jump the bull's head is thrown back, and its hind feet often leave the ground. The bull then dismounts and walks away.

Cows may allow more than one bull to mount and breed them. In early October of 2001 I watched a subdominant bull mount a cow while the dominant bull was herding other cows. The subdominant made several pelvic thrusts but did not appear to breed the cow, because it did not jump before it dismounted. The dominant saw the subdominant near the cow and drove the subdominant away. The dominant then followed the cow, and the cow mounted the bull. The dominant bull then mounted the cow several times, and eventually bred the cow. While the dominant was occupied with this cow the subdominant bred one of the other cows.

Bugling Purpose

The roar, bugle and grunt are used by bull elk to proclaim dominance, telling all other bulls in the area, "I am strong, healthy and ready to fight for the right to breed." The Full Bugle Sequence of a dominant bull tells smaller bulls that they should stay away. It tells other large bulls that a dominant is looking for (and probably collecting) cows, and if the other dominant wants to challenge for the right to collect or breed those cows it should respond and be ready to fight, because it will have to take the cows by force. At the same time the bull is telling the cows (many of which may have been in his harem and were bred by the bull last year, and are familiar with the sound and smell of the bull) that he is ready to breed, and where to find him. Because the older cows know the dominant bull by his bugle and scent, and know that he treated them gently the year before, they often go to the same bull again. Younger cows may be intimidated by older bulls, and because they may come into estrus later than older cows, they may choose to associate and breed with smaller subdominant bulls later in the rut.

Bugling Strategies

During the rut bulls may bugle all day and night, but most frequently in the early morning and late afternoon, when the herds are most active and liable to hear the bugling. Therefore, bugling activity closely parallels daily activity, and bugling activity is usually most frequent during feeding periods at dawn and dusk. The bugle serves two purposes, it tells other bulls that there is a dominant in the area and that he is ready to fight for the right to breed. It also serves to let the cows know a breeding bull is near so they can find him. As you can see by the Bugling/Bull/5 Minutes graph, during peak rut a bull averages about two bugles every five minutes. My research shows that older bulls may bugle up to two times per minute, which is probably the most a bull bugle per minute.

Since part of the object of bugling is to advertise the presence of the bull to cows, the bull should want to silence any competition from other bulls. When another bull bugles near a bull with a herd, the herd bull feels a need to meet the challenge and drive the other bull away. At the same time the bull may feel the need to out advertise other bulls by bugling more, in an effort to attract cows. Generally speaking, older bulls with cows bugle more than younger bulls.

Some dominant bulls do very little bugling. Large dominant bulls that drive off all competition can afford to be more leisurely around the cows, therefore they can be gentler while breeding, and they gain the loyalty of the cows. Young bulls often have to rush in to breed a cow while the herd bull is occupied elsewhere. Because of this younger bulls are not as leisurely with their breeding, are often rougher, and therefore are not preferred by the cows. During my elk research one herd bull bugled an average of 2 to 5 times every 5 minutes, while another herd bull of approximately the same age bugled 0 to 2 times every 5 minutes. The first bull was rough on the cows, while the second bull was very gentle.

Human Impact on Bugling

That's how bulls have called for centuries, but since hunters began to bugle to attract elk, bulls have begun to change their bugling patterns, especially on public land. While it may be true that hunters are teaching bulls that a bugle they do not recognize is probably a hunter, it is more likely that hunters are changing the biology of elk. Aggressive elk that respond to human bugling are often killed by hunters, and the aggressive bugling style is slowly being bred out of current elk herds. Instead of frequently bugling bulls breeding most of the cows, it is the non-bugling or extremely wary bulls that breed more cows and survive to pass on the same traits to their young.

Bulls have also learned not to respond to a challenge unless they can actually see the other bull; they often ignore the sound of another bull, or they may push their herds away from aggressive calling. When I have called to nearby bulls during my research, most of them looked in my direction, but very few of them bugled back. On the other hand, when I bugled to bulls that were more than 100 yards away, that could not see me, they often responded. I've seen bulls respond to the bugling of other bulls in the same way. This leads me to believe that when a bull hears a bugle up close, it expects to see another bull.

Cow Response to Bugling and Scents

Because elk ranges are traditional (both the bulls and cows returning to the same areas year after year) the cows may return to the same bull, as long as he is dominant. Because the bugle of each bull is distinctive (the bugling pattern remains about the same each season) the older cows readily return to the bulls they remember. They also choose the bulls by their scent. Because the bulls self-impregnate themselves during spraying, scraping and wallowing, each bull has its own individual scent. The combination of the urine, testosterone and possibly scent from the belly gland tells the cow not only that the bull is dominant, but which bull it is. If cow elk smell protein levels in urine (like whitetails do) they may also choose the healthiest bull by the amount of protein they smell in its urine. If the cows associate the sound and smell of the bull with dominance, health and gentleness, they often choose that particular bull as the herd bull, and breed with it.

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($1995 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips


Daily Elk Activity During The Rut

In September and October, during the rut, elk often rest, travel and feed intermittently throughout the night. Bulls often continue to bugle infrequently throughout the night, even while they are lying down. By an hour before daylight the elk are usually feeding or traveling. If they have been laying down before daylight, older bulls often get up and make a scrape, raking the ground with their antlers and pawing it with their front hooves while they urinate on their belly, legs and neck. They may roar, bugle or grunt while they are making the scrape. They may also lie down and roll in the scrape, getting the urine laced dirt on their bodies, neck, face and antlers. If they are with cows, the bulls then usually begin checking the cows, and beds of the cows, for the presence of urine and estrogen, which tells the bull whether or not there is a cow in estrus. If the bull finds evidence of an estrous cow it will often pursue the cow until she either runs off or allows the bull to mount her.

My studies on elk show that bulls without cows are quite active, agitated and aggressive toward each other in the morning and evening. They often scrape, bugle, and participate in dominance displays, spar with each other, or with a tree between them, and chase subdominant bulls. Bugling is usually most frequent in the morning from 45 minutes before to 45 minutes after sunrise, with a peak within a half-hour of sunrise, depending on whether or not there is cloud cover; on cloudy days bugling generally increases and peaks later than normal.

The cows meanwhile usually get up and begin to feed, and they may begin to feed in several different directions. This is when the bull begins to go after some of the far ranging cows and push them back toward the herd. Sooner or later one or more cows or calves begin to move in the same direction, and the rest of the herd begins to follow, with the bull keeping the stragglers and wanderers with the rest of the herd. The herd may feed in open areas for up to an hour or more after daylight; before usually moving into the cover of trees for most of the day.

One study shows that, during September, elk lay down within an hour of daylight (probably to chew their cud) then they intermittently travel, bed and feed until about noon, when they bed and feed for an hour or more. They then travel, feed and bed until late afternoon; when they usually begin to feed an hour or more before sunset. The bulls may continue bugling infrequently throughout the day, with a small bugling peak around noon, usually when the cows begin to get up and feed. When the bulls get up in the afternoon they begin to bugle more frequently, and they may begin scraping. The behavior of bulls with cows in the evening is similar to the morning activity described above.

In the evening, bulls without cows behave like they do in the morning, except that they may be more active, agitated and aggressive in the evening. There were times when I was watching the older bulls when it appeared that they just couldn't stand still; they had to scrape, run, spar, chase, thrash a tree, or participate in dominance displays with other bulls. This activity can probably be attributed to increased testosterone levels, and frustration from lack of breeding. This increased activity usually subsided by an hour after sunset. Evening bugling peaked from 45 minutes before to 45 minutes after sunset, again depending on cloud cover. If it was cloudy, increased bugling began earlier and peaked earlier than normal. By about an hour after sunset the cows are usually on the move again, traveling, feeding and bedding throughout the night. The Daily Bugling/15 Minutes graph shows how many bugles I heard from 60 bulls in fifteen minutes during peak daily bugling in September. It also shows when peak daily bugling occurred.

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($19.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips


Understanding Elk 

Social Structure

Elk often group together with the cows and calves in one herd, the older bulls in another herd, and the younger bulls in still another herd, although young and old bulls may be found together. During the spring and summer, cow elk travel in large herds with their calves. These herds are often made up of an older dominant cow, her sisters, their daughters and their daughter's daughters. The bulls often remain apart from the cows until the beginning of the rut in late August/early September, and stay with them until November. However I have, seen bulls with cows as early as July. After the rut the bulls generally form loose groups and go off by themselves. Elk of both sexes and all ages may be found together in the winter, especially when food sources are limited.


Elk are grazing animals; therefore they are primarily a species of plains, open forest and forested mountains. However, they are very adaptable and thrive in the sparsely forested areas of the badlands of the Dakota's, and the semi-desert areas of New Mexico, Arizona and Oregon. In Minnesota and Michigan elk inhabit mixed hardwood forests near agricultural lands in the proximity of humans.

In mountainous regions elk utilize open coniferous forest in foothills or mountains near creek and river drainages. These areas provide a mixture of different habitats meeting in edges where several forage species occur and where there is fresh water for daily use. Studies show that elk prefer to stay within 1/2 mile of free flowing water. Preferred edges include drainages where evergreens meet aspen, alder, willow and shrubs, and where those species meet meadows or wetlands. Scientific studies show that the edges between two different types of habitat provide twice the number of species and amount of food than fifty yards into either habitat. Because of this elk use declines after 100 yards into specific habitats. Habitats covering 30 to 80 acres satisfy the normal biological needs of elk for feeding or cover.


Elk prefer feeding areas with from 0 to 25 percent cover and 20 to 45 acres in size. They routinely cross openings of 490 feet. When openings reach 985 feet elk prefer to travel around rather than across the opening. Elk use open mountain top meadows adjoining forests on two or more of the mountains, because these meadows offer forage, cover and access to different microclimates within a relatively small distance. Meadows provide the grasses, sedges and forbes (wild flowers and weeds) that elk prefer to feed on.

Slopes and Drainages

The angle of the slope has a noticeable effect on elk use in mountainous regions because of plant growth and microcline (temperature). Elk use increases with the steepness of the slope to a maximum of 30 to 40 percent, with use of preferred slopes between 15 and 30 percent. There is a noticeable decline in elk use when slope angles exceed 40 percent. Upper slopes are preferred over middle and lower slopes in both summer and winter. River drainages and valleys are used extensively in the summer because they provide thermal cover and late summer food, and they are often used as travel lanes. Northeast slopes are heavily used in summer and early fall because they retain more moisture and provide succulent forage for the animals to eat. South facing slopes are used twice as heavily in winter as north facing slopes, probably because of solar radiation, which causes snow melt and exposes available forage. The steep, rugged terrain of mountain slopes offers escape routes and provides succulent forage in late summer.

Coniferous Forest; Thermal and Security Cover, Bedding Sites

Coniferous (evergreen) forests offer escape and security cover for elk by providing protection from heat through shade, protection from the cold by holding in heat, protection from the wind and windchill factors by reducing wind speed by 50-70 percent, and protection from precipitation. The preferred coniferous forest for thermal cover (shade in the summer, wind protection in fall and winter) is ponderosa pine/Douglas fir or other mixed conifer types. Thermal cover needs to be 30 acres or more in size in order to reduce wind speeds. Ponderosa pines 40 feet or more in height, without lower limbs and sparse ground cover, are used in hot weather because they provide shade and still permit cooling breezes to occur.

When security cover is used for hiding, the forest overstory is usually of moderate height with downed woody material and abundant browse, with approximately 200 trees per acre. Preferred security cover is 600 feet wide. This same type of cover is used by elk in cold weather to reduce heat loss. Elk use of security cover declines between 450 and 600 feet into the cover; elk don't often go deeper into heavy cover than 600 feet. When fleeing danger, elk move an average of 375 feet into cover before feeling secure.

Preferred bedding cover for elk is often 75 to 100 percent closed, and 30 to 60 acres in size. During warm periods elk day beds are often found on north facing slopes; night beds are often found on south facing slopes, often in open areas. During cold periods day beds can be found on south facing slopes; night beds are usually on the downwind side of hills. Most bedding sites are found near timber clumps, with the exception of warm weather night beds, which are often in open areas.


A study of Roosevelt Elk showed that from June through August their forage consisted of approximately 20 percent forbes, 20 percent browse and 60 percent grasses and sedges. Their diet changed from September through November, when 20 percent was browse, and 75 percent was grasses and sedges. This change can be attributed to the lack of succulent forbes later in the year. Preferred forbes of Rocky Mountain elk during the falI include Common commandra, Slimpod shootingstar, American licorice, Dotted Grayfeather, Alfalfa, Yellow sweetclover, Mountain bluebells, Cord-leaved montia, Siberian montia, Alpine forget-me-not, Wilcox pentsemon, Columbian goundsel, Sitka valerian, Wyethia and Common beargrass; preferred fall grasses and grass like plants include Bluestem wheatgrass, Bearded bluebunch wheatgrass, Blue wildrye, Idaho fescue, Sheep fescue, Pary Rush, Millet woodrush, Timothy, Bluegrass, and Needle-and-thread; preferred fall trees and shrubs include Curlleaf mountian mahogany, Quaking aspen, Bitter cherry, Antelope bitterbrush, Prickly rose, Willow, Blueberry elder, Blackbead elder and American mountian ash. Elk are opportunistic feeders and relish the upper boughs and needles of freshly fallen spruce and pine, the bark of freshly fallen aspen, and acorns where available.

Bulls and cows often use differing amounts of the same food sources. In one study bulls used 10 percent more grass, and cows 10 percent more Salmonberry in September than they did in August. There was a marked difference in the amount of food intake between bulls and cows in mid-November, after the rut. Overall cow intake was reduced from September to October, while bull intake was highest after the rut. This is probably due to the fact that bulls need to put on fat to get them through the rut, and the cows eat less because the calves have begun to forage more and drink less milk. Elk eat between 1.7 and 2.9 pounds of dry meadow grass per hundred pounds of body weight; large bulls may eat from 12 to 18 pounds a day.

Reaction to Environmental Conditions


Because elk are larger than deer they can withstand colder temperatures and wind-chills than deer. Unless cold temperatures are extreme, last for a long time, or are accompanied by heavy snow, they do not regularly affect elk movement. However, bugling is reduced as temperatures get colder. When temperatures drop below 0 degrees Fahrenheit elk seek the cover of heavy timber. If this cold lasts only 2-3 days they will resume normal activity. Longer cold spells may force elk to seek lower elevations, or migrate. Extreme cold between -30 and -40 degrees may cause elk to move to lower elevations. Elk are less tolerant of heat than deer. In warm climates or habitats, elk often become nocturnal. Elk in the Oregon desert move almost exclusively at night during the summer months. During high temperatures elk travel more at night, and bed in thermal cover during the day.


Wind affects elk primarily as a comfort factor through wind-chill. Wind-chills in excess of -25 degrees cause elk to seek shelter. Wind also creates noise, inhibiting their ability to detect alarming sounds. Winds in excess of 30 miles per hour cause elk to seek shelter and become inactive, or stay in large open area where they can't be approached without detection. When either the temperature or the wind-chill drops below 40 degrees, bugling may be reduced; according to my personal studies this often happens during the mornings in September, and during both the mornings and evenings in October and November.


Drizzle and light to medium rain rarely affects elk activity. Heavy rain, sleet and hail may cause elk to seek cover if it is available. Where there is no available cover elk may continue standing and feeding or lie down. Snow is the most limiting factor in elk movement. Snow in excess of 16 inches causes elk to move to areas with lesser snow depths. Snow in excess of 20 inches prohibits elk use of forbes, and they switch from grazing to browsing on trees and shrubs. As snow approaches 24 inches elk use conifer stands as food sources almost exclusively. Winter snow depths in excess of 28 inches restrict movement and the ability of elk to find suitable forage. At 40 inches mature elk have problems traveling; they cannot move efficiently once snow depths reach 48 inches.

Other Conditions

In one study Roosevelt elk increased their activity during humid weather. The temperature was not noted nor was the relative dewpoint. As a result of my studies I suspect this increased movement may have been a result of an impending weather change, possibly triggered by a change in wind direction, increasing wind speeds, increasing cloud cover, and changing temperatures accompanied by a change in barometric pressure. High humidity is a poor indicator of game movement by itself, but when combined with temperature as a dewpoint, it is as good an indicator as higher temperature. However, because of the high elevation that elk often inhabit, dewpoint is less of a factor than at lower elevations.

During another study Rocky Mountain elk reduced their activity when there were cloudy skies during cold weather, presumably because of reduced warming due to solar radiation heat loss. During my studies cloudy skies caused the elk to begin moving earlier in the evening, and stay later in the morning than on clear days. My studies on white-tailed deer show that environmental factors govern daily activity, because they affect the comfort and security of the animals. Comfort factors include temperature, wind speed, wind-chill, dewpoint, precipitation and humidity. Security factors include wind speed, availability of cover, amount of light, cloud cover and predatory behavior; including hunting.

Disturbance Factors

Disturbances for elk include other game species, domestic livestock and the different activities of man, including habitat encroachment and destruction; sights, scents and sounds associated with humans; and hunting activity.

Other Game Species

In most areas elk and mule deer are socially compatible, but heavy elk use will cause mule deer to stop using the area, because the deer feed primarily on sedge and grass in the spring, forbes in summer; and on browse in winter. Elk use these same forages throughout the year, and because of their larger size and herding tendencies, elk use most of the food base in the area, causing mule deer to search for food elsewhere. Since white-tailed deer are primarily browsers, and prefer lower elevations and more forested areas, they usually do not compete with elk, which prefer open/alpine meadows.

Domestic Livestock

Elk show less tolerance to domestic livestock than game animals, probably because there are often humans nearby. In areas with light cattle use elk grow accustomed to season long cattle usage. But, when cattle are moved in and out on a rotation system, as is often the case on national forest land, elk are less tolerant, probably due to increased human activity. After cattle have been removed from the habitat the elk may return. Elk tend to utilize areas not used by the cattle, probably because they both use the same forage base, and the cattle leave little forage behind. Studies show that in most instances elk prefer to stay at least 300 feet from cattle, probably because they cannot hear and smell as well with the cattle nearby. If a large flock of sheep is introduced into elk habitat the elk often move out, and remain a half mile or more away.

Human Activity

While elk become accustomed to the moderate seasonal human activities of camping, hiking, fishing, and light vehicle use, they quickly learn that running engines, vehicle doors slamming, campfires, loud talking and increased human activity signal the beginning of the hunting season. In moderate use areas elk tolerance distances are about one half mile. When disturbed by predatory behavior and hunting activity elk move an average of 375 yards, usually into heavy cover, where they can no longer see, hear or smell the disturbance. On heavily hunted land they may move from 3 to 8 miles, often farther into the wilderness, or they seek the security of refuges or lightly hunted private property.

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($19.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips


Bull Scent: Rubs, Scrapes, Wallows and Self Impregnation

Scents (pheromones and hormones) are used to express dominance, breeding readiness and as a priming source to help synchronize breeding readiness between the sexes. Bull elk use scents as short-range communication by self impregnating, putting scent on themselves and by leaving scent on rubs and in wallows. Scent left on rubs from Apocrine glands on the skin near the antlers and in the velvet itself may tell other bulls in the area that a dominant bull is using the area, and which bull it is.

Most of the scents associated with bull elk are the scents left on the bull after it scrapes or wallows. Scrapes are often formed when the bull arises from its bed. Upon rising, the bull may "horn" or dig up the ground with its antlers; it may also paw the ground. Wallows are formed when a bull makes a scrape in a wet area, often in a marsh, pond, spring, or creek bottom. While making a scrape or wallow the bull's stomach may flutter up and down (palpitation), and the bull may urinate on its legs, belly and neck. It also urinates on the ground. Some experts claim there is a gland or glands just in front of the penal shaft, where the bull frequently urinates on itself. This area is called the "rut spot" and if there are glands there they may serve the same purpose as the tarsal glands of white-tailed deer, whereby the animal uses the scent from this area as a recognition scent.

After the bull has created a rub or wallow it may lie down and roll on the ground, getting urine-laced water or mud on it's body, neck, head and antlers. This often leaves the body of the elk darker than normal. This dark colored body is thought to be used by dominant bulls to intimidate subdominant bulls. Because the bull frequently rubs its antlers in the dirt, the formerly light-colored antlers begin are coated with dirt, which turns them brown. I've often seen cows smell, lick and chew on the antlers of a bull. Bulls may roar, bugle or grunt while scraping and wallowing. The urine-testosterone scent on the bull's body may help cows identify individual bulls, and help keep the cows near the bull during the rut. The scent may also induce cows to come into estrus in preparation for breeding.

Bulls may also thrash nearby bushes and the outer limbs of trees before or after scraping or wallowing, leaving forehead scent on the vegetation. A spruce tree with small broken limbs around the perimeter of the tree is a sign that a bull may have been sparring with the tree. The scent left at rubs, scrapes and wallows tells other bulls there is another bull using the area, and which bull it is.

Cow Scents

Cow elk have their own individual recognition scent, which is a combination of urine and scent from modified sweat glands on the underside of the tail. Cows also have glands on their rumps, near the anus, which may contribute to their individual scent. When they are in estrus cows also give off the smell of estrogen.

Other Scents

Unlike White-tailed deer, elk do not have interdigital glands between their hooves, but the dribbling of urine while they walk may serve as a tracking scent. Elk do have large metatarsal glands that may be used to express alarm like deer. I've noticed that the area below the metatarsal gland is stained darker than the rest of the leg on most bulls. Elk also have a large pre-orbital gland that opens when the bull bugles. This gland may have its own scent used for dominance, and to attract cows. It may also be left on trees and brush during rubbing and thrashing. There may also be a cheek gland, used to deposit scent when elk chew the bark on aspens and rub their head and neck on trees.

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($19.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips



T.R.'s Tips: Elk Hunting

T.R. Michels with 316" 6x6 elk

Post Rut Elk Hunting

Elk hunting techniques for after the elk rut aren't talked about much, so nderstanding what happens after the rut is important to how and where you hunt. After the rut the exhausted, readily identifiable, antlered bulls leave the herd to avoid predation. They seek out areas of sufficient cover with high quality food sources. In general bugling activity is greatly reduces and some of the bulls become solitary. They may begin to "pioneer" at this time, exploring new areas. During their wandering, young bulls often find the same areas, and small bachelor herds may form. Older bulls often form bachelor herds after the rut. Because of the need for food, and because they need to remain away from the cows, bulls often stay at higher elevations than the cows. After the rut the cows return to normal daily routines, until the winter migration occurs. If there is insufficient forage and the cows begin to wander, they soon find the areas the bulls use, and the elk range is eventually expanded.


The determining factors in the timing of the winter migration are severe weather and excessive snow depth. Once snow depths reach 1 1/2-2 feet cows and weaker animals have difficulty moving, at 3 1/2 feet all mature elk have problems traveling, and at 4 feet they cannot move efficiently. Most elk begin to seek new areas once snow depth reaches 1 1/2 feet. Cow and calf herds begin to move first, and usually return to traditional wintering areas, using traditional travel routes. These routes are often used for both fall and spring migration. This use of the same routes can be attributed to the topography of the land, the animals having discovered the easiest routes to travel in previous years.

So, if you are hunting after the rut, look for available food sources, and expect some bulls to be off by themselves or in bachelor groups, often away from the cows. If it gets cold, or there is deep snow, expect all of the elk to migrate; look for migration routes, or migration areas, and hunt there. There are a lot of good elk hunting videos available in the Stoney-Wolf catalog. Why not check them out?

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($19.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips


Elk Stands

A stand is where you choose to hunt, any location where you wait for the animals. It could be near a tree, rock, or hilltop, or it could be a treestand, tripod or ground blind. The main purpose of a stand is to allow you to see the animal and get a shot before it detects you. A stand site should afford some means of protection from the animal seeing, smelling or hearing you while letting you see it. Your method of hunting dictates where you place your stand. If you are rifle or muzzleloader hunting, your stand can be farther away from where you expect game than if you are shotgun, handgun, archery or crossbow hunting. Distance alone is enough to avoid detection. The shorter the effective range of you and your weapon, the more concealment from sight, the distance and elimination of sound and of scent, and the wind direction dictate where you can place your stand.

If you intend to wait for the animals, or use techniques to attract them at distances closer than 100 yards, place your stand out of the direct line of sight of the animal, and be downwind or crosswind from its approach. A tree stand can be placed near high use areas but still be out of normal visual range because of height. Although treestands are not used much for elk and mule deer hunting, they can be very effective near feeding, watering and crossing areas. Using a hilltop or ridge near these areas works just as well. Height also helps to disperse scent and sound. Ground stands can be effective as long as adequate concealment or camouflage is used, and precautions are taken so the animal doesn't smell you. There are numerous hunting blinds that conceal movement, muffle sound, and because you are out of the wind, fewer odors escape.

Because elk travel so much, most hunting is done from the ground. The biggest advantages of ground stand hunting are mobility and comfort. By sitting on my Back Seat portable stool I can easily pick up and move if the area is unproductive. I don't have to worry about finding a comfortable place to sit, or being confined to an unproductive location. I simply get up and move to a better spot, taking my seat with me. This is especially helpful if there is a wind change. While I am sitting on my Back Seat I don't present the upright human form, and the animals don't perceive me as a danger. I have been hunting from ground stands for years and have had more "close encounters" with animals, and shooting opportunities, than I have had when hunting from a tree stand.

Daily Travel Patterns

An understanding of game behavior and travel patterns helps in choosing a hunting or glassing site. Because elk and deer feed primarily during low light conditions they have two primary rest periods, late at night and during midday. Generally they leave their daytime bedding areas, in heavy cover, late in the afternoon, and move toward night food sources. They intermittently feed, travel and rest during the night in open areas before returning to their daytime bedding areas. Because the amount of light is a security factor, elk and deer in mountainous, forested areas (where there is shade) get up and begin to feed and move a couple of hours before sundown. As the amount of light becomes less they move into more open areas of low brush or sparse forest to feed, moving toward open areas.

While I was doing my elk research I noticed that during the September and October rut, the bulls get extremely agitated and active about an hour before sunset. They often rise from their beds, roar, bugle or chuckle; thrash and rub trees and brush; and scrape and wallow. If it is hot the bulls may wallow in a spring, wet meadow, pond or at the edge of a stream or river. Bulls wallow during hot weather because they put on a lot of fat prior to the rut and they need to cool off. About sundown they move into the shadows at the edges of openings before going into open meadows or agricultural fields, where they feel secure and feed during darkness. If you see cow and calf elk in a meadow, but no bulls, wait as long as you can. I often see bull elk come out of the forest 15 to 30 minutes after the cows come out to feed in open meadows. The bulls may not move into the open until after the sun goes down.

In the early morning this pattern is reversed. As the sky begins to get lighter the elk move from the open areas back into heavier cover, before going into their bedding areas after the sun is up. Bull elk without cows generally head back to their beds about a half-hour earlier in the morning than the cows, but they may stay later in search of estrous cows during the rut. Bulls with cows usually follow the cows as they move, and they may herd them and push them faster if it is getting too light.

At sunrise elk can often be found feeding in open or semi-open area, where you should already be waiting for them, especially if you know they were using the area the night before. In the late morning and early afternoon hours elk move primarily in heavy cover or forested areas, where you can stalk or still-hunt. In the late afternoon elk move from forest to open areas, and your stand should be placed along the travel lanes in cover near (but not too close to) bedding areas. At sundown your stand can be along the travel corridors leading to the edge of the forest, or in aspen groves or other "staging areas" near open feeding sites.


This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($19.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips


Elk Scents

Scents are one of the most widely used methods of attracting deer species. Manufacturers have responded to the demand by archery hunters who know scents work on deer by providing hunters elk scents. Wildlife Research Center first came out with elk urine at my prompting about ten years ago. They now offer Bull Rage bull urine and Elk Fire cow estrus urine scents. I have had excellent success with both products while elk hunting. Many hunters use fox, coyote, mink, raccoon and skunk scents as either cover or curiosity lures. Some hunters use unnatural or human scents to block game from using escape trails. This vast array of scents can be confusing if you don't know which ones to use and when to use them.

Elk scents fall into different categories based on how they are used and how elk respond to them. These categories are: Recognition and Trailing, Territorial and Dominance, Sex, Food, Curiosity and Blocking. Sex scents are most prominent during the rut and can be used during any part of it. Recognition and Trailing scents are present all year long and can be used any time. Territorial and Dominance scents are most prevalent during the rut and should be used at that time to be most effective. Food, Curiosity and Blocking scents can be used all year long. Many of these scents fall into more than one category and can be used for different purposes. They can all be used effectively to attract elk, if they are used properly and at the right time.

Elk Pheromones

Elk pheromones, the scents given off by the glands of elk, are used as a means of communication. Pheromones serve to stimulate a behavioral response in another animal. Elk pheromones are present in the preorbital, tail, anal, belly, tarsal and metatarsal glands, while estrogen and testosterone are found in the urine. Elk may also have cheek glands that emit pheromones. Elk do not have interdigital glands between their hooves like deer. Many elk scents used in combination during self impregnation (scraping and wallowing) and sign post marking (rubs and bark chewing), and they are interpreted by individual sexes and age classes differently. When they are used by themselves these scents may be interpreted differently than when they are used in combination with another scent or scents.

Recognition and Trailing Scents

Urine and its associated scents of testosterone and estrogen are probably used as recognition scent in elk, especially when you consider that bulls wallow in this scent as a means of attracting cows during the rut. Because bull elk have such a large body area covered with urine and testosterone, other bulls and cows know the smell of the most of the other bulls in their areas. Elk encountering urine, and testosterone or estrogen, in combination with tail and anal gland scent from another elk, may be able to determine the sex and the age of the animal by its scent. Since elk don't have interdigital glands between their hooves to leave scent on the ground for other animals to track they rely primarily on other scents, and sight and sound to locate each other.

Dominance and Territorial Scents

Because of their wide-ranging nature, individual bulls use scrapes and wallows infrequently. However, different bulls may use the same scrape and wallow when they are near it. While the scrape and wallow are used to place the combined urine, testosterone and belly gland scent on the bull, they are also used to remove parasites and cool the bull in hot weather. This urine/testosterone/belly gland/dirt scent is a sign of a mature dominant breeding bull. Cow elk are attracted to the smell and sounds of bulls when they are in heat. It has been suggested that cows can determine the physical health of the bull by the amount of protein in its urine, and that cows may choose a bull with a high protein content in the urine to associate with. There is also evidence that older cows will return to the sound and smell of dominant bulls that treat them gently. They may be able to associate gentle bulls by the combination of the protein, testosterone and belly scent from wallowing, and the familiar sound of the bull's bugle.

Urine and testosterone from the bull's neck and antlers may be placed on rubs when the bull comes in contact with them. There may also be forehead and preorbital scent on the rubs. These same scents occur on branches that are thrashed by the bull when it rubs the branch with its head and antlers. This combination of scents may be a sign of dominance to other bulls.

The complex combination of scents left at the signposts of the scrape, wallow, rub and the animal itself occur primarily during the rut. The scents of the scrape, wallow and rub occur as soon as bulls begin to shed their velvet. The scents of the scrapes and wallows begin shortly after the elk begin rubbing, but may occur earlier during hot weather. These scents can be used to attract bulls anytime after the rubbing phase begins. They become less effective after the first breeding phase, because the bulls are not as aggressive. Because a dominant bull makes rubs, scrapes and wallows as a proclamation of dominance, it is impelled to check out the smell of any unknown bull intruding on its territory.

Sex Scents

Sex scents contain hormones, and may also contain pheromones. High amounts of testosterone in the urine signal a bull's sexual readiness. Estrogen in the urine signals a cow's sexual readiness. Both bull testosterone and cow estrogen levels rise during the rut. Bulls readily respond to estrogen (cow in heat scents) soon after they shed their velvet through the second and the third estrus, which may occur in November. Because bulls are curious cow urine and estrogen can be used anytime of the year to attract them.

Food Scents

Food scents can be used anytime and anywhere. Because these scents do not contain pheromones there is nothing in them to alarm the animals. Whitetails, mule deer and elk readily eat apples and fruits in the mountains, where apples and other non-native fruits do not occur. The elk on the farms I study eat corn, silage, peas and carrots. Once elk are accustomed to finding these foods you can attract them by using similar scents, even if baiting is not allowed.

Curiosity Scents

Because the elk need to be, and are, familiar with their home range, they want to know about anything new. Much of the response of big game animals to Recognition, Dominance and Territorial, Sex, and Food scents can be attributed to curiosity. In that respect all these scents attract game out of curiosity. Elk, deer and moose will investigate urine and pheromone scents of fox, coyote, raccoon, skunk and other animals, as long as the concentration is not too high to alarm them. While most of these scents are used as cover scents to avoid detection they can also be used to attract elk. I once watched a bull elk walk across my trail ten minutes after I had been there. I had placed Wildlife Research Center's' Bull Rage bull elk urine on my boots just before I walked across the area. The bull stopped and sniffed my trail long enough for my hunter to take a shot and drop him to the ground.

Blocking Scents

A few knowledgeable hunters use scent blockers to move game to their position. While this is not actually attracting game it is a means of getting game to come to you by blocking all trails but the one you choose. By strategically placing human scent on clothes or socks; predatory scents from dogs, coyote or wolf; or large amounts of metatarsal scents associated with alarm, on the trails you don't want the game to use, you can direct the game to the trail you do want then to use. Blocking works especially well in areas with numerous parallel trails, near bedding areas, or in heavy cover. You can also keep animals from using normal escape routes and avoiding you by blocking the trails you don't want them to use. Blocking scents can be used anytime.

T.R.'s Tips: Elk Scent Setups

Most hunters use scents to attract bull elk. Remember that bulls responding to scent invariably try to get downwind to check the scent and detect danger. Be constantly aware of the changing thermals and currents as you use techniques to attract elk in the mountains. Also remember that the elk often try to remain in cover. You can setup in the cover if you are sure you won't be detected. Try to position yourself crosswind of the animal's travel route to avoid detection. If there is nearby heavy cover the animal will use, and more open cover crosswind, setup in the open cover. Give the animal the cover while you wait in the area it won't use, and where you won't be detected.

You can also setup downwind of the animal's approach while luring it to a position upwind of you. If you are archery hunting be sure to place the scent close enough for a shot. If you have to setup upwind of the animal's approach, take extreme precautions to avoid detection. Try not to be in a direct line with the animal's travel route; you may be seen. For the same reason you should stay a short distance from the trail, or where you expect the animal to walk; far enough to avoid detection but close enough for a shot.

I always use Elk Fire cow elk urine when I am hunting elk, because I cow call to attract bulls at close range. I place two felt pads hung in a tree upwind of my position, ten yards on either side, so that any bull coming in will follow the scent trail, before it gets to my smell directly downwind. When I use a Bugle or Gurgle, and if the bull is willing to come to these calls, I use the scent of a bull. Any bull coming to the sound of another bull expects to smell another bull. I use Bull Rage the same way I use Elk Fire, making sure the bull smells the elk scent before it gets directly downwind and detects me.

 This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($19.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips


T.R. Michels bugling elk in the Idaho Salmon river area.


T.R.'s Tips: Elk Scents and Calls; Where, When And What

When you are using calls and scent to hunt elk don't forget that elk use sound as the primary means of locating each other. But, elk do use scent to identify each other by sex, age and social status when they are near each other. When you are using scent to attract elk during the rut, get as close to the bedding sites and feeding areas as you can, or setup along the travel routes between the two in the morning and evening. In the late morning and early afternoon you can setup near wallows. Prior to the rut, and when the weather is hot, wallows are used somewhat regularly, depending on how many animals are in the area and their proximity to the wallow.

Pre-Rut (mid-August to the first week of September)

When you are hunting before or during the rut in hot weather, expect the elk to move and feed for a couple of hours during the day if it cools off, or just before or after a rain. I've seen elk move and feed at 9:00 AM on hot days as it got cloudy and started to drizzle. I've also seen them begin feeding after it quits raining but when it is still cloudy. When these conditions occur, hunt near food sources, travel lanes, watering sites and bedding areas. Elk seek relief from late summer/early fall heat on high open slopes, in low areas holding cool air, in shaded forests, or near water. On hot days look for elk on east facing slopes, in conifer trees with the bottom branches gone allowing cool winds to blow through, and in shaded creek bottoms. Because bulls are establishing dominance at this time they may be willing to fight. Use the sounds and scents of a cow, or a bull challenging another bull. You can use the bugle to locate and attract the bull. Once the bull comes in you can use cow calls, grunts and glugs to convince him there is a young bull with a cow by using estrus and bull scent.

Primary Breeding Phase (first to third week of September)

During the primary breeding phase the bulls are hard to attract because they are with the cows. You can locate them by sight or sound, and setup to call near travel routes and feeding areas. You may have to move to the bull while you cow call to get him to come to you. Use estrus and bull scent. If the bull is willing to come to bugling you should sound like a small bull, not a dominant. Most bulls will respond to the challenge of a small bull. But, generally speaking, only enraged dominants will respond to the sound of another dominant. A combination of cow estrus urine and bull scents can be used at this time to convince the bull that there is a small bull with an estrous cow nearby.

Rest Phase (third week of September to first week of October)

After the primary breeding phase the bulls still answer calls but they generally will not come to bugling. Unlike whitetail bucks, that may not be seen because they often retreat to their bedding areas during the rest phase, bull elk often remain with the cows at this time. Some subdominant bulls may start to try to sneak into the herd at this time; hunt them on the fringes of the herd. Some bulls may be driven away from the herds by this time; look for them near secure bedding areas and food sources, often well away from the cow herds. If you know where the bull bedding areas and available food sources are, setup between the two to intercept a bull. By this time the bulls are not as willing to fight but they are still interested in breeding. Cow calls and estrus scents may work best.

Late Breeding Phase (first to third week of October)

Three to four weeks after the primary breeding phase occurs you can expect a late breeding phase. This is when some cows come into estrous for the first time, and those that did not conceive the first time come into estrous again. The bulls may respond to bugling and cow calls, but they are generally much harder to attract and less willing to fight, unless they are an older dominant that did not participate in breeding earlier. These bulls can be found near bedding, staging and feeding areas. Use estrus scents to hunt them.

Post Rut (after the third week of October)

Hunting elk after the breeding phase can be extremely frustrating, because the bulls may not be with the cows. They may become solitary or form small bachelor groups that remain together through the winter, or until they migrate. After all the fighting, chasing and breeding of the rut, the bulls are worn out, hungry, and in need of food to supply enough fat to get them through the winter. They look for secure places to rest, and can be found near secluded bedding and feeding areas, where they seek high quality food sources. Unless you know where their bedding and feeding areas are you may not be able to find them. One study shows that bulls often winter at higher elevations than cows. When you are hunting after the rut in cold weather expect elk to move and feed for a couple of hours if the weather warms, or after any strong wind, rain or snow lets up. Hunt near food sources, travel lanes, watering sites and bedding areas. During inclement weather look for elk in protected areas of valleys, drainages, thick coniferous forest, or the downwind side of forest and hillsides. Use curiosity, food and estrus scents.

Blocking Scents

Blocking scents can be used effectively during any phase of the rut. They work well in large patches of brush or woods where the elk can move freely. In dense cover there may be numerous trails with few animals using each trail. By blocking some of the trails you create a bottleneck, funneling the game past your stand. If you are hunting a food source with numerous trails leading to it, block some of the trails several yards from the food source to force the game to use the trail where your stand is placed.

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($19.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips

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