Gone Hunting: Stuck in a rut? Hunt elk with black powder

Jim Vanek | Greeley, Colo.
Sunset silhuette of large elk
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Spring has come and gone. The days of summer are growing shorter and shorter, which means that the fall hunting seasons are just a few days away.

The aspen will soon be naked skeletons, and an unattended water bottle may grow a little ice in it.

You can get ahead of that nasty weather by hunting the early archery and black powder seasons. The best thing I have done for my elk hunting was change from October/November hunting to the black powder seasons.

As late as mid-July, there were cow/calf licenses available in Wyoming, and leftover elk tags went on sale in Colorado on July 19.

While scouting for elk west of Laramie this summer, I was told by a rancher/cowboy that the elk on his ranch generally start talking (grunting and bugling) to each other about Aug. 15. I like to hunt late August and early September for that reason. Elk make more noise than I do. They are in a different type of survival mode called the “rut.” A bull elk will gather a harem of cows and breed as often as the cows will stand still.

Bulls will be wrecking trees and shrubs with their antlers. They will wallow in muck that they have created for themselves to help advertise their whereabouts. They want to make it as easy as possible for a cow elk to find them.

The biggest bulls will fight to protect their harems with some battles ending with one or both of the combatants severely injured or even killed. It is nature’s way. It is the only way Mother Nature can guarantee that the best genes will be passed on to the next generation.

A hunter can take advantage of this situation by learning to imitate the “mew” of a cow elk or the bugle of a bull elk.

I have several cow elk calls that I practice with all summer (generally during my wife’s favorite TV programs). I try to find one or two calls that I can use easily and consistently, and those are the ones that I take with me.

A bull’s judgment is compromised during the rut by the gallons and gallons of testosterone that are flowing in his veins. You do not have to be perfect with a call, just convincing. I have seen a bull turn 180 degrees and come to a cow call without any hesitation at all. He would have run us over had I not put a .350 grain mini-ball behind his shoulder.

Since I began hunting with a black powder rifle three years ago, I have seen more elk in the woods than I had the 25 previous hunting seasons.

The rut is generally over by mid-October, and the bulls and cows will once again become reclusive. The first, second and third rifle seasons in most elk-rich states begin after the rut, making hunting more difficult. The average success rate for putting an elk in your freezer hovers around 20 percent.

I have had a lot of fun tracking elk in fresh snow. A fresh four-inch snow northwest of Walden helped me bag my first bull elk. That was an October hunt several years ago. The problem is the weather is unpredictable. But you can count on the rut.

It’s gone on for a long, long time. Archery and black powder rifle seasons coincide with the rut in most states.

You do need to gear up for it. September hunting requires a bow or black powder rifle and lighter clothing with good rain gear.

Start early and start small. Give the rut a shot. (That was not intended to be a pun). If it works for you then get after ‘em with unbridled enthusiasm next season.

I like to recall what Walt Disney had to say about “change” when giving one of his motivational speeches: “This all started with a Mouse.” ❖

Jim Vanek is a longtime hunter who lives in Greeley, Colo., with his family. He can be reached at