How To Hunt Silent Bulls During The Rut

By Shaggy Outdoor Team

September 12, 2023

How To Elk Hunt When Bulls are Quiet

Finding Silent Bulls During The Rut is Difficult, But Not Impossible!

One of the most challenging elk hunts I experienced was when I hunted the Bitterroot Mountain Range in Montana. A high elevation, mountain hunt with big bulls and high expectations was what I had been dreaming about...

The challenge of finding big bulls during that hunt taught me lessons I have used on early archery and late-season hunts in Arizona's Rim Country and the White Mountains. These tactics will help you be successful on your next hunt. 

To learn the land before I even packed my truck, I spoke with a couple of wardens who managed the areas I was choosing for my Montana hunt. The wardens told me that the tag and 10-day archery hunt couldn't be a better opportunity for a hunter to find rutting bulls.

The rut "will be on" when you hit the mountains and you should have lots of opportunities one warden mentioned...

Having the conversation with local game wardens provided intel that I otherwise would not have known. I outline my 7 Keys to Elk Hunting Success in another article and the #2 recommendation is contacting local game wardens or DNR officers. 

While predators were mentioned, neither warden mentioned that my hunt camp was located, in my opinion, smack dab in the middle of predator activity. 

Very quickly the hunting party I was a part of and I found that our hunt strategy would need to change for us to be successful. You see, the work practicing my bugling and cow calling was pushed aside and I, along with the other hunters in my party, soon discovered that we needed new hunting tactics and strategies if we wanted to take home meat.  

Don't go into your early season hunt with only the tactics of bugling to find your bulls. Like my trip to Montana where the wolves and bears were plentiful, the elk were quiet so as not to sound the dinner bell for the predators in the area. Plan for a tough hunt with lots of difficulties, then you will be mentally ready for any tactic changes necessary. 

As we learned on that Montana Elk Hunt, you never know what will influence your elk hunting success. 

What can change your elk hunt quickly?

  1. Lack of available water
  2. Excessive heat
  3. Instant or constant change in weather patterns
  4. Excessive rain
  5. Quiet elk
  6. Late starting rut
  7. No cows 
  8. Excessive number of hunters in your area
  9. Excessive Calling by other Hunters
  10. And so much more...

To be successful you have to be prepared for different scenarios. When your initial strategy of bugling or calling gets no results, what will you do next? 

Team Shaggy Outdoors team member Kyle Shagena Glassing for animals

3 Tactics and the Strategies for Success When Elk Are Hushed

  1. Glass Open Areas and Mountainside Parks (Spot and Stalk)
  2. Modify Calling Techniques (when to call and how to call)
  3. Set up and Ambush (find a travel corridor and wait it out)

These three tactics are my favorite when hunting elk that are not talking. The weather has changed and the rut is going on but hunters are not willing to let others know where the elk are located, so what to do... 

Tactic #1: Glass Open Areas and Mountainside Parks

Spot and stalk is an age-old traditional hunting strategy. The challenge when you don't know where the animals are bedded or traveling is you can be walking for hours without finding a bull. 

Take the time to glass open meadows, parks, or hillsides looking for travel patterns or bedded elk before you start stalking. 

When glassing, glass the west and north slopes, if possible, in mountain terrain. These are the sides that generally are cooler and most elk, in my experience, tend to bed on. 

Look deep into the shadows of the trees...

If you are in the open flat country like I hunt in Arizona's 4B, you need to glass the cover of pinyon pines, dry river beds, or small treed areas. Bulls will find shade during the day and do most of their travel in the early morning, and late afternoon throughout the night. When temperatures are hot expect bulls to find shade and damp wallows to get cooled off. 

Be patient when glassing. I use a three-tier technique when glassing. First, I do a quick glass of the area or mountainside I'm looking at using my traditional Vortex binoculars. If I don't see any obvious elk standing out in the open, I move on to phase two. Second, I slow down and use a grid pattern when glassing. I take my time to make sure I look between, under, and around every shadow of trees and thickets. 

Once I find elk, I implement my third technique which is using my Vortex spotting scope. No reason to jump up and take off running. Figure out the pattern of travel and if there is a BIG BULL to chase before you take off. 

Now the strategy you need to implement is how you will attack the animal. Will you circle around using the wind as a cover to mask your scent? Or will you take advantage of knowing which ridge he is using and put yourself on the top, in front of him, in the morning? Now that you found the bull, you need to figure out how to get close to take that shot. 

Professional Tip: When glassing use a tripod and have a good seat. Holding binoculars when glassing will cause arm and eye fatigue. You will lose your spot on the mountain and you will become very bored quickly. Pick up a solid tripod on Amazon. If you are using both a spotting scope and binoculars, pick up two so you can have both set up for viewing when you find your bull. Make sure you check the height the tripod will extend to. I accidentally picked up a 5' tripod once and standing 5'10" tall made for standing and using the tripod difficult. Also, be sure it gets small so you can put it in your backpack or use it while sitting on a chair or on the ground. 

Glassing Elk Using a Tripod with Help You Find Travel Patterns and Elk Locations.

Tactic #2: Modify Your Calling Techniques

When you are calling don't stick to a specific script. Most hunters will bellow out the loudest elk bugle they can with their tube and many times get no response. Then they do another and add some chuckles at the end, again with no response. Then they do it again, again, and again. Never moving and never changing the pitch, length, tone, or loudness of their call. 

The response you may get from this poor choice of calling techniques may be silence...

Then with silence and no response, you think, there are no bulls in this area!

Truth be told the elk know more about the area than you do and your massive elk bugle could have just turned them off and now he's pushing his cows to another ridgeline or down into the dry creek bottom. 

Maybe your excessive calling only brings in spikes and immature bulls. So you move on to another area knowing there are no shooter bulls to be harvested. 

To be successful when bulls are quiet, take this opportunity to change your thinking. A quiet bugle call may be just what is needed to elicit a response. The strategy here is to entice a bull to come challenge you, not you challenge them.

Early, pre-dawn calling should be left to the bulls so you know where they are. If you need to start the conversation, use cow calls or quiet bull calls to see if you can get a response. Don't continue to stand in one location and call multiple times as bulls are typically on the move when they are calling and rarely standing still. 

Scott Myers, one of our team members, uses three or four different bull-bugle tubes and cow calls. He never uses the same tube in one place twice if he doesn't get a response and he likes using multiple tubes and calls to give the impression there are multiple bulls. 

The idea is he believes the elk know each other and will respond if and only if they choose to. Having multiple bugle tubes and cow cows, he believes, gives him the best opportunity to get a response. 

Check out our blog on Three Elk Calls Every Hunter Needs on a Hunt. Here we talk about the different types of calls including a bull bugle, cow, and calf. 

Professional Tip: Bugles should be used to locate a bull. Make sure you are getting a response from a bull elk and not another hunter. Once you find the bull you will need to figure out if they are looking to spar or if they are just calling before they drop into the canyon or wash for the day. A cow call should be used when bulls are trying to keep their harem together as this may draw a bull in to grab another lady. Learn the different sounds cows make to ensure you are using the proper vocalization

Tactic #3: Set Up The Ambush - Pinch Points Of Travel

One of my favorite tactics when hunting tall timber with ridgelines and dry washes is the Ambush. 

In a nutshell, hunters in the mid-west, east, and southeast have been using this tactic for centuries. When you have a smaller piece of property and you want your best opportunity to shoot a good buck you place your tree stand in a spot you know there is traffic. The object is you have the best possible spot to get a shot when the deer travel through an area.

On your next elk hunt use this tactic when the elk are not talking. 

How to know if the elk are traveling in your area? 

You check the signs!

Are their trails, tracks, rubs, scrapes, water sources, or bedding areas nearby? Can you determine if they travel in a certain direction for nighttime feeding and then back to another area for daytime bedding? Where is there water source? Are they using a man-made water tank or after the rain are there stone rocks that are holding the water from a recent rain?

Once you figure out where they are traveling you can put in a strategy to ambush the bulls. Here is when a ground blind or tree stand will come in handy giving you an opportunity to wait them out. 

Final Thoughts on Hunting Bull Elk When They Are Quiet

Quiet bulls are not necessarily a bad thing. So many times I've been hunting and there have been no bulges or responses by elk only to be caught off guard by a bull coming up the side of the mountain trying to check me out.

Don't discount the bugles and calling opportunities in your area. But like my experience in Montana, the predators may influence the elks' behavior. 

Depending on when your hunt is taking place, you're tactics will change. When the rut is over the bigger bulls will retreat to the safety of the canyons and dark timber and remove themselves from the herd. Be willing to work harder during those late hunts when the elk change their patterns. 

Use the three tactics I mentioned in this article to increase your odds of being successful. When you're frustrated, you need to make changes. But those bulls are still out there, get hiking and you'll have success.

Phelps Bugle Tube

H.S. Carlton's Boss Cow Elk Call

Montana Decoy RMEF Cow Elk

Koola Buck Elk Game Bags