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The articles on this page are excerpts from the Elk Addict's Manual, by T.R. Michels. For more information on elk biology and behavior, and elk hunting techniques, order your copy in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog
The Elk Rut & Peak Bugling Activity
Peak Elk Bugling Activity
The best time to call elk is often when peak bugling occurs. Peak bugling appears to be correlated with peak breeding; and breeding dates are a function of calf survival, which is dependent on spring temperatures warm enough that the calves don't die, and proper temperature and moisture for forage growth, so the cows can produce milk for the calves. The timing of the elk rut for different areas is triggered by photoperiod, and may differ in different areas.
In Minnesota I found that bugling by older bulls starts around August 20th - 24th. 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. In extreme northern latitudes the rut may occur a week or two later, it may also vary within each state or province. It appears that peak bugling in many areas occurs during the later part of September or early part of October.
Go to "Elk Activity Graphs" to see how elk bugling is affected by the time of day and weather.
Photo by T.R. Michels
Phases of the Elk Rut
During my elk research project from 2001 and 2004, I noted three different bugling peaks and two bugling lulls. As a result of this I recognized six different Elk Rut Phases: 1. Pre-Rut Phase, 2. First Breeding Phase / Bugling Peak, 3. First Rest Phase / Bugling Lull, 4. Second Breeding Phase / Bugling Peak, 5. Second Rest Phase / Bugling Lull, and 6. Third Breeding Phase / Bugling Peak As with White-tailed deer, the timing of these phases will vary in different areas.
Data from Bulging Activity of Elk in Southeastern Minnesota, T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Publishing.
Each of these phases can last from 2-4 weeks.
Bulls older than 4 years old may start bugling as early as mid-August. By the first week of September the 3 year old bulls may start bugling, and by mid-September 2 year old bulls may start bugling. The bulls bugle at this time to express dominance, and to attract cows. Cows over the age of 3 may come into estrus as early as the first week of September. The cows and calves begin to gather into herds with herd bulls at this time, with one or more other bulls hanging around the edges of the herd. The herd bulls often bugle frequently during this phase as they try to drive off other bulls around the herd. The other bulls may bugle in response to the herd bull as they challenge the herd bull for breeding rights and try to attract any cows that are willing to leave the herd, or any cows that re not yet with a herd. Studies have shown that 2 and 3 year old bulls often form bull groups during the rut, and may not rejoin the cow herds during the rut; 1 year old bulls may stay with the cow herds until peak breeding, when they may be driven out by the herd bulls.
First Breeding Phase / Bugling Peak
During or shortly after Peak Bugling time most of the 3 year old and older cows will come into estrus, and the herd bulls will continue to bugle to attract the cows and keep them nearby, while at the same time answering the bugles of the bulls hanging round the edges of the herd. Bulls also bugle frequently after they approach a cow that is coming into estrus but is not yet willing to stand for breeding. The bulls may do this as a way of familiarizing the cows to their bugles, which may result in the cows recognizing the bull as the herd bull. All of this bugling usually lead to an early bugling peak at this time.
First Rest Phase / Bugling Lull
There is usually a lull in bugling activity after Peak Bugling, which may be a result of the herd bulls becoming exhausted from breeding, and chasing , sparring and fighting to maintain their breeding rights. Unlike whitetail bucks, that may not be seen during the rest phase (because they often retreat to their core areas during the rest phase), bull elk often remain with the cows at this time. This is often when the previously subdominant 3 year old or older bulls may try to join the herd. Some herd bulls may be driven away from the cow herds during or at this time; and they may move to secure bedding areas and food sources, often well away from the cow herds. Yearling bulls may begin to rejoin cow herds at this time.
Second Breeding Phase / Bugling Peak
Three to four weeks after the Primary Breeding Phase occurs there may be a Second Breeding Phase, as some of the younger cows come into estrus for the first time, and the older cows that did not conceive the first time come into estrus again. Herd bulls are often less willing to fight at this time because they are worn out form herding, breeding and driving off other bulls, unless they are older dominants that did not participate in breeding earlier. As their testosterone rises at this time the 2-3 year old bulls begin to bugle more frequently. Some of the 2 year old bulls may rejoin the cow herds at this time, probably because they are not a threat for the older bulls. However, one study shows that 3 year old bulls may only rarely be found with the herds from late August through the third week of October, probably because they are a threat to the herd bulls, but are not big or strong enough yet to challenge the herd bulls for dominance. Again, bulls bugle frequently when they follow cows that are near estrus, but are not ready to be mounted yet. This combined activity may lead to the highest bugling peak of the breeding season.
Second Rest Phase / Bugling Lull
By late October many of the original herd bulls may have left, or been drive away from the cow herds. The previously dominant herd bulls 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 former heard 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 may relocate to secluded bedding and feeding areas, where they seek high quality food sources. One study shows that bulls often winter at higher elevations than cows.
Third Breeding Phase / Bugling Peak
My studies show that there may be a third bugling peak, which may be the result of unbred yearling and 2 year old cows coming into estrus for the first time, or unbred cows of any age coming estrus again. As during the previous phases, bull elk will bugle as they follow cows that are coming into estrus. Studies also show that a decrease in testosterone levels of bulls during the later stages of the rut may cause an increase in rut related activity, which may result in an increase of bugling activity at this time.
During my studies I noted a Third Bugling Lull and a Fourth Bugling Peak. However, I do not know if this occurs in all herds, and I doubt that the average hunter would recognize these phases if they did occur.
Peak Elk Bugling Dates
In an effort to provide hunters with the dates when peak bugling occurs in their areas I have asked readers of my T.R.'s Tips talk forum to provide me with the dates when peak bugling by elk occurs in their area. If you don't see the dates listed for your area, or you disagree with the dates listed here, I suggest you call the elk biologists where you intend to hunt and ask them. Then let me know at TRMichels@yahoo.com, so I can post it here.
Here are some of the responses I have had:
"I have noticed peak bugling about the 3rd week of September over the years in AZ. I am of the opinion that a very dry year moves this time back a week or so. I scout weekly from June thru the start of the hunt, which is mid-Sept. I have had optics on bugling elk as early as late July (although most "hunters" tell me this is a tale). I am always amazed how much a week can change the patterns and habits of the herds I have been watching. Herd size seems to have doubled in the last week. Some larger bulls have joined the smaller bulls in the bachelor herds, too. After 3-4 days of hunting pressure the bugling seems to slow some. I have wondered if this is from hunting pressure, or simply timing. Hope this helps some." Dan
"TR, south of Colbran in the grand mesa, and Colbran, CO. Everyone told me by Stember 6 thru 10 they should be screaming, and at least start hearing some bugling by the 2nd or 3rd. Not the case, moved out of this area and hit a few more places, would keep coming back, off and on, spent half the time at the other place I told you about near Carbondale, and both places seem to explode in or around late muzzleloader to the very end of archery, Sept. 18-22. The difference was like night and day."
"As an outfitter in Colorado and an avid archery season hunter, I can honestly say that our bulls, especially on the western slope, the West Elk Wilderness and the Gunnison National Forest tend to peak out in the latter parts of September. I have been hunting since opening day, seeing a lot of bulls, talking to a few older bulls, but as of September 3rd, not many interested ones. I sat and watched Saturday evening (Sept. 1) as 8 -10 bulls crawled all over a large nearby mountain without the slightest interest in cows around them."
Well known writer Dwight Schuh tells me peak bugling and breeding occurs from September 20th to the 25th in Idaho.
"I've hunted mostly the state of Idaho and find that the best time to hunt rutting bulls (vocal) is without a doubt Sept. 17 thru Sept. 30. This has been the peak rut, peak bugling or peak breeding time from my experience. Bulls can still be bugled in or located far into the month of Oct. It has also been my experience that bulls can be called in with bugling techniques and cow calling techniques any day of the month of Sept.
I also have found that the older cows do come into estrus first, around the end of Aug. to the first 8 days of Sept. However, it's not nearly the rut that is to come on later in the month. I've also found over the last 12 yrs that this first rut in early Sept. is shaky and unreliable at best. Meaning that some years getting them to respond to calls of any sort (lack of rutting) is like pulling teeth, only the best or more experienced hunters know how to handle the situation with success. So if you're hunting out of state, I would stay away from the gamble of hunting the first week. It's true about the possibility of taking good bulls early on, but only the better hunters are consistently successful. Good bulls can still be taken later in Sept. as the rut progresses.
As a side note, I notice the bulls will "stage or display" twice a year, usually late Aug. to early Sept. then again around the 15th or so of Sept. At this time ... there is much bugling, strutting their stuff, showing what they have to offer, no combat or fighting to speak of at this time. But you can hear them bugling everywhere, and yet not challenging one another. They are not much interested in fighting at this time, they can be coaxed, but it's tough, you must get in their face quickly without running them off. Cow calls can work great at this time, especially long whinny ones, not social calls, they're not as effective."
Steve Chadwick off the Michigan wildlife department tells me, "The peak elk breeding season is mid to late September." .
Ken Hamlin, of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks tells me, "The peak of elk breeding in Montana will vary a little by area and year, but will be around the 25th of September. Bugling will be highest before and after that because when they are breeding, they stick to business and do not challenge other bulls as much."
Bill Jensen of the North Dakota game department tells me, "Mid September."
Pete Test, Deer/Elk Staff Biologist Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife tells me, "The peak of the breeding season of elk in (western) Oregon seems to vary around the last week of September and the first week of October for Roosevelt elk - and slightly later for the Rocky Mountain Elk on the east side of the Cascades. We do not have information related to the peak for bugling. It is probably just before the peak breeding period as the bulls frantically try to finish collecting or trying to keep control of their harems."
Well known elk hunter/call manufacturer Larry Jones tells me a study done in eastern Oregon showed that peak bugling occurred from September 25th to October 5th. .
"I live in western Oregon and hunt elk on the east side of the state the most. On the east side the bulls will bugle the most around the middle to end of Sept. In western Oregon the bulls will bugle near the end of Sept. into mid Oct."
"Our bulls will be bugling heavy by the second week of Sept. We have Rocky Mountain elk and Roosevelts. The Rocky Mountain bulls on the east side are far more vocal than the ones on the west side of the cascades; our west side Rocky bulls act a lot more like (bugle at about the same time T.R.) as the Roosevelt elk. According to a biologist in NE Oregon the units there are managed for more mature bulls and they seem to breed earlier than some of the other units that are not managed in this way."
South Dakota wildlife personnel reported, "Elk bugling can last from mid-August through November. Most breeding is completed by mid-October. Thank you for your questions. John Forney South Dakota Division of Wildlife Dept. of Game, Fish and Parks." (That's not much use on peak bugling.)
Lonnie Collings, of the Utah game department tells me: "Usually at the end of September and early October."
Washington Wildlife Personnel tell me, "Elk start bugling in late August which is the beginning of mating season. Peak bugling and mating is in mid-September, and it diminishes about the first of October." .
It seems as though the rut here in Washington state is a little later. I hunt the east slope of the cascade mountains if that helps. I was hunting last year in a area with a lot of elk and it was Oct 6th, I let out one bugle and it was like the whole mountainside went crazy. Elk were bugling all over the place. Unfortunatly this area was not open and I was just up there checking the area out.
Wyoming game department personnel tell me, "According to our biological services division the peak bugling season for elk throughout most of Wyoming is mid-September, and peak breeding season is mid to late September."
"I kept pretty good record over the last 3 seasons and have observed that the bulls don't get with the cows or really start talking until around the 10th of September, the bulls stayed with the cows until early October but had abandoned them completely by the 25th." Aden Stewart
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