From camp I hiked up the drainage until it opened into a long park and at first light I glassed up 4 bulls hanging together in the upper end. Two are putzing along feeding and drinking, the other two pushing each other around a bit. Nothing intense.
I know this area well - it's more or less a bowl and I know the general direction those bulls are going to go yet it's still quite dark and there are often elk in the timber on this side of the park that I didn't want to bump by getting in closer.
And going for an intercept-ambush felt dicey anyways as the bulls were using the thermals and moving up drainage. At this point I'm about 200 yards downwind in some cover that stretches into the meadow.
Sure enough as the light grows they begin to move up the drainage and into the timber. Three of the bulls are in cover now and out of sight while the fourth is lagging behind. I cow call hoping he'd break off from his buds to come investigate. Instead he doesn't care - looks my way for a few seconds then heads into timber towards the others.
The next few hours I spent sneaking up the drainage towards where I thought they'd bed. Every few hundred yards I'd set up and play out some light elk drama and wait 30-45 minutes but nothing showed. Did this until the wind began to swirl.
I was super passive as this was my first morning hunt of the season and I didn't want to push them hard nor was I worried about other hunters. Still, I never got back into that group over the next few days.
What would you have done differently?
I probably would have tried to flank them and move up to get on the same contour as them while minding the wind and thermals. Then I would decide whether to call or try a stalk.
It's very difficult to call a bull back down when he's headed up in the morning. Especially if he can look 200 yards down the meadow behind him and see there are no elk there when he hears the calls.
If you flank him and get onto the same level as him and you're in the timber where he can't see the source of the calling there's a better chance that he'll move laterally and come into the timber to investigate.
When you called & the bull stopped to look for you; you saw him & he either saw you or the spot you called from & there was no elk to see, Red Flag Raised!
The other possibility was you were seen slipping in by one of them throughout the morning as you tried closing the distance. You did some calling setups as time went by & moved some more; you could have easily been spotted at any of those times. The fact they did not return shows you were detected!
Solution! -- Don't call to elk while you or they are in the open; especially on OTC elk hunts. Allow them to get into the cover & now close the distance with no calling which only gives your presence away at that time; they can look your direction periodically if you do & it's a good chance they'll catch your movement without you ever seeing them!
Personally I prefer getting into their bedding area where they will remain for many hours, I now have a captive audience & am not dogging a moving group calling away. I can now call them over if a quiet/scentless ambush is out of the question. I would use elk sounds that require assistance or aid from another elk, this means you're asking for an "action" out of them. -- Just making elk sounds does little during Pre-Rut times for bulls. Advertising Sequences or Creative Cow Sounds asking for a direction or assistance are going to be your best odds for having a physical approach from one or all 4 bulls! A very good tight setup is important here; this will keep them coming in search-mode, these bulls should come straight at you & could care less about coming in down-wind when done right! Good luck!
You don't define "few" but if it were more than, say four, the thermals betrayed you and carried your scent up to them. Assuming you began at approximately 6 a.m.