August 28, 2023
Growing up, one of the things I looked forward to most about Christmas morning was the new Primos “Big Bulls” DVD that Santa Claus always conveniently left in my stocking. They made it look so easy, sweet-talking screaming bull after screaming bull into range after just a few short mews from one of the many elk calls the company made. The first time I ventured into the elk woods my skewed sense of reality in terms of elk hunting came to a screeching halt. In fact, the lack of elk encounters and unpunched bull tags pushed me to pursue my passion for hunting mature mule deer across much of the West for most of my adult life. However, my decade-long tenure as a hunting guide in the heart of some of the best elk hunting in the world has opened my eyes to the very real addiction of archery hunting these love-struck giants.
Every now and again a big bull will read the script from the scenes we see on TV with a little coercion from your trusty cow call. However, it is generally the satellite bulls that are the most susceptive to the classic cow-calling sequences. If it is the boss herd bull that you want, punching your tag can require some out-of-the-box tactics to narrow that gap between you and the king of the hill. Below is a handful of tips that have resulted in the demise of many a big bull for hunters I’ve taken into the woods.
BEAT THE BUSHES
Flashes of ivory-tipped tines tantalized our imagination as the impressive bull dogged a cow in the vibrant-yellow aspen grove 150 yards across the grassy meadow. Despite my sleaziest, hot-cow calling efforts, the bull would not leave its estrus-stricken harem. With no cover between us and the bull, the only option was to get desperate. While my hunter stayed tucked on the edge of the clearing, I slipped 50 yards back into the pocket of aspens to create some chaos. I found a baseball-bat-sized limb and proceeded to terrorize a tree with everything I had. A guttural bugle tore across the meadow as the now extremely agitated bull made its way into the arena looking for a fight. One other bout with the poor tree and I heard the whisper of the string followed immediately by the unmistakable THWACK! of my client’s arrow punching through the bull. I rushed down to my hunter just in time to see the bull tip over in a cloud of dust not 100 yards from where we were standing. Wide-eyed, we just stood there and shook our heads, soaking in the incredible events that had just transpired.
When a bull rakes a tree it is asserting its dominance. Oftentimes, a herd bull that is hung up will not allow its rank to be tested and will come looking for a tussle when it hears the commotion of another bull in its domain. There is no secret to this technique other than grab a limb and go to town impersonating a bull raking a tree as best you can.
One of the most common mistakes that archery elk hunters make is over-calling. There are times when you can catch a bull in the mood and get away with harping on it, but more often than not, less is more in terms of calling. Also, keep in mind that an elk’s ability to pinpoint your location based on your vocalizations is uncanny. If you call at a bull and it is within two or three hundred yards of your position, it could probably walk right to the tree you are standing under without another call being made. Going silent is the perfect way to take advantage of this ability.
Biologically speaking, a herd bull bugles to let cows know where it is, and the cows typically go to it. This is why it is so common for a bull to respond to your calls, but never close the distance. Once you get it fired up with a few of your dirtiest cow mews, go silent. If the herd bull is interested, it will continue to bugle in hopes that its wayward lover will come looking for it. When the cow ghosts it, that bull will oftentimes let ego get the best of him and come looking for her at the last known location. Play it right, and you’ll be there waiting for a shot.
Ripping a challenge bugle to entice a bull to come investigate sounds easy enough, but there is some method to the madness. The key to making this tactic work is to get close. Get within a hundred yards or less of the herd bull and let out the gnarliest challenge bugle you can muster. Once you do, get ready. A challenge bugle inside close quarters incites a fight or flight reaction. In the peak of the rut, hormones are raging and more often than not, that bull will come in crazy-eyed and looking to kick some tail.
There are two big mistakes hunters make when bugling. The first is busting the herd when attempting to get in close. Obviously, keep the wind in your face, but keep in mind that it’s the straggling cows that will bust the gig. Approach the herd at a snail’s pace and with your head on a swivel. The second mistake is not getting close enough before letting out your bugle. In areas with a high bull-to-cow ratio, that herd bull is running itself ragged trying to keep its harem of cows. If you let out a dominant bugle before getting inside its comfort zone, there is a good chance that bull will round up its cows and get as far away from that bugle as possible.
After trailing the herd bull and its harem up one side of the mountain and down the other for several hours, I was ready to give up. I had thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it with absolutely zero interest paid to me from the love-stricken bull. Finally, as the shadows shortened and the temps began to rise, the bull made a fatal mistake. It bedded on the backside of a ridge in a sparse pocket of aspens with its dozen or so cows bedded below it. My archery mule deer hunting instincts kicked in and a plan to slip within archery range of the sleeping bull was formulated. My client gave me a funny look when I told him what I was scheming, but skeptically agreed to give it a go. Fast forward an hour or so and we were situated 27 yards above the oblivious bull. We were so close we could hear its labored panting from the September heat. At one point, the bull even put its head on the ground and passed out for close to an hour before one of its cows finally stood up for a mid-day snack. The bull followed suit. A second later, a perfectly placed arrow sliced through both lungs and out the other side. I will never forget my client’s response, “I can’t believe that just worked!”
This is not a tactic that works in every situation, but it is one that you should have in your bag of tricks and not be afraid to pull out when the opportunity arises. Keep the wind at your face, approach with a high degree of caution, and make the most of the opportunity that is given. My one tidbit of caution: don’t push it. If the bull is bedded in the middle of its cows or in a thicket that will be difficult to squeeze an arrow through, just wait and try again in the afternoon. Everybody dreams of a hard-charging bull coming into the calls, but the reality is this is often not the case. Whether you sneak in on the unsuspecting bull or call it in, the result of a dead bull and a freezer full of meat is the same.
WAIT AT THE WATER
This tactic seems blatantly obvious, but hear me out. Personally, I struggle sitting over water or in a blind for any amount of time. My A.D.D. tends to get the best of me and I have to get up and move. However, I have seen many bulls killed by spending the midday lull tucked under the cool shade of a pine bough within striking distance of an active wallow or pond. The easy thing to do is head back to camp, take a siesta, and enjoy a nice lunch from the comforts of your reclining camp chair. If you need the mental break then fine, go do that. But during the heat of September, elk will regularly get up in the middle of the day and slurp up a refreshing belly full of water. Take advantage of this biological need by spending your afternoons relaxed in the shade of nearby tree munching on your favorite mountain snacks. Don’t even be afraid to lay down and take a nap, chances are you could use a little shuteye after a long morning. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by staying in the field. Waking up to the splashing sound of a bull wallowing below you is sure to spike the adrenaline meter.
No two bulls are the same, and what works on one may not work on the next. It is this fact that necessitates having a bag full of tricks to close the gap on a mature herd bull. Like most things, elk hunting has a steep learning curve to it. You are going to mess up, blow opportunities and foil even the best-laid plans. But, when it all comes together and you send a broadhead through the airbags of a fired-up bull, there will be few hunting experiences that can top it.
The sights and sounds of the elk rut in September is one of the most incredible phenomena that Mother Nature stirs up each year. It is no wonder that thousands of eager hunters gear up and trek into the elk woods with hopes of witnessing a screaming bull. Keep a few, or all, of these tactics in your skill-set repertoire and employ them next time that elusive herd bull hangs up just out of range. You never know what might flip its trigger and bring it within range of your arrow.