In 1958 Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster starred in a WWII movie titled, “Run Silent, Run Deep,” a story about a U.S. sub commander who was sank by the Japanese. After working a desk job for a year, he was finally given a chance to skipper another sub. His single-minded determination for revenge against the destroyer that sank his previous vessel put his new crew in unnecessary danger. It’s a heckuva film and I’ve seen it several times. It also has become my mantra for bowhunting mature bull elk on public land during the New Millennium. Here’s what I mean.
When I watched a grizzled old Montana guide named Gerald Ritchie call in the first mature bull elk I ever killed, elk hunting was very much different from today. It was the late 1970s, and throughout the Rocky Mountain West elk numbers were high, but not as high as they are today. And while elk hunting was a popular sport, seeking out monster mule deer bucks was considered the crème de la crème of Western big game hunting.
Of course today that’s all changed. While elk numbers are at an all-time high, so is the demand for the best tags, which are issued via a lottery system, and drawing one often requires several preference points. There’s also much more information about how to successfully hunt elk readily available in print, on DVDs and on television. All this has created a lot of elk hunting pressure, especially on public land.
Because many elk hunters are not highly skilled or experienced, they make a lot of mistakes. This educates those bulls (and the older herd cows that really run the show) that escape to live another year. When they get to be 4 years of age or older, these elk have graduate degrees in Hunter Avoidance and are really tough to kill, especially with a bow.
Back To The Basics
Mature bulls have heard all sorts of crummy bugling and they either hightail it to the next drainage or simply shut up when they hear it. With the proliferation of so many easy-to-use reed-type cow calls, every hunter and his brother are cruising the timber squeaking like a love-sick cow. And while this isn’t as bad as over-bugling, too much of a good thing can again turn the elk off or send them packing. And here’s the other thing: Oftentimes bowhunting seasons coincide with that period of the rut when mature bulls have already gathered up a harem of cows. Bugle at them and their first instinct is not to come and fight, but to herd their cows off to a place safe from competition.
To combat all these factors, many of the finest bowhunters I know have changed their tactics. Instead of charging into the woods and announcing their intentions to God and all His creatures with lots of random calling, they’ve adopted the tactics of a submarine commander. Their mantra is “Run Silent, Run Deep.” They know that every time they call, they’re like the submariner who sends out a ping with his sonar unit. That ping might elicit the desired response—an elk calling back—but it also lets the elk not only know someone’s out there, but also exactly where that someone is.
Their hunting tactics are really a back-to-basics approach. The key is to first locate the elk. They do this by covering a lot of ground and glassing and/or looking for fresh sign (wallows, rubs, droppings, tracks, etc.), only occasionally bugling or cow calling. When they locate the elk—and during the bow seasons, when you find a gaggle of cows, you can bet there’ll be a decent bull with them or close by—they use their knowledge of the topography, factor in the weather, wind direction and pressure from other hunters, and then try to determine where the elk are bedding and feeding. Using this information, they set up an ambush to catch the elk as they move between these two points.
Often, they locate the elk in the morning and then silently shadow the herd, looking for an opening when they can slip in on cat’s feet and take a shot. When they get in tight and everything is right, they might do some calling to try to either stop a bull or get him to come a short distance to where a shot can be taken. If things aren’t right, they simply back off and come back the next day. If this sounds a lot like the aforementioned submarine commander shadowing a convoy of merchant ships, that’s because it is.
Shadowing The Herd
One technique I’ve had a fair amount of success with is shadowing the herd, trying my best to get in front of them as they head back to their bedding areas in the morning. If I can’t get into position for a shot, I’ll simply back off several hundred yards from where they bed for the day and wait. I’ll nap and relax, always looking and listening and constantly testing the wind to avoid being busted. Then in late afternoon, just before the elk get up to move for their evening feeding session, I’ll move in much closer. Often the bull will bugle right from his bed. If I hear him, I try to go get him, remaining silent as I sneak in.
I killed a big 6x6 bull near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a few Septembers back just this way. I heard the bull bugle in his bed about 4 p.m. and, removing my boots so I could close in as quiet as a church mouse, slid up and over a small ridge using a wide elk trail to avoid stepping on crackly brush or twigs and glassing every couple of steps into the thick brush ahead. I spotted the antler tines of a bedded bull, slid in to 40 yards, knelt down and waited. A few minutes later the bull stood up, I squeaked one time on a cow call and he came 10 steps closer to check me out. What he got was a torpedo to the ribs.
“Run Silent, Run Deep.” It takes stamina, patience and, above all else, persistence and a never-give-up attitude to make it work. On public land, however, where educated elk thrive, it’s a superb way to get a close-range bow shot at a dandy bull.