The elk I hunt are wild. They've been called, chased, called and chased some more. They tiptoe across the public land they live on like bank robbers on the lam.
So I wasn't surprised when the morning began dead quiet, without bugles and grunts so common on private elk-hunting preserves. I knew the area, and I started sneaking upward through meadows and jackstraw timber. High on the mountain, I hit pay dirt.
The bull grunted only once, the deep growl of a dominant male tending cows. But once was enough. I beelined for a wallow complex a half-mile away, circled downwind ... and nearly blew the whole gig. A raghorn 5x5 bull came squirting through the timber, and I crouched in the nick of time to avoid being seen. The juvenile bull trotted past me barely 5 yards away, made a left turn and lunged into a cut. I could hear other elk snapping twigs nearby. Seconds later, a colossal bull flashed through an open spot 100 yards below.
I eased downhill with eyes and ears honed for animals. There were elk everywhere. Soon, I was pinned with three cows 30 yards to my left and four more 20 yards below. They were drifting slowly upwind, and after 10 insufferable minutes they finally disappeared.
Almost instantly the bull grunted again, at least 400 yards away. It was midmorning, the sun was getting warm and the elk were hustling toward bedding grounds. I did some hustling of my own—a flat-out lope for 250 yards—and finally caught the herd.
They were milling in a shallow draw just below me, vague flashes of brown and tan between the trees. Two minutes later, without another glimpse of the giant bull, I watched the herd move quickly across a prominent ridge. It was the last I saw of them that day.
This was typical stop-and-go elk behavior. Pause for a few minutes, move forward a few hundred yards at a pace faster than any hunter can walk, linger briefly again, then race closer to secure bedding cover.
Such antics are common during the rut. Bulls pause to posture and fight, and cows grab the opportunity to fill their faces with food.
Meanwhile, the hunter in pursuit of the herd feels like a yo-yo on a string.
Elk-calling mythology says the ideal time to call in bulls is during one of these pauses. You catch the herd, bugle and grunt like a rival male and then hang onto your hat. The dominant male calls back and charges, or strides in silently to kick your butt. A little tree raking or cow calling helps to entice the herdmaster even closer.
On truly hard-hunted modern elk, however, I've seldom seen it unfold this way. More typically, the herd bull gathers his cows and moves away in yet another stop-and-go maneuver. If you catch up and call again, you'll witness the retreating process all over.
Perhaps a decent satellite bull will respond, but almost never a true trophy animal. That's why so many elk called in on hunting videos are mediocre in size—they're young. The big bulls suckered on these tapes don't live on public land. They're shot on lightly hunted private land or preserves.
I've called in and shot more than a dozen bull elk, mostly in my younger years, but none were whoppers. Most were 41/2 years old or younger, without the survival wisdom of their elders.
A couple made the record books, but try as I might, I've never called a bull scoring more than 350 Pope and Young Club points to my bow.
My theory on this is simple: Most hard-hunted elk with magnum antlers are 61/2 to 101/2 years old. They associate bugling and grunting with slamming car doors and strong human scent. They probably recognize the voice of every other real elk in their area, the same as you recognize the voices of your friends on the telephone.
And these call-shy bulls certainly know a phony bugle when they hear it.
I've honed my elk-hunting skills in difficult places like Montana's Missouri River Breaks and Colorado's Flattops Primitive Area. A typical mature bull is nearly silent during daylight hours, because calling causes him grief. Bowhunters appear from all sides, tooting on their calls and converging with high hopes of success. The bull runs away, prodding his harem in front of him, even spookier than before.
In my experience, the beginning bowhunter hangs back and keeps trying to call. The intermediate archer tends to be more aggressive, following the stop-and-go pattern of the herd and calling within a hundred yards or so each time the animals pause to spar and feed.
But I submit to you that a truly skillful bowhunter is better off not calling at all. He sneaks around the flanks of the herd like a coyote, biding his time until the dominant bull moves into range. This might take hours, days or weeks, but it usually happens. Mature bulls are more vulnerable when you aren't trumpeting your whereabouts with bogus bugles and grunts.
Locating and then stalking elk isn't easy. I believe in bugling from a distance to pinpoint bulls because they commonly call back. The key is identifying the deep, gruff voice of a dominant bull, then shutting up and beelining ahead without notions of actually calling him in.
When bulls don't respond to distant bugling, the next step is moving cross-country, keeping your eyes peeled for animals. I spend half my elk-hunting time with binoculars glued to my eyes, peering ahead through thick timber or glassing distant meadows or sparsely timbered slopes. This is how I located my current P&Y world record elk during 2000, and how I've located most of my other 16 record-book elk.
The bull mentioned at the start of this story gave me the slip for 12 straight days. Part of the problem was that elk's tendency to push his cows into the wind. On the handful of days when I located the large 6x7 in his heavily timbered habitat, I could never get ahead of him without being smelled. Large bulls like to push their cows where they can keep track of them and rival bulls by scent. This means you have to slip in from the rear or sides of the herd.
That's easier said than done as 15 to 30 animals will easily cover multiple miles of rough terrain as they travel between feeding and bedding locales. If you aren't in reasonably good physical condition, you can forget about stalking rut-crazy elk. All but two of my biggest elk have been shot during the morning.
Evening elk are less active, milling near remote bedding zones until dusk. By comparison, elk tend to linger on feeding grounds until daylight, giving you ample opportunity to locate them before they head back to bed. The first two morning hours are ideal for stalking the stop-and-go herd.
A serious spot-and-stalk bowhunter's accessories need not be elaborate. Two things you must have, however, are a laser rangefinder and high-quality binoculars. Elk appear to be farther away than they really are in thick cover, so a rangefinder helps you from mistaking the distance and shooting too high.
Staying downwind of elk is crucial to your bowhunting success; one whiff of your scent and they're gone for the day. For that reason I carry a butane cigarette lighter to test the wind.
The flame bends with the slightest breeze. A squeeze bottle of talcum, foot powder or ashes also work well.
My favorite elk camouflage includes Advantage Timber, Realtree X-tra Gray and Realtree Hardwoods HD.
Elk habitat varies a lot in coloration, so X-tra Gray or Advantage might be best in semi-wooded, yellow-grass areas.
I've found Hardwoods to be a better choice in darker forest settings.
Stalking elk requires durable, comfortable and very quiet footwear. Forget Vibram-type lug soles because they sound like a D-8 Caterpillar moving through the woods. Gum rubber or soft neoprene soles are better to fool the dozens of ears in the average elk herd. If you can't press your thumb 1/16-inch into the sole of your boot, it's too hard to flex properly with underfoot debris.
Fortunately for hunters, elk habitat is always wooded with plenty of breaks in terrain. According to one study by the Oregon Game and Fish Department, the average elk in that hard-hunted state seldom strays more than 30 yards from dense brush or trees. This gives a good foot-hunter the chance to sneak along without being easily seen.
LUCKY NUMBER 13
On the 13th day of my hunt for the quiet-mouthed 6x7 bull, he grunted just once after daylight. I knew his voice at this point, so I dogtrotted uphill in the half-light and hooked crosswind to intersect the herd.
Twice during the next hour, I was pinned by cows or small satellite bulls. The big boy came close the second time, his wheezy half-grunts barely audible from 30 or 40 yards away. But then he pressed his cows uphill in a quick rush, and before I knew it the herd was a half-mile away.
Just past 9 a.m., I dropped into a narrow cut and flanked the herd one last time. A cow poked her homely snout into the bush less than 15 yards to my right, and a spike bull pranced nervously across the steep slope dead ahead.
And then it happened: Long, polished antler tines appeared above the lip of the ravine, 30 yards crosswind and right behind the cow. I leaned against a tree, nocked an arrow and peeked through low-growing limbs. My heart was suddenly in my throat.
The bull's rack glittered in the morning sun, and his massive body appeared between tight-growing aspen trunks. He was circling to haze the cow with her head in the bush. It was his last rutting act. The Easton 2317 Super Slam arrow sped between the aspens and took the bull through both lungs. He wheeled, stumbled and vainly staggered uphill. Soon, I was wrapping my hands around the 10-inch girth of his antler bases. He was a giant—scoring more than 370 P&Y points.
If you want a genuine trophy like my 71/2-year-old bull, spot-and-stalk hunting is the way to go. If you decide to call instead, that's fine too, because you'll leave more big bulls for me!