This past season I didn’t hear a bull bugle until the 16th of September. On that day two bulls responded, but I botched both opportunities. In one case I setup too slowly and in the other I proceeded too quickly. While every hunt is unique, there are a few variables that you should keep in mind whenever you get a response. The following blog explains why the approaches I chose failed to produce a shot and what would have been a better option.
(7:30 a.m.) I cow called several times before crossing the small bench. As I reached a clearing I heard a weak bugle from above me. The bull sounded as though he was bedded and attempting to call me up the hill towards him. Kneeling, I marked my location on the GPS and dropped my pack. I took my time as I felt confident the bull could not see me. But, as I entered into thicker cover, I heard the bull run away from me and out of my life. Imagine the feeling when your line snaps on a big bass, now imagine that instead it’s a 700 pound elk you’ve been chasing for three weeks :-(.
The bull likely heard the cow calls and, when combined with the sound of my footsteps, believed that another elk was in the area. He felt comfortable approaching from above me as to check. Despite his lazy bugle and grunts it was still early in the morning, and he probably had only recently bedded or was not been bedded at all. I would have been much better off getting to cover immediately before dropping my pack. Then, I could have called a second time to pinpoint the bull’s location. Next, I would have chosen between either getting on his level to challenge him as another bull, or, if he did stay in the same place, I would have continued the cow-ploy and got him to start raking as I charged in for the shot.
An hour later (8:30 a.m.) I let out a bugle, which was immediately met with a response from below me. The wind had switched at this point and was carrying my scent uphill, away from the bull. I dropped down the hill a hundred yards and setup in a thick grove of pines. I let out a cow call and cut off the bull’s response with a bugle of my own. As I raked the tree in front of me I could hear the bull crashing through the brush below and expected him to emerge at any moment. Instead, the bull hung up. I kept raking, but the bull did not appear to be moving. To avoid letting the bull lose interest or become wary, I decided to stalk around the small pines in front of me and call again. As I stepped over a downed tree I looked up and watched a spike bull tear off through the forest 60 yards away.
I should have either decided to reach his level and challenge him with a bugle, or cow called and dropped in silently from above to shoot him in his bed. Instead, I merged the strategies by challenging him from above. I don’t believe elk want to come uphill toward another bull as that would put them at a disadvantage from the start. It’s much better to call bulls horizontally. The thick cover I called from also didn’t do me any favors. The bull hung up at 60 yards, a makable shot, but I set up without shooting lanes out to that distance. I have repeatedly had bulls hang up at around 70 yards. If you make soft calf or cow calls they will often linger long enough to let you stalk to 50. Set up so that you have shooting lanes out to your maximum distance. Lastly, I should have built up the bull’s confidence before cutting him off. If I added several eager cow calls after his initial bugle, he likely would have elevated his intensity and been less wary of the situation. When you’re adrenaline is pumping you will feel impatient and nervous that the longer you wait the greater the chances you will mess up. Instead, take your time to set the scene, understand the bull’s mood and select the best approach.
Though a hunt like this can leave you feeling like you just blew your only opportunity of the season, you can learn a lot. We always say, “you have to do a lot right to miss a buck.” And, I think that’s especially true with elk hunting. You have to wake up early enough, hunt in the right area and control the wind just to have a bull escape for a different reason. Focus on what you did right in the moment and try not to make the same mistake twice.