Hunting bugling elk is my favorite hunt in North America, hands down. I love early fall in the mountains, the bugling of elk, and that interaction of calling to these magnificent creatures. Today’s elk populations are high, and success rates in good areas are strong. But to take the dominant herd bull out of a group of elk, especially a large group, is no easy task. Over the years, I have hunted with many long-time elk hunters, and there are two unorthodox methods that seem to work on a fairly consistent basis.
Elk in herds are tough. There are a lot of noses, ears and eyes to contend with, and it seems that the herd bull usually stays in the middle of the group. He is sort of insulated, and without shooting him with a rifle at long range (most places rifle hunting isn’t allowed during rut), it is tough to get inside the herd.
I have hunted the Jicarilla Apache reservation in northern New Mexico many times and have been able to learn a lot from some of the guides there. You can hunt the bugle season with your choice of weapons on the Jicarilla, but we have never sat back and sniped bulls at long distance. I like getting in close whether with bow, muzzleloader or rifle.
One outside-the-box tactic that my good friend Larson Panzy has used with success over the years along with some of the other Jic guides I know is what we call “bump and run.” We get in as close as possible to a herd, look over all the bulls we can, and if we don’t see a bull we think is the boss or big enough to shoot, we just bump right into the elk. They take off, but as they scatter, the bulls bugle a lot to keep in contact with all the other elk. We keep the wind right and maneuver around and try to get a look at all the bulls in a given group.
Of course it doesn’t always work, but many times it does, especially in big groups of elk of 50-100. Most of the herd won’t know what spooked a few individuals, as those herds are chaotic anyway. There are always lesser bulls running wild and disturbing other elk, so it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem.
On one hunt, we started at the bottom of a mountain at daylight. We moved in, looked over three to four bulls, bumped the herd, followed them up, looked, bumped, looked and bumped. Finally after three hours and about the same amount of miles, we found a beautiful heavy 6×6 that was the dominant bull, and I was able to take him at a mere 50 yards with my TC .300 Pro Hunter Encore. The 180-grain Winchester Accubond took his heart out, and he only went 25 yards before piling up.
When bowhunting, you obviously have to get very close, and that can be a tough thing when dealing with herds. You can call in numbers of satellite bulls by traditional means, but to get that big dominant herd bull out of the group, it can be almost impossible.
Last September I hunted southeast Wyoming with my good friends at Table Mt Outfitters. My guide was long-time friend Doug Stultz, and he told me about a huge nontypical bull that he called Sword. He had been after the bull for two years, and it was the herd bull of a group of 120 plus elk.
Once I saw Sword, I wanted to hunt him solely, so we began a game of cat and mouse. Doug told me his favorite tactic on a bull like this was to stay quiet, watch the elk as much as possible, and slowly move in and try to get close to the herd only when the wind was right and conditions were favorable.
On day three of our hunt we saw the huge herd moving up a mountain from the lower feeding grounds, and we got in front of them. We approached a small clearing in the brush, and though we were in shooting range of many bulls, Sword was always 60 to 70 yards away. Finally the wind shifted and the herd blew out.
We had the same scenario a few other times. We would silently work our way into the herd or in front of them. I would have shots at nice bulls, but Sword was always about 10 yards farther than I was comfortable shooting. Finally late on day five, the herd began moving down from a ridge where they had bedded all day. We ran 400 yards to get in front of them and tucked in some buckbrush on a hillside.
Many cows and bulls moved past at ranges from 25 to 70 paces, and we could hear Sword off about 100 yards. Doug never called as he felt sure that would give us away, and we waited in silence. Finally after five tense minutes, I saw Sword moving in line with where some cows had passed at 35 yards.
I drew my bow, he stepped into a small clear spot, and I sent a Carbon Express Maxima Hunter into his lungs at 300 feet per second. The herd tore across the canyon, but we were able to see Sword lie down and take his last breath.
Most hunters would have tried to call and challenge that big bull, but we used patience and persistence to infiltrate the herd and stalk our way to a quality shot. The hunt was just as exciting as calling him in as there was plenty of natural bugling, cow calling and fighting, we just didn’t participate in the calling, and it allowed us a close approach.
These are two vastly different approaches to killing a herd bull, but though both are very much out of the norm, they will work in given situations. As with many types of hunting, I believe that trying something different, as long as you think your tactic through, can often tip the scales in your favor, and I know this sort of thing has helped me take many trophy bull elk.