When the bulls are rut-tired and wary, you'd better switch to these special tactics.
IT WAS MY LAST DAY of bowhunting, and my good friend Randy Trucano was guiding me in the Powder River Breaks. We were watching a herd of 25 elk retreat to the top of a densely wooded series of ridges to escape the October heat. It was the first week of October and the bulls were bugling, but they were wearing down from the rut and didn't seem to want any confrontation. We could find elk, but getting a bull within bow range proved to be more of a marathon race than a stalk.
Photo by Mark Kayser
"We'll never catch them now," Randy said. "They're nearly a mile away and heading to rough country. I think we're better off just letting them bed. We'll try to ambush them at dark."
I nodded in agreement, too tired to speak. We'd been dogging the herd since sunrise, logging countless miles with only one close encounter to our credit. The herd had stopped to feed on a steep mountainside, allowing us to sneak into their midst. While Randy stayed back, I crawled within 40 yards of a group of feeding cows. On cue, my guide squealed like a young bull infiltrating the herd.
We did not expect what happened next. Instead of rushing in to whip the young intruder, the bull rounded up his herd and drove them over the mountain. In the blink of an eye our close encounter ended with yet another marathon run to the top of a mountain. And that's where we sat watching the elk disappear in the distance.
POST-RUT ELK HUNTING requires a special approach. Randy Trucano and I both guide for Doug Gardner, co-owner of Powder River Outfitters based in Broadus, Montana. Even though I'm a licensed guide, my nonresident license requires me to hunt with a guide, and Randy had offered to help out. Every day we'd been in the presence of elk, and not just ordinary elk either. Randy and I had seen elk we estimated at more than 375 Pope and Young inches, and Doug Gardner and my good friend Gregg Gutschow had seen a 390-class bull on an adjacent property.
But with standard calling tactics we couldn't buy a shot at one of these bulls. The bulls were boisterous enough, but they were not responsive to our calling. And that's pretty common in October.
Why? Quite simply, the bulls are beat. Prerut activities begin in late August, and they continue full force through the entire month of September. By the time October arrives, bulls are still interested in finding hot cows, but they're less likely to be confrontational. By then, most breeding bulls have lost a lot of weight and much of their stamina.
Tired bulls simply don't want to fight. In fact, some bulls begin wandering to look for cows, often yielding ownership of their herds to satellite bulls that were only minor pests earlier in the rut. During several years of bowhunting in October, I've actually seen a number of dominant bulls without harems or with only a couple of cows. At the same time, I've seen several younger bulls, satellite bulls, commanding 20 or more cows.
In semi-open country like this, even if October bulls are not vocal you can keep track of them by glassing. Find a good vantage point, and plan to spend long hours behind high-quality optics.
So after a few days of hearing bulls but failing to pull any within bow range with standard calling tactics, Randy and I decided to try ambush tactics. Since the bulls were still talking, we let them chatter. But instead of blinding in and trying to call them to us, we hustled over to them in hopes of a pointblank meeting.
AN AMBUSH-STYLE APPROACH calls for several prerequisites. A herd of elk seemingly can cover a mile in less time than it takes to read this paragraph. And, traveling five miles between feeding and bedding areas hardly puts a sweat on an elk's brow. Thus, you must have some way to keep track of them. The most reliable way is to follow their bugling and mewing. But if the elk aren't talking regularly, you need to hunt semi-open country where you can keep track of them by eyesight. In that situation, quality optics -- 8X to 10X binoculars -- are essential. You'll be spending at least two to four hours a day glassing to locate and pattern a mobile herd.
Then you need to know the lay of the land and understand how elk are using that terrain. Elk tend to use all zones of the habitat niche they live in. Generally, they feed low or in basins; they bed high on ridges for security; and they travel on ridges, using saddles and gorges for shortcuts into new country. If you can gain some insight into their travel habits, you'll have a better chance of predicting where to ambush an elk herd.
Topographical maps provide quick information when you're trying to guess an elk herd's next move. Contour lines on a map often transform into telltale travel routes, because they clearly show any saddles, benches, and ledges elk may be using for travel and bedding security.
On a past October hunt chasing Powder River bulls, I had only three days to hunt, but the elk were being super-cooperative as they traveled the top of a narrow ridge each day. They accessed the ridge from various angles, sometimes coming up a steep, rocky face, other times coursing through a narrow canyon. But all their paths consistently led the elk to the summit of the ridge. Once they topped out there, they generally followed the ridge for a half-mile or so before diving off the side into the shade of a steep, forested slope.
On my last morning of hunting, my partner and I dogged them, catching glimpses of a massive herd bull of at least 360 inches. The hunt had all the ingredients for success, including a lackadaisical herd and a very vocal bull. As we edged close to the chuckling bull, I stopped to tighten all the straps on my backpack. At the same time, my partner slipped on ahead to look for the bull, and a wary cow caught his form. With one bark the entire herd followed the single cow out of the country. Even though the hunt ended without success, we discovered a well-used travel zone for a future hunt.
The final ingredient for a successful ambush is good physically fitness. If you can't run across a Wal-Mart parking lot without gasping for breath, don't try to dog elk at elevation. Sum-mertime is primetime to condition for an elk hunt, and to prepare for this kind of hunt you should be doing at least a half hour of aerobic exercise five times a week. Elk can outrun and outmaneuver hunters in great shape, so any hunter in condition to operate only a TV remote stands little chance for success. A good exercise routine includes walking with a loaded backpack, or jogging up and down hills. It pays to practice with your bow while you're short of breath as well. Few elk wait around and allow you to catch your breath for a rock-solid shot.
Sometimes bulls continue to bugle well until mid-October. When that's the case, use your ears to plan an ambush.
AFTER A SHORT SNOOZE, lunch, and a hydration session, Randy Trucano and I trekked back up the hill to see if we could find out where the herd had bedded for the afternoon and where they intended to feed. We both felt certain the elk would head to the basin where we'd intercepted them the previous morning.
"Elk below us," I whispered, grabbing Randy's jacket. We were paralleling a steep finger, looking into its depths as elk trekked below us.
"There's the bull," Randy whispered back. "Now that we know what finger they're coming down to feed, we need to get around them and cut them off at the mouth of the draw."
Randy and I took off jogging as we circled the draw, hoping to keep a few minutes ahead of the traveling herd. Upon reaching the mouth, we scanned it and felt certain we had beaten the elk. Randy motioned for me to take cover by a brushy cedar tree at the mouth of the draw. He figured the herd would appear right there.
And he was right on. Within 10 minutes cows and calves began filtering out from the mouth of the draw. Having ranged the terrain prior to their arrival, I knew that most of the animals would travel within 50 yards of my position. Every four to five minutes the bull screamed his dominance, and adrenaline rocked my body every time the bull bugled and chuckled. I rechecked my equipment and took deep breaths to quell the bull fever that was growing inside me with the bull's increasing volume.
At 80 yards the bull came into my view as he weaved through the pines. If he held course, he would pass within 40 yards of my hideout.
So far not a single cow or calf had looked my way. The bull bugled again before he swaggered into my shooting lane and stopped in perfect position for me to shoot. As I drew, the bull caught my movement and rolled his head to look, but it was too late. Hitting my anchor point, I released the arrow, and it reached the bull just as he realized his mistake.
After a marathon foot race, guide Randy Trucano (right) and I finally intercepted this Montana bull.
Randy led the tracking and reached the fallen bull first, but only by a second. Greeting me were more inches of antlers than I expected on the last day of the hunt. And this bull would easily fill my freezer and feed my family throughout the year.
Doug Gardner later caught up with us to assist in field dressing and quartering, but he soon called a stop to our project. Seems at the beginning of the season his 11-year-old son, Myles, had given him a king-sized Snickers bar to share with me when I arrowed a bull.
"I've been packing this for 5 weeks!" Doug said as he handed me the candy bar.
It was easy to see from the candy bar's flat appearance that it had seen more than a month of wear and tear from Doug's guiding exploits. And upon opening it I discovered the Snickers' rich milk chocolate had been transformed into chalky, cream-colored crumbs. At that moment, it didn't matter. I was starving and ready to celebrate my last-day bull. Thanks, Myles!
The author is an outdoor writer and guide from Pierre, South Dakota. Several of his stories have graced the pages of Bowhunter.
Powder River Outfitters; Doug Gardner/Ken Greslin; (406)
427-5721; (406) 436-2538; www.powder-river-outfitters.com
Maptrails; (970) 493-9500; www.maptrails.com
Mapcard Electronic Atlas; (651) 688-7665; www.mapcard.com