Why Timing Your Draw Is Key to a Successful Elk Hunt
July 24, 2013
I don't remember when my dad and I started building Colorado elk points. Doing the backwards math, we had to have started in 1995. I think we just started building points so we could draw one of those "really good units" one day. I doubt we even knew where the "really good units" were.
After more than a decade of building points, it dawned on us that we must be getting close to enough points, so we started doing some research. We listed the most difficult units to draw and settled our focus on Unit 201 in the extreme northwest corner of the state. This unit was mostly public land and was relatively small, so it would be easier to learn and scout.
In 2009, my oldest son, Austin, drew a Unit 201 cow elk tag for the rifle season. After a summer scouting trip, Austin and I returned that fall and it didn't take Austin long to down his first elk. It was an awesome father-son experience, and a perfect way to get acquainted with the unit.
As quickly as the early years of building points flew by, the last couple years seemed to drag on. Finally, in 2012, it was our time to draw. Now, in a perfect world, after waiting 18 years, Dad and I would hunt the entire season. However, we both had responsibilities that would limit our time, so we needed to choose our window wisely. We could dedicate two weeks to the hunt and decided to make it the final two weeks of the season.
Dad and I arrived in Unit 201 on the evening of Sept. 9. After a good night's sleep, we put the final touches on a comfortable base camp and took time to shoot our bows. Once we had everything ready, we headed out for an area my trip with Austin told me would likely hold bulls.
The elk threw us a curveball right out of the gate. I was certain the portion of the unit I knew held most of the cows would be swarming with anxious bulls. I was wrong. The rut was virtually nonexistent. We covered lots of country and found plenty of cows, but we never heard a single bugle.
Later that night, we broke out our maps and I showed Dad where I'd found bachelor groups of bulls during my scouting trip a few years earlier. The south end of Unit 201 consists of a cedar-covered mountain that rises from the Green River to a sage plateau and spans the length of the unit from east to west. Scattered along the mountain's south face is a series of old burns that provide fantastic grazing. Accessing the burns is difficult, but I was confident that if the bulls were still in bachelor groups, we might find them there.
The next day we located a few observation points that allowed us to glass into the burns. At first glance they seem wide open, as if nothing could possibly hide in there, especially something the size of a bull elk, but they can harbor elk. We saw nothing that day, and I began to get discouraged. Then, as the afternoon temperatures cooled, I glanced through the skeletal remains of the trees and right below us was a bull! He wasn't a big bull, but it was a bull nonetheless, and he seemingly appeared from out of nowhere. But that's what happens in burns — they often seem empty, even when they aren't. As the light faded that evening, we spotted several more bachelor groups feeding.
After locating those bulls, it was game on. Although they were still in bachelor groups, we knew they should be splitting up at any time, and this is when I believe big, mature bulls are most vulnerable. Once mature bulls are "cowed-up," calling them in becomes much more difficult. The last thing they want is to leave their ladies, and convincing them to do so requires a unique set of circumstances. Instead, if you catch them just as they are leaving the "boy's club" to look for the ladies, they will often come in screaming just like young, reckless satellite bulls.
It turns out our timing was perfect, and the next day provided a couple of exciting encounters. Late that evening, as the light was fading, we located a particularly responsive bull that covered a lot of ground coming to our calls. By the time we finally laid eyes on him it was too dark to shoot, so we opted to back out as quietly as possible. We saw enough of him to know we definitely wanted to come back after him the next day.
The following morning, we raced down the plateau to the edge of the burn where we had the encounter the night before. When Dad let out the first bugle, we got an immediate answer from not far below. After instructing me to find a good position, Dad slipped back up the ridge behind me to set up and call.
I chose to stand with my backside tucked into a cedar tree at the edge of a small opening. As soon as Dad began his first cow-calling sequence, I knew the bull was going to come. He must have bugled a dozen times as he closed in on my position from below. There were virtually no cows in that area, and this old guy was certain he had just found one.
One of the most difficult aspects of calling bulls during the rut is finding just the right moment to draw your bow. When bulls come to a call, they are typically on red alert, looking for the slightest movement. I've learned the best strategy is to come to full draw well before the bull gets close, with the intention of holding for an extended period of time until he moves into an open lane. Be aware, this technique can backfire, because bulls often hang up. If that happens and you have to let down, it usually results in a blown opportunity. However, if you build endurance with plenty of preseason practice, you will find the adrenaline that comes with having a bull elk at close range may help you hold until the shot comes.
I timed my draw perfectly, pulling back as soon as I caught the first glimpse of antlers moving through the trees. Seconds later, the big bull appeared head-on at 35 yards. He paused just after coming into full view, laid his head back, and nearly blew my hat off my head with a thunderous scream. With adrenaline surging through my veins, I pivoted at the waist, keeping my shaking arrow pointed at his vitals as he closed to my right. At 15 yards, I settled my top pin behind his shoulder and watched my fletching disappear. Moments later as Dad and I knelt over the beautiful six-point bull I had waited 18 years to hunt, I didn't even care what he scored. This hunt was already everything I had hoped it would be.
A couple of days later, Dad and I returned to the same general area and we found one of the biggest bulls either of us had ever seen. I won't guess what he would have scored, but suffice it to say, he was a monster. We spotted him just before dark as he was emerging from a deep drainage. Water in this portion of Unit 201 is scarce, but the monster bull we now had in our spotting scope was caked with mud that had yet to dry. We thought about trying to close the gap, but he was simply too far away to reach before nightfall. He was alone, which made him vulnerable, so we planned to return in the morning.
We spent the next few days in relentless pursuit of the monster bull. We discovered the secluded water source he had been visiting, and tried desperately to ambush him there. It was a popular spot, and Dad passed on bulls that I never imagined he would. When that didn't work, we tried calling our way through every bedding area within the vicinity, again resulting in some great encounters, but we never managed to locate the monster. For all we knew, he could have ventured miles away in search of cows. Still, knowing that a bull of that caliber was in the area, we felt compelled to spend as much time as possible trying to relocate him.
When we awoke with two days left to hunt, Dad finally declared that he wasn't holding out any longer. "Today," he said, "I'm killing the first decent bull that comes within range!" It was time to draw.
We headed into an area we hadn't visited since the beginning of our hunt. As Dad gathered his gear, I walked to an overlook and decided to give one quick locating call. When I did, a bull erupted with an angry response from right below me! I bolted back toward Dad, who was now rushing for cover. Once we were in the trees, we circled to maximize the wind and got set up. Looking over his shoulder in my direction, Dad motioned for me to start calling, and once again the bull answered angrily. I have seldom encountered a bull that answered my calls so aggressively. This one was hot!
The bull quickly committed, and before long Dad could see tines coming through the brush below. He contemplated drawing, but the brush was so thick he felt certain he could wait until the bull was closer. He was wrong. The bull headed right at him and never changed course. Before he knew it, the bull was literally right on top of him! Finally, at not much more than two yards, the bull caught a whiff of human odor and exploded through the brush.
Again, success often comes down to the timing of your draw. If you miss the initial opportunity, you may never get another one. This was one of the most incredible encounters Dad and I have ever had in elk country, and it was the most memorable moment of the hunt.
Later that afternoon, we walked right into a very fortuitous situation. As we entered a stand of aspens, Dad was walking ahead of me when he spotted a nice bull raking a small sapling. Dad pointed him out and signaled me to hurry and drop back. With the shaking tree in plain sight, and the bull close enough to pinpoint my calling, I pulled the Montana Cow Elk Rump Decoy off my pack, deployed it, and gave one gentle cow call. My plan was for the decoy to convince the bull there actually was a cow standing there.
When the bull looked up, I slowly moved the elk rump between two trees, and it worked. Without making a sound, he turned and started heading in my direction. Dad drew at his first opportunity and held as the bull closed in, slowly following his progress through the pin guard. When the shot came, he released, and moments later we were celebrating over our second fantastic bull.
Dad and I were thrilled with our success, but what made our trip truly special were all the great elk encounters. Seeing that monster bull was a real blessing, because it caused Dad to hold off on bulls he might otherwise have shot. That allowed us to experience more awesome encounters than we ever bargained for, including the bull that got too close. In the end, deciding not to draw until the last minute turned out to be perfect timing.
Author's Notes: My equipment included a 70-lb. Hoyt Carbon Matrix, Easton FMJ arrows, Rage broadheads, Bohning Blazer Vanes, Spot-Hogg sight, Scott Silverhorn release, Cabela's Microtex clothing in Outfitter Camo, Kenetrek boots, Badlands 2200 backpack, Garmin Rino GPS with maps from HuntingGPSMaps.com, and a Montana Decoy.
I'd like to thank cameraman Mike Malley for working hard to document this hunt for Bowhunter TV, but I have to give special thanks to my dad, Andy Farris, who I've been following through the elk woods for 30 years now. Without him, I wouldn't be doing any of this. Thanks for always being there for me, Dad.
Catch back-to-back Bowhunter TV episodes of Danny Farris' 2012 Colorado elk hunt with his dad Friday, June 13 at 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. EST as a part of Full Draw Friday on The Sportsman Channel, then tune into a new episode of Bowhunter TV at 8 p.m. EST.