Bugeling Elk

I had a reader ask me today to write a story about a time when I went elk hunting.  I thought back over the many hunts that I have been on, and decided to write about this hunt.

Archery Elk Hunt in 1997

I hear the grouse scurrying off before me as I stumble up the mountain in the pre-dawn darkness.  My ears are intensely aware of every sound as I climb higher; I don’t want to surprise or be surprised by a mountain lion or a bear.  Yet, at the same time I try to be as quiet as I can in hopes that I may surprise a herd of elk.  It’s too soon to bugle, another fifteen minutes and I’ll let one go and see what answers.

It’s cold, the leaves under my boots are frosty and my breath is pouring clouds in front of me.  The silence is suddenly broken by the crash of tree limbs, something has detected me.  I freeze and listen.  Up the mountain to the left they go, I turn and see three cow elk running away from me.  I give a cow call and they stop.  They can’t see me, but they know something is not right.  They stand and watch.  Then the screaming of a monster bull awakens the entire valley and sends the cows running up the mountain.  I knew he was a big bull, so if I wanted his interest I had to sound like a challenger.  I gave the best bugle I think I’ve ever done, and I waited.

He screamed back at me with a long bugle followed by grunts, snorts, and stomping on the ground.  He was less than a hundred yards from me, straight up the mountain.  In a few minutes it would be light enough to shoot, but as the sun would rise, it would also carry my scent up the mountain with the warming air currents.

I picked up a tree branch and thrust it into a seven foot tall alder scrub, thrashing it in and out as a bull would with its antlers.  Then I gave another bugle.  He answered before I even finished my call, he was pissed, but he never came any closer.  I knew he had a harem with him, and he wasn’t going to come to my calls.  So I went up the mountain as fast as I could in the tall grass and ferns that were soaked from the morning snow.  It was very steep, and every wet log I stepped on threw me off balance for a moment, straining my ankles and hamstrings.


Morning Snow on an Elk Hunt

I stopped and bugled every few minutes, trying not to call too much, but still trying to keep his attention.  He answered every time, but at one point I heard a lot of movement; crashing of limbs, hooves on rocks, and I knew that he had sent the herd off into the dark timber.  He stayed to talk with me, but as I got closer to him, he decided to join his herd.  I almost caught up with them in the dense timber on top of the mountain, but they were moving away so fast I couldn’t get anywhere close to a good shot.

I had to slow them down somehow.  The ground was wet so I could move about quietly; the elk still didn’t know that a predator was stalking them.  I gave a calf call to try to get them to slow down, and then another.  Then I saw two cows walking towards me, though still forty yards away and through the trees.  With my bow, I needed a clean shot at thirty five yards and no more.  They still didn’t seem to be spooked.  Then I saw the rest of the herd following behind them.  I had intercepted them at the base of a small saddle, they were heading down.  My calf and cow calls made them think there were more elk in front of them, they felt safe.  I knew I shouldn’t bugle anymore now, the herd bull was sure to follow his harem

Somehow I had taken a route that turned out to be a shortcut for me.  It’s very difficult to execute or even plan a good stalk when you are so far below the elk as I was, so I knew I just got lucky that day and got to the right place at the right time.  I crouched behind a boulder, checked the wind and it was in my favor.  The cows and calves formed a two column line to their destination and passed twenty yards in front of me.  I heard some branches breaking behind me and turned to see a good-sized rag horn bull casing the herd for stray cows.  He would have come charging to me if he thought I were a cow he could have, but he was not about to challenge the bull of this herd.  So he remained silent, hoping to take advantage of the situation without a confrontation.  He was too inflamed with hormones to even notice me.

My adrenaline was rushing through my veins at a dangerous rate by now.  What should I do?  Wait for the big bull or go after the smaller one?  There was no telling what would transpire in the next thirty seconds; the big bull could come trotting behind the last cow of the herd, the rag horn could come tramping over me to get to a cow, both could happen, or neither could happen.

Within 15 seconds the big bull came along the path, right behind the last cow.  But as I put my sight pin on his shoulder at twenty yards, he saw the other bull.  He turned abruptly toward the smaller bull, thinking that this was the pest who had been badgering him all morning, then charged.  He only had to take a couple of strides before the rag horn scampered off in a quick trot.  This was a big bull; he even scared me a little being that close to him.

Once he was satisfied that the pesky bull was gone, the monster bull made his way back to his herd, passing fifteen feet in front of me.  I pulled back my bow, set the site just behind his right shoulder, and released the arrow.  It was a perfect shot, right into his vital organs.  He turned and ran up the mountain, straight up.  I gave a cow call to stop him, and he did stop, he didn’t know he was dieing.  He stopped thirty yards away.  I couldn’t see him, but I could see the cloud of fog from his breath and I could hear him wheezing.  I stayed still, I didn’t want to chase him away.  I knew I made a good shot and if I left him alone, he would lie down and die.

I waited for an hour that seemed more like a day.  I found the blood trail easily and started after the biggest bull I had ever taken a shot at.  The trail was good every step of the way, I definitely made a clean shot.  After thirty minutes of slowly following his trail, I saw the ivory tines of the big six by six bull poking above some brush, they weren’t moving.  Still, I crept up to him as quiet as I could, not knowing if he was still alive.  When I got to within thirty yards, I knew that if he were alive he would have heard me by then and would have run if he could.



Elk Antlers on my Wall

At that point I knew he was dead, and when I came up to him through the wet brush I was overcome with emotions.  I felt a great respect for this magnificent animal, he was beautiful.   His mane and legs were so dark they looked black.  His body was sandy brown with a dark strip along his spine.  His antlers were wide and a symmetrical six tines on each side. I set my bow down, knelt beside him and gently touched his forehead.  I closed my eyes and said “Thank you Lord for this beautiful animal, and thank you mister bull elk for what you have given me today.”