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Chasing Bluegrass Bulls

March 2022
Story by Andy Castagno
State: Kentucky
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

It was the end of April when I got a notification Huntin’ Fool saying it was the last day to apply for Kentucky elk. I had always dreamed of chasing elk and had heard about how good the hunting in Kentucky was but that I had better odds of winning the lottery than drawing a tag. Seeing how the application fee was only $10, I decided to buy a chance and hope for a little luck. About a month later, I again got a notification from Huntin’ Fool stating that Kentucky elk draw results were out. I logged in to my profile on the KDWR website and couldn’t believe it when it stated, “Congratulations! Successful.” I had beaten the odds and drawn a non-resident Kentucky either-sex archery elk permit on my first attempt. I immediately grabbed my phone and called my dad with the news. I could hear the excitement in his voice, and I knew I wanted him to come along on the hunt with me. It would be hard for him since his health has deteriorated over the past few years. He has battled cancer, diabetic amputation, and heart disease as well as many other issues, but he doesn’t let that stop him from getting in the woods every fall and enjoying what he loves.

After consulting with Huntin’ Fool and conducting some research, I knew the only person I could trust to guide me on a once-in- a-lifetime tag was Hurley Combs of Lost Mountain Outfitters. Hurley and I decided the best time for me to come would be the second week of archery season.

After months of waiting, the day arrived for me to start the long journey to Kentucky. The plan was that I would fly into my hometown in Kansas, meet up with my dad, and then we would drive the 13 hours to Kentucky. I landed at the airport and went to collect my gear, but I was informed that my luggage was lost! I immediately spoke with the lost baggage department, and they were able to locate my bags. They had never left Alaska, and it would take days for them to get them to me. I decided to call Hurley and explain to him what had happened. He completely sympathized and told me not to worry as they had backup bows and gear. He said we would make it work.

The next morning, my dad and I headed out. We arrived late that night and checked in to our hotel. The plan for the next day was to meet up with Hurley and get me situated and hopefully get in an evening hunt. We arrived at camp and took some practice shots. Hurley and I then discussed how the hunt was going to go that evening and what type of elk he had been seeing in the unit. He told me that where we were going had some nice bulls and there was a nice 5x6 he had been seeing frequently. He also told me about one old heavy-horned bull that he had nicknamed “The Flyer Bull” but not to get my hopes up because he had rarely been seen.

We headed out that first evening in hopes of locating some elk, and it didn’t take long to realize that hunting elk in the hollers of Kentucky was going to be nothing like chasing elk in the West. Hurley decided it was the right time of year that maybe the bulls would start to bugle, so calling would be our best chance at locating one. We decided to let out a couple of calls and see if we could get a response. Within seconds, a bull bugled right back to us. The bull didn’t sound far, so we headed off after him in hopes of getting in close and calling him in. We entered a thicket that met up with a holler bottom and got set up and continued to call. We could hear cows chirping and the bull thrashing brush as he approached out of the bottom. Finally, the bull revealed himself, stepping out and facing us head on at 40 yards. As the bull emerged, he suddenly held up and knew something wasn’t right. We hoped he would just take a step and turn broadside, but after a few moments, he decided he had had enough and turned and bolted back to where he had come from. The first day had come to a close, and I was excited for the rest of the hunt.

The next morning, the plan stayed the same as we were going to get on the mountain early to call and try to locate a bugling bull. We started calling, and much to our surprise, nothing was responding. We decided we would circle around the area and see if we could locate some elk still up feeding. We came down an old road and immediately spotted a couple cows feeding off in the brush. We eased our way up closer to them, and Hurley began to call in hopes that a bull would be hanging around nearby and think that a rival had come in to take his ladies. Immediately, a bull screamed back at us. Hurley looked at me and said, “Get ready!” I set up, watching an opening in a small path ahead. I could hear the bull bugling and crashing through the timber from my right, coming at us.

Suddenly, Hurley whispered, “There he is.” Not 15 yards away stood the bull looking out into the opening. He remained hesitant to expose himself, but his front shoulder was clearly visible, and at this range, I felt confident I could make a good shot. I settled my pin just behind the shoulder and slowly started to squeeze. Right as my trigger pull was about past the threshold, the bull erupted and took off through the timber. I had been so close, but it didn’t come together.

Even though it was still early in the hunt, I knew that my chances of filling my tag were dwindling. I know with hunting you are lucky to get one chance, especially with archery, and here I had two close encounters already and not been able to pull it off. The pain felt even worse when Hurley told me the bull that had just busted us was the big 5x6 he had been seeing. Trying to make something out of what was left of the morning hunt, Hurley decided to circle around the backside of the property where we had heard another bull bugling earlier that morning. We came down an old coal mine road and saw a cow come across the road ahead of us and following close behind was another elk. We stopped and quickly glassed them up. Following the cow was a massive bull. Hurley dropped his binoculars and looked at me and said, “It’s The Flyer Bull.”

I was in total shock. The biggest bull on the mountain that we hadn’t even dreamed of seeing was right in front of us. We came up with a plan to cut the bull off. We knew he was going to follow his cow, and if we worked our way slowly up through dense brush, we could get in range. We made our way using the brush as cover and got in between them and the opening across one of the coal mining roads. I watched as the cow came slipping through the opening and knew that the big bull would not be far behind. Seconds later, here he came. Hurley let out a cow call, and the bull stopped broadside and looked back. Hurley whispered, “44 yards.” I settled my pin just behind the crease in the shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The snap of the bowstring echoed in my ears as I watched the bolt connect with the bull. He kicked his back legs in the air and took off running. Hurley ripped out a bugle, and the bull stopped to turn back and look. I could see I had made a perfect heart shot. The bull took a few more steps and tipped over. We all jumped and shouted. My dad and I walked up to the bull together, and neither one of us could think of anything to say. We just admired how magnificent of an animal it was and took in the moment together.

I want to give a special thank you to my guide and outfitter, Hurley Combs of Lost Mountain Outfitters, for taking great care in helping me achieve a bull-of-a-lifetime. Also, I want to give the biggest thanks to my dad. I couldn’t have dreamt of sharing a moment of this caliber with anyone else. Looking back at everything he has been through the past few years and thinking many times he wasn’t going to be around and then getting to have him by my side on this hunt and share this moment with me is what truly made this hunt so memorable.