I vividly remember the first time getting to tag along with my dad on an archery elk hunt. Even at the age of 8, it didn’t take long for me to realize that there was something extra special about screaming bulls in September. My very first evening elk hunting was spent in the middle of several bugling bulls as darkness crept in. I remember telling my dad I wanted to stay and listen to the bugles well after shooting light was over before our hike out. It was one of those magical times in the elk rut that is almost impossible to describe. More than 20 years later, I still get the same feeling when I hear a bull bugle.
The elk rut seemed to start out slow this year, at least in the spots I was hunting. I spent the first few weeks of the season tagging along with family and friends on their hunts. We covered many miles on foot and even horses without hearing or laying eyes on a single bull.
For the past several years, I have met my dad, uncle, and cousin for an annual week-long archery elk hunt in our home state of Montana. This year was no different. We arrived just in time to split up and find a vantage point to try and locate elk for the following morning. My cousin spotted the first bull of the trip that evening. It was a small 5-point, probably half a mile across an open sage flat, raking a burnt pine. With consistent wind, we decided to make a play on him, but darkness ended up winning the race.
Not having any other leads, we decided to head back to the same area the next morning to see what we could turn up. Wanting to listen for a while in the dark, we got there early. The plan was to hike to a high point to listen and glass from in hopes of locating a herd.
While getting the packs ready, I finally heard my first bugle of the season, and it wasn’t far away. He sounded like a mature bull, but I had been duped by going solely off a bull’s bugle before. We quickly but quietly scrambled to get our stuff ready. As soon as I was confident the wind was consistent, I decided we should try to be as close as possible at first light.
Using the onX Hunt App, I marked where I thought the bull was bugling from. He consistently bugled every five minutes or so, allowing us to keep pretty good tabs on where he was. He started up on an open flat and was making his way toward some breaky terrain with burnt timber. We continued to cautiously stalk his bugle in the dark, barely able to see the ground around us. When I was confident his last bugle was from over the next ridge, we got aggressive and crossed the large opening he had been in when we first heard him. I knew if we could get to the other side of the clearing without bumping any elk, we would be in a great spot.
As soon as we made it across the opening, the bull sounded off again. He was close! It was just light enough to see but not to shoot yet. I crawled on my hands and knees over a small knoll to try and get eyes on him. At this point, we had only heard one bull, but I assumed he would have cows. I peeked over the rise and another timely bugle allowed me to pinpoint his location. He was probably 125 yards away, only one little ravine between us. I saw him long enough to know he was a good bull, but I didn’t examine him too well as I quickly realized he was in a great spot to sneak in closer. I crawled back to my pack and my cousin, telling him what I saw. I contemplated setting up and trying to coax the bull in with a few cow calls but decided against it as he was in a perfect spot to try to get above him without alerting him to our presence.
We made a loop out of sight to get to the same ridge spine he was on, and to my surprise, the wind stayed consistent. We made it to the ridge five minutes after legal shooting light. I dropped my pack and started creeping up the knob, thinking he had to be under 80 yards. We made it to the top where it benched out for 30 or so yards. The bull screamed again, confirming he hadn’t moved. For the first time, we heard another elk down to our left. I knew we had a short window to make something happen. I nocked an arrow, opened the flap to my rangefinder pouch, and started to creep forward. About 10 yards later, I could see the tan color of an elk through the grass. A couple more feet and I saw the tips of his fourth and fifth points. He was facing straight toward me with his head down, feeding. He was well within range for a shot, but I had to make it a little further to be able to shoot over the rise. I made it a few more feet and slowly shifted my knees and hips sideways, setting myself up to shoot. I ranged him through the grass at 39 yards.
I was thinking that this was the perfect scenario. He was going to turn on his own and present me a broadside shot, not knowing I was there. However, I heard the ear-piercing bark of an elk 20 yards below me and to my right. Things went from calm to chaos in a split second. I quickly put my release on my D loop. The bull picked up his head as the cow that had barked ran up next to him. They were both looking around, trying to find where the danger was. As soon as the bull took a step to leave, I drew my bow and slightly raised up on my knees. I expected to have to cow call to stop him, but by the time I had drawn my bow, the bull had stopped, slightly quartered away. He hadn’t gone but a couple of yards from where I had originally ranged him. I settled my pin and squeezed until the shot broke. I watched my arrow sail through the grey morning light, hit its mark, and stick in the ground behind him. I quickly made several frantic cow calls as I watched him take off through the burnt timber. He ran out of sight, and moments later, I heard the unmistakable crash.
Wide eyed and still in disbelief, I turned back to my cousin and gave him a big hug as we watched the bull’s cows head out of the country with a satellite 5-point right on their tracks. Although I was very confident in the shot and heard the crash, we gave it 30 minutes before hiking to the other side of the drainage and glassing back to where I had last seen him. It didn’t take long to pick him up through the binoculars and confirm what I had thought. He had expired less than 40 yards from where I had shot him.
Mornings like these in the elk woods are tough to beat. I try to soak each one in, not knowing when the next might come. I cut my tag, and before taking photos, I sent a Waypoint to my dad, uncle, and other cousin so they could come enjoy the moment as well as help with the pack out. They arrived shortly and were just as excited as I was.
With five more days left in the hunt and three more tags to fill, my bow stayed at camp and I headed out to try and help my dad, uncle, and cousin. A couple of days went by with only two elk sheds to show for it. We glassed and hiked a lot of great country but couldn’t turn up any elk.
Persistence paid off as I finally glassed up a few elk with a good bull, and I marked their last known location in onX. Later that day, my dad and I snuck to 200 yards from the waypoint and spotted a couple of cows followed shortly by the bull. We snuck to a creek bed and cut the distance in half before running out of cover and challenging the bull. He responded several times but ultimately pushed his cows in front of us just out of shooting distance as darkness set in. We were surrounded by elk and sat tight, listening to him bugle over a dozen times less than 100 yards from us. Looking back on that moment, it was nearly an exact replica of the very first time my dad took me on an elk hunt.
I want to thank my dad for taking me hunting as a kid, my wife for caring for our sons and home while I am away, and most importantly, our Creator for everything that is given to us. I can’t wait to be back chasing bugles next September and to someday take my sons to experience their first archery elk hunt and bugles of their own.