Breaking the Rules to Kill a Bull Elk from the Archives

Breaking the Rules to Kill a Bull Elk from the Archives Outdoor Life

Breaking the Rules to Kill a Bull Elk, from the Archives

IT HAD BEEN the most frustrating, yet glorious, week of elk hunting imaginable. The section of southwestern Montana I hunted was crawling with elk. Bulls appeared daily, sometimes multiple times, but by the sixth day, I hadn’t drawn my bow.

A few smaller bulls had come in, and I could have taken one. However, I sought a mature bull with many winters and hunting seasons under his belt. I had called up some of these big bulls, but they always stayed just out of range. They’d hang up in the brush 80 yards away, rake their antlers, or peek around a pine tree. Despite the action and excitement, no cigar… not yet.

That’s when I decided to try something radical. I strapped a small five-point elk antler to my daypack and went to an area where I had spotted a heavily antlered 5×5 bull two days prior. At dawn, I positioned myself eagerly, waiting for enough light to see my sight pins. Once it was bright enough, I bugled, and a bull instantly responded nearby. I closed the gap aggressively, and we engaged in an intense verbal sparring match that visibly enraged the bull.

The bull thrashed and crashed as he approached, but like the others, he hung up just out of range on the opposite side of a small creek. I could see his antler tops above the brush, as he raked and chuckled, flexing his muscles. It was the same large 5×5 I had seen before.

Using my small five-point antler, I raised it above the brush pile next to me, bugled, and pawed the ground with my boot. Meanwhile, I twisted and turned the antler, mimicking the big bull’s movements. When he spotted the antler above the brush, he fell for the ruse. He came charging down the creek bank like a tank. As the bull reached the bottom, I dropped my antler and prepared to shoot. He charged up the other side, pausing briefly to search for the smaller rival that had been there moments ago. I released my arrow, hitting the bull’s lungs, and 30 minutes later, I was filled with glee.

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If elk won’t play by the rules, why should I?

TODAY’S BULL ELK are becoming smarter. Mature bulls, who have survived multiple hunting seasons, have seen it all. They’re familiar with bugling of all quality levels, the smell of various hunter camps, and the annual invasion by hunters in camouflaged attire or bright orange. They’ve been stalked, chased, and run around mountains enough times to become experts in elk hunting themselves.

That’s why you must be prepared to surprise elk with something entirely new. However, textbook tactics can still work, but they are not foolproof. When the textbook offers solutions that don’t align with reality, it’s time to toss it aside and try something radical.

Merritt Pride, a seasoned guide and outfitter from Lost Fork Ranch in Cameron, Montana, isn’t afraid to experiment with different methods to get a bull within range.

“Once, I bugled a nice bull for a bowhunting client with a fancy bow featuring an overdraw,” Pride shared. “However, when the client attempted to draw, the arrow fell off the rest with a loud clank. The bull trotted away. Knowing the other bulls were acting peculiar that week, I decided to abandon cow calling or bugling. Instead, I mimicked the alarm bark of a cow elk. Many claim that when bulls hear this, they flee. But remarkably, this bull returned.”

Elk sometimes require off-the-wall tactics, just like with whitetail deer. Rattling antlers, for example, can be highly effective for elk hunting.

Breaking the Rules to Kill a Bull Elk from the Archives Outdoor Life

An elk hunter’s worst enemy, second only to their own clumsiness, is the wind. No matter the season, if you don’t have the wind in your favor, you don’t stand a chance. Elk possess an incredible sense of smell. Hunters who underestimate the elk’s olfactory abilities often fail to detect the number of elk that disappear before they even realize they were nearby.

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Elk thrive in areas with swirling winds. Many seasoned elk hunters, including myself, believe that elk deliberately bed down in such areas during the day to gain extra protection from all sides. Textbook strategies recommend avoiding these unstable wind areas to prevent spooking elk with human scent.

However, during hot, dry weather when the ground is crunchy underfoot, elk are less active during shooting light. If you want to pursue a bull, you must go after them. To bypass the swirling wind, take a page from the whitetail hunter’s playbook and position yourself above the breeze in a tree stand.

In hot weather, elk prefer staying near water holes and wallows to keep cool and comfortable. Scout the area and find a wallow or water hole with fresh signs like tracks and droppings. Set up a portable tree stand nearby. Ideally, choose a moment when the wind blows steadily in your face, then spend the entire day in the stand. Bring lunch, an empty bottle, a good book, and ensure you’re securely fastened with a safety belt.

Give the stand a few days, if necessary. During that time, you’ll be amazed by the variety of wildlife you’ll observe. A friend of mine recently staked out a water hole in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness during rifle season’s opening week. He witnessed not only elk but also mule deer, whitetail deer, a coyote, a black bear, a mountain lion, and numerous birds and small game. Ultimately, he bagged a stunning 6×6 bull.

Another trick elk hunters can borrow from the whitetail hunter’s playbook is rattling. While hunting in New Mexico, my eyes were opened to the effectiveness of rattling. Observing two large bulls engaging in a fierce battle over a cow, I witnessed other bulls, as if by magic, appearing out of the brush. The realistic sound of rattling deer antlers attracted their attention and drew them in.

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Elk hunters often imitate a bull raking his antlers by raking and banging trees with limbs. However, this sound doesn’t carry well through dense timber or over uneven terrain. Rattling deer antlers together produces a more realistic and far-reaching sound. While rattling doesn’t always work, much like in deer hunting, it’s another unconventional method to attempt when all else fails.

I am not done experimenting with unorthodox elk strategies. This upcoming season, I plan to set up a tree stand near a secluded wallow on a small creek close to a logging road. If the area shows promising elk sign, I will place a standing elk decoy in the wallow. Decoys have proven successful for my whitetail hunts, so why not for elk? Of course, I’ll flag the decoy with fluorescent orange ribbon for safety and add a commercial elk-in-heat scent along with bugling from my tree stand.

Will it work? Who knows? The only certainty is that if elk refuse to adhere to the rules, I’ll disregard the textbook and adapt to their playing field. To successfully hunt today’s educated bulls, thinking outside the box is essential.

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