A lot of bowhunters are overly eager to score on public land bulls as the rut accelerates and nice bulls begin to appear. And I don’t blame them one bit. But an archer can usually find a much larger elk than he imagines if he patiently follows three simple steps. The following trio of tips has helped me shoot more than a dozen bulls over the magic score of 350 during the past 15 years. These strategies can help you, too.
Concentrate On Heavy Cover
The largest bulls in your area know all about human hunters. They are probably 6 to 8 years old or older, and they did not survive all those autumns by racing around on open ground. Even during the rut, trophy elk tend to be cagey and prefer to stay in dense security cover.
In 2003, I had the good fortune to kill a Montana bull with a net score of nearly 400. A cow elk had leaped up in front of me and right behind her was a monster bull with the biggest back forks I had ever seen. As he jumped a log and ducked around a tree, I could see six long points on each side, main beams that stretched to his rump, and an impossibly wide spread. The bull had not made a peep that morning, but he was chasing cows in heavy cover all the same.
Two days later, I got even luckier and ambushed that elk in dog-hair timber by still-hunting with ears and eyes peeled.
Chances are, the biggest bull in your area will rut in heavy cover. That is how they get so large. Smaller bulls might be more visible nearby, but you need to pass them up if you want to kill a monster.
Learn to Read Bugles and Grunts
In general, an old bull elk tends to have a deeper, hoarser voice than younger studs in the area. If you play the odds, you will go after throaty bugles and grunts, and walk away from high and squeaky calls.
But bowhunter beware! There are exceptions to every rule, and I try to look at every bugling elk whenever possible.
Years ago, I bowhunted northern New Mexico with famous guide and master elk caller Kyle Martin. One morning, we heard a shrill two-note bugle 150 yards above us.
“Sounds like a spike,” Kyle said. But he lifted his grunt tube anyway and let go a beckoning series of calls.
Trees popped and bushes rattled as the bull trudged down to check us out. We stood in shocked amazement when a massive 7×7 stepped out of the trees 100 yards away. An instant later, a puff of breeze fanned the back of my neck. The bull stared, caught a whiff, and ran into the trees.
We never saw the giant elk with the squeaky voice again. I shot a beautiful 350-class bull a few days later. That elk had a deep, raspy voice that matched his size. But until you see a bull, you never know for sure.
One thing is for sure about elk bugles and grunts. The biggest elk in hard-hunted areas are the least likely to make much noise. They have learned that rampant calling might be bad for their health, with bowhunters converging on the sound from every possible direction. Big modern elk rut hard and call very little. It is one thing that saves their lives.
If you want to locate the largest bull in your neck of the woods, you should call from ridge tops early and late in the day in hopes that a large bull will answer. If you do get a response, you are best advised to shut up and silently sneak toward the animal. He might continue to call, but is more likely to stay put silently. With luck, you just might slip in and get a shot.
Another tactic that works in really hard-hunted elk areas is calling at night. Big, silent-mouthed bulls are more relaxed about bugling and grunting after dark. If you drive roads or hike the hills and call into the inky blackness, you might pinpoint big elk you would never hear during legal hunting hours.
Be sure to check local hunting regulations before any night-calling activity. In most states, night calling is legal if you leave your shooting equipment in camp.
Late Bowhunts Can Be Better
A majority of bowhunters chase elk in early to mid-September. It is true that some of the hottest rutting action occurs before September 20, but I have not found this to always be the best for really big bulls.
Old, large-antlered elk tend to be loners before and after the rutThe real herd masters only appear after 5-year-olds have collected harems and had a little fun. Then the big boys move in, whip younger males and start the serious breeding.
Here is one of many examples from my personal elk experience. Several years ago, I located a canyon in Montana with 40 or 50 elk. This was an off-beat place with no other archers—an unlikely piece of public property that required a long hike.
I watched bulls chase cows and listened to bulls bugle from September 14 until September 23. The biggest elk I saw would have scored 300 or 310.
Then all at once, on September 24, a gravelly grunt erupted from the thickest trees in the area. I sneaked in and spotted the bull almost immediately. His 6×8 antlers were awesome! Two days after that, I arrowed him from 35 yards as he chased a raghorn bull away from his herd. I have no idea where that large bull came from, but his 380-inch antlers prove that bowhunting the last half of the rut is often the best way to find a genuine monster.
Finding the biggest bull in your area is seldom easy. You have to be patient, you have to search hard and you have to be willing to pass up younger bulls. It’s a gamble. Bowhunt late in the season, pay attention to bugling and grunting clues, and concentrate your search in dense cover where old animals feel secure. With luck, you might find a bull that makes all the others look small!