September 22, 2021
I let the bull walk. My partner that day, Travis, winked and shook his head, knowing we were in for a fun hunt.
The bull I'd just let walk pushed 350 inches. A great bull in many places, but on this particular public-land hunt, it was just a bit above average. I hunt elk seriously. I wanted something more, and I knew bigger bulls were around. The first bull we'd seen on opening morning, two days prior, pushed 390 inches.
Over the course of six days, I called in multiple bulls to within 40 yards, though I didn't let an arrow fly, as the giant bull I’d hoped for never materialized. But our calling success continued that season, and I was fortunate to fill tags in three other states, securing some dandy bulls. The secret? Move as much as it takes and hunt aggressively.
RAKE 'EM IN
One of the most frustrating experiences an elk hunter faces is dealing with bulls that talk but won’t come in. While trying to sneak and slither to within bow range of these bulls looks good on paper, truth is there are many things that can go wrong with a stalk. Even if the bull itself does not spot you, bulls in bow season are often surrounded by lots of cows, any one of which might spot you. Making a move on a bull can also take enough time that a change in wind direction can blow your approach.
If there's no prayer of getting close to a hung-up bull, try raking a tree. Raking is not a dainty operation: Grab a hefty limb you can swing with both hands, then find a tree you can beat the heck out of. Before you start to rake, be sure an arrow is nocked and your bow is easily accessible. Raking can cause bull elk to come in fast, looking for a fight. When he arrives, you'll need to shoot fast or get busted. Make sure the wind is where you want it, then get to it.
In nature, when real bulls rake a tree, it's not a passive behavior. They thrash, stomp, push, grind, kick and toss their headgear around with the intent of demolishing the tree to prove to other elk who the biggest, baddest bull really is. When raking a tree, you have to do the same thing.
Raking for elk is far more aggressive than rattling for deer. If done correctly, you'll be sweating, breathing hard and getting tired as you try to fill the woods with sounds mimicking what a real bull would produce.
I like raking a tree that's surrounded by loose rock, hard dirt and, ideally, lots of dead branches. I vigorously stomp the ground, drag my feet over loose rocks and smash branches, all in an effort to create as much commotion as possible.
After a minute or so of hard raking and stomping, I like letting out a raspy bugle, one an old bull would make. The goal is to bring in a herd bull, not young satellite bulls, and to do this you have to act big.
As soon as the bugle is done, I grab my bow, clip on my release and listen. It’s best to be ready for anything. Some bulls come hard and seem to want the raking bull to know they’re coming. Other bulls go into stealth mode to check out the intruder, and it can be very surprising to find that a 700-pound animal can sneak in from the side without you hearing or seeing it.
Raking doesn’t always work. Sometimes even a big bull will simply gather his cows and leave. That's okay, as you can come back and hunt it another day, perhaps some other way. The good thing about a bull pulling his cows away from the raking noise is that he thinks he’s moving away from another elk. He didn’t see or smell you, so he won’t blow out of the country—and that means you still have a chance.
How long I rake and stomp depends on how a bull is responding. If it keeps bugling or starts raking a tree, I get more aggressive. Issuing cow and young bull calls can also convince a big bull to come in. I’ve kept this up for 20 minutes to well over an hour if the bull does not move off. In a practical sense, how long you spend depends on the bull’s behavior, wind direction and your stamina.
Another tool to help bring a hesitant bull within bow range is an elk decoy. Nothing I've found matches the realistic nature of a cow elk like the Montana Decoy line of dekes. I’m a fan of the Miss September cow decoy when hunting trails from a treestand or ground blind. The Back Country decoy is also good for this approach, and both options portray a calm animal moving away, which often entices a bull to go forward at a quickened pace.
Montana Decoy's Eichler Elk Decoy is another proven fake. This is a light, fold-up decoy that can be easily moved both before and after assembly. I’ve had the best results with this when hunting with a buddy. In this situation one of us posts up, bow ready, while the other holds the decoy 50 yards or so away from the hunter, with the hunter between the decoy and the bull you are trying to call in. The person with the decoy does the calling according to the reaction of the approaching bull. If a bull hangs up, the caller moves farther back, relocating the decoy as he does so and adding some bugles to the cow chatter. This will create a realistic simulation of another bull coming in and taking away the cow, something that can make a big bull move in.
If you are hunting from a treestand or ground blind, ideally you should have a good idea of the direction from which a bull is most likely to approach. Situate yourself and the cow decoy so a bull has to walk by you to reach it. When an approaching bull reaches a designated shooting lane, draw your bow and issue a cow call to stop it on the spot. A diaphragm call is perfect for this, but an open-reed call can also work.
Another aggressive move is the simplest of all: Cover lots of ground. Often, I'll hunt all day and traverse miles of rugged country. The goal is to locate herds burrowed into heavy cover for the day, and I find them by moving and calling. Using cow and calf chatter is my top choice because it simulates a group of animals separated from its herd and looking for company. A herd in cover will respond vocally to help guide the "lost" cows and calves to them. Getting an entire herd talking at 2 p.m. on a hot, early-season day is a rush in itself.
If the bull in the herd starts talking, issue some bugles, as this will sometimes pull him in. If the bull won't budge, return to hunt him that evening. Moving into a bedded herd at midday is risky, as too many eyes can bust you and thermals in canyons can be very unstable.
A spotting scope, even when bowhunting, is a valuable tool when searching for a big bull. Nothing is more frustrating than looking at, calling to and pursuing what you thought was a big bull all day long only to discover it was below your standards when you get close enough to take a better look.
Glassing bulls from a safe distance will allow you to size up the animal and know exactly what you're looking at. Digiscoping is even better since you can study pictures and video footage. (I like Novagrade's rock-solid Double Gripper for digiscoping.) I've had elk bust me from more than 800 yards away when the wind changed, so don’t waste time getting close if it’s a bull you don’t want.
This elk season, don't be afraid to get aggressive. If you sit and wait for bulls to come to you, you may never get a shot. Monitor the wind, use decoys, rake like a madman, move in the shadows and cover ground, and you can make good things happen.
GEAR FOR AGGRESSIVE HUNTERS
Essential items for a run-and-gun approach.
STAY HYDRATED: September elk hunts can be hot, and water, more so than food, keeps your body and mind functioning and moving. A bladder is ideal, as you're more likely to drink when a straw is dangling inches from your mouth. Pair a pack and bladder (like the ALPS OutdoorZ Willow Creek Pack) with a good water filter and fill up at creeks, springs and ponds every chance you get.
FAKE IT UNTIL YOU MAKE IT: Decoys allow you to create lifelike scenarios you otherwise couldn’t. Montana Decoy’s line of lightweight cow decoys (including the Back Country Elk) are easy to travel with and set up quickly. Whether alone or with a buddy, decoys can be a game changer when it comes to luring in finicky bulls.
WALK SOFTLY: Moisture-wicking clothing is key when covering ground, as are quality boots. Ensure your boots are well broken in and comfortable before the season. Danner's 4 1/2-inch Sharptail is my favorite early-season hunting boot. It’s lightweight and low-profile, and the footbed is designed for quiet movement.
Editor’s Note: To order Scott Haugen’s DVD "Field Dressing, Skinning & Caping Big Game," visit scotthaugen.com.