October 27, 2020
With 15 minutes of legal shooting light remaining, the bull I'd been chasing all day finally emerged from the timber. I had initially spotted him at first light when he aggressively bugled at every call I threw out. Though the bull was quick to challenge my calls, he wouldn't budge. However, even at 800 yards I could see he was a bull I wanted to target.
Due to the rugged canyons along the Snake River, it took me most of the day to reach him as I moved through multiple massive draws and around ridges. During the midday hike, temperatures climbed into the 70s, and two herds of elk worked their way into expansive, timbered valleys through which I advanced. I called and moved, moved and called. By late afternoon I'd called in five legal bulls, but decided each time to hold out for the big boy.
Though the big bull bugled at nearly every sound I made all day long, he wouldn’t leave the thick cover. Finally, at a meadow on a steep ridgeline in waning light, I made my move. When I popped out of the brush, the bull stood at just over 400 yards, and my .325 Nosler did the job.
The bull rolled down the mountain, coming to rest on a pile of scrub brush. It was 2 a.m. when I finally staggered into camp, the bull having been quartered and hung in game bags to cool.
Go All Day
The fact the bull stayed in one spot the entire day and bugled at most of my cow and bull calls demonstrates that bulls are killable all day long. The elk don't disappear from the woods in the middle of the day and neither should you. I've been in a lot of elk camps over the decades and am always surprised at the number of hunters who return to camp at midday. Elk are big animals that have to eat a lot. Bulls, especially, have to replenish fat reserves burned during the recently concluded rut.
Big bulls are often alone in mid- to late October as they lick their wounds from the rut, though they can also be in small bachelor herds. The thing to keep in mind is that testosterone is still coursing through their bodies, so it pays to be afield all day and to call the entire time.
Elk commonly retreat into the brush soon after daylight, but there's still a lot happening. Spending an entire day in the woods will open your eyes to what's going on. Focus on hunting the shady areas as the morning sun rises. In the middle of the day, cool, wooded draws are best. In the afternoon, slopes that first receive shade as the sun begins to lower in the sky become the top spots. By following the shade, you can hunt all day long and have the chance of filling your tag at any moment.
As they move into morning cover, cows and calves typically spread out to feed in timber and surrounding brush lines. Often when they spread out they are very vocal. Cow calls and even bugles will seem natural to nearby elk. If you can move close to where the cows and calves are you can call any time of the day, and this is when the excitement escalates.
By no means should your calling efforts be limited to the September rut. Bulls can be very vocal throughout all of October and even into November. I was on a Thanksgiving deer hunt one year when I spotted two bulls bugling in a canyon. One of the bulls eventually mounted a nearby cow. The peak of the rut may be over, but bulls are still ready to breed if they have a chance to do so.
Cow and calf calls will get elk talking any time of day. My most successful approach, in multiple western states, has been to have at least three cow calls and three diaphragm calls for bugling. My cow calls of choice are open-reed, handheld calls. They create considerable volume, allowing me to cut the wind and push sounds over great distances. Open-reed calls make a wide range of sounds, from cow talk to calf calls to estrous sounds and more.
To start a call sequence, I often use two different open-reed calls, employing both the moment a herd starts talking. I'll point one call up a draw, for instance, delivering a pleading cow sound, then point the other down the draw and offer calf chatter. This creates a sense of multiple cows and calves talking with a sense of urgency. Toss in a young bull bugle followed by satellite or aggressive bull bugles, and hillsides and canyons can come alive with elk talk.
I carry single-reed and double-reed diaphragm calls, along with a few raspy bull reeds. Sometimes all that’s needed to get a big bull to respond is an aggressive bugle.
What you're seeking this time of year is a reactionary bugle from a bull. A successful calling sequence doesn’t have to end with a bull charging to you. In fact, I’ve called in very few mature bulls in October. If the bull responds to your calls you can typically tell where he is. After that, all that matters is getting a shot at him, not whether he comes to you or stays put.
While the location of the elk and what they are doing are critical to how you devise a hunting strategy, what you want out of your hunt can play an equally critical role in how you hunt. If you've waited 20 years to draw a prized bull tag in a trophy area, chances are you won't pull the trigger unless it's a monster. But if you're looking to put meat in the freezer, calling in a satellite bull this time of year is certainly a worthwhile goal.
Many times over the years I've found myself amid elk herds and called in multiple branch-antlered bulls to a single spot. These subordinate bulls aren't as beaten up or timid as herd bulls following the rut. They're eager for a chance to breed, often storming into calls and sometimes approaching without bugling. Be clear in your own mind whether taking one of these bulls is your goal or if you are willing to risk going home empty-handed for the chance at a bigger bull later.
Big bulls are different animals than subordinate bulls. They're beaten, bruised and tired from fighting each other and chasing cows. Most importantly, they know what cows in their domain have already been bred, and rarely are they willing to risk battling another bull for a slim chance to breed a single cow.
The purpose of calling to a trophy-class bull in October is simply to locate it. All you need to hear is one throaty bugle. Be sure all is calm before making a call, and stop to listen once you've made it. When a bull answers, mark the spot. I often use bugles when first calling into a wooded draw or brushy hillside, as they often trigger a reactionary response.
Once a bull answers, assess its location and the wind direction, then plan a stalk and see if reaching the bull before the thermals shift is feasible. Nothing blows a stalk faster than a change in wind direction. If a bull smells you, the jig is up. It’s an easy mistake to make and one I've made it too many times, being busted from even several hundred yards away.
If you can reach the bull,move quickly. If you can't, start offering cow and calf talk and some aggressive young bull bugles. Listen closely to hear if these sounds entice your target bull to move closer. If they do, the bull just might offer a shot. If not, and the bull continues bugling, calling might hold him in place long enough for you to move in. Cow calling as you approach a bull is a good way to cover the sounds of your footsteps. Be sure to move into the wind; if it changes direction, back out and approach from a different direction or even return later.
What to Pack
Water is one of the most important items in my pack. I fill a hydration bladder and take a filter bottle for backup. If I know I’ll come across streams during a hunt, I’ll drink as much water as I can all day long. If I’m hunting high in the mountains where water is scarce, I’ll ration it. Nothing keeps me physically and mentally sharp like staying hydrated. High-protein, nutrient-dense, high-energy snacks and a sandwich are also always in my pack.
Take a knife, a sharpening steel, rope, game bags, a headlamp and extra batteries. October elk are often killed in the evening, and they hold a lot of heat, so they must be boned out and cooled immediately. Don’t be content with simply gutting a bull and returning the next day to retrieve it, as you’ll either find spoiled meat or a carcass that’s been at least partially eaten by scavengers.
The key to filling an October elk tag is being afield all day, covering ground, and basing your moves and your calls on what the elk are doing.
Editor’s Note: To learn multiple ways to break down an elk, check out Scott Haugen’s DVD Field Dressing, Skinning, & Caping Big Game. Pick up a copy at scotthaugen.com.