“Fifteen, 16 and one more makes 17,” I counted to myself as a group of wary Merriam’s turkeys cautiously sided up to the small impoundment for a drink.
I’d felt better if they were elk, but at the moment I was relieved to have a breathing creature to revive my dulled, treestand-stting senses. Perched in a treestand for 8 hours with nary a chickadee in front of me was testing my patience and my ability to stay awake.
In fact, I was so enamored by the turkeys, I failed to notice the heavy-antlered bull approach from my backside. Without even testing the water, the 6×7 brute waded in up to his belly for an elk-sized Slurpee. His appearance abruptly ended the monotony of the afternoon.
With the bull totally preoccupied quenching his thirst, I ranged him from my concealed perch. My Bushnell Yardage Pro rangefinder spit out a distance of 32 yards. Although my range-finding movement never caught the bull’s attention, unknowingly to me it had caught the attention of the turkeys. Not realizing the turkeys were on edge, I boldly grabbed my bow from the hanger and began to draw. As I reached full draw, pandemonium ensued.
The turkeys couldn’t stand the movement in the tree any longer. In anything but a synchronized escape, the entire flock split in a long-legged, wing-flapping explosion. The bull, a mature veteran with at least 5 years of experience stored in his brain, didn’t wait for a second opinion. His explosive escape parted the waters in a Moses-like re-enactment at the Red Sea. Bolting for cover, the bull unexpectedly slowed, then stopped to reassess the situation. Was I about to get a second chance?
I don’t claim to be the millennium’s next greatest elk expert, but I’ve discovered that like with whitetails, it pays to be flexible. Utilizing various options will optimize your success during the elk rut. Differences in hunting pressure, topography, water availability, food preferences and weather all play major roles in the day-to-day determination of which tactic you should choose. I spend as much time as possible in elk country throughout the year, but this past fall I had the rare opportunity to spend nearly the entire rut with elk. Having a full playbook allowed me to find success using two very different tactics and reconfirm the rewards of being flexible.
Unlike the treestand setup I attempted in the article’s opening, most elk hunters take a mobile, terra firma approach to elk for good reason. Elk seldom linger in one locale very long. When they move, they generally make it a crusade of major proportions. To be successful on the ground, I believe you have to be aggressive, which means putting yourself almost within arrow range if you plan to call him. And if you plan to ambush him, you have to be able to read his mind and be where he wants to be.
Why be aggressive? Most modern elk herds experience hunting pressure. They hear a lot of calls and the feel the pressure of other bowhunters. Unfortunately, most bowhunters call from the wings in hopes a herd bull will cross 200 yards of terrain to greet the caller. Success in that setting is about as likely as me impressing Simon and winning the “American Idol” competition.
For an in-your-face ground hunt, I teamed up with outfitter Clay Allison who operates Santa Fe Outfitters. Allison’s a seasoned elk bowhunter with more than 15 years of experience. We would be hunting a private ranch in Colorado near the New Mexico border. It was clear from the actions of the guides that Allison’s approach was a no-nonsense, aggressive charge. On the first morning of my hunt, my guide Tim Cimino had us within 30 yards of the herd bull as we defended our position against a nonstop barrage of satellite bulls swarming to the cow calls.
“I started fine-tuning my aggressive style after watching videos featuring Mike Lapinski and reading some of his books on the subject,” explained Allison. “I quickly discovered that if you can get a bull to answer you, it works good to cut the distance by a third and vector toward the downwind side. Never go straight at them, always angle toward them. Once you get close, listen and try and anticipate their move. I always reserve most of my calling until I’m in close range.”
Close range for Allison means getting within a bull’s comfort zone, or within 30 to 40 yards. If you can get that close, you have a pretty good chance at calling in a herd bull using a cow or an immature bugle, Allison says. He believes early season is an especially good time to get aggressive and call within their comfort zone.
“I guess it simulates their behavior during the early rut when they are in that stage of checking out the competition. When they hear another bull they go and find who he is and determine if he’s a threat,” Allison said.
One negative, if you can call it that, is once you’e inside the comfort zone of a herd, you might end up with a flurry of satellite bull activity regardless of if you’re using cow or bull calls. This was clearly evident at Santa Fe Outfitters. I’ve never hunted an area with a higher density of elk. Locating bugling elk wasn’t a problem, but wading through the satellites for an opportunity at a herd bull was next to impossible. On nearly every setup I had opportunities at one or more satellite bulls as we eased toward the grand prize.
Comfort-zone calling works throughout the rut, but it can backfire on mature bulls and later in the rut when bulls are tired of being pestered by the competition. As the herd bulls begin servicing their harems, they might growl a challenge, or not make a peep. Either way, they often herd the harem in the opposite direction for less competitive pastures.
In that case, put on your running shoes for an ambush. Most trophy elk hunters I’ve shared an elk camp with have arrowed their largest bulls in ambush situations. They used calls to locate a mature bull and track him, but when it came down to the final moments of the hunt, they used hustle, intuition and blind luck to put them within striking distance of the bull.
In 2000 I used ambush tactics to tag a Pope and Young Club bull in Montana. Hunting with a buddy of mine who knew the lay of the land, we bedded a herd of elk on a steep pine slope at midday. At sunset, we followed them long enough to project their path, then we raced around the mountain to set up at the mouth of a draw for the ambush. My buddy put me in the right spot for a perfect 43-yard broadside shot and the hunt ended with an ambushed 303-inch bull.
For an ambush to be successful, you must determine the preferred travel routes of elk, plus their preferred food and water sources. Although elk don’t pattern as meticulously as whitetails, undisturbed elk follow routines and routes with regularity. An ambush might be your best approach, especially for rut-tired or mature, no-nonsense bulls.
How did my hunt end with Santa Fe Outfitters? Since this was a filmed hunt for “North American Hunter-TV,” we decided to take the first good 6-point bull that smiled for the camera. On Day 3 we cruised into an aspen hollow of quarreling bulls. Our first encounter was with a loud-mouthed 5-pointer. He wanted to be on TV and gave me a perfect 15-yard broadside show, but two other growlers in the distance piqued my interest.
Setting up by a wallow, one of the boys cruised in for a closer look and he sported the 6-point qualifications. Using a combination of cow calls, Cimino and I directed the bull between us. For a few moments he was less than 6 yards from me, but for some unknown reason he spooked. Mewing quickly and loudly on my Estrus Whine cow call, I stopped him quartering away at 20 yards. The Rocky Mountain Titanium broadhead hit home and after a short tracking job, we had a super hunt on film.
Wait In The Sun
Having earned my bowhunting wings on whitetails, I’ve always been partial to stand hunting, whether it’s for pronghorns, muleys or elk. You have a higher probability of arrowing an unalerted animal from a hidden stand than improvising on a stalk. I’m not trying to wimp out. I can stalk critters, but the odds are higher to wait in ambush if a pattern is present.
As I stated earlier, elk are patternable, especially in states like Arizona, New Mexico and various other Western locales with short supplies of water.
For instance, much of Wyoming has been in drought for nearly a half-decade, making water hole hunting for elk prime in some regions.
Don’t think that just because an area is arid, however, that water hole hunting will work. I’ve guided and bowhunted elk in the arid reaches of eastern Montana for several years and even though they receive less than 18 inches of rainfall a year, ranchers have developed water for livestock needs through the creation of pipelines and impoundments. Elk aren’t dummies. They’ll water at manufactured tanks just like livestock. Stand success can decrease exponentially when surrounded by these water options.
Allison, a fan of the run-and-gun routine, keeps stand hunting as a “Plan B” option. In fact, he’s created a hunting strategy based on wind direction. In the morning the wind in his hunting area allows them to keep upwind as he stalks for a run-and-gun approach. In the afternoon, the winds blow upslope towards the elk until almost sunset. Instead of taking a chance and possibly having scent spook the elk, Allison often stations a bowhunter in a treestand over a water hole or wallow area.
He’s also observant of hunters and their physical condition. Chasing a bugling bull at 9,000 feet or more takes stamina and strength. Many hunters just don’t have the time to keep in shape for such a match. To give them a rest combined with a good opportunity at a bull, he plays the stand option.
“I think wallows are effective all day, throughout the season. They even see steady traffic in the mornings,” Allison said. “If you’re in a good area, elk need water and routinely visit local water holes for a drink and to wallow. If the area is littered with sign, I suggest you sit on that stand from morning until night. It could be your best chance at getting a bull, especially on public land.”
Last fall I drew a tag for just such a public land location. My family has owned land in South Dakota’s Black Hills for more than 25 years, and I’ve been snooping around the southern portion of the range long before I noticed girls. After years of hiking and horseback riding through the Limestone Plateau, I had no doubts where to begin my hunt-and it all centered on water.
Because of nearby geographic features, most rain is milked from the skies before it reaches this region. Unless freak rain showers show up in late summer, water holes become scarce, but red hot for elk. I’d been keeping my eye on one such water hole where the animals loved to hydrate and wallow. In fact, through the years I’d directed several of my hunting pals to the area where they successfully bow-killed elk from the surrounding trees. A fire of catastrophic proportions ripped through the area in 2000 taking most of the good trees with it, but the remaining few still offered a treestand approach.
After acquiring the tag, I stepped up my summer scouting routine and trailered my horses to the area for an intense look at the elk activity. Sure enough, the water hole was plastered with tracks and the fire’s aftermath had filled the forest floor with plenty of food for the wandering herds.
The first few days of the season were nerve-wracking with hunts too close to call. Elk streamed through the area bugling, chuckling and choosing between three water sources within 300 yards of my stand. Keeping my options open and realizing several other bowhunters in the area had stands near the water, I scouted for big bulls by using both a run-and-gun and treestand approach. If I struck out using my hustling approach in the morning, I climbed into a treestand for the afternoon. I used this strategy for nearly 10 days before a flock of turkeys sideswiped me on the last evening of my hunt.
I was still at full draw as the bull re-evaluated the turkeys’ departure, but I couldn’t determine if he’d stopped at 50 yards or more. I didn’t want to risk a shot through a maze of burnt branches on a hunch, so I let off the draw and waited for the bull to make up his mind. He didn’t keep me waiting long.
His thirst hadn’t been quenched and he wasn’t about to let a flock of turkeys spoil his treat. Without a second thought, he did a 180 and walked straight back into the middle of the pond. With his belly again touching water, he resumed his drink and I didn’t need a second confirmation of the distance. Edging deeper into the water, he stretched his near leg out, exposing his vitals and I aimed for the pocket.
Luckily, he bolted out of the water after the shot, and within seconds he began teetering 60 yards from the stand. Kneeling down beside the 6×7 brought on a rush of dizzying emotions, but I knew one thing for sure: Being flexible with my options optimized my opportunity for success.