BOWHUNTING: Bold Tactics for Big Bulls
by Chuck Adams
Highballing cross-country, dogging the herd like a coyote, performing the screaming charge—aggression works when all else fails.
“I prefer the screaming charge,” Dave Griffith chuckled as he stretched his hands toward the campfire. “When all else fails, being aggressive is the best way to nail an elk!”
The very notion of bugling wildly with a diaphragm call and running toward a herd of elk offended my sneaky bowhunter’s nature, but Dave insisted the technique had merit.
We were hunting Roosevelt Elk, which are tough even in ideal situations. I was having my own troubles getting close enough for a shot. I didn’t attempt Dave’s screaming charge tactic, but I did get pretty aggressive with my stalk. I did not bugle or grunt, but ducked into a ravine, trotted in a semi-circle and popped over a ridge. The stalk took less than 10 minutes, and I surprised a fat raghorn bull before he could drift to bedding cover
A few days later, Dave took a heavy-horned 5x5 with his own radical technique. The herd was lounging in heavy scrub, and he could not weasel closer than 75 yards. So he began bugling and running toward the animals. They didn’t move, not knowing how to react. Seconds later, Griffith got a shot from 25 yards. The herd bull never knew what hit him as the shaft punched through his ribs. Dave’s screaming charge had done the trick.
In this day and age of call-shy elk, I’ve found that standard bugling and grunting do not always work. Many elk guides and unguided bowhunters still use a conventional approach, slipping within 150 or 200 yards of bugling bulls and then waiting passively in the hope that artificial calling will draw in the animals. It seldom works out that way. As the hunter sits, waits, and calls, a skittish bull pushes his cows in the opposite direction. The result is another frustrating day in the field.
Even if you prefer to call, you should still aggressively push elk. Don’t hang back a rifle shot away—try to sneak within 50 or 75 yards before you call. The closer you get to a rutting bull, the more likely he is to get aggressive himself and swagger into bow range.
Unless you wait on stand near a waterhole, wallow, or feeding area, elk hunting is always a physically demanding sport. It is commonplace for serious archers to walk several miles before daylight to penetrate remote habitat and leave less ambitious hunters behind When daylight arrives, you should be thinking aggressive, and be prepared to cover a lot of ground at a fast pace. Whitetail deer hunting on foot requires you to ease along slowly, taking one step and waiting two. By contrast, elk hunting demands that you highball cross-country from time to time.
In most places, there are huge gaps between groups of elk. If you haven’t heard any bugling, plant your fanny to glass open parks and semi-open slopes. By all means pause on ridgelines to listen for bugling bulls, and be sure to do some calling with hopes that reluctant bulls will answer from a distance.
When you do find elk to work on, much of that work should be aggressive. Before calling, close to within 50-75 yards as quickly as you can without spooking them.
When hunting dominant herd bulls, I prefer not to call at all. I usually hunt on public land where such bulls are virtually uncallable. Grunting, bugling or cow-calling in their face can work on young elk or elk in remote and lightly hunted locales, but it seldom works on the big boys found in accessible places on public land.
Instead, I dog the herd like a coyote, silently biding my time as animals move between feeding and bedding grounds. Elk can easily cover five or ten miles in a single morning of rutting, and terrain they traverse is seldom easy. I’ve climbed 2,000 feet in a single morning of elk hunting, and plunged into equally deep canyons. If you aren’t in excellent hiking shape, you won’t stay close to most elk.
Rutting bulls almost always move with the breeze in their face. The herd bull pushes his cows from the rear and keeps track of them with his nose. Moving upwind also lets him smell rival bulls and juvenile males that might try to grab a cow. For this reason, dogging an elk herd is tough. You cannot circle in front without being smelled, and if one elk smells you, the whole bunch is likely to bolt and disappear. You are forced to hoof it behind the animals or off to one side. This makes getting a shot difficult.
What usually occurs is what I call “rubber band” hunting. Elk tend to move and rut by fits and starts, moving rapidly at times and stopping to mill and regroup at others. So you catch up, slink along the edge of the herd, then get left in the dust as they walk or gallop ahead. Each time you close the gap, you’ve got to watch for fringe animals that might see you and flee. This limits your ability to spot and shoot the herd bull. But if you get closer and farther away enough times like a stretching and unstretching rubber band, you will eventually find yourself near the herdmaster as he struts his stuff and chases satellite bulls.
Aggressive foot hunting for elk requires patience. You have to hustle hard to find and get close to bulls, but you also have to slow down when you reach the flanks of the herd. The best bowhunters know how to shift gears from very fast to very slow on a dime. At times they need to be steady and methodical like a mule. At others they need to bound across terrain like a gazelle.
If conventional calling, stand hunting, or slow sneaking aren’t getting you shots at elk, I recommend a more aggressive approach. Take chances, press the animals, and keep your fingers crossed. Day in and day out, I believe you’ll see more close-range elk and get more shots at wary bulls.
RMEF Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting – including Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game.