You don’t always kill an elk.
Twice I have. You’ve heard these two stories. It goes like this: You call the elk in, shaking in your boots as it replies and bee-lines towards you, stomping sticks and thrashing brush. You’ve set up perfectly. The wind is perfect. The bull elk is convinced there is a hot cow and he is coming to get her without hesitation or inhibition. The calling sequence was perfect – the vocalizations, the cadence – it clicked with exactly what the bull was hoping for and what his hormones were expecting this time of year, this week of September. The bull can’t see your location until he is well within bow range and clear of obstructing vegetation. He walks in, and you stop him when he is perfectly framed in the chosen opening. You adjusted your stance and posture, took the familiar grip, and then drew your bow at the perfect time – not too soon that you are shaking with the effort of holding the 70-pound draw weight, and not too late that the motion catches his eye. You pick your spot just behind the shoulder, aim with the correct pin for the yardage, level the bubble, pull with your back. The string releases and races forward, the arrow arcs towards the unsuspecting elk and TWACK! it sinks into his vitals, 30” of arrow disappearing past the fletching. A perfect shot. It’s a double-lung and he topples 50 yards later, running from the twang of the bow, dead without ever feeling or knowing a thing. Perfection.
It all needs to be perfect. There are 100 ways for it to be close, but not perfect, and for an encounter to end not with meat on the ground but, at worst (rarely) a wounded elk, or (more typically) another “if only” encounter, a learning experience of a hung-up or busted-out elk giving you a lesson and a thrill but no chance at a shot. Actually, not 100 ways. 1,000 ways. 1,000 ways to mess it up. An elk on the ground requires perfection – control of 100 variables through conscious consideration, human hunting instinct and the lessons of all of your previous failed encounters, plus 900 more variables, all tipped in your favor by luck.
Here is the story, not of how we visualize and hope that it goes, but rather how it usually goes. Here is one encounter from one day of hunting, a story that will be the representative for all those days, the majority of days, that you don’t usually hear about, but that nonetheless are still true treasures:
September 26, 2019
Woke 430. Dress, coffee, in the truck driving a bit before 500 AM. We – me, Jake, Zach, Luke S, chose -*-*-*- Mountain for today’s hunt. I was there yesterday, solo, and upon coming back to camp stated, “I don’t think anyone should be hunting anywhere other than -*-*-*- Mountain.” That statement and a brief story was convincing enough for the guys, and 10 hours later they found themselves in the predawn darkness following me through “30 minutes of some real bull*** bushwacking” on our way to a 1-mile wide and 3-mile long mountain-lined basin that I hoped would be echoing with bugles.
I was a bit anxious about having recommended the day-long commitment to -*-*-*- Mountain, but I need not have worried – my highest hopes were outstripped by a mile. Right on cue, after 40 minutes of uphill hiking in thick brush and blowdown timber, we popped out into the grass and sage basin to a bull “sounding off” (bugling) – Eeeoooooorgh! We pointed in the darkness to the mountains on the opposite side of the basin. Immediately, another – Eeeeorgh! this time on our side of the basin. Fist pump. Heck yea baby! THE BULLS ARE SCREAMING.
We stood, silent and unmoving, in the “corner” of this mountain-ringed 3 square mile sage and prairie grass basin. The elk were sounding off all over – across the basis they were going back and forth, one bull letting out a long scream, then another responding, then the first bull ripping back with yet another bugle. There was a hot cow over there, no doubt about it, and they were screaming over her – advertising to her, challenging each other, warning each other – “I’m over here!” “Hey man, that’s my cow, don’t you bugle to her!” “I’m over here!” “HEY MAN! That’s MY cow! You GET LOST! Eeeeeooooooaaaargh!” Another bull was sounding off nearer to us, straight up the mountain face adjacent to our corner of the basin. And one more bull (at least) was letting powerful bugles rip from 1200 yards further along on our side of the basin. That gave us three situations we could pursue.
The other three guys of our 7-man group were in the area across the basin, and us four guys were actually a bit jealous, figuring those three must be hearing and approaching the highly vocal bulls on that mountain face. There was no point in all of us chasing the same bulls, so, while we fantasized about the encounter those three guys would have over there, we decided to leave it alone and focus on our side of the basin. That left us with the powerful sounding bull approximately 1 mile farther along and the bugling bull right above us. We heard a few suspect-sounding cow calls and a screechy bugle above us – a “Doug Flutey” – another hunter – so we passed on that bull, too. After a quick discussion of what we were hearing and putting together an interpretation of the scenario, we chose to put our focus on Option 3 – the powerful sounding screaming bugles a mile along. We shouldered our packs and hoofed it that direction.
We moved through the grass and low brush, walking a couple hundred yards at a time, hustling from cover to cover (a stand of aspens, a small rise, a clump of oak brush), then stopping, calming our breath to listen. Shush. Listen. Quit rustling. Listen.
We never had to listen more than 5 minutes. Eeeeorgh! It is difficult to work with a single bugle. But these elk were incessant. We heard hundreds of bugles in the basin that morning. We mentally catalogued each bugle and its apparent location, allowing us to color the scenario with more and more detail as we approached – the bull sounded at least 300, 400 yards up the mountain. There was one powerful sounding bull. A mature bull. A herd bull – he probably was a older bull and had a harem of cows, judging by his deep bugle and the time of year. And there was at least one more bull in the area, within 100 or 200 yards of the herd bull – a satellite bull. The satellite bull was letting the bugles rip as well. It all added up to, most likely, a “hot cow”.
-- (Aside. Context on elk behavior).
A hot cow is an elk hunter’s dream. She will be in heat – receptive to breeding – for 24 hours, and every bull in the area will know it and will converge toward her. Most importantly, for the hunter, the bulls will be making an incessant racket, the less dominant (satellite) bulls advertising to her with vocalizations like bugles, grunts, groans, plus using their antlers, some of the most prodigious adornments of all mammalian mega fauna, to rake trees and thrash brush. The satellite bull wants the hot cow to know he is there, that he is strong and healthy, and that he is ready to breed. The most dominant bull, the herd bull, will not appreciate the satellite’s displays. The herd bull wants to be the only one to breed the cow during her 24-hour cycle. He doesn’t want that satellite around, tempting “his” cow, and he will be screaming warnings – “Stay back!” “This is MY cow! Don’t get any closer!” If it comes to it, he may physically confront the satellite, charging toward it, stopping and screaming from just yards away. This goes on for weeks – the advertising, the challenging, the cat and mouse as the satellites try to get close to the hot cows and the bull defends his harem from the subordinate challengers. The cows don’t have a particular allegiance – their goal is to stay safe, to eat nutritious grass, and to be successfully bred – for this last ambition, the more bulls involved, the better their chance of success. The herd bull will try to keep “his” cows all to himself, though. He will enforce a “no-approach” zone around any hot cows, challenging intruding satellite bulls with vocalizations, physical demonstration and even escalating to high-stakes fights – those antlers aren’t just for show. One more option for the herd bull to maintain his sole claim is to “round-up” and push his harem of cows to a different area, moving away from the satellite bull and saving himself the energy and the risk of a confrontation.
That’s what is going on in mid- and late-September. Cows are coming into heat, bulls are working for and defending against the opportunity to breed them. A hunter wants nothing more than to come upon this scene, a hot cow and several screaming bulls. It is what we dream of during the 48 non-season weeks of the year – screaming bulls, a harem of cows, an arrow twacking into the herd bull's vitals. Probably, though, most hunters do not spend enough time dreaming, or planning and playing “what-if” for the many scenarios that can happen between hearing the bugle and letting an arrow fly. The hunter has many ways to play a hot cow scenario, depending on his/her interpretation of the scenario and the opportunities provided by the surrounding environment. The play also depends on the target animal – which, in order of increasing difficulty, is probably: any elk, a lone satellite bull, a cow, a satellite near the harem, and then the herd bull.
We were after any elk, but our imaginations are heated most fervently by the largest and most challenging of these goals. Our pride most desperately wishes for the biggest prize of them all – the oldest, loudest, most massive, most dominant – the herd bull.
-- (End of aside)
Back to the story of this day, our particular encounter. We had moved several hundred yards up the finger drainage and it sounded like the herd bull was 200-300 yards further. The finger drainage was shallow sloping to the left and right, but steeper going up the mountain, toward the elk. The thermal was in our favor, the cool morning air sinking down the mountain, and the air on this east face would continue to sink for at least another two hours. The stable, in our face wind gave us time, but the daily uphill morning migration of the elk required us to continue the pursuit without delay – an elk’s casual pace, through the thick brush and sparse trails, was something we had little hope of matching once they started moving uphill to their daytime bedding areas.
We continued to hustle up the mountain. Then pause. Hurry up, wait. We didn’t want to stumble into the herd, or be spotted by a straying cow, so we stopped often to look, listen for snapping sticks, re-judge our distance to the non-stop bugles.
Elk have an impressive array of vocalizations, and on this day we got to hear the bulls in their full rutting glory, with several bulls all contributing their unique performance of the various types of calls, some of which I had never heard in the woods before, only knowing the type and meaning of the call from a YouTube video or podcast. Location bugles, advertising bugles, chuckles, the bone-chilling scream of a lip ball bugle. After a particularly impressive lip ball bugle, we looked at one another, all wide eyes and manic grins, “Heck yeah baby! He is wound up!” The clearly agitated herd bull, we hoped, would be vulnerable to certain calling scenarios – we hoped to be able to get him fired up enough to come charging in, ready for a confrontation with another bull, where he would step into a clearing within our bow range.
Our intermittent climb stopped when we judged our distance to be less than 100 yards to the elk. The forest and brush were too thick to see directly, but we had a lot of information to work with just from hearing all the bugles during the last hour: There was a satellite bull up and to the right. Another satellite had started sounding off at the bottom of the valley, where we began our climb. Straight above us was the target – the herd bull. We would be thrilled to take any of these animals. Even just the memory of this encounter would be enough. But that was not the right attitude for the moment – for that moment, the goal, the target, the plan was all about the herd bull.
The elk were less than 100 yards up the drainage, and it was time for us to “set up”. The “set up” is a most critical and so often botched part of the hunt. You have to get it right by making decisive and cool-headed moves in a moment when the blood is pounding and breath rate is rapid. The uncertainty and fear of screwing it up creates inertia, and this stills your feet, but this indecision is not going to kill an elk – it is time to act decisively. I have loads to say about (and still to learn about) the set up, but I’ll leave it at that – it has got to be right, and it needs to happen now. We spread out, setting up in shade and using vegetation as backdrops, covering different possible shooting lanes across the drainage. We whispered and gave hand signals, gesturing suggestions on how to better position as individuals and as a group. Then all was still. Eye contact was shared between those with a direct line of sight.
The herd bull screamed. Eeeeeeeeeeogh! Luke gave a short cow call – meew! We could hear elk above us – brush rustling and sticks breaking. Luke cow called again. Meew. Meeewww. Then, Eeeoorgh! – the herd bull screamed back a response, inviting the “cow” (Luke) to come in toward him. We waited with hushed breath and wild imagination, ready to hear his crashing approach, see his tall antlers and dark brown face as he emerged into one of our shooting lanes.
He was not coming. Our target bull had a hot cow and was reluctant to stray too far from her. These elk were on their daily journey up the mountain, and the bull had acknowledged us (as elk), but we were down the mountain from him. The patience game, letting his curiosity of the unknown cow build, was unlikely to bring him in close. The patience game would not work, so we went on to the next play, the next escalation. I started chirping and mewing cow calls, then Jake joined in. We "casted' cow sounds about the basin, making social/contact calls, imitating a small group of cows. We listened. We waited. Another round of cow calls. Listen. There were still no sounds of an approaching bull.
Jake looked my way, reaching for his bugle tube. I nodded in agreement. Time to really escalate the situation. We were going to try to play on the bull’s fire, on his defensive and hopefully aggressive emotional state. Jake blew a powerful, but not too aggressive, bugle up the basin. The bull immediately responded, raspy and balling. This bull was wound up! I broke some sticks and thrashed brush. We listened, spread out 100 yards across the basin, me 30 yards back from the skirmish line made by the other three guys.
The bull still wasn’t coming. He had heard our cow calls. Now he had heard the call of a challenging bull and the thrashing brush, seemingly right in close to his harem of cows. “Cut him off?” Jake suggested. I nodded enthusiastically. The bull bugled again, and Jake hit him back, before the bull could even finish his screech, with a mean, loud, deep, balling bugle. Holy. It’s on now! It’s gotta be on now. We had set up a “hot cow scenario” of our own, imitating a sole cow, then a group of cows, then a defensive bull, all within 100 yards of the real herd bull. He must be coming to check it out.
But it wasn’t “on”. He wasn’t “coming in”. We heard sticks breaking, elk moving about. Then silence. 1 minute. 2 minutes. 10 minutes. We cow called, broke sticks, maybe we bugled once or twice more, but to no avail.
The elk were gone. It was over. We were not “busted” or “found out”. The herd bull had decided that we – “a group of cows and an aggressive bull” – were not worth the trouble. He thought we were elk, he might have even believed there was a hot cow among us, but we could not tip his behavior in our favor. He met our various strategies first with indifference. Then he invited us closer with a short lazy response bugle to our cow calls. Later, after bugling toward him, he sent down a challenge to stay back. And in our final escalation, cutting off his bugle with a raspy scream of our own, he chose non-confrontation – he simply left the situation, rounding-up his hot cow and the rest of his harem, leaving us behind.
Nobody drew their bow. Nobody saw an elk. No antlers on the wall, no meat in the freezer. Another “failed” encounter. We learned a few things, rehashing the encounter 10 times that night and in the following days (although it was less on our minds just a couple hours later, when we did put and elk on the ground). We wonder what-if. If only we had done this. If the elk had been over there. If only we had thought to do that. We learn by reflecting on the encounter. And we will take those lessons and will adjust our hunting in the future.
But hardly could this be called a failure. It was a failure only in the narrowest sense of taking home an elk. It was awesome. We found a mountain full of screaming elk on a public land unlimited-license hunt. We walked in under our own power – boots on the feet, gear on the back, bow in the hand. We used knowledge gained from elk-woods experience, youtube and podcasts to understand the situation. We communicated back-and-forth with a 1,000-pound, wild, powerful, electrifying creature.
Gee whiz. It was just awesome. With some of my best friends in the world, brothers since we were 6 years old, doing what we talk about all year, getting into what we dream of every day. The bull’s 10,00-watt screaming lip-ball bugle, down the drainage toward us – “it’s on baby!”– that will be with us forever. You don’t always kill and elk, and maybe you don’t always have to. If you are alone, an encounter will leave you with a thrilling memory, a lesson and an “if-only”. If you are among the luckiest fellows in the world because you are surrounded by your great friends, then you will have one more treasure to add to the trove, one more story shared between you, a contribution to your bond and to the Saga of the Hunt.