Stalking the Herd Bull
By Dan Pickar
The elusive herd bull. He doesn’t want to fight. He’ll bugle then push his cows away from you. He’s unpredictable. Not only are herd bulls mature and wise, they are usually the biggest bulls in the area. Getting into bow range is hard enough, let alone getting a shot and punching your tag on a rutted up lady wrangler. Other times, a herd bull can act as dumb as a bag of rocks but still be impossible to kill because of multiple cows and satellite bulls on lookout for him. How, to kill one? Getting past multiple eyes, ears and noses to harvest a herd bull may be the pinnacle of a mountain bowhunter’s career and has been something I’ve become obsessed with.
I’ve been schooled more times than I can count by herd bulls. I grew up bowhunting elk in northwest Montana and watched too many “How To” elk hunting DVDs and figured it wasn’t all that hard to call in a bull elk. I had many failed attempts of blowing on cow calls and bugling at bulls on public land then driving home scratching my head trying to figure out why the bulls I was calling weren’t charging in, snot flying and nostrils flaring. It took me a few years of hunting areas with low densities of elk on public land to change my tactics. The first step was to hunt somewhere else with more elk!
Stalking a Herd Bull
Stalking in on a herd bull is a great challenge and possibly my favorite pursuit in bowhunting. Over the past few seasons I’ve refined my tactics for stalking mature herd bulls. First off, I prefer to hunt elk in open country. I define open country as more open space than thick cover, thick cover meaning any type of cover where elk can disappear. I would much rather hunt elk in the wide open with good stalking terrain any day over playing cat and mouse in the timber.
As elk evolve due to apex predators and as hunting pressure on public land increases, I have found that bugling during the rut is more and more inconsistent or even non-existent in areas with wolves and grizzlies or high hunting pressure. Two approaches I have applied are to adapt and overcome these new obstacles and find new places to hunt. I’ve done a little of both to boost my odds of success anyway I can. If possible, I stay away from large tracts of timber for early-season or late-season elk hunting. In general, I have found less bugling going on during these times. I don’t mind hunting the timber during the peak of the rut, or when the bulls in my area are most consistently vocal, which varies upon location but when bulls are silent and in heavy timber, finding them can be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
An elk hunt in open country is more forgiving. If they aren’t talking you can bet you’ll still have stalks to make on bulls; again, anything to up your odds. A lot of times in cool weather elk will bed in the wide open. Usually there is always an option for a stalk on elk in the wide open as long as they aren’t in a flat field. If the weather is warm, open-country elk may bed on the edge of timber or a steep draw, which makes it much easier to keep tabs on them. Open-country elk are most vulnerable when they’re up and moving, that’s where I’ve found my best success. Once I locate a herd with a bull I want to kill, I analyze their path of travel, get the wind in my favor and attempt to cut them off. I have found a lot of success with this method. Sometimes it may take several hours for a stalk to unfold. I think I’ve used the word patience in about every article I’ve ever written about bowhunting, so this is the time to apply that word once again. The stalk almost always turns into a waiting game for the herd to be in the right spot to get close enough for a shot. If they travel far enough and you can stay with them, the herd will end up in killable terrain almost every time.
Calling in a Herd Bull
I never have had much luck calling in a herd bull. Over the years of trial and error however, I have found it is possible in the right situation. The most important variable to consider when calling at a bull with cows is to not call if you’re more than 75 yards away from him. A herd bull will move away from you every single time if you bugle at him from 200-400 yards. For the most part a bull won’t fight unless he really has to. It is essential to break into his comfort zone for calling techniques to work.
The first task is locating a bull with a cow call. Using a bugle will put a call-shy public-land bull on edge so I shy away from it. If I can get him pinpointed I’ll work my way in on him with as little calling as possible. Once you break into his comfort zone of about 75 yards, act like you want to fight, make noise, rake trees and send out a challenge bugle. Match his vocalness then try and fire him up as much as possible. Cut him off with a bugle when he bugles. After that challenge bugle, you better have an arrow nocked and some shooting lanes figured because a dominant bull will almost always come over to defend his territory and cows. A lot of times it will be in a mad rush, eyes wide, and nostrils flaring.
This technique sounds great but a lot of factors have to be in your favor for it to play out resulting in a punched tag. The wind has to be perfect as well as the terrain and cover for this to work. The good part of hunting elk in timber is you can use natural barriers and thick cover to manipulate a bull’s path as he comes to fight you. That right there, skyrockets your odds of getting a shot when a bull comes in to check you out. But what if you don’t have terrain or cover once you have a herd bull located? You’ll have to wait on that bull to move into a place where you can sneak up on him and kill him. This is a situation that can’t be rushed and will only play out on his time.
The Lost Calf
The lost calf call is a high-pitch cow call with urgency that is repeated a few times. I’ll use this call if I get close to a herd in the timber and have some good natural barriers for calling to be effective. If I feel the herd bull is holding tight to his cows and is a little timid to bugles, I’ll use the lost calf call. This has been incredibly effective for me in the past. Usually, I can get a cow talking to me when I use a lost calf call. I’ll get whiney and egg her on a little bit too. Their motherly instinct kicks in and she’ll come right in. A lot of times they lose their mind and just stand there staring at you and won’t want to leave. If you can use this technique to lure in a hot cow, then odds are you’ll be at full draw on the herd bull.
The Elk Bark
The dreaded bark. We’ve all heard it many times. Stalking into bow range of an elk herd sounds difficult, and it is. Odds are low and you will blow stalks. Much of the time blowing out elk is associated with a cow barking at you then the whole herd retreating. Once you hear that distinct bark, from a cow or a bull, your stalk is all over. Or is it? If they catch your wind and you hear a bark, then that’s it. This is called a warning bark. You can never fool an elk’s nose.
Luckily, you can fool their eyes and ears. If a bull or cow elk see’s your movement but can’t decipher what it is, it may bark at you. This is called the nervous bark. If you have the wind, the gig isn’t up – yet.
A nervous bark means, who’s out there? Show yourself! This is where you can send a bark right back and calm them down. This technique is best used in the timber. Be sure to practice your elk bark on your grunt tube before season, the results I’ve seen by adding the elk bark to my calling vocabulary are staggering. I’ve saved a few stalks where a cow has caught my movement and barked at me. I’ve replied with a bark to every bark I get from the suspicious sentry and it has calmed the herd down. If the herd is vocal, I’ll throw in a couple light assembly cow calls in the end. This has worked a few times for me, so practice your barks before your next hunt!
In my experiences I have found that bulls bugle more consistently and more often where there are high densities of elk. A lot of cows means high competition between the bulls figuring out who’s boss and who gets which cows. Dome Mountain in Paradise Valley, Montana is a good example as well as the Missouri River Breaks. There are a lot of cows and bulls there so getting ranks figured out early in the season for these herds creates a vocal elk paradise. In contrast to northwest Montana where elk densities are lower: fewer cows means less competition and less bugling and fighting. A herd bull with 40 cows is a lot easier to keep tabs on with satellite bulls running around compared to a herd bull with 6 or 7 cows and maybe one satellite bull.