By: Willi Schmidt
Chasing bugling bull elk in September has been my biggest hunting passion. If I was told I had to give up hunting everything but one species, the decision would be easy, archery elk.
My gear list for this hunt included:
- Hoyt Carbon Defiant bow
- Gold Tip Hunter 340 arrows
- Grim Reaper – Carni-four broadhead
- Hamskea Hybrid Hunter rest
- Spot Hogg Fast Eddie bow sight
- Spot Hogg Whipper Snapper release
- Tenzing TZ6000 pack
- Foxpro “The Closer” bugle tube and Foxpro reed and diaphragm calls
- Montana elk decoy
- Mountain house dinners
- Nite Ize – headlamp and flashlights, S-biners, Gear Ties
- OnXMaps – GPS chips and phone app
- Thorogood boots
- Browning Hell’s Canyon “Speed” clothing
- Somerset pop up camping trailer
- Kuiu sleeping bag
- Outdoor Edge knives
- Vortex Optics
- Wilderness Athlete – Energy and Focus, Hydrate and Recovery, and meal replacement shakes
- Siberian Coolers
I drew two great tags for the fall of 2017. Actually, I won one in a raffle at the Western Hunting Conservation Expo in Salt Lake City in February and drew a 900 tag for Montana. Both were archery tags and in areas, I had never hunted before. The unit I won the tag for in Utah takes residents 10 years or so to draw and I wasn’t going to be able to put boots on the ground to scout. I have hunted just north of this unit in Montana, but not the specific area. I was able to get away for 2 days to scout the area in August.
The great thing about limited draw areas is that people are generally willing to help others out. I reached out to several folks in the Salt Lake area and actually had about 4 different people offering to help out. As each one had different areas they knew and were willing to help in different ways, I had to narrow down who I would work with to focus on an area and go with it. James Carlson had a deer tag in the unit and offered to help out all he could.
Because of my schedule, I had to hunt Utah in the early part of the season, which was the latter part of August. This wasn’t ideal as it would likely be hot and not much bugling activity. I had pretty much expected to be hunting over water and glassing from high spots, hoping for some spot and stalk opportunities. I thought I might be able to do some blind setups and call in a bull coming in silent to investigate as well.
I settled on my dates and James agreed to meet me and my buddy, Chris Nowak late on the afternoon of our arrival, to show us some campsites and give me a tour of the part of the unit he knew. We picked a spot to set up the trailer and while Chris set up camp, James and I headed out. We did see a few elk and I got familiar with the terrain and the road system. The season was underway but my hunt would start the next morning.
Chris and I headed out the first morning to a high spot to glass and listen for bugles. We actually heard one but also saw a herd of elk with a great bull. We decided to head into the drainage but 200 yards into the decent, I slipped and rolled my ankle pretty badly. I was wearing some low top hikers and my ankle popped. I decided to head back to camp, ice it and see how it did for the afternoon. I’ve never hurt myself on a hunt and was pretty bummed about how this was starting out.
That afternoon, with my ankle wrapped and high topped boots, we headed to an area with more rolling terrain. We rode my Rogue Ridge electric bikes down a logging road and rode right up on a herd bedded elk. They trotted off, not too alarmed so we dismounted and started the hunt there with a blind set up. We spent the afternoon working a few hundred yards and calling for 30 minutes or so. I was using spike squeals and cow and calf calls, sometimes throwing in some distress or pre-estrus whines. I called up 2 calves and a cow to 25 yards, but no bull on one set up. Just as we were about to move, we heard a bugle and began moving in. It appeared to be a lone bull and he would answer but wasn’t coming in. We pushed in on him and when we finally got within 100 yards, he came in. We got to 30 yards but he didn’t provide a shot. He finally wandered off with about 15 minutes of light left and although I didn’t get a shot, I was thrilled that there was some bugling and that we had a great encounter on day 1.
The next day was the weekend and James and a buddy of his, Craig Ohlson were coming up and we hunted with them the next day. They took us to a new area where James had some cameras set up. We decided to hunt around there and check the cards. As we walked in at first light, we heard two different bulls bugling. Another nice thing about having James and Craig there was that they could call and stay back, hopefully pulling a bull past me, into range. When you are hunting solo and are the caller and the shooter, you often have bulls hang up out of range or only get the frontal shot as a bull comes into the call.
We ended up having two encounters with bulls, one at 18 yards, but no good shot opportunity and another on a young, raghorn bull. Both bugled and came into their calls. On the first set up, James and Craig ended up calling directly behind us with the bull in front. He came in but only provided the frontal shot. After this encounter we helped them understand how important it is for the caller to maneuver to the side of the shooter, to bring a bull in at an upwind angle.
On the next opportunity, they did this beautifully and the bull came in, trying to circle and did come in broadside but it was a young bull and there happened to be too much brush in the way for the shot. 3 encounters with branch antlered bulls in the first two days!
We hunted with James and Craig the next day and although we saw some elk, we didn’t have any encounters.
The next day, Chris and I headed up the mountain alone. We headed to the area we hunted the first afternoon. We did some blind setups, giving each one at least 30 minutes. When nothing responded, we would move ahead 300-400 yards and try again. On our fourth setup, we heard a bugle and moved up to get on the same elevation. We set up and the herd moved to us. There were around 30 cows and at least two bulls. The thermals were rising, and the herd fed our way below us. We had cows at 50 yards and one of the bulls showed himself about 90 yards away. Suddenly I felt the breeze on my neck and closest cows spooked and they trotted off.
We spent the middle part of the day on the mountain, waiting for the afternoon. After about 4 hours, we heard a bugle. We assumed it was the same herd and they weren’t far off so we headed in their direction. We only went about 200 yards and I heard a cow. The herd was feeding in our direction and suddenly there were cows and calves at 30 yards. One cow got our wind and trotted off, taking about 6 others with her. The bull bugled and immediately answered, setting up the scenario that another bull had snuck in and was trying to steal some cows. Both bulls immediately answered and within a minute one bull was heading my way! I watched him close the distance and he came in broadside to under 20 yards. I came to full draw as his head went behind a tree and when he came out I released my arrow.
I saw the arrow hit and immediately new it was back, probably liver. My mistake was that I didn’t stop him with a cow call. I knew better but failed to do so. Even at just under 20 yards, an elk moving covers some ground and with my pin settled on his vitals and not his shoulder, that bull’s half a step caused my shot to be about 6-8 inches farther back than I intended.
I immediately cow called after the shot and he walked away to 90 yards and just stood there. He bedded after about 20 minutes and I thought he would expire right there. I was able to watch the entire time and was shocked when he rose up and started to wander away. I got up and tried to sneak up to put a second arrow in him, but he saw or heard me and trotted off. We decided to back out and trail him in the morning. I called James that night and told him the story. He said he’d be up the following afternoon to either help pack the bull our or help us continue the search.
I figured it was a liver shot and he was going to die, but it was a restless night. Chris and I took up the trail the next morning. We got on his track and found some blood but lost it after about 100 yards when he crossed lots of other elk tracks and we couldn’t find blood. We did a grid search and although we covered a lot of ground, I finally found him piled up behind a downed tree only 50 yards from where we lost blood. Elk are big animals but it’s always amazing to me how they can be so well hidden when they are dead and have logs, trees, and rocks that might block your view of them.
After photos, Chris went camping to meet up with James as I broke the bull down. About two hours later, Chris, James and his brother Tanner arrived and we were able to pack out the entire bull in one trip.
This was a phenomenal trip and a great start to the season. I was pleasantly surprised with the bugling activity in late August. I was able to put all my elk knowledge and calling to use, and although I made one error with not stopping the bull, I was able to recover my largest bull elk to date. I can’t thank James, Craig and Tanner enough for their willingness to help with showing us the unit, helping call over the weekend and coming back up to help pack out my bull. The hunting community is a great one and I’ve got new friends for future adventures!
If you enjoyed this blog check out DIY elk hunting 101 and elk calling 101, two informative blogs that could help you on your next elk hunt!