Jim Van Norman and I climbed a steep, timbered slope in the predawn dark. Hearing the bugling and cow calls emanating from farther down the mountain, we figured it was worth the pain. The previous morning we’d arrived too late to intercept the herd as it made its way from feeding below us to bedding in the thick young firs uphill. This meant we were pretty much out of the game. (Anyone out there who thinks he can outrun an animal walking uphill on four long legs, take it from a couple of middle-aged guys who’ve been there, tried that: It ain’t gonna happen.)
All we could do was try to get one of the 10 or so bulls in the herd to reverse direction by sounding like a lonely cow. That proved to be wishful thinking. When elk are moving in earnest toward their bedding area, more often than not even the most plaintive cow calls won’t turn a bull. It’s best to get out in front—and now we finally were.
Having that many bulls in a herd might seem farfetched to many hunters, but this was early October—the 8th, to be exact—and with the cows starting to herd up for winter, the neighborhood bulls had gravitated toward them. They were looking for the few cows that hadn’t been bred earlier in September to come into season again, or for late-born yearlings to go into heat for the first time. With the rut winding down, the bulls were concentrated.
We set up about 50 yards apart and just over a rise so any bull investigating Jim’s cow calls would come in close before wondering where the cow was. With the herd making all sorts of racket, it wasn’t hard to monitor its advance, and soon we could see antler tips going by. Jim’s calls didn’t turn those bulls, but it wasn’t long before I spotted a raghorn sneaking in. Since the season was winding down, I wasn’t going to be choosy. Unfortunately, due to a recent elbow operation my right hand got so painfully cold in the 20-degree air that I didn’t think I could get off a controlled release, so I let him walk by, 30 yards away, on his way toward Jim.
When the bull got within 18 yards, Jim drew back, but noticed that the young bull was looking behind. Knowing another, and probably bigger, bull was about to show, he held off and moments later a 5-point trotted into view. When that bull stepped out from behind some trees, he too turned to look back at another approaching bull. Unlike the raghorn, though, the 5-point wasn’t so lucky, as Jim wasn’t about to test his luck a second time. At the shot the woods erupted in thundering hooves and snapping twigs. All the commotion triggered bugles from three bulls farther downhill, and Jim motioned for me to take off after them; he’d trail the 5-point he’d just hit.
A half-hour later I found Jim standing near his bull. I couldn’t help but smile. Any morning you or your partner puts a bull on the ground is an awfully good one; when you’ve also been that close to so many others, it’s flat out phenomenal. Though I’d always had good success hunting in late September, unlike Jim, I’d never bowhunted elk this far into October. It was as good, if not better, than my favorite time to bowhunt elk—the pre-rut.
But the peak has its downsides, too. Not only are most hunters going to be out there with you—a huge disadvantage—you also have the frequent problem of dealing with herd bulls whose first instinct, after bugling to your calls, is to flee with their cows from what they perceive as competition. They can also be tough to entice with cow calls. The old saying that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush applies exponentially to a bull with three to 20 cows. He might come to a cow he believes has wandered off, but he also knows that if he leaves his harem even for a few minutes, he might be short a few—or all—of them when he returns. This time of year a herd bull has good reason to be paranoid.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of opportunities with loner bulls traversing the high country in search of cows, or with satellite bulls hovering around herd bulls with harems. But if I had to pick when to take a week’s vacation hunting elk, it would either be early (after opening weekend) or late in the season (some states have limited seasons, so hunting this late might not be an option). You might have to cover more country to find elk, but when you do get their attention, there’s a far better chance of calling in a bull than during the peak of the rut.
■ In late August and early September, bulls are more likely to investigate bugles and cow calls. They’re not herded up like they will be a few weeks later, although you’ll often see younger bulls with cows. Once the cows start coming into heat, however, mature bulls will converge and claim the cows for themselves. Until then, these 2- to 3-year-olds are feeling their oats, and they’ll often reply to calls. So will solo bulls that are getting restless as the rut draws near. They’ll also sneak in quietly to check out other bugling bulls, intent on sizing up the competition but not looking for a confrontation. Perhaps the biggest early-season advantage is the fact that you’re usually dealing with single animals, hence fewer eyes and noses with which to contend.
■ By early October most of the breeding has taken place and the cows are gathering into bigger herds. Hoping to capitalize on the late-season estrous cycle, bulls will converge on these cows from miles away. As more elk gather into a smaller area, they’ll become more agitated and hence more vocal. Finding them can be easy if you’re within earshot; otherwise it can take a lot of hiking to locate them.
■ Of course, you’re still likely to encounter roaming bachelors that will cover a lot of ground to reach a cow, and a desperate bull is usually a gullible bull. Best of all, the elk are apt to be more relaxed and cooperative, since most elk hunters are back in the low country, watching football or hunting birds and deer.
In the early season:
In the late season: