An elk hunting story

Five key elk calling take aways from an epic September

I’m always amazed at some of the success stories of pure, unparalleled luck that some people have in the elk woods. You know what I’m referring to, the “sixty yards from my truck, this six point bull came running in when I cow called.”

Never has this happened to me. Honestly, this kind of luck is not in the cards in my world. Every game animal I have taken (except a little three point buck I shot when I was young) came from hard work, long mountain hikes, and sweaty grit. I have never won anything substantial at the RMEF banquets, lottery tickets, and especially an easy elk.

I wanted to share a story of an elk encounter I had this year. It’s not even the one I notched my tag on, which is a story of success and heartbreak in it’s own for a later article. What this story does do, however, is highlight the realities of hunting elk in September.

Every elk encounter of 2019 was similar to this, and I had many. I don’t say this to impress you, but to impress upon you what to expect when archery hunting the wapiti during the rut. Because most of you are like me; dumb luck and circumstance rarely ever work. It requires knowledge, skill, grit, and a little luck. It’s this combination that creates consistently successful archery elk hunters.

September 12, 2019, I parked my truck at approximately 2,800 feet elevation. I’m in North Idaho, elevations are not extreme here like Colorado or Utah. This particular spot was chosen as plan A for the day, it had a trail into the drainage for the first mile or so. After that, it was no man’s land. The travels took me through some thick brush, open side-hills, and to the base of a finger ridge that separates two different drainages.

At mile two, the real hike began. The ridge began to increase in elevation and movement was slow. These are North Idaho miles. Every state has it’s challenge, but North Idaho miles are something else. It’s always ugly, steep, and insanely brushy.

About halfway up the ridge I ripped out a nasty bugle. I was positioned so that it would cover both sides of the ridge into two drainages. The familiar ring of my bugle filled the two canyons and made me smile as it echoed back. I freaking love that sound.

I waited. I let the bugle sink into the mountain as it should. Then it came, the thrill of a bull elk responding. He squealed a short bugle back, followed by some textbook chuckles. This glorious bastard was fairly ticked about an intruder in his drainage. Instead of responding immediately, I let him simmer a bit. I needed to pinpoint his location a little better.

Within four minutes, he sounded off again. It was a whiney, irritated bugle again followed by some chuckles. He wasn’t any further, nor any closer. I moved up about fifty yards and responded with sounds as close to his as I could. I had him pinpointed.

The problem was his location. I was on a smaller finger ridge, between two separate drainages. He was to the north, hanging mid-slope on a south face that appeared to be almost impenetrable timber. Reality set in.

If I were to close the distance on a direct route, straight down my ridge and up to him, thermals would betray me long before I could get close. A straight shot across the canyon was five hundred yards. I knew what I had to do. Looking up the ridge in front of me, I had to continue my ascent to the top where the ridges came together. From there, I would need to side-hill through that thick timber to close the gap. This strategy would cost me a couple of hours, but would put me on his level and eliminate the thermal threat.

Halfway through, I snapped the following picture.

I began my climb, swimming through thick brush mostly made up of chest high huckleberry bushes. It was slow. All the while, the bull would throw out a bugle here, some chuckles there. He was fired up. I continued to answer him accordingly until I reached the slope he was on. I then went quiet.

I had set a pin on my OnX where I thought the bull was. As I inched towards him, I would check my app constantly to ensure I was where I needed to be in terms of elevation. At this point, my elevation was perfect. If my pin was right, we were both at 3,650-ish feet. All I had to do was close the gap.

I tried to be quiet, but it was fruitless. The blow down and old growth timber made treading lightly impossible. I worried he busted out because he stopped bugling as I got closer. The slope was steep. My ankles throbbed. I thought about the pack out if things went well. What a bitch it would be. Totally worth it though. Really, I was less than three miles to the truck at this point. Not horrible, but again these are North Idaho miles. Here, it’s not the miles, it’s the nature of the terrain. Especially when hunting solo.

It was just about two hours since the first bugle response and I was within eighty yards of my pin location. It was time to do this thing.

I stopped and stood there, catching my breath for a moment. I feared he might not be there. He heard my unnatural movements or maybe busted my scent when the thermals swirled a while back. I didn’t know, but it was time to give it hell.

It was me against this giant animal with stab wagons on his head. In my mind, it’s the ultimate rush. Doing battle with nature’s hardiest. I look forward to these moments all year while simultaneously replaying mistakes from year’s past. The haunting of what has happened, and what’s to come.

If he was still there, I was in his place. My invasion had to be loud and belligerent from this point on. I put my reed in my mouth and raised my bugle tube. I drew a good breath and released the nastiest trash talking bugle I could muster straight in the direction I suspected him to be.

I had grown my hair out a little over the summer. It’s a difficult thing for an old Marine, short hair was ingrained in my mind as a symbol of strength and discipline. But, I wanted to try it out again. The wife likes it. It came out the back of my hat and was almost long enough to touch my t-shirt.

This is why I had the sensation when that bull exploded back at me in perhaps the most aggressive bugle I’ve ever witnessed in the field. Though I couldn’t see him, it was as if he bugled so hard that my glorious locks of hair were blowing back like I was standing in a hurricane. He lost his shit on me.

He was closer than I pinned him to be. Much closer, just through some thick brush forty yards in front of me. My elevation guess was perfect. Not so much on distance. If I was trying to be offensive to this bull, he was dang sure offended.

I knocked an arrow and moved into a better shooting position. He chuckled, I chuckled back. He bugled and I cut him off like I was telling bad yo mama jokes. He took everything personal. I picked up a busted branch and began raking a tree. He moved forward and started raking some brush. I could now see the tips of his antlers and the brush getting thrashed.

My bugle was tucked between my legs, I picked it up and threw a gnarly scream over my shoulder to appear further away. Then I raked some brush with the tube. He was throwing a fit, giving off these crazy growler bugles I’ve never heard before out of a bull.

One more bugle I sent out behind me, and he was coming. I dropped the bugle and raised my bow. He was coming in hot, madder than a fat kid with braces. Thirty yards, twenty five yards. I was ready to draw, but needed some cover first. One more step and his head would be behind a tree. Perfect!

I began to draw back. It was an easy shot, even for a moron like me. I was shaking with excitement and wish I had it on film somehow. However, he didn’t stop behind the tree like I thought he would. He noticed the movement of my draw and stopped. I had no shot as we stared each other down. I was drawn, he was alert.

Unsure of what it was he saw, he slowly turned around and headed back to the brush. He gave me another ornery bugle as he disappeared. I released the tension on my bow, shaking and still full of adrenaline. I grabbed the bugle and let off a bugle, as if I was disappointed he left. He again responded, but he was on the move now. Fifty yards, gaining another thirty each bugle, straight up the mountain.

For the next hour I pursued him up this mountain. I resorted to lip buzz bugles and continued getting responses. He kept moving. He didn’t know what he saw, but he knew he didn’t like it.

The bull crested the ridge and headed down the other side. He was gaining ground on me quick. I finally reached the ridge and bugled. No response this time. I sat down and took the monkey off my back. You know, the hunting pack.

I checked OnX again. I was three and a half miles in and sitting at 4,400 ft elevation. The September sun was starting it’s descent in the west. I sat for an hour, periodically throwing cow calls and a couple of bugles out. He had completely retreated. Out of my life forever.

The hike out of there was unique. I think I found the steepest slope in Idaho thinking it was a short cut back to the truck. Sliding on my butt helped, sometimes I even did it on purpose. It was dark when I saw the truck, finally. Six miles solo and an epic elk battle, here are some key take-aways.

  1. I saw several hunters park and bugle from the road, at times with their truck still running. Periodically, they would wander fifty yards into the brush and start calling. It’s not impossible to hunt this way, but your chances of success are slim at best when doing this. A bull elk requires more effort. They are well aware of the roads and want nothing to do with them. None of my elk encounters happened from a road.
  2. Hunters would be in camp during the day when I would be moving spots, all decked out in a thousand dollars worth of camo. Barbecues would be going to noon, expensive gear would be all over the ground, and they would be sitting around drinking. There is nothing wrong with any of this, unless you want to notch a tag. There is plenty of liquor and barbecue in my camp all summer, but in September, utilizing the daylight hours on the mountain is critical. Instead of going back to camp for lunch, use that insanely expensive pack you bought and take a lunch, stay on the mountain, and find elk! Obviously, if you’re goal of elk camp is to simply have a great time with friends and you don’t care about getting an elk, disregard this. There is something to be said about just enjoying being at camp with friends and family, have fun!
  3. Maintaining your elevation with the bull: All of my call-ins that came to either a shot or a near shot, or another way to look at it, every call-in that brought a bull to less than forty yards had one thing in common; I was never higher or lower than the bull. I was on the same elevation. I’ve heard experts talk about this, but it really stood out this year. My theory is simple, the thermals cannot ruin your day if the elk is on the same level as you. Also, neither the bull or what he perceives as another bull has a high-ground advantage. It worked great, I will definitely be using this strategy next season.
  4. Elk love chuckles! I firmly believe that being able to make authentic sounding chuckles can make or break you on the mountain. Anyone can make a decent bugle sound with some practice, but it takes real commitment to learn chuckles and grunts. When a bull would begin to lose interest or get suspicious, sending off some good chuckles would turn him back again almost every time. One time, a bull was hanging on the opposite ridge and not responding. I didn’t even know he was there. I took a break, then geared back up and let off a few chuckles. He went nuts. I had bugled and cow called in the same spot before with no response, but he liked the chuckles.
  5. Lastly, this was the year I really learned the value of good, aggressive raking. It really rubs a bull the wrong way, pun intended. Raking a tree with a big branch proved to be probably more effective at getting on their nerves than aggressive bugling.

Those are my five key take aways from 2019. It was a great season, one I will never forget. Hopefully you get something good out of this. Let the countdown begin to September, 2020!

See you on the mountain.

Jim Huntsman

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