Firing Up Public Land Bulls

During the past 19 years, I’ve bowhunted elk passionately. For many weeks each autumn I’ve traipsed the wide-open spaces of our western mountains–from juniper flats to alpine basins–in search of “just one more whistle.”

Hunter with elk call
Calling bugling elk is one of the most exciting forms of bowhunting available.

No other endeavor has wrought more toil and strain from me than my pursuit of the Rocky Mountain elk. Yet, it has been a “labor of love” due to my total fascination with the animal and the country they live in. Thetrue rewards of all the hunts are measured in memories–countless and priceless. Also, for practical purposes, a yearly supply of lean red meat has helped feed my family.

Each year I apply for limited-draw elk tags in numerous western states. A couple of years ago I finally drew a permit for an area in New Mexico that I had hunted once previously. On my earlier outing, I’d encountered some exceptional bulls, but had been unable to harvest one of them. Finally, toward the end of the hunt I’d taken a decent bull, yet the memories of the monster bulls that I’d seen were forever lodged in my memory. This trip would be different–I would have “tag soup” or a huge set of bones when I headed for home this year.

Locating Bachelor Bulls

Arriving in my area a few days before the season opened, I immediately set about scouting. The rut was in its earliest stages and I knew that my best bet for callinginabigbull was to get on them before they had rounded up harems. From past experiences I felt that I had a good idea of where to locate some bachelor bulls, so with backpack loaded, off I went.

The ridge was high, cool and dark on its north side, and spilled out into the lower oakbrush foothills where most of the cows lived. I set my base camp at the base of the mountain, considering the prevailing winds. The biggest bulls would be bedding on the upper reaches of the mountain and would be strutting around its crest at night, throwing a few insults at each other. The moon was up during the pre-dawn hours, so I would rise well before daylight and slip down the ridges listening for bugles. Hopefully, with a bull located at first light, I would try to position myself under him, making use of the short-lived morning thermals. Evening outings would be marginal, due to fickle winds, with best hopes placed on possibly locating a bull for morning hunts.

Hunter with compound bow drawn
When the moment of truth arrives, keep yourself under control until after the shot so that you can take home more than just memories of your hunt.

After a few days of this approach I was beginning to get a real “feel” for the area. There were definitely some mature bulls in the area, judging from the size of the rubs. I’d heard a few bugles from mature bulls, yet had been unable to get on them because they would bugle only once or twice at first light before going closed-mouth for the day.

Cold Weather Spurs Activity

On my third night in the area, a thunderstorm set in, dropping the temperature and dumping some sleet. Anticipating a change, I was up well before first light. Though the remaining sleet was rapidly melting, the temperature was noticeably lower than previous mornings. Calm, cool, and quiet … conditions were perfect for some bugling action.

Reaching a prominent point, with sunrise soon approaching, I raised my bugle and sounded off. An answer here, over there, and over there … immediately all three bulls fired up at each other. Frozen in the moment, I listened to the big boys scream… man were they hot!

Dropping downslope as quickly as possible, I began my approach to the nearest bull. Within minutes I was within 200 yards of him. Slowing my pace, I began to look for a good spot to set up. There was a slight bench that ran around the mountain in the direction of the bull, so I eased over to the downwind side, picked some cover, prepared myself, and then bugled. His response was immediate and intentions clear. Breaking brush, the flash of antler, the moaning of a really hot bull as he strode defiantly past me… ah, this is what it’s really all about!

Hunter kneeling next to 6 x 6 trophy buck
This 6×6, 361-inch P & Y New Mexico bull the author harvested on public land was taken with a 30-yard shot.

When my bowstring touched my nose, the pin hit the right spot and the arrow was gone. As the sound of breaking brush faded into the distance, I felt that old familiar “high” that comes when you know that everything has gone perfectly. In a few short minutes, I would walk up on my largest bull in almost 20 years of bowhunting. I would later find out that he was toting 361 inches of antler.

Over the past 19 years I’ve enjoyed 100 percent success on mature bulls (9 P&Y)–all taken on public land, self-guided. By far, the most important factor in my success revolves around extreme mental and physical determination. All the gear, gadgets, and gimmicks won’t suffice for a lack of “hump and get it.” “No pain, no gain” is a fact of life when it comes to consistent top-end success hunting public land bulls.

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