Silence may be your best ally to hunting public land bulls.
“If he wants to act like a bighorn ram then he can die like a bighorn ram,” came my emphatic declaration after glassing a great bull at the top of the tallest peak in the drainage. He was over 3 miles away as the crow flies but from what I could tell he could be one of the biggest bulls I’ve ever had the privilege of chasing. That his chosen lair was an oxygen depleting 2,500 vertical foot climb to 11,000 feet above sea level seemed to add to the mystique of this bull.
We backtracked and dropped off our ridge to access the horse trail in the bottom. The trail helped us avoid cliffing out on our ascent to the clouds. Almost 6 hours later I was working through a small draw to the last place I had seen the bull. “Do you want me to stay back 100 yards and call?” came the sincere question from my buddy Ben. “Absolutely not!” I half-barked before I could catch myself. I then replied, “we still have the upper hand. He’ll pinpoint us if we call and we’ll lose the element of surprise and ultimately our ability to move”. 100 yards later I poked my head over the small rise and saw antler tips swaying in the alpine grasses as he fed 70 yards away. I dropped down and snuck forward to the last patch of Krumholz, ranged, drew as I stood, and settled my pin as he fed perfectly broadside. The silence was music to my ears.
I know many of the magazines and most the elk hunting videos try to portray hunts with big vocal bulls running hunters over to thrash the challenger that dared to enter their domain. In my experience, nothing in the hunting world rivals the thrill and excitement of hard-rutting bulls screaming their heads off and acting aggressive to calls. It just doesn’t happen very often on public land. It happens even less in general units on public land which is where the majority of us will be trying to arrow a wapiti this fall. Over half the bulls I’ve poked arrows through have only heard me call to them when I was already at full draw and needed them to stop. Remember that the majority of the magazines and all of the videos have an agenda – they’re selling elk calls!!!
My first 2 archery bulls came when I was still in school. The first a hunter pushed to me. No calling needed when a raghorn about runs you over and stops to look at the blob next to the trail. The second was in his bed bugling every 15 minutes or so. I closed the distance to 100 yards before he decided to get up for the evening rut. We played cat and mouse in a pouring rainstorm until I was crouched in front of his chosen route to some unseen destination. His bugles kept me on my toes as he edged closer to my shooting lane. I drew as he slipped past a pine tree and emerged at 35 yards. I didn’t even have to cow call to him as he caught the last few inches of my draw and stopped on his own! By then it was too late as my old Mach 4 was already pushing my Easton Gamegetter II home. His 6×7 antlers still hang in my garage and are one of my prized hunting trophies to this day.
A few years ago I was able to follow one of the best elk hunters of our generation on 2 archery hunts. I was packing a video camera and Dan Evans of Trophy Taker Archery Products www.trophytaker.com was the hunter. Although Dan was not afraid to call, and was very proficient at it, the 2 bulls he arrowed with me behind him were each called to 1 time. A soft cow call stopped each bull when he was already at full draw. During the two weeks we were together, we chased bugles and bugled plenty on our own but I don’t find it ironic that in the moment of truth, silence prevailed.
If you’re the type that drives around on your quad and only shuts it off so you can bugle every 400 yards, please disregard this article. It won’t help you. To the rest of you that are looking at increasing your odds at harvesting a bull every year maybe you should switch gears a little. Hard-hunted public land bulls may require softer tactics than you’re used to. You can either make them go silent with an arrow through the ribs or call too much and they’ll go silent on their own. The choice is yours.
Now, about that big oxygen deprived bull in the first of this article. Looking back I really wish I had called to him. More than likely he would have slipped over the ridge to his bedded cows without giving me an opportunity. Surely that outcome is better than watching him bolt over the ridge when I punched the trigger on my release and bounced my arrow off a chunk of Wyoming granite.