7 years & 1 day – bull down

This year is my eighth season elk hunting and I was finally able to notch an elk tag on a bull. Breaking through felt pretty damn good I have to admit. My dad and I have been relentlessly trying to make it happen and it has been a learning curve to become an elk hunter in BC.

I thought about doing a year by year summary of where we went elk hunting, how each year went for us, what we learned, etc. But that would make this already long article far longer. Let me know if you’re interested in that and I may write up a separate article documenting our 8 year elk journey. 

I would love to see other elk hunters on here share your hunt with us too. I never get enough elk hunting content. In the meantime, here is the recap of our elk hunt this year. Enjoy!

This season we had three different regions of BC that we considered for our elk hunt. All three are areas we’ve hunted before and we had varied levels of bull interactions in each.

After our sheep hunt, we narrowed our plan to two different regions. We were going to try one area first, and then if it wasn’t fruitful we’d try the other region to close out the elk season as we figured based on some intel it may have a later rut in that area. Luckily both our jobs can be done remotely…so we figured we could work and hunt like we did last year. It was the simplest way for us to be out hunting longer than a few days. In our experience, timing the rut has been hard so we valued more time hunting than a specific week.

That said, we had some really good intel from a friend (thank you Bryce) who gave us advice on what time range in September has been active for him in years past. We had pins in an area he knew really well that we had hunted a few years ago and he was extremely helpful in giving us spots to try and hone in on. Our plan was to take his advice, combine that with our past experience in the area, and implement a few Elk Camp tips we picked up from each guest and see what happens.

Fast forward to the trip, we rolled into the area over the weekend and set up camp. We called our living situation “Spike Glamp” because we were living in a fancy fifth-wheel trailer and hunting from that. It meant some early morning driving to get to areas we wanted to hunt, but a small price to pay to be able to work remotely and hunt. It was much comfier than some sheep hunt sleeping quarters we’ve had I’ll just say that.

The plan was to hit the area hard Sunday morning and spend the full day covering ground, calling, and trying to locate fresh sign to narrow the area down to fresh activity. We got up bright and early and headed out to the trailhead pin.

Our hike into the area started mostly in the dark and was pretty quiet for the first hour or so. It had cooled off overnight so the air was brisk in the dark forest. The sky was clear and it was poised to warm up in the afternoon. Maybe that cool morning would help us. We covered ground, didn’t see much fresh elk sign so we carried on. As it usually is, the area we felt was our best spot was much further into the woods so not seeing elk sign early on didn’t discourage us.

As we approached the start of our “prime” area, we decided to start by making a calf call. We heard on Jay Nichol ‘s Mindful Hunter podcast with Joel Turner his strategy about instinctive elk calling and using calf calls to hunt bulls. In our minds it made a lot of sense, so we figured we’d try it out and see how it went.

Dad let out a calf call and the woods stayed quiet. We still hadn’t seen fresh sign so we weren’t surprised to not hear anything. We starting walking down the trail and all of sudden the quiet was broken by a bugle fairly close to us. It has no more than 200 yards away from us but he was down a creek canyon that we had been paralleling. What a start to the trip! Gotta love a bugle ringing off on day 1…we knew it certainly doesn’t happen every time. For reference, he bugled about 4 minutes after our calf call. I believe he bugled because he heard the calf call and then heard us walking down the trail hearing us crunch the leafs on the ground. I don’t think it was a random bugle.

Well, we weren’t going to let this opportunity pass us by. I have a pretty strong belief that closing the distance is a good strategy when you hear a bugle. I have a couple old elk hunting books where guys share their strategies to hunt elk and the thing that stuck out was that they closed the distance and didn’t wait for a bull to come to them. In years past when we were more novice elk hunters, we always waited for the elk to come to us. They did sometimes, but more often than not you had to at least close the distance a little bit.

I also noticed that most of the guests on Elk Camp said something similar. Jordan Kowalchuk  had some great discussion points on this. He advocates to close the distance and constantly try to up the tempo with your bugling to a bull. Try to play on their emotion and get them to make an emotional decision to come to you for that last bit of distance before a shot opportunity. Listen to Jordan’s episode of #ElkCamp here.

We had a good idea of where the bugle was coming from, so we dropped down in elevation and started working our way into the creek canyon that we heard the bull. After about 150 yards, we let out another calf call. This time the bull bugled back faster, in under a minute for sure. We closed the distance yet again and tried to progress the calling tempo. The terrain we were in kept getting steeper and we could see thicker country coming up, but the area we were in at the moment was great country to see the bull if he decided to appear.

The next part of the story gets a bit repetitive. We called back and forth with this bull for almost 3 hours. He would go quiet at times for 30-45 minutes, we would change our position watching the thermals and wind based on his last known location. Eventually he would call back to us. It seemed like he was moving around but was staying mostly on our side of the canyon. We didn’t get the feeling he had cows with him because the first few calls he was pretty stationary and from what we heard on podcasts and such, if a bull has cows with him he tends to bugle and then move. If you hear the first couple bugles from a bull in different locations it is a good indication he has cows with him. In our instance, this bull was stationary for the first couple bugles but as we got closer he started moving around. 

Long story short, we got really close to him but never saw him. He made us come down almost into the bottom of this creek canyon where the terrain got steep and thick. At one point I could hear the bull walking in the trees down in front of us. My belief is that he never came out because he didn’t like the terrain for an interaction. From my research, elk like to see you first, hear you second, smell you third. Based on that theory, this bull would not see us until very close range in steep terrain and maybe he was uncomfortable with that. Or maybe he just didn’t feel like coming out to play and wasn’t fully kicked into rut yet. We’ll never know.

It’s worth noting that at some point during the 3 hours we mixed up our calling strategy drastically. We took advice from Trent Fisher when he said doing something is better than doing nothing at all, so when the bull stopped responding to calf calls we switched to bugles. We even threw in the odd cow call. The bull responded to calf calls and bugles primarily. Listen to Trent’s episode of Elk Camp if you haven’t yet!

Once the bull had enough of us, he disappeared never to be heard from. We hiked back up to our trail and had a snack before continuing the trek into our area we wanted to scout. So far, we still had seen almost zero fresh elk sign so I was starting to really think about what is going on and where the elk were hiding out. That bull was close to water, so in our eyes maybe that was a clue.

About 30 minutes later we were hiking down our trail we smelt elk. It’s a hard smell to describe, but most hunters know what I am talking about. I find that I can smell when an animal like an elk or deer has been in the area recently. Maybe that is a little woo woo theory we have…I don’t know. Either way, at the same spot we smelled elk I noticed two things. There was a cross trail that looked pretty worn down, and on FatMaps that trail took us into a slight depression in what would be a mostly flat area. The contour of the terrain changed a bit in this spot and all of those points intrigued me.

In our Elk Camp episode with Travis O’Shea, he had mentioned that when he scouts an area he hikes a cutline or a main trail and looks for a good game trail that veers off it. Travis will walk those trails and it typically leads him into interesting elk area. I took that mental note down and when we came across this game trail veering off I had a gut feeling that the trail was something we should try.

My dad was leaning towards staying on our main trail to cover ground and get further into the area we wanted to hunt. I was on the fence, so we took a few more paces up the main trail to see what we saw. I noticed two more trail entrances that crossed our main trial and converged onto the game trail I was interested in. That was enough of a tipping point for us. I suggested that we walk this trail 5-10 minutes and see where it led. If it wasn’t fruitful we could turn and around and carry on up the main trail.

The game trail was very worn in and had other trails weaving back and forth on it. I liked the area pretty quickly. Within 4 minutes of us being on the trail we suddenly heard the bush start crashing 35 yards from us. I didn’t see what it was, but my dad saw elk hooves running away from us. He jumped on the bugle tube and let out a casual location bugle. It was quiet.

We popped down into the thick brush this elk was in to see if we could find any clues if it was a bull or cow. Immediately it become obvious we had bumped a bull. He had rubbed the crap out of a couple trees right beside where he bedded down. The rubs were the freshest I had seen and the smell of the tree from the rubs was strong. The bull made those rubs that morning most certainly.

All of a sudden we heard the bull bugle. That got us excited! We bugled back, but he got quiet for the next few minutes. I tried to see if we could close the distance in the direction he took off, but the area was dense with rose bushes and thick trees so it felt unlikely. We decided to step back out on our game trail as it was heading in the general direction that bull bugled from. Maybe not quite the right way but we could find a trail that cuts more his direction and try another bugle.

Before we started up the game trail we heard a bugle! This time it was further to the left from where the bull sounded off on us. Hard to tell if it was the same bull or a different one. Either way, we decided to silently close the distance on in the direction we heard the bugle. The game trail we were on was heading straight towards him.

After a couple hundred yards we sounded off a soft to medium location bugle. This bull answered right back. It was on! We crossed a small draw to get up on flatter terrain that would take us closer to the bull. We could tell he was close, within about 200 yards. The country we were heading into was pretty open so I had a good feeling we would get at least a sightline on this bull.

As we hopped up on the flatter terrain from the draw I saw that we were standing on an old quad trail. That made for easy walking. We let out a bugle and covered about 90 yards. This bull bugled right back to us. The encounter was bound to happen at this point!

I was the shooter, my dad was the caller. Our plan was for me to sneak up the trail about 35 yards in front of my dad to get into a good position to see the direction that bull was bugling from. He would stay back and try to draw the bull up to us for that final distance. We’d keep closing the gap as required.

All of a sudden, as I was quietly stalking in on this bull on the trail sneaking up behind aspen trees I noticed big bodied animals to my left about 50 yards away. We had four horses standing there in a line staring at me. My initial thought was “shit! they are going to run and blow this bull out of here.”

Oddly, the opposite happened. They saw my dad and I and got all excited and ran right up to us! Hilarious. Here we are in the middle of an exciting bull elk bugling match and we have 4 horses wanting to see us. They stood 10 yards away from us, thankfully they hung around my dad as I continued to sneak forward to get a better position with on this elk. A farmer must have grazing rights on this public land for horses to roam. I don’t know why they were there.

I stood behind a small 6foot pine tree and waited. The bull was still bugling back whenever my dad bugled, and he was no further than 100 yards from us. I had about 200 yards of visibility in some spots here so I knew I would see him at some point.

There he was. The bull came out from behind some trees and walked broadside towards the trail we were on. I couldn’t count points yet. He then stood on our trail, let out a ripper of a bugle and started walking straight up the trail towards us.

Things were getting real! I had my gun ready, watching him through the scope behind this pine tree. The problem was that I couldn’t make out all of his points through the tree. I definitely could see he was more than a 3 point based on the antler size and the different points I was seeing. But I needed to be sure of what I was looking at.

I inched to my right slowly to see around the tree, this bull elk continuing to slowly walk up the trail right at us. He was looking directly up the trail trying to see us as he walked so I didn’t want to move too much and spook him.

I moved just enough to get a great look at him. He was 100% beyond a three-point which made him a legal bull. I had my sights set on a 5 or 6 point because if I waited this long to kill a bull I figured I should hold out for a bull that excited me. I could see he was a bull I was excited about so I locked on the centre of his chest and took the shot.

The bull took five steps backward and toppled almost immediately. He was going nowhere and was dead very fast. I watched his final breaths and we walked up to him.
As we walked up to him I picked up his head and saw he was a 5×5. A respectable size, I sure was proud of him and thankful for the opportunity to harvest this bull. What an amazing feeling. Going to be a good eater too!

My dad and I celebrated and congratulated each other. We worked 7 years and 1 day for this moment together and it was pretty special. After taking a few photos we heard a bugle ring off in the distance close by.

We bugled back and considered going after that bull but we were already 6km into the backcountry and had a lot of work ahead of us. That bull wandered off and we focused on the task at hand.

It took us 2 fully loaded trips to get all the meat and head back to our truck. We finished processing the bull around 3:15pm and didn’t finish packing the elk out until 10:30pm in the dark. We were exhausted but couldn’t be happier to come out heavy.

In the end, I think what happened was that we bumped that bedded bull and when he bugled at us he actually fired up the bull we ended up killing. After I took the shot on the bull, I saw in the distance a cow elk run off in the trees. That was when I saw a waterhole behind our bull that we killed. That cow was across the waterhole close by where we heard the last bull bugle once we killed our elk. It’s possible we had 3 different bull elk in that area close to the waterhole. I think my bull may have been a satellite of the herd bull who had that cow with him. Or he was a lone bull that was hanging out at the waterhole. hard to know.

Thank you to all of our friends in the hunting community who helped us along the way. We aren’t elk hunting experts by any stretch, but we certainly are a lot more knowledgable now than when we started DIY elk hunting 8 years ago. We learn a lot from mistakes along the way and consuming podcasts/books/etc, but we sure benefited by shared knowledge from friends who have more elk experience than us and by them giving us pins to try areas they had knowledge about. 

 The plan for the rest of the season is to try and get my dad a bull. We don’t have very many days to get the job done and it would be purely a bonus for us to get another bull, but we have an area we have some experience and cameras in that we’re going to try. Stay tuned!