The first bugle of the morning resonated through the tall pines like a sharp whistle-blast. Just past 7:00 AM, it was already well after daylight, and this first bugle was answered almost immediately by another, larger-sounding bugle. I slipped into my pack, grabbed my trusty Knight muzzleloader, and headed off to find the bigger bugler. The most intense and exhilarating two and a half hours in my nearly 50 years of muzzleloader elk hunting were about to begin.
Skirting water-filled pockets in the swampy creek bottom then hurrying up the opposite ridge to the crest of the big drainage, I wondered if I might get a chance at the unforgettable bull I encountered while scouting. After spotting a light colored body in the pine trees just after dark, I pulled over for a better look. Only 40 yards off the dirt trail, this 400-class monster greeted my arrival with a bugle that hit several notes on the way up, then finished with a defiant lion-like roar instead of a chuckle that literally rattled the half-open windows in my truck! Now stalking silently along a well-defined trail, I moved toward the most promising of several bugles. Soon after cutting a large set of fresh tracks and smoking hot droppings, I spotted the love-sick bull feeding alone on the slope. He was beautiful and mature – in the 340-class – but just not big enough. After all, my hunt unit bordered the legendary White Mountain Apache Reservation, and this area regularly produces 400-inch giants. Besides, it had taken me 17 years since moving to Arizona’s high country to draw a tag to go muzzleloader elk hunting in “my own backyard” during the rut, and I was determined to take a Boone & Crockett bull or none at all.
Before moving on I decided to have some fun with this bull. With camera instead of rifle cocked and ready, I quietly closed the distance behind a Montana Decoy. At about 50 yards the perfect 6×6 turned toward me. He stopped chewing his mouthful of grass and watched the fake cow intently, as I gained ten more yards in the shadows of the ponderosa pines. I tried to fool him with a nearly fool-proof Hoochie Mama cow call, but he immediately bolted away up the slope, so I snapped just one quick photo. This reaction confirmed my plan to continue stalking silently without calling; as these public land elk had already been pressured for a couple of weeks by archery hunters and a growing legion of amateur videographers.
A few minutes later I was again chasing after a dominant sounding bugle – this one emanating from a dark timbered ridge a half mile away. When I reached the base there was thrashing, screaming and short bursts of rapid movement through the trees, indicating hot and heavy rutting activity on top. A raghorn 6×6 bull bailed off the summit, bugling as he passed within a few yards, delaying progression up the slope. My first glimpse of the herd bull – a large whitish blur that pushed another satellite bull out of the trees – came just as I slipped within muzzleloader range at 150 yards. While shifting position for a better look at this bull I sensed movement to my left, where two cow elk were watching me from the cover on a side hill only 40 yards away. Busted! The instant I moved again one of them blew an alarm that cleared the ridge, sending elk running in every direction. I sat down to rest a bit and plan the next move. When things quieted down I could again hear bugling off in the distance, then a few more closer, then a really good growly sounding one followed by a challenging reply. Rest stopover, it was time to move again!
Another 30 minutes… and another close encounter with a giant bugling bull: This one I recognized as the same wide-racked 380-class bull I had inside 200 yards opening morning until my stalk was busted by a band of wild feral horses. Now alone and feeding as he casually moved along, he paused occasionally to answer a distant bugle. Stalking parallel while angling toward the bull, I lost sight of him for several minutes. His next bugle told me he was now much closer and facing toward me, so I crawled up behind an old fallen log and positioned the rifle for a possible shot. Bugling again as he approached, I ranged him at 72 yards then moved up to the gun to take my final, decisive look through the scope. The nearly head-on angle was bad, and he froze inside 50 yards when he caught me moving in a last chance effort to improve the position. Three seconds later he whirled and exploded in the exact opposite direction… about the same time I realized he was standing directly downwind.
Once again it was only minutes before I was on my way, chasing after another big bugle. Several hundred yards down the slope of the next big drainage, it sounded like this bull was moving along the main creek channel. His vocalization was more of a contented or “social” bugle than a “challenge” bugle. After confirming the direction he was traveling, I carefully made my way down through the knee-high grass and setup in the shade, a few yards shy of the water’s edge. The wide creek bottom narrowed to less than 100 yards at this spot, providing an ideal ambush point. A cluster of sapling pines provided frontal cover, with a 15 yard wide opening to the left and a much larger shooting lane looking back up the creek to the right. The bull bugled as he approached from the left, and this time the wind was perfect.
This bull was also alone, pausing to answer bugles as he walked along in the shallow water. His hide and antlers looked dark as I caught a first glimpse through the trees lining the creek. The next brief sighting revealed an enormous set of brow tines, so I readied for a possible shot. Sitting in the tall grass with one leg folded under me, I extended the left bipod leg to the middle position. I could see the enormous body of the old monarch now, and he was close! As the right bipod leg locked into place the spring made a “pinging” sound, and the bull froze in his tracks. I thought, “oh no, not again…” as a similar blunder had alerted a pronghorn to my presence a year earlier. This time I got lucky, when a distant bull bugled and this big boy turned his head away and answered. With the turn I could see his left antler was heavy and webbed at the sword point, but I still wasn’t 100% sure this was the bull I wanted – especially at 9:30 on only the second morning of this seven day hunt!
The distraction of the competitive bugle and reply apparently caused the big old bull to forget why he stopped. Some extended chuckling followed his bugle, and then he stood still for a minute or so before resuming his leisurely stroll up the creek. As he moved into the smaller opening his massive brow times came into view, then the webbing, then the main beams of both antlers, heavy and extending halfway down his back. My brain screamed “shoot that bull,” and I focused on a spot behind his front shoulder. As he walked into full view only 45 yards away I pressured the trigger and the muzzleloader belched. He bucked with the shot, bolted to his left and then lumbered across the creek. I squeezed the Hoochie Mama cow call attached to my belt and he slowed, walking out of the water to his final resting place in the lush grass under the tall pines.
The setting was truly serene, and I sat there in awe of this magnificent animal. He was not the 400-inch bull that I sought, but instead a regressing battle-scarred old dinosaur, later confirmed by Matson’s Laboratory in Montana to be 12 years old… remarkable. With a massive body and antlers to match, this bull had likely survived more than fifty previous hunts, and was truly the bull of a lifetime. But this hunt was far from over… as my long-time hunting and fishing partner Bob Swanson had also drawn a tag!
After taking care of my bull I spent the night in town, and then headed back to camp. While I hunted solo, Bob was accompanied the first 2-1/2 days by his old friend Gary Miller, and his help with photographing and loading my bull was greatly appreciated. They had located a target bull in one of the lower drainages a few miles from camp. This afternoon Gary fly fished a nearby stream for trout, while I hunted with Bob. Hiking into the drainage toward some distant bugling, we soon spotted elk. A dozen cows were feeding along the edge of the creek, which bisected a meadow more than 500 yards wide. Several different bugles emanated from the dark timber, but nearly an hour passed before the 360-class 6×6 herd bull emerged on the far side of the creek to check his harem. One cow began playing in the water, striking out with her front hooves splashing loudly, and this provided the distraction we needed to sneak to the edge of the open meadow. Taking cover behind the remains of a scorched tree apparently struck by lightening, I ranged the bull at 240 yards. Suddenly there was a wimpy sounding bugle behind us, and a raghorn bull emerged from the timber. He passed a few yards in front of us, angling into the meadow but not directly toward the other elk. This caught the attention of the herd bull, and he crossed the creek to threaten the raghorn. When the intimidator stopped broadside I ranged him at 200-1/2 yards, and Bob took a shot… but missed.
Instead of running off as would be expected, the elk moved to the edge of the timber and huddled together while looking around – as if trying to figure out what had just happened. As darkness approached the herd bull began answering bugles again. One of the bigger bugles seemed to be moving closer, and the herd bull answered more aggressively. I remarked to Bob that his contented, social bugle had now become a more aggressive challenge bugle. Sure enough, a big bull soon arrived in the creek bottom with a handful of cows and a satellite bull. Only a few minutes of shooting light remained, so Bob took the Montana Decoy and moved quickly down the tree line toward this new bull. With ivory antler tips glistening in the fading light the two big bulls postured and prepared for battle. Ka-boom! The muzzle blast reverberated across the clearing, while elk thundered into the timber.
Anticipating a long night of work ahead, I hustled to meet up with Bob… and he was fit-to-be-tied after missing what I soon learned was his 4th shot in 3 days! I suspected a problem with his muzzleloader, but kept this thought to myself while he related what had just happened. With his eyes fixed on the giant 6×6 bull only 50 yards away, he raised his rifle to rest against a tree but banged the barrel on an unseen low-lying branch, accidentally discharging the load into the ground. This effectively ended an exciting afternoon… almost. As we hiked through the forest in the dark, Bob continued his explanatory monologue – until he tripped and fell, launching his rifle into a pile of rocks.
What Bob now cursed I welcomed as an omen, and suggested that he use my muzzleloader until he could check his own for accuracy. He accepted reluctantly, reassured with a reminder that my trusty DISC rifle – sent to me by Tony Knight back in 1998 – was nicknamed “Black Death” for the many animals it put down over the years.
Returning before daylight the next morning, we listened for bugles at the access point we had marked on exit the prior evening. There were several including a big one, but the fickle wind was unfavorable for entering the drainage, so we waited… and waited. When the wind finally changed in our favor we realized the big bugle was now moving away, so we hurried. The creek bottom was socked in with fog, and just as we reached it we heard a big bugle approaching from behind. We sat motionless as a big mature bull with a funky right antler moved off the slope, passing by us inside 50 yards, heading toward the same bugle we were following. The sight of that bull silhouetted against the fog and then disappearing into it was spectacular… and somewhat eerie! Moving on we soon realized the distance between the two bugles was closing quickly. As we approached the base of the ridge at the far side of the drainage, the sound of clashing antlers on top was unmistakable. This shot of adrenalin fueled our climb up the steep slope.
Near the top a cow less than 10 yards away peered over the edge, spotting us. The next few seconds have played over and over again in my mind, each time in slow motion. The cow blew an alarm and instantly elk were running in every direction. Bob and I bolted the last few yards to the top and quickly spotted the two big bulls. They had separated, but appeared to be going nowhere, as we had obviously interrupted their battle before they were finished. While elk continued to dart around Bob moved up to steady my rifle on a tree, and I hissed at him to not shoot the closer, funky antlered bull on the right. He quickly realigned on the other bull, standing broadside and slightly below us, only 50 yards away. The muzzle blast cleared all the remaining elk off the ridge… all but one. The big old herd bull – a beautiful 350-inch 6×6 – had dropped in his tracks. At 6:26 AM, this was a short but exciting morning. And once again, I booked my trusty Knight muzzleloader lived up to its’ nickname.
MUZZLELOADER ELK HUNTING, SIDEBAR
Calling Rocky Mountain Elk…or NOT
Muzzleloader Elk hunting is the dream of calling in a rut-crazed bugling bull, but sometimes a stealthy approach will yield better results. In some areas, elk have become call shy – particularly on heavily hunted public land, and where access is comparatively easy. Several western states hold general archery and even antlerless rifle hunts just prior to their trophy “rut” hunts. And, let’s not overlook the growing crowd of amateur videographers – both hunters and non-hunters – we now find in the woods, calling and recording. Unless you’re a world champion elk caller, or a genuine wapiti, it’s probably best to leave your bugle call in camp under these circumstances. Oh, you may succeed in calling a satellite bull to you, and it will be exciting, but if your sights are set on a mature herd bull, you might have more “luck” by keeping quiet while you spot-and-stalk, or listen-and-stalk the bugles.
• If bulls are quiet, I call non-aggressively and sparingly with a “locator” bugle
• If bulls are screaming, I do not bugle
• I typically carry 3 different cow calls, and use them primarily to “cover” the noisy mistakes I make while moving in the woods, and to stop a bull that’s moving both before and after the shot
• On outfitted hunts, follow the advice of your guide/outfitter – they will know what works best with the elk in the areas they hunt
Remember: Monster bulls must survive a number of seasons to reach vaunted trophy status, and they typically spend a large portion of this time in the same general area. Thus, they often recognize the calls made by their rivals, so your offerings may stand out like a flat note in a perfect harmony. Despite impaired judgment due to elevated hormone levels, the biggest, baddest bulls in the woods are difficult to fool.
Published in Universal Hunter Magazine, Vol. 3 Issue 5, September/October 2014. All rights reserved.
Muzzleloader Elk Hunting Story Written by Outdoor Writer: Tony Martins