Five Fool Proof Ways to Kill Big Bulls
I love elk, elk hunting and anything there is to do with elk. I am an elk junkie through and through. There is nothing quite like hunting these four-legged, massively racked creatures. When the taste, smell, and sounds of autumn hit the high mountains, I know it is elk season. Mud flying, nostrils flaring, bugles roaring, horns racking, cows chirping, and antlers locking mean only one thing...get your gun.
Over the term of my guiding career, my hunters and I have been very fortunate to be a part of some giant bulls hitting the dirt. Team Mossback has put close to 100 – over 400” bulls on the wall. One of those is the world record “Spider Bull” taken by Denny Austed in central Utah in 2008. The bull scored an inch shy of 500”, which still is mind-boggling to me. With my obsession of the wapiti over the years I have learned a few things that help me and my team be successful.
Hunt Where They Are
Before the hunt even begins you need to know where the elk are. What I mean by that is you need to do your research. If you want a 400” bull, do not apply for units or buy tags for units where this realistically is not possible. In Utah, for example, there are several units where a 400” bull is not genetically realistic. On the other hand, there are several units in Utah that consistently produce 400” bulls. The elk units in Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico are similar to Utah in good, better, best-type quality. If you want a 400” bull, the “better” and “best” units are the units that you should pursue. If you have the money or the points, focus on the “best.”
There are several companies out there that do the research for you and will handle your hunt application process, as well as help you determine the “better” and “best” units. One of those companies is Hunting Illustrated’s own hunt application and research guru, Jon Crump of Hunter’s Trail Head. Part of their business is doing the research, state-by-state, to help their customers know where to find the elk. This will get you going in the right direction. Also, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call outfitters for advice on the good areas. Today’s blog sites, Facebook, and the worldwide web are phenomenal sources to help you with your research. With the limited number of tags available nowadays, you will be surprised how many hunters will tell you about their honey holes, because the fact is they may never get to hunt there.
Once that special day has come and you have been awarded a coveted, limited-entry tag, it is time to get to work. Looking at maps is a great way to learn the area without even being present. Technology has made our lives easier in this arena. Google Maps is a great place to check out your area, or even better yet, download area-specific information into your handheld GPS unit. I prefer the Garmin Rhino GPS for this. I pop in an area-specific chip that has details on everything. It tells you who owns the land that you are on and even gives you the unit boundaries. This can be crucial information when hunting units where boundaries are chopped up from several different landowners. Trust me, these little GPS units can save you a lot of trouble resulting from not knowing where you are; and they also will help you find your vehicle again when in a new area.
Once you have a good GPS handheld unit, and you are ready to go to your area, get yourself familiar with roads, 4-wheeler trails and hiking trails. The last thing you want to do is spot a trophy animal during your hunt and not know if you can get to him because you are not familiar with the area.
Now that you have scouted out the area electronically and know the road and trail system, it is time to get out your field glasses and spotting scope. Late summer scouting is a great time to find big, velvet-horned muleys, as well as bachelor groups of big bulls. It’s also a great time to get the family out camping; why not camp in the area you will be hunting?
A key time to scout is right before your hunt. Take the time to scout your area a minimum of two days before the hunt starts. If you are on a guided-hunt, it would be well worth your money to pay the guides to pre-scout before you get there. Remember you’re not the only one looking for a monster animal; most likely the first hour of opening morning is going to be your best opportunity to get him. Make sure you know where he is through your scouting efforts.
Hunt the Rut
A big bull is more elusive than you think. Big, mature bulls love to stay in the cool shade of the deep forest; here you will usually find them bedded in thick patches of pine trees. Not only can the shade keep their motor cool, but the pine needles make for some pretty soft beds for the 500+ lb animals. During pre- and post-rut, bulls will lie most of the day, only getting up to eat and drink. This usually occurs at first and last light and usually once during the day, briefly.
When the mating call comes from a cow in heat, that all changes. Something clicks in the big ol’ bull’s skull and he goes absolutely crazy. They seem to go from 0 to full rut in no time; and at that time their breeding engine is wound tight. They have one thing on their mind and it is not eating or sleeping. That is why bulls can lose up to 30% of their body weight during the rut. They spend all their energy in pursuit of hot cows and many times simply forget to eat as much as they need to rebuild all the calories they are burning.
This craze makes bulls very susceptible to hunters. Not only are they giving away their location with a screaming bugle, but also they don’t seem to pay attention to anything around them besides cows. As long as you stay downwind of them, they are fairly easy to sneak up on. During this rutting frenzy even the cows, who are normally “on point” with even the slightest sound, seem to be so distracted by grunts and all the theatrics of the bulls, they seem to let their guard down much more than usual at this time of year.
What does this mean for you? Increased odds. Not only do you see more mature bulls at this time of year, you often see bulls you had no idea were around. Calling is very effective. Chirping in a big bull within mere yards is what makes elk hunting more personal and exciting than hunting any other species.
Plain and simple...hunting the rut can nearly triple your success rate. Whether you are archery, muzzleloader, or rifle hunting, you have the odds in your favor.
Use the Right Equipment
Using the right equipment can cover a variety of things from your boots, to your optics, your weapon of choice, your bullets, or broadheads. If you are hunting the rut, success could boil down to how well you blow your cow call, or how effective your elk bugle is. There have been many hunts where my hunters have wanted to call themselves. Some hunters can call much better than I; whereas others sound more like a duck, and with the squeak of their attempted call, off goes the trophy of a lifetime...never to be seen again. Some hunters buy new equipment that has never been used before until they break it out of the package opening morning; this usually ends in disaster. From breaking in new boots, to driving your family crazy from you practicing a cow chirp, it is all part of necessary preparation for the hunt.
The weapon a hunter uses, and how proficient he or she is with that weapon, ultimately seems to play the biggest factor in the outcome of a hunt. If it is an archery hunt, choose a bow that can shoot farther and faster to increase your range. The same goes for a rifle set-up. Having an accurate rifle that is packable, so you can keep up with your guide, is vital; it can mean the difference of watching a bull run over the ridge while you catch your breath, or being in position to take a 600-yard shot. If you are going to show up at hunting camp with a 10-12 long-range rig, you better be able to pack it; otherwise, you are handicapped before you leave camp. The bows seem to get better and better every year, as do the rifles. Do your research to find out what the best optics, rifle, pack, pair of boots, calls, and clothing are for the area you are hunting, within your price range.
Choose the Right Guide
This goes hand-in-hand with choosing the right gear. The reason you hunt with a guide is for their knowledge and skills. Their product knowledge is what you are paying for. Choose a guide that is experienced in the area you are hunting. An experienced outfitter will have a history of killing bulls in certain areas every year. They will have plenty of honey holes to take you to, as well.
Make sure you check previous-hunter references for the guide and outfitter. Don’t just call one; and if possible, check forums and blogs to find more information about your top candidates before you choose. You should be able to glean the good information that you receive from the misinformation that most likely will be available as well. The last thing you want is to spend your hard-earned money on a guide, only to find out that it just happens to be his first time in the area. You just paid him and are training him at the same time? Shouldn’t you be receiving a discount?
At Team Mossback, I start my guides out as spotters. After they have learned the area and have proven to me that they know it very, very well, then they are given the opportunity to guide our clients in that particular area. Like with most things in life, experience leads to success. Choose a guide/outfitter with plenty of it.
Not all can afford to pay a guide for their hunt. If this is the case, make sure you have plenty of time to scout the area so you can still be successful. If you don’t have the time or vacation days from work to scout, make sure that you are putting in for areas where you have a friend or family member who can scout for you. If you show up blind to a hunt, it will take you the first four to five days just to get your bearings straight, which can cost valuable, premium hunting time.
If you make use of these five steps for killing big bulls, you inevitably will be on your way to a trophy-of-a-lifetime.
Last thing to remember is hunt hard. I’ll see you on the mountain.