Elk rut is simply the most exciting time to hunt, call, and harvest one of the most magnificent animals on the planet. Their majestic antlers rise high above the meadows in which they feed. The bull’s bugle will resonate through an entire mountain valley. The elk’s impeccable sense of smell, laser vision and acute hearing make these animals extremely challenging to hunt. The herd bull knows his role as the king of the castle and will round up his harem of ladies and take off at the first sign of a satellite bull or signs of danger. But, when it’s time to fight, it’s on like donkey kong. They beat themselves up, eat very little, and breed every possible cow elk they can.
The Herd Bull
Many times, hunters covet the herd bull. He’s not always the biggest, but he’s mean, and in charge. I’ve found over my many elk hunting experiences, it is very difficult to hunt the herd bull; especially on private land.
Personally, I work very hard to secure my elk territory on private land. One, to avoid other hunters. And two, because it offers good feed for the herd; usually. But private land has it’s challenges of bordering land that I may not have permission on. Okay, back to the herd bull.
Yes, almost always, the herd bull is an older bull. Probably has a bit of character too, maybe a few broke off antler tines and some scars from past ruts. I’m not saying not to hunt the herd bull, it’s just not my style. I’m a fan of the satellite bulls and the calling that can lure them in.
Everyone who’s elk hunted multiple times probably has their own method of calling. I used to be a huge fan of the bugle, trying to get the herd bull all worked up and wanting to fight. Although, very exciting, this tactic I find works better in the pre-rut, not the rut. Reason being that usually the herd bull has already established dominance at this point and the fighting is pretty much complete.
Calling in mid rut poses its own set of challenges. Big, raspy, and deep bugles often will cause the herd bull to take his cows and head for the hills while the small bulls in the herd stand guard and are left to fend off an new oncoming bull that wants his piece of the action. I prefer a mixture of an immature bull with a cow call.
During last year’s rut, my best friend and I shared a hunt of a lifetime. We had been studying some calling tactics and formulated a plan for next morning’s hunt. Our terrain we were hunting had many challenges, the biggest being a river that separated us from the where the herd is usually spotted in the morning. The land across the river was posted as No Hunting and they knew it. So our plan was to attempt to get a bull to cross the river to us. Many hunters before us on this land say that our plan was an impossible task.
We hiked to the top of the river valley by day break (0630) and sure enough they were all at down at the bottom watering up for the day. We had an aggressive strategy to let out a bugle at the top and literally bull rush all the way to the bottom periodically bugling and hopefully getting the herd bull to come across for a challenge. Our plan went sideways as soon as we let out at first bugle. The herd bull rounded up his cows and headed for the treeline across the no hunting field. By the time we got to the riverbank, it felt like the hunt was already over. We came up with plan B, keep bugling while I went far off to the right and started to cow call like a loner cow in heat to see if that would entice the herd bull to make an appearance.
The Satellite Bull
I find myself constantly forgetting about the other elk that aren’t seen in the herd, namely the satellite bulls that were mostly likely run off during pre-rut. Back to the story.
We bugled with the herd elk for literally hours. We could hear him raking, knocking trees, and screaming back at us, but he knew he was safe across the river. During our back and forth with the herd bull, I heard a faint bugle up the river a few miles off, but thought nothing of it. It was getting late in the morning (1030) and we were getting ready to call it a morning. But I heard that bugle again, but this time much closer. I told my buddy that I figured it was a satellite bull and we should switch just to cow calling. I don’t think it took 5 minutes and we heard him again, this time it sounded like he was at the field edge about 500 yard off. All of a sudden he rounded the bend of the field in a dead run in our direction. I just knew he was coming for us, and the river wasn’t going to get in his way for a cow in heat. He ran down the riverbank and slammed into the river a full speed. We were ready, he exited the water, and was a little confused. I let out a mild quite cow chirp, he turn broadside, and the rest is history. My buddy made a great vital shot and you know what they say, ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’ and fall he did. He’s not the biggest, but what a hunt!
All in all, just because you may not get a chance to get the herd bull, doesn’t mean your freezer has to stay empty. I will never forget that hunt, and to see my buddy get his first bull elk with an eventful story like this!