The elusive herd bull. He doesn’t want to fight. He’ll bugle then push his cows away from you. He’s unpredictable. Not only are herd bulls mature and wise, they are usually the biggest bulls in the area. Getting into bow range is hard enough, let alone getting a shot and punching your tag on a rutted up lady wrangler. Other times, a herd bull can act as dumb as a bag of rocks but still be impossible to kill because of multiple cows and satellite bulls on lookout for him. How, to kill one? Getting past multiple eyes, ears and noses to harvest a herd bull may be the pinnacle of a mountain bowhunter’s career and has been something I’ve become obsessed with.
I’ve been schooled more times than I can count by herd bulls. I grew up bowhunting elk in northwest Montana and watched too many “How To” elk hunting DVDs and figured it wasn’t all that hard to call in a bull elk. I had many failed attempts of blowing on cow calls and bugling at bulls on public land then driving home scratching my head trying to figure out why the bulls I was calling weren’t charging in, snot flying and nostrils flaring. It took me a few years of hunting areas with low densities of elk on public land to change my tactics. The first step was to hunt somewhere else with more elk!
Stalking a Herd Bull
Stalking in on a herd bull is a great challenge and possibly my favorite pursuit in bowhunting. Over the past few seasons I’ve refined my tactics for stalking mature herd bulls. First off, I prefer to hunt elk in open country. I define open country as more open space than thick cover, thick cover meaning any type of cover where elk can disappear. I would much rather hunt elk in the wide open with good stalking terrain any day over playing cat and mouse in the timber.
Calling in a Herd Bull
I never have had much luck calling in a herd bull. Over the years of trial and error however, I have found it is possible in the right situation. The most important variable to consider when calling at a bull with cows is to not call if you’re more than 75 yards away from him. A herd bull will move away from you every single time if you bugle at him from 200-400 yards. For the most part a bull won’t fight unless he really has to. It is essential to break into his comfort zone for calling techniques to work.
The Lost Calf
The lost calf call is a high-pitch cow call with urgency that is repeated a few times. I’ll use this call if I get close to a herd in the timber and have some good natural barriers for calling to be effective. If I feel the herd bull is holding tight to his cows and is a little timid to bugles, I’ll use the lost calf call. This has been incredibly effective for me in the past. Usually, I can get a cow talking to me when I use a lost calf call. I’ll get whiney and egg her on a little bit too. Their motherly instinct kicks in and she’ll come right in. A lot of times they lose their mind and just stand there staring at you and won’t want to leave. If you can use this technique to lure in a hot cow, then odds are you’ll be at full draw on the herd bull.
The Elk Bark
The dreaded bark. We’ve all heard it many times. Stalking into bow range of an elk herd sounds difficult, and it is. Odds are low and you will blow stalks. Much of the time blowing out elk is associated with a cow barking at you then the whole herd retreating. Once you hear that distinct bark, from a cow or a bull, your stalk is all over. Or is it?
In my experiences I have found that bulls bugle more consistently and more often where there are high densities of elk. A lot of cows means high competition between the bulls figuring out who’s boss and who gets which cows.