I have mentored a number of first time bowhunters in the past years and one of the top questions they ask is, “How do you close the gap on Roosevelt herd bulls when they won’t come in and you can’t stalk in close enough for a good shot?”
There isn’t a single answer to that question because every situation is different but I can share one approach I like to employ on herd bulls that either don’t come in, or come in but “hang up”. This has worked on several occasions when all other options of closing the gap seemed futile. Also, I typically use this when hunting by myself or mentoring a new bowhunter, and I think it works best here in the Pacific Northwest where there is often times thick vegetation cover to break up your profile.
So let’s set this up – you are bugling to a Roosevelt herd bull and he responds to your every bugle as if you dated his ex-girlfriend without his permission. But all he does is circle his cows and come to the edge of his herd to bugle back at you. Nothing seems to get him to break that invisible force field around his cows. The cover appears to be too sparse to make a successful stalk on the bull and this bull isn’t moving from this spot, anchored by his cows.
What do you do? Most of the first time bowhunters I mentor look at me with discouragement and ask, “What do we do now?” I can tell they are already mentally out of the game and that they are thinking this is the impossible mission. I disagree. I have this bull right where I want him!
If you think about it, he feels safe, he isn’t moving away, and he is bugling back at your every call, as if to suggest that you’re going to be the next hunter hanging on his wall of shame! What I like to do is start in on a bugling sequence ramping it up to the point where me and every animal in the country can feel the energy of this back and forth “bugle off”. Then the moment I get to the peak of my “bugle off” I take off moving in from downwind in the direction, hunched over going as fast as I can keeping as many trees, bushes or whatever between me and the bull. I like to plan a route from downwind that I can move in quickly (running sometimes and not worrying about breaking branches or making natural sounds of moving elk) to get within shooting range of the exact spot the bull seems to consistently come back to as we bugle back and forth.
I have employed this risky technique successfully many times on Roosevelt bulls. A couple specific hunts come to mind where this has really paid off for me. The first, I was hunting the early SW Washington elk season in mid-September. It was a bonsai after-work evening hunt and I knew I’d have to be aggressive to make something happen. I was set up in a ground blind on the edge of a meadow. Just before dusk several cows started filtering out of the timber with a bull in tow. It was getting dark quickly so I started a cow calling sequence which set off an orchestra of mews from the meadow. Darkness continued to close in on me quickly so I threw in some bugles and the bull immediately bugled back, and then quickly rounded up his cows, pulling them back into the timber.
I let out another bugle which turned him about face and he ran straight at me stopping about 70 yards from my blind. He and I traded bugles until he got uneasy and walked back to his cows bugling the entire way. I gave it a few moments and ripped another bugle which again brought him back into the meadow a short distance but only for a brief period of time before he returned to his herd. Shooting light was disappearing even faster now and I knew it was now or never so I jumped up out of my blind, crouched down as low as I could and ran straight across the meadow at the bull. I could see the bull on the edge of the timber watching me and as I got closer he followed his cows deeper into the timber. I could hear the herd crashing through the thick underbrush as I approached so I let out another raging bugle. The bull bugled back and the next moment I could hear him coming right back at me. He came flying out of the timber nostrils dripping wet only to abruptly stop at my cow call broadside just a few yards from me. My arrow hit him right behind the shoulder and he didn’t make it 50 yards back into the timber before I heard him pile up.
Another notable example; I was mentoring a friend, Jeff, who was after his first archery bull. It was the last weekend of the season and we had biked deep into steep coastal elk country. My bugle from a high ridge top got an instant response a few ridges over. More bugles over the next 30 minutes brought a nice 5×5 herd bull and over a dozen cows into some big timber in the bottom of a ravine just below us. The bull would respond to my every bugle but wouldn’t budge from his holdup. The wind was horrible in all directions except a sparsely strewn ridge straight below us in plain sight of his lair. At a glance, it appeared we had no acceptable options to pursue the bull.
I relayed my plan to Jeff and we crouched at the waist, moving one right behind the other down the ridge. I could see the bull marching among his cows on the edge of the timber, all eyes upon us as we closed the gap. As we approached in full view of the bull I had Jeff set up on one knee while I laid down on my back. I bugled again and within moments we had elk coming in from all directions. A calf and a cow came within a few feet before bolting like they had been stuck with a cattle prod. I bugled again ensuing more chaos among the ranks and the 5×5 came strutting in to within 10 yards of Jeff but he didn’t have a broadside shot that he was comfortable with. The bull then moved back to his herd. We quickly moved right after the bull again with the wind in our face. I bugled once again and the bull came charging back at us presenting Jeff with a great broadside shot. It worked.
Several new bowhunters I’ve mentored have tried this tactic and every one of them later told me I was nuts. After listening to their individual accounts, it was clear they all had made the same mistake. When closing the gap, they would move slowly from one tree to the next, stopping to hide behind each tree until they finally get to a spot where they feel any further progress will surely get them spotted by the bull.
Now at best they are indeed closer and in good range for taking nice panoramic pictures of a herd of elk in their element but still out of shooting range. Most likely they moved so slow that the herd moved off to the next zip code. So if pictures of the hind end of a great bull are all you want, that could be great strategy.
Personally, I want steak, so I move in quickly, hunched in an unrecognizable form as much as possible with no doubt in my mind that I am going to kill that bull. I keep as many trees and bushes between me and the bull as possible but if there aren’t any I just keep moving until I reach that pre-determined shooting spot. Upon reaching my spot I rip another “I am going to kick your butt” bugle.
I know most of you are saying, no way, the moment that bull sees you he is going to take his herd and run. And you are right – some bulls will. But in my experience a higher percentage of bulls – if they are really cranked up – don’t head out. Also, as I stated, keep in mind this is a “last resort” approach, so you have very little to lose. You might even spook some or all of his cows but if you get there quick enough the pandemonium and chaos of the moment may just work to your advantage.
In certain situations, bulls get so worked up, so hot, so enraged, that all sense of reason has gone out the door like a hormone enriched teenager. Yes, I am still talking about Roosevelt bulls and yes they do bugle!
When you bugle, that bull is thinking you are another elk that has just run down the hill and crossed into his turf. The fact that he saw you and you didn’t look like a bull is forgotten for the moment or overcome by hearing your bugle, convincing him to come back in. This is the moment of truth where all your practice comes into play. As he comes charging in and gets within range, stop him with a cow chirp or whatever you like to use and make a great shot. And I’m sure you’ll enjoy eating steak too.