Weary from a long season, refusing to give up is still the best strategy
“Sleeping in that morning would have been easy and weighed heavy on my mind. However, standing in awe of this beautiful bull, I knew all the early mornings and long miles were worth it.”
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that in the last 25-plus years, I’ve spent hundreds of days with a bow in hand chasing bull elk around the West in September. For as long as I can remember, as far as hunting is concerned, this has been my true passion.
That being said, around ten years ago, I went along with my friend, Sheldon, on his November muzzleloader elk hunt. I soon found myself enamored with the idea of chasing post-rut bulls with a muzzleloader. Hunting these bulls after they’ve left the cows to live a life of seclusion, as they try to put on precious weight to prepare for the long winter ahead, was completely different.
I drew my first muzzleloader tag in 2015 in the same area where I had went on a couple of hunts with Sheldon, and was able to take a beautiful six-point bull. My next tag didn’t come until 2017. With an early November snowstorm, the elk were quickly vacating the high country, and although I spent much time out on that hunt, I wasn’t able to locate a bull that I was interested in going after.
That year, my dad had the same tag and he was able to take a nice five-point bull on a solo hunt. At almost 70 years old, he’s still got it!
In 2018, I wasn’t able to apply for an elk tag in Idaho due to the fact that I applied for a sheep tag, so I figured I wouldn’t be hunting elk with my muzzleloader. I badly wanted a redemption hunt after striking out the previous year, so you can imagine my excitement when I was lucky enough to draw one of the few leftover elk tags in Idaho’s second drawing. My buddy, Matt Elliott, had drawn the tag in the first drawing, so it was shaping up to be a great hunt.
Throughout the summer, time was spent fine-tuning loads and I put a new sight system on my rifle that I was very happy with. Matt is a busy dude, and between his job in the corporate world and being enrolled simultaneously in an aggressive MBA program, his time was limited. As the hunt drew near, his block of time for hunting got smaller and smaller. By the time our hunt rolled around, it appeared that he would be showing up Thursday evening but had to be on the road back to Oregon on Monday morning.
The season opened a week before Matt was able to show up. I spent that time hunting for a big bull, as well as trying to locate elk so Matt and I would have some animals to chase when he showed up. I was spotting plenty of elk right out of the gate, but I was looking for a nice bull, so I just kept note of each bull I saw and kept moving.
It wasn’t until first light on the fifth day that I spotted a bull that I wanted to go after. He and his two buddies had placed themselves strategically high on a partially snow-covered ridge where the approach of a two-legged or four-legged predator would be difficult. To make matters more difficult, there was a herd of 30 or so cows in the vicinity as well.
After watching them most of the morning until they bedded, I made the long, lonely climb up to a perch that I knew would put me within striking distance once the thermals shifted that evening. Just as I anticipated, they started feeding my way and I thought they were going to feed right toward the saddle I was in. When they stalled in a patch of some of the fall’s last green grass, I was forced to cross an open hillside to try and cut the distance for a shot before last light faded.
During my final approach, the bulls were out of sight for 20 minutes. When I arrived at the location where I figured I’d be able to shoot, I could see the cows, but no bulls. Suddenly, I heard a bark and could hear running above me. I soon became very disappointed as I realized the bulls had worked above me on the hill. I had to helplessly watch them run away after they caught my scent.
The next day I spotted a bachelor group of bulls several miles off in some sagebrush country. I decided this is where Matt and I would start when he arrived. The next morning, I found a few more elk, but nothing I got too excited about.
That afternoon when Matt showed up, we hiked partway into the bulls to get a better look before dark. We confirmed my hunch that they were definitely worthy of a closer look. One of them was a beautiful 330-class 6×7 and another was a 350-class 6×6 that unfortunately had two broken tines. Nevertheless, either bull would make us very happy hunters. Our plan was set.
A Surefire Plan?
The next morning started in my favorite fashion, headlamping up the trail in the cool fall air. We were far from the trailhead when we could finally see the spot where the bulls had been living. Sure enough, they were still there.
It took us the better part of the day to get within 1000 yards of them. We then waited for the thermals to become steady. Finally, we thought the time was right to move to a knob that would put us within 300 yards. From there we should be able to see them and strategize how to close the next 150 yards into comfortable muzzleloader range.
To our absolute horror, our first peek over the ridge revealed that the bulls were very on edge. They soon they vacated the area, likely due to swirling wind. We were quickly finding out that after a long fall of being pursued by hunters through multiple seasons, these elk weren’t taking any chances. It was a long walk back to the truck that evening after watching our “surefire plan” fall apart so rapidly.
True to His Word
The next morning, we hiked blind into a spot that generally holds elk late in the season. In this particular area, once you get to the top, you can walk the ridgeline and glass into multiple different draws and drainages.
Tracks in the sparse snow revealed a decent-sized herd of elk had been frequenting the area. We were also cutting a few tracks made by single elk here and there. They appeared to be lone bulls moving through the area on the way to their wintering areas.
With a cold, steady November wind, it was hard to say, but I thought I could hear cow chirping just over the ridge from us. As we topped the hill, we soon found out I was correct! There was a herd of 40 or so cows and calves and a couple raghorn bulls. With limited time, Matt had already told me he was shooting whatever elk he got a shot at, whether it had antlers or not.
The herd was out of range and moving around the hillside toward a big timber patch, so once they were out of sight, we followed them. It took us a while and some hiking, but we eventually spotted them again at the top of the timber. They were milling around and it appeared as though this is where they’d spend their day.
Since there wasn’t a bull in the herd I wanted, we devised a plan for Matt to move in on them from above and try and get a shot. As he worked in, a bull below the herd started bugling. I did some calling, and despite it being November 11, I kept the bull bugling, allowing Matt to keep tabs on them during his stalk.
After a while, I couldn’t see or hear the elk any longer. Then, I saw Matt walk up on the ridge and wave me over. I hadn’t heard a gunshot, so I assumed they had spooked.
When I made my way over to him, he let me know that the herd had made their way up to him and a nice 280 to 290-class bull passed through his shooting lane, but there was no shot. When a cow presented a good shot a short time later, he took it. True to his word, Matt wanted to take home elk meat first; antlers were secondary. We were both ecstatic with Matt’s first muzzleloader kill. The rest of the day was spent getting the elk off of the mountain.
Consistency is Key
The following morning, Matt had to be on his way, so after helping him get loaded up, I drove to the same trailhead where we had hiked in the previous day. I must admit that after packing out Matt’s elk and with an entire season of hunting behind me, I was tired and I didn’t really want to drag my butt back up that mountain. Still, at a slower pace, I made my way up the mountain.
Once I hit the top, I took a somewhat different path to check a different draw. I worked my way around a big rock outcropping, and just as I came over the crest of the hill, I could see a lone elk feeding on the hillside. Immediately, I knew I needed to cut the distance, so I ducked down and circled the rock pile, coming out within comfortable shooting range before I even set up and got my eyes on his antlers.
At first glance through my binoculars, I knew he was a big, mature bull, with wide and long beams. The bull was on to me, so with no time to waste, I capped my rifle and got set up on my shooting sticks to prepare for the shot.
Like most times with a muzzleloader, I was blinded by smoke when the rifle went off. As the smoke cleared, I could see the bull running straight away. Not knowing if I had hit him, I began reloading my rifle. I dumped the powder and started the bullet, and as I reached for my ramrod, I glanced up just in time to see him get wobbly in the legs and tip over right before he crested the ridge.
Walking up on him, he just kept getting bigger and bigger. Soon, I realized he was not only my best bull to date, but he was also a 7×7.
This was one of those days where I confirmed my philosophy that you don’t have to be the best hunter on the mountain; you just have to be consistent. Sleeping in that morning would have been easy and weighed heavy on my mind. However, standing in awe of this beautiful bull, I knew all the early mornings and long miles were worth it.
Wife of the Year
One of my favorite pieces of gear is my Garmin inReach Mini, and this day it proved that it was worth its weight in gold. As always, I couldn’t wait to message my wife and tell her of my good fortune. She asked if I wanted any help, and of course, I gladly accepted. I explained to her where I was and she said she would load up our mules and head up to help me.
There should be some sort of “wife of the year” award for moments like these. She loaded the mules, drove an hour and a half to the trailhead, and then rode in to where I had killed the bull. After she arrived, we finished getting the rest of the meat off the bull and then loaded the mules up and headed down the trail.
Coming off the mountain, it was great to have my dad, brother-in-law Terry, and friends Art and Pam waiting at the truck to hear the story of the day’s events.
Like many areas, the hunting pressure in my part of the country has gotten pretty extreme, and at times, it’s frustrating to no end. However, sometimes on these magical days, it all comes together on a hard-earned public land bull. Even when these days are often few and far between, they are what keep me coming back for more, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!