Chasing the Bugle

This year was the first time in my life that I held an archery elk tag that permitted me to harvest a branch antlered bull. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to hunt for both spike and antlerless elk with my bow, but this year I sought out mature bulls during the breeding season, the rut! But I’ll have to admit that I somewhat underestimated the difficulty of putting myself in just the right spot for a shot at one of these lovesick monarchs.

Here’s how my hunt went down. As soon as I finished work for the day, I left for Arizona, two days before the start of the hunt. After a 10 hour drive, I pulled into my camping spot with only a few hours before sunup. Since it was more than a week into the month of September, I of course sat and listened for bugles once I arrived, but heard none. The mountainous weather was quite warm compared to the Utah weather I had just left, mid-80s for a high and low 60’s for the low. I spent the next couple of days scouting for elk and while I never heard a bugle, I did manage to see a few small bulls.

 raghorn bull  elk wallowing

                   Raghorn bull, promising...                                         Watched this bull wallow for several minutes

The night before opening morning, my son and brother joined me in camp and would stay to hunt with me for the first 2 ½ days. While the elk hunting was slow for those first two days, we did manage to hear a couple of bugles and bumped a small 5 point bull from his bed. Then on the morning of day three, we did have a somewhat close encounter. My son heard a way off bugle so we headed in that direction as I began tracking our path using the onX GPS mapping application on my phone. We had traveled just over a mile and now closed in on the suspicious bugles that we thought might be fellow hunters. And it turned out that we did in fact get played by faux bugles, but that wasn’t before we had a close encounter with a 5 point satellite bull that apparently had been tricked too. Breaking branches to our left confirmed that elk were nearby, but we were way too focused on the big gravelly bugle and estrus cow calls emanating barely 80 yards to our right in a thicket to be concerned with anything other than this mature bugling bull. As I sneaked in for a closer look, I happened to notice a 5 point bull watching me from 60 yards to my left. Once we made eye contact, the 5 point bull turned and trotted off. I only advanced another 20 yards before spotting a person sitting against a big ponderosa pine squawking away on his cow call. We turned around and left the area.

 Coues deer antler shed  elk antler shed

  Walking back we found this coues deer antler shed                            Elk shed on our hike out

Now that my son had left for home, I decided to spend the afternoon alone sitting on a waterhole. The first two visitors to drink were coues deer, a small spike buck and a doe. My next visitors really got my heart racing! The sun had barely set and I had finished a series of cow calls 10 minutes prior when I looked over my shoulder and saw an elk silently approaching through the timber! Here came a spike -- then another spike – and then a bull with a rack coming through the timber! Interesting observation, I witnessed at times where the elk could glide through the forest like a whisper and at other times come crashing through like a freight train, this time they were incomprehensibly quiet. As the bigger bull got closer I could see that he was only a 4 point raghorn, not something I was interested in yet. But what an awesome experience to have bulls pass by unaware at 30 yards and then drink at the waterhole 43 yards away!

 bull elk  elk hunters

Smaller bull gave me a couple of shot opportunities             Dallas, Rick and myself sitting on water

One might wonder why I didn’t sit by a waterhole the entire time and wait for the animals to come to me. Well, a lot of years that strategy pays off big time here in Arizona but the summer months of 2021 saw a significant amount of rain so the elk had too many water choices to consistently visit one particular waterhole. In fact, I did spend several mornings and afternoons waiting by water without ever seeing an animal. And interestingly, on several occasions I found tire ruts in the dirt roads filled with water where elk had wallowed and likely drank.

On one particular morning I was convinced that the rut had kicked into high gear. But in hindsight I think I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It was still dark when I left camp and I heard bugles not too far off in the woods. At first light I quickly moved toward the bugles. It wasn’t long before I was within the mix of bugling bulls! The deep low growl and bugle of one particular bull with cows had my adrenaline pumping at full tilt, I was close! I then heard some racket to my left and realized it was the sound of antlers engaged in a fight. Unbeknownst to them, I was able to move to within 40 yards without their knowledge. I could have easily flung an arrow at both broadside 5 point bulls, but was convinced I could move in for a shot at the monarch! I had now been chasing the bugle of this particular bull for 1 ½ miles, he was a big mature 6 point bull and I had closed the distance to 60 yards! Or at least I guesstimated he was at 60 yards. And since the bull had been broadside bugling in one place as I crept to within range using big ponderosa pines as shields, I decided to play it safe and pull out my rangefinder to confirm the yardage. Well wouldn’t you know it, when I pressed the rangefinder button I only saw a blip in the viewfinder, the rangefinder wouldn’t stay on for more than a quick flash. I knelt down and placed my bow on the ground, thinking my one handed manipulation might be the problem. It turned out the battery was dying. After fumbling for a minute, the bull pegged me and walked off about 20 yards. Knowing the bull was out of range and moving away, I kept fiddling with my rangefinder, which momentarily flashed a range of 82 yards. Then just like that, the bull turned and disappeared into the timber. I tried in vain but couldn’t ever close the distance on that bull. I did have a couple of other close encounters with a two more mature bulls during the chase, but couldn’t quite line them up for a shot. That morning jaunt took just over 4 ½ hours and took me on a wild 6.29 mile quest, filled with pure excitement!

 bull elk 

              This 5 point had no idea I was there

Several uneventful days passed; rarely a bugle heard and some days passed without seeing an elk. On occasion I would come upon cows without a bull or a few small bulls hanging out together, the rut certainly did not appear to be in full swing. At times I did sit and try to bugle and/or cow call to see if I could lure a bull to me, but I never did have any luck with that strategy; except for maybe the time on day 3 when elk did come to the waterhole where I sat after cow calling.

 bear track  bear track

      Several hunters saw bears, I didn't                    But a bear walked right over my tracks

On one particular morning, I got my first shot and it was at a big mature 6 point bull. I hadn’t been chasing the bugle for very long when I finally caught up to the herd. I had been seeing glimpses of the bull as he pushed his cows around, but finally he was momentarily broadside 60 yards away (new battery in the rangefinder). I quickly assessed the path to the bull. Horizontally all was clear, however, vertically a few branches hung a bit low down range. Believing the branches might interfere with the arc of my arrow I knelt to the ground, drew back my bow and let an arrow fly. I’m not exactly sure what went wrong but what I do know is that I saw sparks fly as the arrow hit rocks near the bull causing him to jump in the air. Was there a deflection or was it just a poor shot? Who knows, but the low light conditions definitely contributed to my wonderment. In the end it turned out to be a clean miss.

I experienced several close encounters in the fourteen days I hunted and had several shot opportunities at smaller bulls where I chose to pass. But one particular fighting encounter really stood out. I had been trailing a herd of elk for hours when one herd intersected with another herd. Both groups had big 6 point dominant herd bulls. It didn’t take long for the clash to occur. What is hard to comprehend and explain is how swift, violent, and turbulent the melee between two huge animals can be! And volume of the noise produced by the clash of antlers causes one to wonder how those antlers don’t explode into pieces within seconds! Needless to say, I didn’t get a crack at them. But once the explosive fight ended I darn near got a shot. I was at full draw when two cows belonging to the winning bull walked into the open at 40 yards; the giant 6 point was trailing them! Unbelievably the bull stopped 6 feet short of my having a clear broadside shot. I literally held my draw for one minute waiting for the bull to take a step or two. Then a couple of lagging cows approached from behind and turned up hill which caused the bull to turn and follow. No shot.

 coatimundi  coatimundu

                Coatimundi came for a visit                                          My...what a long tail you have...

On the next to last day, I came to accept that I most likely was not going to leave Arizona with my elk tag punched. And while that of course was not the preferred outcome I’d hoped for, I truly was satisfied knowing that I had several opportunities to shoot a bull but had held out hoping for a chance at a big mature bull. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t giving up, I was just in a great mental place with the entirety of the hunt. With that said I was out in the woods again until past shooting light and was up before dawn on the last day of the hunt giving it my all. Furthermore, the weather had finally cooled off a little bit which I figured could only help. The high temperatures were now in the low 70’s with nighttime temps dipping down to 50 degrees.

And on that last morning I actually had a couple of close calls early, but then everything went quiet until evening. Then with only an hour and a half left before dark, I figured there weren’t many options remaining so I decided to go sit at water for one last hoorah.

4:49 p.m. leaving camp and heading to water. 5:02 p.m. I hear a bugle, first time I’ve heard a bugle in the evening before pitch dark. 5:07 p.m. I arrive at the waterhole and setup for an ambush, also breaking out my Thermacell to deal with the mosquitoes, works like a charm. 5:15 p.m. another bugle, I hope a bull comes to water. 5:49 p.m. a loud bugle followed by an aggressive grunt to my left, he’s within 200 yards for sure! 5:59 p.m. the distinctive bugle with the aggressive grunt rings out again, but the bull is definitely moving further away. I see a cow and calf elk 200 yards straight out front – oh, a big bull is with them, along with several other cows! 6:02 p.m., the trotting bull had his nose in the air with his head straight out following the scent of a cow, but unfortunately they aren’t interested in water and are headed off somewhere else. Another bull is bugling to my left, this is getting really exciting! The last rays of sun just disappeared from the branches of the looming ponderosa pines. It is now 6:11 p.m., I’m shaking like a leaf! A smaller 6 point satellite bull just came to water all by himself, I made a 52 yard shot on him! I watched him run off, but within 30 yards he completely disappeared into the timber.

It was crazy, this is how it went down...out of nowhere the bull popped into the open and stood motionless for a minute or so 65-70 yards away. Then he took about 5 minutes to travel the final 20 – 30 yards to water, very cautious and wary. I knew I needed to be patient and wait for him to drop his head to drink. Nervously I waited. Finally the moment was right -- I drew back my bow -- took careful aim -- and released an arrow. Due to the low light conditions (and my waning eyesight), my arrow was only visible for a split second but the trajectory seemed good. And then almost instantly I knew by the reaction of the bull that I had made a hit! The splashing of water from the startled bull is about all I remember hearing as the bull seemed to vanish within an instant. All was quiet for the next 15 minutes except for a few distant bugles. At that point darkness was quickly closing in so I went to look for my arrow. There near the water’s edge was about half of my snapped off arrow. It was now dark enough that I had to turn on my phone flashlight to sufficiently view my arrow shaft for blood. And it didn’t take long for me to realize that my best chance for finding this bull would be to wait for morning, especially since I wasn’t sure about my arrow’s point of impact. I’ve heard too many stories of impatient hunters pursuing and bumping a wounded animal only to lose it and I wasn’t willing to take that risk.

As one can imagine sleeping was difficult. I couldn’t help but run through several shot placement scenarios and consider how each situation might affect tracking the bull. Finally dawn broke and in no time I was anxiously, yet nervously, standing next to the broken arrow that I had left on the ground as a marker. I began tracking the elk. Fortunately it didn’t take long and I came upon my trophy at the base of a huge oak tree, I had done it, I had my Arizona archery bull elk! And as cliché as it may sound, it really did come down to the last day and last hour (half hour actually) of the season to get it done!

 six point bull elk 

               Couldn't be happier with my 6 point bull elk!