Bulls When It Boils

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trophy elk hunting
When it is hot, bulls are very reluctant to answer bugles making it hard to pinpoint their locations. Under these conditions, a water hole is best bet for success on a herd bull.

Though I have hunted elk more than a dozen times, I’m probably a lot closer to the average elk hunter than I am to the top dogs of the sport. Like most, I have struggled to kill big bulls. There are always too many eyes, or the wind swirls, or they catch me in the open, or any one of a dozen other reasons why I have killed very few trophies. However, in my experience, I have seen people just like me shoot some awesome bulls when they give up on the traditional methods and simply hunt waterholes. Ambushing elk is much, much easier than chasing them – especially when you are targeting the herd bull. And there are few ambush sites as consistent as water holes during hot dry stretches.

Maybe the ambush isn’t quite as pure or as exciting as the traditional cat and mouse game, but try to tell that to the three guys I hunted with last September in New Mexico.

We had a tremendous hunt on a tremendous ranch during a very tough dry and hot week. The temperature in mid-September last season ran up to 90 degrees each day. If we had stuck with traditional elk tactics, it is questionable if we would have shot even one decent bull let the size bulls we actually took.

When it is hot, bulls are very reluctant to answer bugles making it hard to pinpoint their locations. Under these conditions, a water hole is best bet for success on a herd bull.

The first person to score on a big bull was the one of the ranch owners, Doug. Doug shot the bull the day that I arrived in camp and what an eye-popping introduction to New Mexico that was. Doug loves to take his children with him when he hunts and this time his 10-year old daughter Sarah was in the big ladder stand with her daddy when a huge bull came past following a trail that led to a stock pond.

The bull had choices because several trails converged on the pond from every direction. Luckily, the bull chose a nearby trail bringing him past Doug and his excited daughter at a range of just 25 yards for an easy broadside shot. When the arrow struck, Sarah started whispering, “You got him, you got him.” But, Doug wasn’t satisfied until the bull fell to the dry, dusty earth just 100 yards away. It was indeed a monster, gross scoring over 360 inches.

Trophy Bull from Tree Stand
Doug shot this giant bull as it walked past on a trail leading to water hole. His ten-year-old daughter, Sarah, joined him in the ladder stand. Also shown is nine-year old son Jesse.

Doug is probably your typical eastern elk hunter. He lives in Georgia. He was not orphaned as a boy and then raised by elk, as some of these experts seem to have been. He was able to shoot a monster herd bull for one reason; he was sitting on a trail leading to a waterhole during a very dry time and the bull couldn’t wait to get a drink and wallow in the mud.

Doug and his brothers own the ranch in West central New Mexico and they have taken on many projects to improve the quality of the habitat as well as the hunting. The most important of these projects was the installation of dozens of water guzzlers throughout the ranch to maintain a steady supply of fresh water for the ranch’s elk and mule deer. Windmills and solar powered pumps with high-tech panels that follow the sun across the sky keep the tanks and ground-level ponds well stocked with fresh water.

My friend Joel was next to score and it didn't take him long at all. He tagged a dandy bull his very first evening out. Joel has been for a long time with Mathews Archery and he is a great guy with whom to share a camp. Joel seems much less like an important executive in the hunting industry than he does a buddy you grew up with. He is down to earth and loves to hunt. That is what drives his passion for helping to make Mathews such a successful bow company.

For his first afternoon of elk hunting, Joel chose the spot called Forest Drinker, a cattle tank that was being used regularly by a herd of elk. The ranch foreman, Ed, saw at least one big bull at Forest before we arrived. Joel's hunt was being filmed for the Outdoor Expeditions television show on the Men's Channel. Joel knew that he had to keep his distance if two guys on the ground were going to avoid detection from an entire herd of elk.

Joel chose to make his ground blind under a cedar tree fully 50 yards from the tank. Joel is an excellent archer, fully capable of connecting with the 20-inch kill zone of a large bull elk at this range. Therefore, it was ethical for him to set up such a long distance away. Staying a safe distance from the tank actually made a lot of sense and surely influenced the outcome of the elk hunt. It is a good tip for anyone hunting water. Set up just inside your maximum range so the elk are less likely to see you.

Just to make sure he was ready, Joel took a practice shot at a cow patty next to the tank before settling into the blind. A little cloud of dust rose from the dry, parched September earth. When it cleared, the camera man and Joel grinned. The arrow was sticking from the middle of the patty. After going down the hill to remove the evidence, the pair settled in with fresh confidence.

Elk benefit from water tanks that are managed for livestock. Any game animals in arid regions will gravitate to areas with water, making these natural spots for an ambush. Well before dark that evening, the first elk appeared and approached the water. As elk often do, they came with the timidity of a thunderstorm. Cows and calves started running as soon as they got within 200 yards of the tank and the bull fell in behind them bugling all the way in.

Unbelievably, the bull walked to the tank and stood exactly on top of the cow patty Joel had thumped with his practice arrow just a short time earlier. There was no guessing at the range or Joel's ability to make the shot. The only thing the bowhunter needed to control now was his pounding heart and surging adrenaline. This was the biggest bull he had ever stared at across a sight pin. Instinctively, Joel brought the release aid to its customary location at the back corner of his jaw and took solid aim. He had done this exact thing thousands of times in his life. Now it was the real thing and he willed himself to be extra patient on the trigger - make a good squeeze.

First Day Bull
Joel shot this dandy bull the first evening of
his hunt over a water hole. He made a
long shot on the bull.

The bull looked so big standing over the cow patty Joel had center-punched earlier that the bowhunter felt like he was shooting at a 2,500-pound Angus steer. The release took Joel by surprise just as it was supposed to. The arrow flew like a dart, right through the bull's lungs. Elk exploded everywhere. But the bull quickly fell behind the spooked herd and slumped to the ground just 75 yards from the tank.

Mike Disario was filming me as we hunted a different water hole on the ranch that first evening without success. When Joel and Mike were slow to come out from Forest Drinker that evening, we keyed them on the walkie-talkies and were excited to hear of their success. We quickly drove to the drinker and joined the celebration.

I kept hunting water holes and occasionally tried to run down bugles, but my hunt didn’t produce a sighting of the kind of bulls that have made the Southern Cross famous. But my luck didn’t rub off on everyone.

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