Bulls When It Boils

Page 2 of 2

There were several of us (mostly Doug’s brothers and nephews) hunting on the ranch last September, but one of them was a professional photographer named Lon. Lon lived in Alaska for many years and now resides in Washington state. He has killed just about everything that walks in North America. But Lon had never shot a big elk. For that matter, few people have - even many serious bowhunters from the western United States have trophy rooms barren of monster bull antlers.

Lon spent most of his time hunting one secluded water tank. He often whisked away the tracks around the tank with a cedar bough when he left only to find a single big bull track at the tank the next time he arrived. As a result, Lon was putting in long hours, often hunting right through midday. Despite his best efforts, he never laid eyes on the mystery bull.

Elk Hunting
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.

After my five days of hunting was up, Lon drove Mike and me to the airport in Albuquerque. I was jealous that he was going back to hunt and I was going home, and I told him so. I just knew it was only a matter of time on that great ranch under those dry conditions before a person would get a chance to slam a whopper over one of the water tanks. Lon felt like he had found such a bull, but now he just needed a little luck.

My words were like prophecy. Lon drove the three hours back to the Southern Cross for two more days of hunting and arrived with just enough time to shower, change clothes, spray down with his favorite Scent Killer odor eliminator and get into his familiar ladder stand over the big bull’s tank.

I got an e-mail the next morning. Lon had called Mike Cox at his home in New England at midnight with the good news. He had finally shot that giant bull. It crept in just at sunset, very slow and very quiet – completely alone. He was wary and reluctant to expose his flanks during daylight, but the lure of water was finally too much for him. Lon told me later on the phone when I called to congratulate him that the bull had walked right under the ladder. Lon thought he could have reached down and touched the bull’s antlers. Wow, talk about an adrenaline rush.

Lon was afraid to move until the bull finally put his head down into the tank and started to draw water. Then he very slowly brought the bow into position – studying the bull’s eyes all the while. Several times the bull detected the slight rustling of Lon’s outerwear on the still evening air and looked around. Lon froze until the bull again dropped his head to resume slurping. This continued for nearly an entire nerve-wracking minute until Lon finally reached full draw. Even though the shot was short (less than 20 yards) Lon concentrated hard on the spot he wanted to hit until the bow went off. In dramatic fashion, the bull smashed into the tank, caving in one side and then jumped into the water and out the other side before dropping nearby with a perfect hole through both lungs.

The bull had a gross score of 380 inches with excellent mass. It would be hard not to call this the bull of a lifetime, but on a ranch like the Southern Cross, Lon may one day top it. But no matter where you hunt, shooting a tremendous old mature bull is very, very difficult on the ground stalking and probably close to impossible with a call to your lips. Reclusive and shy bulls are hard to take by any aggressive method and the ambush becomes the best method.

This isolated wallow is located in a valley in Arizona. The author hunted it one evening and watched a 290-inch bull come in and drink and wallow at a range of just 25 yards.

Hot Weather Options

trophy bull hunting
This isolated wallow is located in a valley in Arizona. The author hunted it one evening and watched a 290-inch bull come in and drink and wallow at a range of just 25 yards.

I have hunted elk the traditional way for many years and to very little avail. I have had some close encounters with big bulls, but they always seem to find a way to stay alive. Now when I am saying big bulls, I am talking about the herd bull, not just a good satellite. I agree that you can call in nice satellite bulls using a variety of tactics. I’ve seen it done and done it myself several times, but when it comes to shooting the biggest bull on the mountain, you have to change your approach. If this were not so, every elk hunter would have a trophy room full of them.

Many of you reading this are whitetail hunters considering a western elk hunt. You are surely more familiar with the methods required to pattern and ambush your quarry than you are with stalking and maneuvering on a big bull. Play to your strengths. The ambush is a great way to shoot a herd bull. In my opinion, it is better than any other method for the average bowhunter. It takes a more thorough understanding of the animal to hunt him successfully on foot than it does to shoot him from a tree stand overlooking a water hole, wallow or even a funnel of trails leading through a mid-mountain saddle.

It is not that I always opt for the easier method of hunting, but when it comes to elk, I don’t hunt them enough to be really adept at reading their minds, so I must be satisfied to read their sign instead. That is realistic for any respectable whitetail hunter.

Elk will water at least once per day, whether it is hot or not. Timing is everything. Often this daily watering will occur when they first rise from their beds in the early evening hours after a long hot, dry day. But bulls will also occasionally rise at midday to water and wallow while the herd rests. You can use Lon’s tactic of sweeping the dust with a cedar or juniper bough to reveal fresh tracks. Check the ground every time you arrive to hunt the water hole and sweep any existing tracks clean every time you leave so you have a fresh slate.

Another option if you are hunting private land is to use a digital trail camera, like a Stealth Cam, pointed at the water hole. On public land you risk losing the camera, so it not worth using unless you are hunting a particularly isolated location.

Obviously, finding a water hole that is not being hunted is more difficult on public land than on private land, but it can still be done if you are willing to hike long distances. You may also be surprised by the amount of action that you will see when sitting on proven water holes and wallows even in areas with a lot of water. I once hunted a herd of elk in Idaho that were watering and frolicking on the shore of a lake every evening.

Use all the resources at your disposal including aerial photos from websites such as mytopo.com and others. Such photos often reveal waterholes if you look closely. If nothing else, in dry terrain you should see a spoke pattern of cattle or game trails converging on one spot. You can be sure that spot is a water source. Some topographical maps also depict traditional water holes since they are the fabric of life in arid regions of the west.

Bulls aren’t very active when it is hot so they won’t bugle or tear things up like they will when it’s cool. This makes them very hard to hunt on foot. When they aren’t telling you where they are, it is pretty easy to blunder into the herd and scatter them clean off the mountain. During these times, it makes a lot more sense to put your time in over a water hole. You are likely to find just the opposite of what you thought you would find. Your odds of shooting a big bull are actually highest when it is hottest.



Russell, MB
Searching Outfitter & Guide directory...