Smoke filled skies, blood red full moon, warm muggy temperatures… All the more reason to lace up the boots and chase elk in September. Montana was the unfortunate bearer of many wildfires that torched through almost 2 million acres of precious elk habitat in the Southwest part of the state. This made conditions harsh as visibility was limited and the particulate filled mountain air made it tough to breathe at the higher alpine elevations. Through all those challenges, this was even more motivation to prove the critics wrong and turn up some big rutting bulls in the pre-rut part of the season.
Labor Day weekend struck the starting bell for the 2017 archery season which found me back in the pine forest in pursuit of a mature bull. The Johnson brothers (Zach and Jake), who also had elk tags in their pockets, accompanied me on opening weekend. The first morning proved to be exciting as we glassed up ten bachelored bulls right at first light. The bulls were bugling which made it easier to identify where they were located and make a plan to slip in and set up. We dropped in but the wind was not in our favor and ended up pushing those elk down the canyon into their natural bedding area. We chased the same group of bulls that weekend with a couple close encounters to notch on our belts. Elk season was officially underway!!!
Opening weekend had come and gone which found myself hunting solo for a few days. Chasing
bugles was the recipe as every morning and evening proved to be energy filled with elk action. I really enjoy hunting by myself as there is no other solitude compared to being in elk country alone. The thrill of existing in their environment and solely relying on your own expertise and skills is what makes me look forward to September every year. On the second evening, I was surrounded by elk moving from their bedding area down to feed. Just being within single digit yards of elk allows you to understand their behavior and different vocal patterns they use. Cow mews and bull bugles filled the air but the full moon rose far too quick before I could get a chance to get within lethal distance of a mature bull. This was another electric evening that proved to be valuable as I continue my backcountry elk journey.
6 point meadow has some lasting history within all our minds. The year preceding, while taking a mid-day break to rest and fuel up, we had encountered a mature 6 point mountain monarch that walked in and out of our dreams. This was one of the largest public land bulls we had ever seen on the hoof. He had it all, a big frame with large 4’s and whale tales for miles. We did make a play on that bull in an attempt to get a closer look but he alluded our set up like the plague. This was one of those moments you will never forget… Which led us back into the same meadow this year in hopes a similar scenario would play out.
On the morning of September 5th, the gang was back together and packed in our spike camp into 6 point meadow with the thought it was a neutral spot on the mountain to base out of. This four piece band consisted of Tyler Houston, Nick Hager, Ben Miller, and myself. All of which were witnesses to the events that had occurred in that meadow a year previous. We hunted our way in that morning following bugles in the wake of chasing the morning hours prior to bedding. With the warm temperatures and smoke screened sky, the elk were closing up early and heading to bed by early morning. As we sat down at mid-day for a snack and some rest, we did what we always do and planned out our evening strategy back up to spike camp. We all kicked back for an afternoon snooze in anticipation of what was going to be a long night.
The 5 o’clock hour struck and it was time to get back on our feet and hunt, working our way back to
camp. As we started our steep ascent, Ben was up ahead of us and had stopped to look down an opposite canyon that usually held elk. As he turned back around, the silhouette of a dark brown body moved through the trees slowly feeding its way across a trail ahead of us. We all knelt down and watched as a gang of elk moved from right to left at 65 yards. I worked my way up a little bit to try and find an opening through all the pine branches and limbs. Cow after cow trickled through just waiting for that bull to show himself. And then off to the right was a long beamed 5 point with dark chocolate antlers following his harem of cows. I ranged the cows passing in front at 63 yds and knew that bull would follow suit. As he walked out into my sight picture, Tyler cow called and stopped him dead in his tracks… and all I saw after that was an arrow traveling similar to that of a steel ball through a pinball machine as it hit multiple branches landing in the dirt far short of its target. Those elk scattered and left us searching for an arrow with no blood on it.
We continued our climb to the top of a park that we had spotted elk that morning. As we crested the peak, I looked down and could see 6 point meadow off to our left. Within seconds of glassing, I picked out a spike and a few cows. Subsequent to that, a deep bugle within close distance rang out below near the outer skirts of the meadow. With having just an hour of light left, we made a plan to drop down and attempt to call this bull away from his cows. Ben and I pushed into the green swampy marsh as Tyler and Nick stayed back and started a cow calling sequence. The bull continued to bugle his way out into the meadow as his cows were mewing. Neither Ben nor I could make out the bull or put eyes on him, but his throaty bugle was enough to keep me interested. I continued to grind my way through the marsh until I dropped into a willow patch that set between me and that bull. I crept on my hands and knees for a few yards and when I looked up, there was elk feeding at 25 yards in front of me. I sat up slowly and knocked an arrow as these elk had no idea I was in their kill zone. Multiple cows fed out into the meadow as the bull continued to bugle and chase cows off to my right. The only way to break this bull free was to bugle and get his attention. I hammered a challenge bugle and immediately all the elk in that meadow froze and looked my way. I could hear him glunking and closing the distance. His raspy bark-chuckle bugle response told me he was still held up and waiting for me to expose myself. His cows started to feed out one by one. Then, through the willow branches, I could see a solid frame 6 point walk his way behind those cows. I ranged a cow in front of that bull at 86 yards that was feeding. After multiple summer practice repetitions, I felt overly confident taking a shot at this range. As she departed, I went to full draw waiting for that bull to walk into my field of view. Once I released the arrow, the sky turned bright red as that lighted nock pierced right behind the front shoulder and buried up to the fletching. That bull hunched up and ran about 50 yards to his death march. Seconds later, I watched that massive bodied bull tip up and over… Big Bull Down in 6 point meadow!
Not often do we ever get the luxury of little to no pack out. But that evening proved to work just like
we had planned as that bull toppled over less than 200 yards from our spike camp we had established that morning. It ended up being a late night as we celebrated achievement that less than 10% of the archery hunting population gets to experience. Under the full moon that late September evening, it was sweet success taking a mature 6 point bull out of 6 point meadow.
You can hear more about this story and our adventure on our Podcast webpage www.rnaoutdoors.com/podcast.