Step by Step: Stuart’s 2020 Montana Bull

Over the years, I’ve written Step by Step blogs for each bull harvested to help beginners understand how a hunt plays out. The posts also help me to reflect on what I did well and what I could have been done better. I believe in learning from failure but prefer to learn from success. In 2018 I nearly missed an uphill shot on a 6×6 bull. The following summer, I focused on setting my third axis and replicating similar shots in practice. The next bull taught me a lesson on frontal shots. I learn something new on every hunt, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. I encourage other hunters to write out their successes and failures to determine where they can improve for next season.

Location: Busy hiking trail in a drainage. South facing slope, edge of grass and timber. 6400 feet elevation. Marshy bottom. (For more information on the location check out: Quick Tip: Using Topo Maps for Elk Hunting)

Set Up: Dogging the herd. Downhill and downwind from a group of cows.

Calling: Lost cow calling into lighter bugling followed by more aggressive bugles and pants.

Shot: 50 yards broadside. Slightly uphill.

September 10, 2021

6:30 p.m. Leave camp

7:30 p.m. Spot a cow 150 yards uphill on the edge of the timber. Circle downwind. Take my shoes off and drop my pack. Tie Nali to a tree.

7:45 p.m. Spook a cow as I am moving towards the herd.

7:46 p.m. Begin calling as if I’m a lost cow that has been left behind. 

7:55 p.m. Bull starts to bugle back. Continue to close in on the herd.

8:00 p.m. Reach an open meadow that would be difficult to cross without being seen. Begin including challenge bugles and raking a tree to imitate a satellite bull displaying for the lost cow.

8:05 p.m. Bull bugles and walks down the hill to an opening at 50 yards. Shoot the bull. Shot looks good, but the bull turns as the arrow hits. Sun sets. Decide to leave the bull overnight.

7:00 – 8:30 a.m. Hike in. First check uphill where I thought the cows headed. Decide to remain at the same elevation and sidle.

8:30 a.m. Recover the bull 300 yards away. No blood trail though the bull was hit well. Bull was at the bottom of a small ridge.

What Went Right

Scouting: Preseason scouting was the biggest contributor to success. I scouted five locations throughout the summer, and this drainage was the top spot. I had left work later than I hoped but decided to go out for an evening hunt anyway. There were trucks at every turn in the road, and the hunt was planned mostly to get an idea of the country and eyeball tough-to-reach habitat. It’s unlikely I would have been onto elk that quickly without summer scouting trips to the area.

Calling: The calling strategy came mostly from Remi Warren’s Podcast Ep. 55. Panting was the final straw to bring the bull into range. If you haven’t already, check out the Cutting the Distance podcast. It is an awesome resource for elk hunters.

Don’t Panic: Elk have poor eyesight, and they rely heavily on their nose to keep them safe. When you spook one member of the herd, you’re not necessarily busted. They may not trust what they saw. I’m not an elk behavior expert, but don’t panic if you alert one cow out of many.

Recovery: When recovering elk and deer they seem to lose their legs as they turn uphill. This bull went several hundred yards but collapsed as it turned uphill. I have found whitetail in similar locations where they lose steam going uphill, then spasm and kick to the low point.

What to Work On

I regretted shooting this bull. It was the first weekend hunting Montana, and I got swept up in the moment. I’ve made similar mistakes when whitetail hunting in the early season. When an buck or bull starts to walk away they always look bigger, and it can be tough to pass up a shot opportunity. If I come to full draw, I almost always release the arrow. Though I had practiced letting down on deer and goats the year before, I still let my discipline lapse. In the future I must remind myself, “When in doubt don’t shoot.”

As adrenaline kicks in muscle memory takes over. Mental routines help tremendously. I often picture watching a trophy bull approach, gaining my composure and delivering a perfect shot. I now go through the process of passing on bulls in my head as well. You probably have a routine to find your anchor and pull through your shot, take the time to establish a pre-shot check list as well.

At the end of the day I can’t complain about a good shot on a bull. It’s tough in the days following a hunt to realize you’ll have to wait a year before buying another tag. Planning other hunts in advance helps to lessen the sting. I was lucky to have a mule deer trip on the horizon to get myself focused on the future.

Good luck. I hope you kill a monster,

Stu

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