By Ben Carter
I believe that hunting elk during the rut is the most fun and most exciting hunt when it comes to western big game. I played the application game with the Utah DWR until finally my name was drawn for a Utah elk hunt. I would be hunting elk in southern Utah in 2014. I had a pretty good idea that I was going to draw based on current trends so I also applied for a general muzzleloader deer tag for the same unit and same time. Luck was on my side and my brother and I both had deer tags as well. It was going to be an exciting year.
I was unfamiliar with the unit that I had drawn. This is not uncommon in Utah where you only get the chance to hunt limited entry elk every 15 years or more. I knew that if I was going to take full advantage I would need to put considerable time in scouting and learning the country. Lucky for me I had some insider knowledge. A good friend of mine, that actually referred me to the unit, accompanied me on my fist scouting trip in July to show me a few places on the unit and get me started in the right direction.
I mostly hunt DIY (do it yourself). Not to disparage anyone that hunts with a guide, but I feel a greater sense of accomplishment knowing I was able to be successful on a hunt on my own. I knew time in the field and on the mountain was going to be crucial to my success. I had just started a new job and had no time off to use, so my weekends were filled with long drives to southern Utah for a couple days of locating key elk habitat. Over July and August I covered most of the unit and was able to hike in and find nice bulls in several canyons. I hung a few cameras and was able to get some pictures of elk, but none of the bulls I was seeing were really what I was after. The big bulls I did see were on a couple large pieces of private property. These “once in every 15 year hunts” put a lot of pressure on hunters to kill trophy class animals. Some people feel cheated when they kill a bull that doesn’t make the record book, or worse eat tag soup.
As August was coming to an end and September was just getting started the bulls started getting more vocal. Some of the coolest encounters I have ever had in the woods happened during this time. Had it been my season I could have killed multiple 6 points, but just being close was an experience in itself. I took a week break off to go help a friend on a rifle elk hunt in a different part of the state, and then it would be time for my hunt. My hunt was set to open on a Wednesday. I got down there Sunday night before it opened to have a couple days to locate a shooter bull for the opener.
It rained pretty heavy Sunday night and when I woke up Monday morning the air was thick with humidity. It was well before dawn as I had an hour and a half hike in front of me to get into where I knew where some elk were and check my trail-camera. The moisture made the woods quiet, and I climbed the mountain in silence with only the wind in the aspens making any noise. This peacefulness was not what I had hoped for. It was September 22nd, the peak of the rut! There should have been bulls going crazy.
It was just getting light as I crested a knob about 2 thirds of the way in. I was right on time. Usually from this knob you can get a good view of the canyon and I had seen animals most times I had been there. Today it was covered with a misty fog. I didn’t even stop, I dove into the trees. My first stop was a deer kill that I had found 2 weeks earlier. I had photographed this deer early in the summer, but then found him dead during the archery hunt. It was the nicest deer I had seen in all my scouting and I was pretty bummed to find him dead. I was going to check the kill again and see if it was still there. The kill was empty except for one front leg. Coyotes or bears had drug the rest off. I then continued up the slope to an area where 2 large clearings meet. This was where I had hung my camera. It was now about 7 am and plenty light to see. Still no bugles. When I got to my camera and checked my pictures, there was one nice bull on there and quite a few small bulls. I was a little discouraged and decided to break the silence with a bugle. I bugled into the fog and a bull answered me from below. It sounded like a young bull. I decided to check a bedding area where I had seen bulls and sign before. There was still lots of sign but no elk. Discouraged I started my decent and heading back to the knob.
I was side-hilling across a large foggy clearing when I caught some movement in the tree line about 80 yards in front of me. I had been cow calling and wasn’t moving quietly, so it surprised me that an animal would be there. I was completely exposed except for the blanket of fog, but I decided to move closer. I got about 30 yards from the tree line and I could see fuzzy brown shapes moving through the aspens near me. Elk, and they were bulls. Five bulls in total and they were moving my way. I froze and did my best tree impression. They got closer. The bulls didn’t even notice me, they were feeding and got comfortable. They started sparing and a few times it got pretty heated. My range finder could barely pierce the fog, but they were only 30 yards away. Most were 4 and 5 points, but one was a small six, probably the bull the bugled back to me earlier that morning.
It was so cool being so close and them being oblivious to my position. After about 15 minutes the wind picked up and the fog started to clear. I remained motionless, but they soon spotted me and spooked down the hill. The visibility at 30 yards really didn’t change much even with the fog gone. However, the sense of security it gave them must have gone and they became aware of me. I side-hilled back to the way I had come up and caught a glimpse of them going out a clearing above me, they had circled me across two giant rock slides and climbed 200 yards above me in the time it took me to get over to the ridge. The last bull I saw was actually a bigger bull that they must have picked up on the way. Still not a giant, but a nice bull. I decided I was going to check out a different area on the unit that would hopefully have more rutting activity.
I made it to the new camp site about 2 in the afternoon started setting up camp. My spirits were already better as I could hear bulls bugling on the hill above me. I finished with camp and I could still here a bull bugling and he sounded pretty close. I thought that if he was going to bugle in the middle of the day I would sneak in on him and see what he was.
I started moving in on that bull about an hour later. He would bugle every 10 to 15 minutes and I slowly worked in. Eventually I spotted some fur through the trees at about 80 yards. I started glassing very carefully and started to make out the herd. Eventually I spotted the bull. He was a 6×7 with great tops. I was excited because had it been open season I could have easily harvested him from where I was hiding. I watched him and his cows for a while and decided to see how they would respond to calls. I cow called a couple times and boom he was out of there. He took is cows and left. I was very surprised how call shy he was. I would make a note of this.
I went back to camp, ate a quick bite, and got ready to go and watch a property boundary that I was planning to hunt to see what kind of evening activity there was. I got into position and waited to see if any elk were using this as a corridor as I had heard they have in the past. After a little while the hills lit up with bugles. However most were below me. Closer to the 7 point I had snuck in on earlier. There were a few bulls on the private land, but most were on the public. I waited until dark and then went back to camp. I still wanted to see if there was any activity there in the morning.
Tuesday morning came and I was in the meadow on the property boundary again. Tomorrow the hunt started and this would be my last day to scout. Again nothing close to me, but I could hear bulls below in the trees. I waited a little while and checked the cameras I had positioned the night before. Nothing but pictures of me setting them up. I started back to camp but thought I would check on a bull that I could hear bugling. This was in a draw farther north and I hadn’t seen much activity in there. I moved in and could hear elk going through the oaks in front of me. I had a 5 point bull come into about 10 yards and never know I was there. It was hard to be quiet and my going was slow, but suddenly a bull bugled close by and started pushing some cows my way. A nice bull that I estimated around 330 340 came by and I watched them for a while. I tried calling on him as I left and it didn’t seem to have any affect. These animals must have been called pretty heavy during the early rifle hunt.
I went back to camp and ate lunch. This time I was going to come in from above on the bulls I had heard bugling this morning and the night before. I dropped into the timber and was moving silently. I was making my way down the draw when the brush in front of me stood up. There was a rag-horn bull about 5 feet from me. I was just through a dead pine and I couldn’t see me. The wind was blowing up the canyon and right into my face. He couldn’t smell me either. He got a little nervous and walked a few yards away but we stood there for a while. I eventually got impatient and just started moving again and he spooked a little. I could hear bulls bugling below me and I pressed on. I jumped a spike and he ran down the draw. I hoped he wouldn’t spook out the other elk so I climbed up on top of the ridge and kept going down the mountain. The spike apparently had the same plan and popped up in front of me again. I had no option to just push him so he ran off again and I hoped the other elk wouldn’t listen to some dumb lone spike. I saw some more movement and figured it was the spike but then I saw big tines moving through the aspens. It was a nice 6 point and he was about 100 yards down the ridge from me. I watched him until he crossed the ridge and I followed across to see what was on the other side. I could see a smaller 6 point up the hill from me some. I could still hear bulls below and was worried everything was going to spook out now that I was completely surrounded by elk. The smaller six was headed right to me so I dropped back into the bottom of the draw and decided to try and slip back out the way I had came.
He beat me to it. And I had to wait him out. I called at him once and he started raking trees. I called again and he spooked. He circled me and headed north. I knew that if I stayed down there I would blow all the elk out. I headed out the way I had come.
There were still bulls that I hadn’t seen in there and I thought that maybe I could come in from the south and get a look at them. I got back to my wheeler and did a big circle around the mountain. I started hiking in from the south and I was right in the elk again. I could hear horns clashing and elk running. I moved stealthily though the oaks and suddenly I saw some tines sticking up above the brush. I moved my position a little and got a better look. It was the 6 point I had seen cross below me earlier. I watched and photographed him for a while. I couldn’t get past his heard to go see what was beyond. Also it was getting dark fast. I decided to move out and not spook them out. Tomorrow was the hunt and I knew I had a bunch of undisturbed bulls in the area to hunt.
My brother and father arrived late that night I told them about my scouting and I told them my game plan to go after the 7 point from the north early in the morning. I knew no other hunters were going after these bulls.
We woke up well before light to watch the traffic and see if we would need to adjust our plan for other hunters. There was some traffic on the roads but they all drove past the area I was wanting to go in on. Perfect, I thought. The elk were pretty close to camp so we waited until it was a little light in order to not spook them out without being able to see them. I picked a bugle that sounded like the 7 points and started moving in with my dad and brother close behind. It was a little hard to move 3 guys silently in, but based on my experience with these animals we weren’t going to be able to call them in.
We closed the distance to under 100 yards, but the elk had gotten on the other side of some small aspens. The trees were so thick there was no way to get through them silently. We could hear another bull just up the slope from us and I decided to move in on them to see what he was. We crossed the bottom of the shallow canyon and started up the other side and into the oaks. Flash! I saw elk.
I dropped to my knees so I could glass under the oak canopy. I could see quite a few elk flashing through the trees. I could see they were moving pretty fast. The elk were moving, and they were moving our way. I ran 30 yards up the draw to about the edge of the oaks and got ready. Suddenly the whole clearing in front me was full of elk. A bunch of cows came running in and a couple of smaller satellite bulls. Then with a screaming bugle the herd bull entered. He dwarfed the smaller bulls and rushed in to push them off.
I could see his mains were decent and his tops looked good. I decided that if he gave me a shot I would take it. The herd was running around about 80 yards from me but there were so many elk I couldn’t get a clear lane at the bull. He disappeared and I thought we had lost him but then he came running back out into the middle of the clearing. The herd cleared and he paused to look back. BANG! The sound filled the clearing and the gray smoke of my muzzle loader shot out in front of me. He humped up and his herd ran off into the trees up the draw. I knew he was hit and hit hard. He took a wobbly step, then another and disappeared behind some trees down towards the bottom of the draw.
I quickly started to reload as my brother and dad came to my side. I got my weapon ready and headed into the meadow. From the way he was moving I thought we would be down.
I got around the trees, and I could see a horn sticking up above the grass. He was down! Man that was a good feeling. I moved over cautiously to make sure he was finished. That was the end. There was some relief and congratulating. My bull was down. He had only gone 10 yards. I had hit him perfect and my hunt was over. I only actually hunted about 30 minutes, but what a great experience. I can’t wait until next year. It was great being able to share it with my father and brother who are both as passionate about hunting as I am. Truly one of the best moments of my life.