Jerud flipped over in his sleeping bag and shook my shoulder with excitement…
“Wake up! Did you hear that? A bugle!”
Apparently Jerud had been sleeping soundly for the last 4 hours, because bugles had been ringing through the night for at least that long. They began somewhere around 2AM, and got closer and closer until now – about 40 minutes before sunrise.
I heard Will unzip his tent, just as I began to unzip my sleeping bag. I’m not sure if it was the sound, or Will’s silhouette cast in the moonlight as he stepped out of his tent, but suddenly thunder erupted – the thunder of at least a dozen elk fleeing down the mountainside. (Speaking of Will…go read his account of this hunt.)
Those elk, including one of the bugling bulls, were no more than 60 yards from our tents.
That group of elk fled a couple-hundred yards, and the bull resumed bugling. Then another bugle rang off from our left, and yet another from our right. Will and Jerud stepped away from camp to peek down the road, as I scrambled to get my bow and release. Forget breakfast. Forget water. Forget everything else…it was time to go hunt!
I left camp and headed to the right, where Jerud said he could see elk crossing a fence line, about 200 yards away. But the allure of bugles drew me back across camp to left, where there was a more vocal group of elk. I didn’t have a bull tag, but I knew that this bull had cows with him, and I was hoping to sneak in among the herd to tag one of them.
I quietly crept along as the sun broke over the horizon and lit the frost-covered ground. The bull would bugle every few minutes, and each time I would make note of his direction and follow accordingly. After 15 minutes of this back-and-forth, I realized I knew right where he was heading – an isolated, high-top mountain tucked in the corner of the property. I was hoping he would stay on top of the mountain, and not drop off the other side, onto the restricted mining land.
I stopped following the bugles and went with my gut – heading directly to the mountain, hoping to cut the herd off. After a 15-minute hike I rounded the last corner and lookup up to the mountain, only to see the bull at the top of the mountain, pushing a couple of cows up into the timber. I can’t believe they beat me there! It’s amazing how fast these animals can move.
I made a plan to circle below the mountain and flank the herd from the left side, so that the wind would be in my face for an approach. I worked my way down and around, occasionally hearing the bull bugle from the top; this mountain was a throne and the bull was declaring his kingship.
Finally, I arrived at the top and slowly crept my way through the patchy mix of brushy meadows, dense hardwoods, and unbelievably choked, 12′ tall thickets. I used my diaphragm call to make some cow chatter as I snuck closer and closer to the herd. I was now within 60 yards, assuming the elk were on the other side of the thicket, as they sounded to be.
After a few minutes I heard movement. Leaves were rustling, sticks were breaking, and as the sound grew louder I knelt at the ready. I was just about to draw my bow when a set of antlers broke through the brush.
A beautiful, bugling bull stepped out into the opening. He stood at 43 yards, unaware that I was lurking in the shadows, fully prepared to send a broadhead through his chest cavity. There was only one problem… I didn’t have a tag!
The monarch moved through and circled back to his herd. A cow never showed. I sat there in disbelief. A bull in bow-range, completely unaware of my presence, and providing a perfect broadside shot. This was something I’ve dreamt about for years. Something I’ve worked hard for. An experience that I’ve committed myself to pursuing. Yet, for my Kentucky elk hunt I only had a cow tag. Why couldn’t this have happened when I was on my Colorado elk hunt?
My blood flowed with a chilly mix of excitement and disappointment. This was my chance; yet it wasn’t. Hunting can be cruel.
I continued to hunt that mountain for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. It was still early in the trip, so I didn’t want to push that herd too hard, hoping that they would remain here for tomorrow morning’s hunt.
Will and I took a quick mid-day break at camp and then set out for what turned out to be an uneventful evening hunt. Well, uneventful in terms of elk, but if you count the run-ins with had with locals driving around in the hunting area, then there were definitely some stories to be shared. Let’s just say that it was a frustrating, but funny experience, and that some stereotypes were proven to be true.
The next day Will and I headed back up to the bull’s throne – the mountain that provided the encounter – but this time the elk where off the far side of the mountain, on restricted land. You could hear the bull bulging from his safe zone, as if to taunt us.
Will and I decided to go for broke and get aggressive. We ended up covering over 12 miles that day. Up this mountainside, over the ridge top, and down the slope. We repeated that process again and again, but didn’t have much to show for it. At the end of the night we setup in an isolated meadow to try and catch something moving during the last hour of light. The only thing that showed up for the party was this buck. He stepped out in front of us at about 6 yards and tried his best to figure us out, but couldn’t.
On the final day we returned again to the bull’s throne, but this time we didn’t hear any bugles. I had high hopes that there elk were there though, so just before we crested the climb and approached the open mountain top I stopped to ready my bow and pull up my face mask. We approached, once again, from the left side, putting the wind in our face. I took the final few steps of the climb and suddenly felt a chilly breeze hit the back of my neck, and just as it did I heard another thunderous retreat of numerous elk. They were right on top, no more than 30 yards away, just where I expected them to be. If I could have made a few more steps then I would have had a clear path to see them, and been well within bow-range, but the wind had outed us.
We made note of the direction that the herd fled and then dropped down the opposite side of the mountain, circled our way around, and approached them from the other side. Long story short, we busted them again. Getting into bow-range in this terrain is tough, especially when you are trying to fool a dozen noses, and a couple-dozen ears and eyes.
I was headed home with empty coolers. Again. But the story isn’t over. I might be able to get back to hunt Kentucky again this year, and I’m already planning another elk hunting trip out West for next September. Either way, I’ll be back. But first I have to go kill a whitetail. After all, it’s November now.