Rattle Up Your Bull

By Mike Russell

Mike RussellMike Russell
Idaho, 2005
Public Land, DIY

The 2005 elk season in northern Idaho was shaping up to be another great year. With several mild winters in a row and enough rain in July and August, the woods were lush with feed, meaning fat and sassy elk with great antler growth.

Arriving the first week of September, I was planning on setting up a blind over some wallows I had located in years past. Each wallow I visited had no fresh sign and with rain off and on the whole first week and cool weather, the blind never made it out of the truck.

My best friend and hunting partner, Neil Craig, and I decided to take a walk into a drainage that always holds some good bulls. We crossed the river on an old downed spruce tree and after 30 minutes, we stopped on an open knob where we could see up the drainage. I told Neil, "Give er a toot." After the long drawn out two-note bugle, we strained to hear that beautiful sound, but no answer. We started up the long, steep trail, finding a spot to rest after a few minutes. Just as I was going to start again, a bull bugled just over the ridge top, not more than 75 yards away. Neil motioned for me to move in and he would cow call from there. The next 10 minutes is what we all wait for each year while hunting the mighty elk.

Between Neil's cow calls and the bull over the ridge top bugling, a frenzy of bugling bulls lit up all over the bottom of the canyon. There had to be six or eight different bulls and they were all going crazy. The wind just wasn't right for our first encounter, so we dropped down the ridge and went up the bottom. Bulls were actually bugling at the sound of us walking up the trail. If we cow called or bugled, it would start up again. That morning we heard probably 12 different bulls and 200 bugles...unbelievable!

Neil seemed to think the bulls were establishing a pecking order as they were really vocal, but wouldn't come in. If you tried to setup and move in on one, they would go silent and disappear. We had two small bulls come into bow range that first day, but it looked like we had all the makings of an entertaining season, so we passed.

At the end of the week the weather cleared off and the full moon came out. Things slowed down after that, so we decided to go back to town and do some fishing.

Talking to Neil one night, I mentioned to him about two bowhunters that had been successful rattling in bulls five consecutive years. Neil reminded me how crazy we were when we heard the story about a guy who used moose sheds to rattle in a bull elk. We carried around a pair of moose sheds in the middle 90's when we realized we had to be out of our minds and went back to conventional methods of calling elk. The next morning I talked Neil into going through his elk shed pile to find some decent sheds to make rattle horns. We found a pair of five-point sheds and cut the points off, making them more compact and easy to carry. It only made sense, with all the bulls bugling early in the season, when the first cows come in heat, by all rights the fighting should be fast and furious.

By the middle of the month we had more hunting buddies show up to camp. Each day we could get the elk to bugle but they would not come in and if you tried to move in on them, same story - disappearing act. In our neck of the woods, prime time is usually September 17th through the 24th and sometimes longer. I decided to try rattling on the morning of the 21st.

Arriving on the long ridge at first light, I set up about 100 yards below the pack trail. Getting my rattling horns ready, I first gave a two note drawn out bugle to my right, and then ran 10 yards left and gave a six-note chuckle, sounding more like an older bull. Hurrying back to grab the shed horns, I slammed them together and started kicking brush and snapping branches as I ran back and forth trying to imitate what two fighting bulls would sound like. I continued this for a full minute, then slammed the sheds down and gave a raging long bugle and chuckles, and then listened. No bugles came back. Side hilling down and around the big basin, I stopped about 50 yards farther in and started hyper hot cow calling, four to five times. Instantly, three separate bulls answered, so I moved a full 100 yards closer and set up. The wind was strong and perfect.

Intending to stay there and wait for one hour, I nocked an arrow and hung my bow on a tree snag. I put a diaphragm call in my mouth and pulled up my facemask. As I started looking for movement below me, unbelievably I had set up right in the middle of a herd of mule deer. For the next 10 minutes, each time I saw movement, it was a mulie doe feeding and moving down hill. Luckily none of them winded me.

Thirty minutes into my set up, I turned to my right and caught movement about 50 yards away. My first reaction was �deer,� and then my brain said �elk.� As soon as I saw the bull, I started looking for a shooting lane, any place where I could move without the bull seeing me. There were three pine trees that the bull had to cross behind and they were close enough to me that each one of them would give me time to ready myself for the shot. When the bull got to the first tree, I got my bow off the snag and turned toward my shooting lane, then froze. The second tree I put on my release and brought the bow up, trying to estimate approximate distance I would shoot at. He reached the 3rd tree and I couldn�t believe how fast things were moving. In the back of my mind I kept saying to myself, �Don�t look at the antlers, pick a spot.� As he came from behind the last tree and came into my 10-foot shooting lane, I cow called and the big bull stopped looking right at me. I figured him for about 35 yards, so I held the 30-yard pin high on the shoulder. When I saw the 40-yard pin still low on his girth, I touched off the release and the arrow was on its way. Just after my arrow hit him, I cow called three times. Unbelievably, the bull turned to look back and within seconds fell down not more than 65 yards from me. My legs shook uncontrollably as I waited by the tree for 30 minutes just to make sure the bull was down for good.

The whole time I thought the bull was a decent five point and maybe a small six, but as I neared the downed animal I was amazed to see he was a 7x6 with a 50-inch outside spread. The big bull fell over backwards with his antlers stuck in the ground over some small windfall trees. It took a lot of sawing with my bone saw and 30 minutes of rolling and moving just to get the bull ready for some pictures. After the picture taking I worked on the bull from 8:30 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. That afternoon I got one hindquarter out and Neil came in and packed out the head, horns and cape in one piece. His pack had to be over 150 pounds.

I shot the bull three miles from camp so I was very thankful all my hunting buddies helped pack him out. I want to thank Neil, Buck-O, Kenny, Dan, Marvin and Lenny for helping me. I would also like to pay a special tribute to our fallen camp leader, Joe Schuler, who succumbed to cancer a couple of year�s ago, his stories still rule around our campfire at night. We have a special plaque each year that reads, �Camp Joe Schuler.� This was our third year at camp Joe Schuler, there will be many more.