Wapiti Ambush (Part II: ‘Bonking’ Bulls)

The bull elk is an enduring symbol of the open spaces and rugged mountains of the West, and it’s arguably the most impressive antlered animal in the world.
DLien-IMG_4068-San Juans-Oct08
Clouds float above the San Juan Mountains in southeast Colorado. Photo by David Lien.

An elk begins its life in late May or early June as a 35-pound calf, spending most of its first two weeks lying low and hiding from predators — mainly bears, mountain lions and coyotes. Surviving bulls can grow to 1,000 pounds. Obviously, this species is big, one of the biggest hooved animals in North America, and everything about a mature bull is big.

A pair of antlers from a mature Rocky Mountain elk will weigh between 20 and 30 pounds. His bones are thick and heavy, his hide is tough, he has a remarkable tenacity, and his stamina is incredible. Standing as high as 5 feet at the shoulder, a bull elk with a full rack of antlers is an impressive sight.

Theodore Roosevelt thought so too: “A bull elk in rutting season, if on his guard, would with ease beat off a cougar … these great deer can hold their own and make head against all their brute foes.” The bull elk is an enduring symbol of the open spaces and rugged mountains of the American West, and it’s arguably the most impressive antlered animal in the world. The long, sweeping beams and high, curving tines of a mature “6×6” give the elk a majestic aura, and such antlers claim a place of honor over many mantles.

Hunters returning to camp
Hunters return to camp. Photo by David Lien.

During Oct. 2008, I hunted elk with southwest Colorado hunting guide Mike Murphy and, dare I say, this was one of the best big-game hunting experience of my life. The highlight of the week was when Dan and I backpacked into a sparse spike camp for some serious high-country, lung-bustin’ elk chasin.’

During our first day out, we spotted a herd bull on a south-facing ridge above camp some 500 yards away. I hurriedly paralleled the ridge and set up in front of the bull’s expected path, hoping he’d pass through a clearing 250 yards distant, which was the closest we could (potentially) get to this “elkzilla” on such short notice given the intimidating terrain.

Although some hunters are willing to risk a 500-yard shot at a mature bull elk (or other big game) — spurred on, perhaps, by the prospect of a trophy rack hanging above their mantle — I am not. As American Hunter contributor Wayne Van Zwoll said, “Flat-shooting rounds, powerful scopes and laser rangefinders have prompted long-distance shooting of late. Some elk hunters expect to shoot far. In my view, they miss the point of hunting. The long poke is asking your bullet to do what you’ve failed to do on foot.”

The big bull didn’t appear again, but there was a satellite bull on the ridge too, making for two possible targets worth pursuing. We hightailed it into camp, dropped off our heavy packs, and started creeping up the ridge in hopes of spotting one of the two bulls, then heard an elk vocalization that I couldn’t identify. It sounded like someone hitting a hollow wooden bat, as hard as they could, against a cavernous tree trunk. The bull’s first call was close, within 75 yards, and he repeated it five or six times while rapidly traversing the ridgeline above.

David Petersen (author of “A Man Made of Elk) explains what this bull was likely up to: “That strange bull sound you heard was not an alarm, but the opposite. It’s called ‘bonking,’ and usually only done by herd bulls. It’s the sound they make when they’re herding cows and really feeling their cheerios … Except bowhunters, few get close enough ever to hear it, so you’re lucky.” Regardless of our luck, we neither saw nor heard any elk the rest of the evening.

The next afternoon, while traversing a dark-timbered (north-facing) ridge not far from camp, attempting to put the sneak on bedded-down elk in the vicinity, we heard chirping cows and a young-sounding bull bugling from the timber below, then carefully approached to within 100 feet of a cow bedded down on the herd’s perimeter. She stood up in plain sight and started toward the rest of the herd, but didn’t “bust us.”

Hunters glass the area for elk in the rugged San Juan Mountains
Hunters glass the area for elk in the rugged San Juan Mountains. Photo by David Lien.

I immediately moved forward, found a natural shooting lane, and straightaway had a cow in my sights. She moved through the lane, then another cow, then several more, and finally a bull. As each animal came into view, I said quietly to Dan: “cow, cow, cow, cow, bull! Can you see the antlers?” The bull’s entire body and head (sans his antlers) were centered in my crosshairs for several seconds, but neither Dan nor I could tell if he was legal.

After losing sight of the herd, we climbed to the top of the ridge to see if they’d crossed over, and after finding no fresh sign, we set up on the south slope in hopes of spotting them if they came over to feed at dusk. Two hours later we heard brush breaking atop the ridge some 200 yards away. Something big was moving our way in the fading light. I steadied my rifle on a deadfall and waited for our elk herd to appear, but I was surprised to see a rather portly looking black bear come plowing down the ridge instead.

We watched the bear until he disappeared into the trees below, seemingly headed directly for our little spike camp, and then we called it a day. The next morning (camp intact), we hiked and hunted our way up the ridge above camp along a partly frozen creek, expecting the chilled air to help move our scent downslope. Moving slowly, while occasionally cow-calling, not far below the ridgetop we heard crashing brush nearby. A bull (a nice 6×6, it turns out) was headed our way, flashes of tawny hide rippling through the shadowy timber.

I had my sights on a small clearing he’d have to pass through. But only a few feet short, and no more than 75 feet from our location, the bull stopped and hesitated, for maybe two seconds (while, coincidently, obscured by brush and trees), then whirled around and headed downslope in a hurry, without giving me a shot opportunity. Apparently we weren’t as good looking or smelling as the cow(s) he was likely expecting, but the glimpses we caught of him confirmed that this bull was an impressive one.

Like Teddy Roosevelt said, “They [elk] look very handsome as they trot through a wood, stepping lightly and easily over the dead trunks and crashing through the underbrush, with the head held up and nose pointing forward.” Even though I didn’t take a shot during this season, I encountered more elk than the previous year and (more importantly) learned a lot more about elk habits and habitat.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a hunt can be 100 percent successful without ever pulling the trigger or releasing an arrow. I gauge a hunt by the richness of the endeavor. Regardless of what animal is pursued, I measure success by what’s learned in the field, that which can never be learned from behind a computer screen. If you hunt hard and enjoy everything along the way, success is guaranteed.

“Frequently in hunting, it’s the ones you don’t bring home that carve the deepest memories. After all, they’re still out there, somewhere, like an open promise, awaiting your return.”

–David Petersen, “On The Wild Edge

Go to PART ONE of this story

This story was written by David Lien. Lien is a former air force officer, chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and author of Age-Old Quests II: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking. He was recently recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”

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