By Scott Haugen
The bull was closing fast, bugling and “glunking” the whole way down the shale mountainside. In a matter of seconds, I saw the bull’s massive antlers dipping and twisting through the thick stand of young pines. When he stopped and bugled at 16 yards, I stared at him for the first time. His massive rack was all of 340 inches.
Anchored, all I needed was for the bull to move a foot one way or the other, as a series of small trees blocked his vitals. A minute passed and my bow’s draw weight began to feel heavy. Nearly 2 minutes into it, I began to shake and knew I couldn’t hold at full draw much longer. That’s when two cows popped out of the brush. The bull quickly turned and took off after them.
It was frustrating to have a bull so close and not get a shot, and no amount of calling was going to pull him off those cows. As I slid my arrow back into the quiver, there, 60 yards away, stood a 320-inch bull. He wasn’t worth a second look in the area I was hunting, so I kept moving.
I hadn’t gone 30 yards when I bumped in to a third bull. He also scored more than 300-inches. Three bulls had come to my calls, but not one was as big as the bull I tried getting on opening morning.
I was in central Montana, amid one of the many wooded mountain ranges that pock the high-desert surroundings. From a distance it seems these habitats wouldn’t hold much game, but the closer you get, the more evident it becomes these are hotbeds for big game. In one place I stood and glassed elk, mule deer, mountain goats and a pair of black bears in the hills, and in the lowlands below, there were pronghorns and whitetails. These are some of the most game-rich habitats I’ve seen anywhere in the West. But on my first day of elk hunting this new spot, the very first bull I saw was all of 380 inches, maybe bigger. That set the standard.
The first year I called in more than 20 bulls in seven days, saw three bulls scoring more than 340 inches, and could have shot many between 280 and 320 inches, but passed. I wanted one of the big bulls. Though I didn’t take a shot that season, it was one of the best elk hunts of my life.
The following season I killed the first bull I saw in that spot. He came confidently striding into my calls, bugling the entire way. That hunt lasted less than an hour.
The next season I was in another section of Montana, near the town of White Sulfur Springs. This was a new area for me, so I showed up a few days before the season to get some scouting in. All the sign was old, made during winter. I covered miles, both on foot and with my spotting scope and binoculars, and saw a cow and a calf. In one shaded creek bottom I found a small wallow and rub, but didn’t see or hear a bull.
Two days into the season, I hadn’t seen an elk. The next day I went to another ridge and was in position to glass well before daylight. More than a half-mile away, a lone cow fed in a meadow, and hot on her tail was a young bull. It was the first and only bull I’d seen in six days, so I wasted no time closing the distance, setting up and then calling.
The bull came on the run to my cow calls, but I couldn’t get a shot as he approached from behind a rocky outcropping. When that bull stopped for the first time, he was 9 yards from me. He eventually moved off, and I let him get out of sight before calling. It worked, as he circled back in perfect shooting position. The 40-plus yard shot was simple, and the bull went only a short distance. He was a small 6-by-6, but on this hunt, in this place, it was a bull worth taking. Had I seen him during previous two-year’s hunts, I wouldn’t even have given him a second look.
Montana has some monster bulls, but just like anywhere, the area, regional genetics and timing make size relative. In some places, during some years, a 300-inch bull isn’t worth shooting. In another, that same bull may be all you put on the table.
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