In a quick and nonchalant glance over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse of my guide, Nathan Davis, emphatically pointing his finger at something located down the ridge. He’d been calling for 10 minutes, temperatures were sweltering somewhere in the mid-80s, and the sun glared down on us.
He probably saw something move, I passively thought, unaware of the farcical drama about to unfold before me, there in Montana’s Crazy Mountains.
Suddenly, a bull elk appeared, walking directly toward me. I became rigid with anticipation, hoping it would move right or left so I could draw the bow. Onward came the bull, like a laser beam, moving steadily toward my position. I sat at the base of a slender lodgepole pine, bow across my lap, and dared not move.
Please walk uphill, I mentally pleaded as the beast closed within 20 yards. Nothing doing.
Davis had long since stopped calling to avoid detection, so the elk continued his approach, passed me at three yards, and then stopped in his tracks. For the next three or four minutes (real time) the bull stood directly behind me. (Later my guide would joke, “If it had [pooped] it would have pebbled all over you!”)
Just a hint of wind moved, offering me the unmistakable odor of the rut, close up and personal. I heard the animal’s every breath; its hooves crunched the earth with each step. For whatever reason, it repeatedly rubbed its nose on a tree.
I began to tremble. I wanted to do something, yet I knew turning and shooting was out of the question. Finally, after three days and four nights (unreal time), the elk nearly stepped on me as it ambled back down the trail. At 10 yards, its head went behind a small tree, and I took the opportunity to quickly draw my bow. The bull bolted, but Davis stopped it broadside at 20 yards with a cow call. I released—and missed.
For long minutes (back to real time), I sat motionless, numb to the soul. I had practiced for months, preparing for this moment. I remember aiming, yet cannot be sure the arrow was even on the rest. Despite nearly three decades of elk hunting, having that bull so close to me for so long simply overloaded my self-control. The lesson learned: No matter how many tricks are up your sleeve, when you bowhunt elk, always plan on excitement that pushes your limits.
Today, decoys are used effectively for whitetails and antelope, yet have seen little, if any, use for elk hunting. After all, how can you sneak through the woods with a sheet of plywood under your arm? Jerry McPherson solved the logistics with a lightweight, compact pop-up model that easily tucks into a daypack.
“We have been messing with [with decoys] with outrageous response,” says Bozeman archer Nathan Pitcher. “They really work. We had multiple nights when we took more than one elk using a decoy. Bulls that used to hang up at 100 yards came right in. We even were able to pull a bull away from its harem.”
Elk are a passion to Pitcher and several of his hunting buddies. “I bowhunt elk at least 30 days a year,” says Pitcher. They also religiously follow the elk on weekends, backpacking and chasing bugles into remote sections of Montana’s national forests.
Pitcher recalled one memorable afternoon when he and a friend first experimented with a cow elk decoy.
“We spotted a small 6-point bull with a cow about 200 yards away,” he began. “We sneaked closer, but got busted by the cow. Staying still and cow-calling calmed her down, yet she went into the timber. I put the decoy up and whispered to my friend to get ready. That bull came running right to it. My buddy got so excited that he missed. I cow-called a second time and my friend missed again. I razzed him pretty hard about missing, and then followed the same elk, which was missed a third time. Later, I had to eat my words, when I missed one that came running down a trail. It really was fun.”
The same season, Pitcher and a buddy sneaked close to a herd bull. Carefully avoiding several satellites, they set up the decoy after hearing the top dog raking a tree. Pitcher cow-called and the big bull came straight down a trail. His buddy shot and the bull dropped 100 yards away.
“It took most of the morning to pack that meat out,” said Pitcher, “but we returned in the evening. Several miles up that canyon, we got into the herd again. As evening approached we had seven bulls running around. I passed up two small 6-points and a 5-point. A cow came by at five yards. Eventually we sneaked to the bottom of the canyon toward two large bugling bulls. We put up the decoy, my hunting partner cow-called, and both bulls came right toward me. My buddy called off the yardage 50, 36, and 31. I shot; the bull took two jumps and tipped over. It was a great, great hunt.”
Pitcher said he uses the decoy from early September through early October. “Seven of us took six bulls using it,” he said. “We used it throughout the season, at watering holes, along pastures, at wallows, and during cow calling.”
According to Pitcher, decoys seem to work best on mature herd bulls. Although smaller, satellite bulls will investigate the cow calling, a dominant breeder becomes especially vulnerable when it attempts to corral the bogus cow into its harem. Boss bulls can be very aggressive while keeping tabs on their females and will often run right to the decoy.
Next: Wallows And Waterholes, Keep’em Talking