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When the rut is strong and the bulls bugle.

  • 5 min read

A bright flash pulled me out of my sleep. Loud rolling thunder followed within seconds, and then the rain began. The drops lightly pelted the roof of my camp trailer, one, then another, and so on, increasing in size and volume until it was a full-on downpour. I knew right then that the following day had the potential to be something extraordinary.

It had been the regular Utah archery season up to that point in the hunt. Warm, dry, and clear - the perfect camping weather but not great for elk hunting. The morning and evening windows of activity were very short. Although we were having some encounters and hearing a few bugles, the rut wasn't going very strong yet.

sunrise in utah

We were up and on the road well before light. It was cooler this morning, and water was puddled up in the low spots on the roads. After about a 15-minute drive, we arrived at the base of the mountain near two canyon mouths that were perfect for sending a few locator bugles into.

The wind was downhill and slightly to the north.

Waiting in the dark, admiring the stars on the dark moonless night, with my cousin and best friend Alex and our younger second cousin Jace, I couldn't help but smile and be grateful for these kinds of experiences. The ones all elk hunters have, but most people never see or understand.

As I am getting ready to throw out the first bugle, we hear a bull unexpectedly sound off on his own. He is somewhere below us in the oak brush. Our OnX map shows he is about 400 yards down the hill. I answer back, and he immediately responds, followed by a couple more bulls in the same area. They are going off!

Quickly we make a game plan. We have to go north about a quarter mile and then drop down in elevation to get the wind right and be close to the same elevation as the elk. It is barely light enough to see but moving through the scrub oak is, well, its scrub oak; it's never easy. Luckily the bulls keep making noise, and we can track their location while we try to get closer.

The scrub opens up some, and we get to where we are close enough. We do our first setup, starting with soft cow calls and a lazy bugle, and the bigger-sounding bull responds. We figure him to be about 150 yards out. We move a bit more, and suddenly, up through the scrub, we see the tan color of a bull about 70 yards away. It's him. He is closer than we thought!

We freeze, fearing spooking him, and do some more soft cow calls. He responds but slowly moves off towards his cows, that are also talking back to us.

A smaller 6-point appears about 100 yards to our left and stares our way for about 5 minutes. He finally moves, and we can pursue the bigger bull, who has moved to the left and up the hill a bit. Circling to the left and gaining elevation, we move in close again. More cow calls and some challenge bugles from us let us know that the bull is close. We can hear him glunking. There are elk noises all around.

We made the decision to get a bit more aggressive. My cousin Alex is about 20 feet behind Jace and I. He had just finished beating the snot out of a tree and letting out a pretty good challenge bugle when we spotted movement in the trees up ahead. Out steps the bull we were after.

Alex "scream whispers" to us, "He's a giant!"

Looking at his antlers, I see what he is so excited about. I tell myself not to look at them again and focus on the task. As he passes behind the last significant brush, I draw my bow. Jace is kneeling right behind me, calling out range, "46, 38, 31, 27, 25." The bull stops, but he is quartering towards me at an angle I didn't feel good about. He stood there breathing hard, saliva dripping from his mouth. His smell was thick around us, and it felt like an hour had passed by.

Suddenly he whirled around and started running, getting about 65 yards away, but our cow calls stopped him. He turns back our way and starts walking back towards us. As he nears the edge of our opening, he stops and stares at us, brush slightly covering his chest. Then he starts to turn again.


Alex timed it perfectly.

A slight turn more and again, "Mew!"

Now he is frozen, staring at us at full broadside, 57 yards away.

I slowly inch backward on my knees. I have to get a clear shot, just a bit more. When the vitals are finally clear of the branches, I slowly raise my bow and draw smoothly. My sixty-yard pin finds the spot, and I burn it onto him while I go through my shot sequence. "Find the spot, level, focus the pin with tension, gentle squeeze of the release." I see the arrow make its way exactly how it needed to and hear the distinct sound of a broadhead on a chest cavity.

The bull spins and lunges into a death run. Without any thought, we all start cow-calling. He stopped about 50 yards from where he was shot and stood for a moment. I am holding my breath. The bull's head lowers, and he starts to wobble. Then down he goes, and I do the same. Laying on my back to catch my breath, I look back at my friends, who confirm that he is down for good.

After about 30 minutes, we start to move in on him. I am in shock and unbelief. I have hunted elk for a long time, with some success and some failure - the same ups and downs every elk hunter has. It's always surreal to walk up on something we want so much, occupying so much of an elk hunter's thoughts and dreams.

"I can't see him," I say.

Alex says, "Right there, see that antler sticking up!"

I am happy to have him there to share this with me.

As we approach the bull from behind, we remark that maybe he isn't a giant. He has good mass but not much length. Still a great bull. But as we admire him and get some photos, we realize that his body is huge! I've never seen a bull with such a big body. His giant body made his antlers look short.


We get him quartered and trimmed and start bringing 450 lbs of meat, head, and cape back to camp. With the 90 lb head and cape on my back, I could barely keep the antler tips from hitting the ground on the way out. But with two trips and my cousins/friends at my side, we got it done.

breaking down an elk

The previous thunderstorm had definitely turned the rut activity up that morning. Any elk hunter will tell you when the rut is strong, and the bulls are bugling; it is truly something special.


Kelby considers himself an average western hunter that has spent 25 plus years trying to be better than average. He is a dedicated husband and father to a hunting family of 4 great, grown up kids. He works for a large fabrication company in Northern Utah, where he has lived his whole life. His hunting passion is archery (specifically elk), but also enjoys helping others on any big game hunt. Follow Kelby on Instagram - @wanderbackoutdoors.

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