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"Smokepole Bull Success"
Written by Eric Rasmussen

Smokepole Bull Success
It was still dark on the second morning of my limited entry muzzleloader elk hunt when I parked my truck on the ridge. As soon as I got out of the truck I heard four bulls bugling right below me.

The breeze was blowing downhill, from me to them, not good! I dropped off the ridge on the far side and lost some altitude, so I could make an approach in a cross wind. As I came around the ridge towards the first bull, a cow and calf crossed the ridge just thirty yards below me. I used a cow call, trying to draw the bull into the open to size him up. Trying to cow call a bull with cows away from those he's already got is a losing proposition.

My impatience got the better of me, and I moved to close the gap. Some unseen cows caught my movement and sounded an alarm. It's amazing that eight cows can sometimes sound like twenty, and twenty can often sound like one. I never saw that bull.

The four bulls kept bugling, but now they were moving away from me. I moved into the trees, following elk trails and the sound of those bugles. There were times when I felt I was within fifty yards of three bugling elk, but just couldn't see them. They kept moving, and so did I. I could hear them, but I couldn't catch up.

After nearly a mile, I bumped some elk in the timber and thought it was over. I was still in the trees when I spotted some elk on the edge of a clearing ahead of me. A spike, a two point, a small five point and then two more spikes. The big bull bugled just uphill!

Smokepole Bull Success
This group of small bulls moved away, and I was able to get to the edge of the clearing. The big guy bugled again, and made a couple runs chasing the smaller bulls off. It was only the second day, but when I saw those antlers, it made sense to take this one.

I set up some homemade shooting sticks, and guessed the range at 150 yards. I fired as he moved through an opening. The other elk ran, he disappeared behind a couple trees and though the shot felt good at the time, I didn't know what happened.

I reloaded my inline .54 and waited a few minutes. I closed the gap to 70 yards, and saw his head and antlers as he looked through the trees. On the sticks again when he came out, I put another round in him and there was still no reaction to the shot. He headed straight away from me, going slightly uphill.

Reloading again, the shooting sticks were too low to be helpful, so I stood upright and braced against a tree. He was now over 200 yards away, walking slowly and deliberately for the timber. I put my front bead between his antlers and just over the top of his head. Looking through my peep site, I remember thinking with amazement "he's 50 inches wide". I pulled the trigger again, hoping the bullet would drop into his spine somewhere in that seven feet between his head and his tail.

This wasn't exactly a "Texas heart shot" (no offense intended). It was a Hail Mary based on the premise that once you've hit an elk, it's best to keep shooting until he goes down. I heard this bullet hit, and the bull just kept walking off into that nasty timber.

When the bull was out of sight I started going over the events, identifying my shooting locations, the bull's location at each shot, his reaction or lack of reaction to each shot, and then confirmed my range estimations with a range finder (The first two shots were so close to my estimates that it made no difference. The final shot was at 240 yards.)

I started searching for blood sign. There was none. I searched for tracks I could identify as his and not some other elk. I found where he crossed an ATV trail while heading for the timber and I found where he entered the timber. Then I called my brother, Lars (who also had an elk permit) on a radio and asked for a little help.

When he and his son, Jens, arrived, we went over this again trying to determine what happened and what steps to take. We guessed that my first shot hit too far back. We also surmised that I had indeed hit him with the second shot because they'd heard the second report and a bullet impact afterwards. We knew I'd hit him somewhere on the last shot.

So now it was about an hour since the last shot and I was finally coming down off my adrenalin rush. I got hit with a surge of emotion. My thoughts, in no particular order, were: "after 12 years of trying for this tag I've lost this elk", "I've screwed up and this elk will suffer", "we've still got a lot of looking to do".

We knew where the bull entered the trees. My brother, who was carrying a firearm and had a permit, would do some exploring in the timber to locate elk trails and see what he could learn. My nephew would assist me in trying to track this bull. With no blood trail it was going to be difficult.

Our first attempt failed. The ground was too hard in some places and held too many tracks in others. The second attempt also failed. I figured this bull was heading to someplace he knew and felt safe--thick, nasty cover maybe?

We tried in the opposite direction. I told Jens to keep looking to the sides. The bull could just be a tan lump ten yards off the trail. Thirty seconds later, Jens said, "well, there he is". I felt a surge of relief when I saw him down and not moving.

His antlers don't look quite as big and impressive as they did when he was alive. But then they never look as big as when they're herding cows, chasing smaller bulls and bugling challenges.

I had quite a hunt, before and after the shooting. I'm happy, and I think I'll always remember the way he looked when I first saw him.

Note: Having passed up one or more bulls every day of the hunt, Lars took a very nice bull on the second to last day--and he was considerate enough to take one just slightly smaller than mine.