Elk Rut: Screaming Bulls in September

From onX’s own Dylan Dowson:

Born and raised in Eastern Montana, I grew up hunting the sagebrush and coulees with my dad from a very young age, looking for mostly mule deer, whitetails, and antelope. I now try to hunt as many different places and species that time will allow, and have a particular passion for hunting elk with a bow. I currently reside in Missoula, Montana, where I have worked at onX for the past eight years focusing on Western Big Game Marketing. I spend as much time as I can in the field and am now looking forward to passing on my passion and the heritage of hunting to my two young boys. 

Dylan Dowson from onX Hunt with a bull elk he downed on an archery elk hunt

I vividly remember the first time getting to tag along with my dad on an archery elk hunt. Even at the age of eight, it didn’t take long for me to realize that there was something extra special about screaming bulls in September. My very first evening elk hunting was spent in the middle of several bugling bulls as darkness crept in. I remember telling my dad I wanted to stay and listen to the bugles well after shooting light was over before our hike out in the dark. It was one of those magical times in the elk rut that is almost impossible to try and describe. More than twenty years later, I still get the same feeling when hearing a bull bugle. 

The elk rut seemed to start out slow this year, at least in the spots I was hunting. I spent the first few weeks of the season tagging along with family and friends on hunts of theirs. We covered many miles on foot and even horses without hearing or laying eyes on a single bull. I knew it was just a matter of time, but oddly enough, I still hadn’t heard a bugle by the time I left for my hunt on the 25th of September. 

For the past several years, I have met my dad, uncle, and cousin for an annual week-long archery elk hunt in our home state of Montana. This year was no different. We arrived just in time to split up and find a vantage point to try and locate elk for the following morning. My cousin spotted the first bull of the trip that evening. A small five point, probably half a mile across an open sage flat, raking a burnt pine. With consistent wind, we decided to make a play on him but darkness ended up winning the race before we could turn him back up after we closed the distance.

Binoculars scouting Montana while hunting.

Not having any other leads, we decided to head back to the same area the next morning to see what we could turn up. Wanting to listen for a while in the dark, we got there early. The plan was to hike to a high point to listen and glass from, in hopes to locate a herd. 

While getting the packs ready, probably an hour before legal shooting light, I finally heard my first bugle of the season, and it wasn’t far away. He sounded like a mature bull, but I have been duped by going solely off a bull’s bugle before. We quickly but quietly scrambled to get our stuff ready. As soon as I was confident the wind was consistent, I decided we’d be best to try and be as close to the herd as possible at first light. 


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Using the onX Hunt App, I marked where I thought the bull was bugling from. He consistently bugled every five minutes or so, allowing us to keep pretty good tabs on where he was. Every time he bugled and sounded like he had moved, I updated the Waypoint in the Hunt App to the location I thought he was. He started up on an open flat and was making his way toward some breaky terrain with burnt timber I know they like to bed in from hunting this area in years prior. We continued to cautiously stalk his bugle in the dark, barely able to see the ground around us. When I was confident his last bugle was from over the next ridge, we got aggressive and crossed the large opening he had been in when we first heard him. I knew if we could get to the other side of the clearing without bumping any elk, we would be in a great spot. Legal shooting light was still probably 20 minutes away at this point. 

How Dylan Used the onX Hunt App on This Hunt

“The Hunt App was crucial for my success on this hunt. A few of the key features I used on this particular hunt were: Offline Maps, Aerial and Topographic Basemaps, Waypoints and Private / Public Layers. Had I not had the ability to, in the complete dark, read the terrain in the app and essentially mark and stalk this bull’s bugles in the dark to be in the perfect spot at first light, there is a good chance I would not currently have a full freezer of amazing elk meat and another European mount hung up in the house. After my elk meat was on ice, we struggled to locate more elk in the same area for a couple of days, causing me to spend a lot of time on the Hunt App studying maps and checking new areas within our hunt unit.”

As soon as we made it across the opening, the bull sounded off again. He was close! It was just light enough to see, but not to shoot yet, as I crawled on my hands and knees over a small knoll to try and get eyes on him. At this point, we had only heard one bull but I assumed he would have cows. I peaked over the rise and another timely bugle allowed me to pinpoint his location. He was probably 125 yards away, only one little ravine between us. I saw him long enough to know he was a good bull, but didn’t examine him too well as I quickly realized he was in a great spot to sneak in closer. I crawled back to my pack and my cousin, telling him what I saw. I contemplated setting up and trying to coax him in with a few cow calls, but decided against it as he was in a perfect spot to try to get above him without alerting him to our presence. 

Man using onX Hunt App to hunt for elk.

We made a loop out of sight to get to the same ridge spine he was on and, to my surprise, the wind stayed consistent. We made it to the ridge probably five minutes after legal shooting light. I knew that we needed to make something happen before he moved again. I dropped my pack and started creeping up the knob, thinking he had to be under 80 yards. We made it to the top where it benched out for 30 or so yards. The bull screamed again, confirming he hadn’t moved. For the first time, we heard another elk down to our left. I knew we had a short window to make something happen. I nocked an arrow, opened the flap to my range finder pouch and started to creep forward. Approaching the end of the benched out top, I started crawling. About 10 yards later, I could see the tan color of an elk through the grass. A couple more feet and I saw the tips of his fourth and fifth points. He was facing straight toward me with his head down feeding, well within range for a shot but I had to make it a little further to be able to shoot over the rise. I made it a few more feet and slowly shifted my knees and hips sideways, setting myself up to shoot. I ranged him through the grass at 39 yards. He was still feeding, not a clue in the world that any sort of danger was near. 

I was thinking to myself that this was the perfect scenario, that he was going to turn on his own and present me a broadside shot, unknowing that I was there. But before I could finish my thought, I heard the ear piercing bark of an elk probably 20 yards below me and to my right. Things went from calm to chaos in a split second. I quickly put my release on my D loop. The bull picked up his head as the cow that barked ran up next to him. They were both looking around trying to find where the danger was. As soon as the bull took a step to leave, I drew my bow and slightly raised up on my knees. I expected to have to cow call to stop him, but by the time I had drawn my bow, the bull had stopped, slightly quartered away, looking up at my location. He hadn’t gone but a couple of yards from where I had originally ranged him. I settled my pin and squeezed until the shot broke. 


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I watched my arrow sail through the grey morning light, hit its mark, then stick in the ground behind him. I quickly made several frantic cow calls as I watched him take off through the burnt timber. He ran out of sight and just moments later, I heard the unmistakable crash.

Montana scenery during fall hunt.

Wide eyed, and still in disbelief, I turned back to my cousin who was probably 20 yards behind me. I made my way back to him and gave him a big hug as we watched the bull’s cows head out of the country with a satellite five point now right on their tracks. 

Although I was very confident in the shot and both heard the crash, we sat still, looking and listening. We gave it thirty minutes or so before hiking to the other side of the drainage and glassing back to where I had last seen him. It didn’t take long to pick him up through the binoculars and confirm what I had thought. He has expired just out of sight and less than 50 yards from where I had shot him.

We walked back to the shot location, grabbed my arrow, then followed the short blood trail to my bull. I knew he was a mature herd bull, but hadn’t gotten a great look at him, as I knew he was one I absolutely wanted to take. He certainly didn’t ground shrink any as my cousin and I got closer!

Mornings like these in the elk woods are tough to beat. I try to soak each one in, not knowing when the next might come. I cut my tag and before taking photos, sent a Waypoint to my dad, uncle, and other cousin, so they could come enjoy the moment as well as help with the pack out. They arrived shortly and were just as excited as I was. 

We got the bull broken down and loaded into our packs for the relatively short but heavy pack to the pickups. The meat was taken care of and cooling on ice well before lunch time.

Successful bull elk hunt for onX's Dylan Dowson.

With five more days left in the hunt, and three more tags to fill, my bow stayed at camp and I headed out to try and help my dad, uncle, and cousin. A couple of days went by with only two white elk sheds to show for it. We glassed and hiked a lot of great country but couldn’t turn up any elk.

Persistence paid off as I finally glassed up a few elk with a good bull as they headed to bed down toward the end of the hunt. I marked their last known location in onX. Later that day, my dad and I snuck to 200 yards from the waypoint I had marked. Sure enough, we spotted a couple of cows followed shortly by the bull through the timber. We snuck to a creek bed and cut the distance in half before running out of cover and challenging the bull. He responded several times but ultimately pushed his cows in front of us, just out of shooting distance as darkness set in. We were surrounded by elk and sat tight, watching the bull’s antlers on the skyline while listening to him bugle over a dozen times, less than 100 yards from us. We waited well past dark before starting the hike back to camp. Looking back on that moment, it was a near exact replica of the very first time my dad took me on an elk hunt, listening to bugles in the dark, not wanting to leave. 

Another September had come and gone, and I was filled with gratitude as we hiked back to camp in the dark with bulls bugling in the distance. I was thinking how blessed we are to be able to spend September in the woods, chasing bugles and for the full freezer my family and I would have after this hunt. I want to thank my dad for taking me hunting as a kid, my wife for caring for our sons and home while I am away, and most importantly our Creator for everything that is given to us. I can’t wait to be back chasing bugles next September and to someday take my sons to experience their first archery elk hunt of their own.

Rainbow over stormy Montana scenery.

Author’s note: a version of this story was originally published with Huntin’ Fool in March 2023.

Dylan Dowson

Born and raised in Montana, Dylan grew up hunting the sagebrush and coulees of eastern Montana. He now lives in Missoula, where he’s worked at onX for more than eight years and is focused on Western Big Game Marketing. He spends as much time as he can in the field with tags in his pocket, and is always looking forward to planning the next hunt.