If you are among the many who apply for out-of-state big-game tags, you know there have been many important deadlines over the last few weeks and months. Tediously tracking these all-important dates is the price we pay to ensure a spot in the coveted draw system that regulates some of the best-managed, trophy-rich areas of the country.
But keep in mind that drawing one of those cherry big-game tags is just the beginning of your preparations for success. And even more importantly, you might have to forget everything you’ve learned about hunting a particular species in these areas in order to score.
Nothing hammers home this point more starkly than the experiences of avid elk bowhunter Jim Willems, current president of the Pope and Young Club. Willems knows that hunting elk in limited-access areas where there is a good bull-to-cow ratio and plenty of mature animals is a whole different ballgame than in hard-hunted, “over-the-counter” areas found in many states.
“For one thing, I haven’t called in a big elk for about 20 years, since about 1997,” Willems said. “I don’t even call at all anymore, really.”
These days Willems, 53, who hails from elk-rich New Mexico, is seeing the fruits of many years of applying to hunt prized elk units in several prime states. His experiences in these areas over the last 15 years or so have shown him that calling—especially bugling—is far less effective in areas heavy with mature bulls than simply stalking in on vocal, bugling herd bulls.
“In good units, it seems that bulls bugle to find out where other bulls are, and they stay away from those bulls,” Willems says. “They don’t want to fight, if they can keep from it.”
SILENCE, THEN A SPRINT
It was back in the ’90s when Willems first came upon his strategy to remain silent and stalk trophy-class bulls aggressively. He was hunting a limited-draw unit in northwest Colorado and in the distance had spotted a lone, monster bull in open country, making its way down a mountain.
“He was so big he would walk into a herd of elk and the herd bull would walk away and shut up, [completely intimidated],” Willems recalled, choosing at the time not to chase after the huge bull because daylight was fading and the country was simply too wide open, with little chance for success. Then Willems saw the bull again, later in the hunt.
“That second time, the bull walked into a little group of trees and it never came out; I thought he had a cow in there, and I got real aggressive and ran right up in there,” Willems recalled. “But I hesitated one minute too long, and as I entered the trees the bull and cow walked out the other side. We were just 300 yards from a [state] park border, so I started running after him, and in the process I ran by other elk that were just 20 to 30 yards away from me, and they just stood there looking at me. Eventually I got to within 40 yards of that bull, and I missed him, but from then on I knew that staying silent and getting aggressive was the way to go.”
As stated, one of the key points to Willems’ aggressive stalking strategy is a final, mad running dash designed to put him in bow range of his target bull. As you might guess, deciding just when to commit to this “go for broke” running sprint is a critical ingredient to success. And as Willems says, it’s tough to offer hard-and-fast guidance because the timing comes largely from experience. But at least one scenario is a no-brainer. Willems knows it’s time to sprint when he hears a big bull raking a tree with its impressive headgear.
“When I’m stalking a herd bull I like to push them pretty hard, until I feel the opportunity is coming, but that’s when 30-plus years of hunting experience comes in handy; you don’t want to push hard until you need to. But if you can hear a bull raking on a tree, and you can’t see the cows, that’s a perfect time to move in. Some bulls will rake a tree for 20 to 30 minutes, they will stop for a bit and they might continue. And during that time, it means the cows have usually wandered past.”
More ideal conditions exist, Willems says, when you’re closing on a herd and realize there are no cows between you and the bull, which means the bull, again, is lagging behind the herd.
“But it seems 80 percent of the time, the cows are between you and the bull, and if you can see a cow ahead, you should wait,” Willems advises. “But overall, I don’t worry so much about making too much noise; when you’re running up there I think the elk just think you’re another elk. When I get really aggressive, I’ll just run right up and take a shot.”
MAGIC OF LIMITED-ENTRY UNITS
If Willems’ aggressive strategy seems too wild to work, you must realize that he doesn’t score every time he decides to sprint up to a herd bull. And that’s precisely why the tactic works best in limited-draw units. More mature bulls mean more opportunities.
“For this to work you need to be in a place where there is a decent amount of bulls, and in hard-hunted spots like a Colorado over-the-counter area, this tactic just doesn’t hardly work at all,” Willems explained. “It’s kind of like stalking mule deer with a recurve bow. You need about five to six chances to get one really good opportunity; elk are the same way. You need five to six good chances until one pans out.”
Willems has certainly put his theory to the test; in his lifetime he’s taken 20 bulls with his favorite Bighorn takedown recurve bows pulling 52 to 58 pounds, loaded with cedar arrows tipped with his favorite, Magnus glue-on two-blade broadheads. Included in Willems’ success is a string of five straight bulls, from 2010 to 2014, measuring from 303 to 363 inches—his largest, arrowed in Utah.
One last tip from Willems? Get in shape if your goal is to run aggressively after elk in the mountains.
“I happen to live at 5,500 feet [elevation], so that’s a serious advantage, but I run year-round, three to four miles a day, and I’m scouting all summer long,” he says. “Usually, I only have one elk tag a year, but it’s one of my biggest passions—I like to make the most of it.”