September 22, 2022
The herd of Roosevelt elk emerged from the mountainous timber, just as Dad said they would when he left me sitting there. Cautiously, they walked single-file, broadside, 100 yards away. The little creek in the massive ravine separating us was overflowing its banks and roaring from recent rains, typical of the Oregon Coast Range in November.
The elk slowly moved along the trail, getting closer with each step. Intense rain bounced off the hood of my rain jacket, and my hands looked cold due to the death grip I had on the old .30-06 that belonged to my late grandfather.
I didn't feel cold or wet. Adrenaline alleviated any discomfort.
Six … seven … nine. I counted elk as they slipped from the dense Douglas firs, lining out one-by-one. Through the trees I could see the body of what I knew was a bull. It was larger than the cows, and its hair was white compared to their yellowish hides, just as Dad said it would be. The bull's head was in the trees, hiding its antlers.
My heart beat heavy in my throat, overpowering the sound of the driving rain. With a solid rest, I slid the safety off. Two more steps and I'd be able to confirm it was a bull. Then the lead cow barked loudly. The herd spun, quickly but quietly, and vanished into the jungle-like rainforest.
The year was 1978. I was 14 years old. It was my first Roosevelt elk hunt, and the encounter changed my life. I sat alone, uncontrollably shaking. The rain fell harder, yet I felt hot and confined. I slipped my hood off. Rain ran down my orange cotton stocking cap, down my neck. It felt good.
When the shaking stopped, I regained my wits, curious as to what had spooked the elk. The heavy rain knocked down my scent, so they didn't smell me. Then I recalled moving the rifle a few inches higher on the fallen tree against which it was rested. When I made the move, I was looking at the bull through the scope, my left eye closed. I'd neglected the cows. The lead cow was 15 yards ahead of the bull. I'm sure she caught my movement. I learned a lesson that day, thus beginning my infatuation with Roosevelt elk.
A friend and his father killed bulls that afternoon. They were hunting together, a few miles from Dad and me. They shot the bulls in the bottom of a steep, brushy canyon. The only way to get the meat out was to pack it on our backs.
The four of us hauled out the last loads just after 3 a.m. the following morning. It poured rain the whole time. It was hard, demanding and instilled a work ethic that's synonymous with Roosevelt elk hunting.
Waiting on Bulls
While I was growing up in Oregon's Willamette Valley, the only place we had to hunt Roosevelt elk was in the Coast Range. Then, in the 1980s, the elk began expanding their range into the valleys. They also became established in the western mountains of the Cascade Range.
In the early '90s the western Cascades held huntable herds of Roosevelt elk. For generations my family hunted black-tailed deer in those forests and never dreamed elk would one day thrive nearby. We had some memorable elk hunts. Today, I regularly see elk within a mile from our home, sometimes in our backyard.
The encroachment of Roosevelt elk over the years, so close to home, piqued my interest in them starting decades ago. Partly because I believe them to be North America's second-most challenging big-game animal to hunt (behind mature blacktails) and partly because I never dreamed of having these ghosts of the forest so near, I pursue them every chance I get.
Last November I joined good friend and noted guide Jody Smith on an elk hunt. I tagged along to help, as he had four hunters in camp during the first of two general seasons in Oregon's Coast Range. Smith is a sixth-generation resident of the little town of Elkton, Ore. We've hunted together more than 20 years, and he’s one of the best all-around hunters I've seen. He knows Roosevelt elk extremely well.
One hunter filled his tag in the opening minutes of the season. No one else saw a bull. Rather than head into the timber and look for elk, Smith suggested everyone head back to camp for lunch.
"A lot of folks get in a rush and start chasing elk into the timber," Smith notes. "Once you do that, the bulls know exactly what's happening and they'll often head into the thickest, most rugged terrain, and you'll likely never catch them. But if you're patient and wait for them to feed into openings right before dark, you can get a shot."
That's exactly what happened that evening. Moments before dark a herd slithered out of the rugged mountains, moved through a patch of birch trees and began grazing in a tiny meadow. There were more than 30 cows in the herd and, behind them, five bulls.
Two of Jody's hunters were in place, and each filled a tag. It was a long night of skinning, quartering and packing.
The Rare Easy Ones
I've elk hunted a lot with Smith. During our first public land archery hunt we called in a 5-point bull on the first setup. We heard its footsteps drawing closer on the dry forest floor; it didn’t bugle once. At 12 yards I slipped an arrow behind the bull's shoulder and instantly made loud cow calls. The bull stopped, looked my way and started coming back to the calls. It collapsed 3 feet from where I arrowed it.
Twelve years ago my wife, Tiffany, drew a prized early-season Roosevelt elk damage tag. Setting trail cameras, Smith and I patterned a herd's movements through mountains and to a field they’d been pounding. This is easier to do in August, when bulls are in velvet, compared to weeks later.
The season opened Aug. 1. On our first hunt we saw no elk. A few days later we returned, and Tiffany made a perfect shot on a 5-by-5 that grazed in the field. It was the first and only velvet-antlered Roosevelt I've wrapped my hands around, and it was the best-eating bull we've ever had.
My bowhunt and Tiffany's velvet hunt were easy compared to most. Hunt Roosevelt elk long enough and you appreciate the easy ones when, and if, they come.
What makes these elk so hard to hunt is their secretive lifestyle, which takes place in some of the most densely forested, rugged land in the West. "This is a like a rainforest in the Rockies," a buddy once said upon seeing the Coast Range for the first time. He'd hunted big game all over the world, and at the end of the week-long hunt, he hadn't seen a bull on the Oregon coast. He found fresh sign, smelled elk and saw a handful of cows, but not a bull. He deemed it the most challenging public-land hunt he'd ever been on.
I run trail cameras year-round for Roosevelt elk. In winter I monitor herds. In early spring I watch for antlers to drop. In late spring I track calf recruitment and follow the youngsters throughout summer, hoping the cougars, bears and coyotes in the area don't take their toll.
Once bulls start stripping their velvet in late August, they become challenging to keep track of. Two years ago I caught a big 6-by-6 on camera every few days in late August. Once its velvet was stripped, the bull appeared on another camera 9 miles away—as the crow flies—through the rough mountains of the Cascades. Three days later the bull was back where I'd seen it in August, and a day after that it was 9 miles away again, checking out a cow herd. That bull is still alive, having eluded many hunters. I've seen mind-boggling movement like this before, but it's something I wouldn't have imagined without the aid of trail cameras.
"I'm always amazed at the number of giant bulls that show up on camera only one time," shares Smith. "I run a lot of trail cameras and spend countless hours scouting, and there are so many bulls I only get one picture of and never see."
Every fall I experience exactly what Smith describes. A monster Roosevelt bull passes through in the middle of the night, never to be seen except in a trail-camera photo. I've witnessed these Houdini acts in September, October and November. It's frustrating, but at the same time, it's what keeps Roosevelt hunters going.
A couple years ago I'd wrapped up a seminar on Roosevelt elk when a man approached me with a series of questions. He'd been hunting these elk for 12 years and had never fired a shot, but he was close many times. With Roosevelt elk, a good season isn't necessarily measured by how much meat is in the freezer. Instead, you tally how many close encounters you had, all the while knowing your chance will one day come.