Hunting Elk When They're Hard to Find
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Post-rut bulls feel the thunder from pickups on forest roads and are gone ... but are they?
A fortnight or so before Halloween, elk that have bellowed their heads off since Labor Day put a lid on their testosterone. The woods fall silent. I might as well be hunting penguins for all I’ve seen.
If this dark thought hasn’t at least drifted past your tent, you’ve been spared common retribution. Elk get even during October and early November.
In the wake of archery season, sex-weary bulls leave meadows to lie up in lodgepole jungles. They don’t bugle. They bed in quiet, empty places where wind is their friend and exit is easy.
“They use promontories too,” an outfitter told me. “They like to look down on you.”
I think he has something there.
Early snows can improve hunting, but only the most severe nudge elk to migration corridors. The animals know easier days will precede winter. Later, though, around Thanksgiving, a few flakes can send herds down-country.
The notion that big bulls tough out winter on snowy peaks hews to sexist logic. But elk aren’t masochists. Foothills and farm fields promise easier living. Bulls choose hardship only when threatened.
Where I once guided hunters in Utah, November snows after rifle season pushed elk down to sage flats. Herds with thick-antlered bulls were suddenly heedless as Herefords. But when caravans of pickups signaled a late cow hunt, only the bulls remained. Every bald elk climbed away from the pressure. Until Christmas, bulls were low, cows high.
Packing miles into wilderness is neither practical nor necessary. In elk country, one mile can seem like three; few hunters walk farther from a road. With an elk quarter on your back, that mile becomes six. Horses and mules haul you to more remote places, but also closer to hunters on horses and mules bound for the same meadows.
“No matter how far you go,” a grizzled packer observed, “you’re getting closer to the other side.”
How true. I’ve packed in 27 miles and run into hunting traffic.
Less-peopled places? Check mid-level timber a brisk two-hour hike from wall tents. That distance insulates elk from the orange tide. And they figure it out fast.
Years back, in Oregon, I pitched off a ridge that had sustained lots of hunter traffic during the elk opener. Mist from a low ceiling silenced my step and confined my scent. Suddenly, just a few feet ahead, a bull elk rose from a copse of young Douglas fir. He stared, unbelieving. He’d found a spot comfortably out of reach of hunters unwilling to drop from the ridgetop, and my visit was most unexpected. In following seasons, I would take four bulls from that slope.
Hunters commonly assume tracks, dung, rubs, wallows and beds confirm the presence of elk. In truth, they show only where elk were. By mid-October, velvet-scraping and tree-thrashing are yesterday’s news. Areas popular in September are often stripped of the best forage by rut’s end. Wallows used daily in warm weather may be abandoned after frost. Beds pressed into meadow grass can lead you astray, too. Many are made at night. Hunted bulls seldom lie up in the open during the day.
Water, however, is a magnet year-round, both day and night. Once, on a trail at noon, I came suddenly upon a bull drinking from a puddle. We were both surprised; he was a step too slow. Another, visiting a pond in late afternoon, walked right in front of my rifle. Small pools are most productive; elk seldom tarry at streams, whose cheery burbling can drown the noise of an approaching threat. While I take trail breaks near water, I don’t wait there, as elk country has water all over and still-hunting shows me more elk.
Elk commonly bed and move just below the crest of timbered ridges. Hidden from hunters on top, they’re informed by daytime thermals of hunters below. Exits abound. Threatened elk can pop over the hump or plunge toward the bottom and a network of trails.
You’re smart to skirt basins and stay off ridgelines. Bulls easily spot and avoid hunters patrolling meadow hems and open spines. Easing along high trails in timber, you’re hunting where elk expect other animals. The snap of a twig underfoot won’t cause immediate alarm.
One November day, mid-slope, I was struggling through fir tangles when elk stampeded down the opposite hill, then swung onto a trail directly across. The last bull took my 150-grain Partition in the lungs and somersaulted. Hunters topping a rise had spooked these elk, whose escape route paralleled my path.
After rut, hunted elk take pains to be unobtrusive. I was once alerted by a small sound as I padded up a trail. A squirrel? I eased toward it, crawling to peer under boughs. Movement became a 6-point elk, walking softly, making almost no sound as he sneaked off. I had no shot. A clumsier bull broke a branch as he cat-footed behind me, his cows galloping off in the opposite direction. Another, whose antler tip I spied scant yards away, remained motionless as, inch by inch, I tried to find a shot alley. Eventually I saw the ear. Not enough. Another step, and the elk was gone.
Quiet isn’t silent; elk are heavy, and they live among sticks. Listen for them. Neither does quiet mean slow. Even when taking care not to make noise, elk can move with dispatch. Tarry, and you’ll be left behind. I’ve seen guides and hunters waste crucial minutes plotting from afar. Conditions hardly ever improve; they often deteriorate. When I must approach a distant bull or maneuver to fire at one nearby, I move as quickly as prudent. With some exceptions, waiting makes sense only after you’re ready to fire in a place almost sure to yield a shot.
Should you follow elk you’ve moved? Your prospects are bleak, but tenacity can pay off. I once missed a bull with a hurried shot. It made off with a small herd. Despite the noisy, crusted snow, I took the trail, staying well to its side, as moving elk often check behind. Coming to a meadow, I paused in the shadows to glass across. Elk look back across openings, too. By great good luck, I spied a patch of hair in the forest beyond. The bull fell to my .300.
If you roust an elk in timber, you may get a shot by dashing toward it as it thunders off. The noise it makes covers yours, and it may pause to glance at where you were. Once, I surprised two bulls near the nose of a timbered ridge. They split as they crashed away. Arbitrarily choosing the left-hand elk, I ran in that direction, leaping logs, bouncing off trees. I pulled up where a trail snaked through an opening below. The bull could have raced through that slot. Charitably, he stopped there. I sent a 140-grain bullet from my 6.5x55mm through his ribs. He galloped off, ailing. I caught up. A second shot broke his neck.
Being still is the better option when you’re yet undiscovered. One Montana afternoon, I heard the step of an elk. I fought the urge to slip closer, slinged up, sat and watched an alley through the lodgepoles. Minutes passed. Then a cow elk eased through. The bull didn’t pause; but my shot left with the crosswire on his shoulder’s leading edge. I heard him crash to earth short seconds later.
Perseverance and flexibility are huge assets during mid-season elk hunts. Often, I’ve all but given up, only to be surprised by the sudden appearance of elk. You’re smart to allow yourself plenty of time to find them. Not every promising copse holds an animal. Elk travel, even when undisturbed. I’ve seen them make circuits, visiting a given basin once every few days.
On an Idaho trip a few years back, my hunting pal hadn’t set eyes on an elk. Near camp, awaiting a Super Cub on the morning of our departure, we heard a bull bray. Nobody ever lunged for a rifle faster! We scrambled up-canyon and spied the tail of a herd. A 5-point bull looked back. Ken dropped him from 380 yards.About one in seven hunters kills a bull elk after rut. The six who don’t include mostly those who give up just a little too soon.