The next season, I came off the same ridge on a hot, dry afternoon that didn’t promise much. As the cover opened up, I speeded up. Just off the trail ahead a spot of yellow caught my eye. Too close to stop without alarming the elk, I walked on, swinging wide of the bedded bull without looking at him. The rifle slid from my shoulder into my hands. Spinning and bringing the .270 to bear in one motion, I botched my chance as the elk rocketed away. Once you’re on an elk’s radar, a shot comes hard.
You can cash in on popular spots by hunting them when other hunters don’t. The first elk I killed, more than 40 years ago, strolled into a meadow as I looked the other way, glassing the far edge. Turning, I almost jumped out of my skin. The 6-point was watching me benignly from 60 steps. This public land, closed to vehicles but easy to walk, was swamped by hunters. I’d not found a secret pocket; rather, I had just stayed afield until dark, while my competition was at camp sipping smooth Southern mash.
Another time on that ridge, I found a bull at a seep around noon, when other hunters took lunch. Hot weather had pulled this spike to water. Neither of us expected to see the other. I recovered first.
Threading elk country between highway and timberline, you’re hunting where elk numbers often increase after the season’s first volleys. It’s a good place to hunt throughout the season, until storms send even mid-elevation bulls down-slope. In the central and northern Rockies, snow can come in any month, and winter’s start varies, year to year. But elk migration typically happens around the first of November. Early-autumn blizzards that might chase me off a mountain don’t affect elk. I’ve waded deep snow to find alpine elk that didn’t seem bothered by it. Dustings after Halloween, however, can trigger the Big Move.
Then again, last fall I’d have shot the first bull that put hair in my scope. For three days in classic elk cover, I saw not one animal. That’s why, even if you think you have elk figured out, you’re smart to give yourself plenty of time to find them—a week, more if you can swing it. On an Idaho trip a few years back, my hunting partner hadn’t set eyes on an elk. On the fringe of the camp airstrip, waiting for a Super Cub on the morning of our departure, we heard an elk bugle. Nobody ever scrambled for a rifle faster. We hiked hard up-canyon and spied the tail of a departing herd. A 5-point bull paused to look back. Bang!
Hunting elk isn’t like hunting whitetail deer. Not every copse holds a resident animal. Elk travel, even when undisturbed. On summer range, I’ve seen them make circuits, visiting any given basin once every few days. Your mobility matters, too. Expect to walk. The more country you cover, the better your chances for an elk. One avid whitetail hunter came west to kill an elk with his treestand in tow. We set up camp atop the Snake River Gorge, conifer-capped rims stretching into the blue distance. “Which tree would you like to use?” deadpanned our pilot, platform in hand.
Elk rut, which most places typically peaks in late September, helps you find vocal bulls. But how much you hear depends on variables like predation and hunting pressure. Heat and rain also can suppress bugling. On crisp mornings where mature elk outnumber riflemen, you should catch an earful. During the decade I guided hunters, bulls in that high-density area brayed almost constantly at rock-concert volume. I didn’t bugle back.
Not all bulls with big antlers will come to another elk; and the legions of hunters now using calls have muted suspicious bulls. I’ve watched them round up their cows in the echoes of a bugle, and shoo them into thickets without so much as a grunt in response.
I shot my first bull with a bow in August, before rut. In a tube tent at timber’s hem, I awoke to elk foraging on the rockslide above. Staying still was hard, but I waited until a red blush appeared in the east then eased from the tent into a copse of Doug firs. There I dressed and strung my Howatt. When hooves ticked against the rock, I eased toward the sound, stopping when the elk went silent. At 30 yards my shaft sped through the half-light toward a 5-point. He clattered off, but fell heavily a stone’s throw away.
Another time, I heard a rustling in pine needles beside the game trail I’d taken. I peeked under the boughs and was astonished to see a fine bull egg-walking away. He’d heard or seen me and was sneaking off. I circled downwind, and tried unsuccessfully to intercept him.
Our daily lives are steered by glaring, blaring signals and redundant messages. In the woods, you get no penalty for ignoring these, no reward for missing the leaf out of place or the hiss of a vine against elk hide. African trackers register and decipher the little noises, the gentle nudge of a shifting breeze, the subtle disparity between one hoof dimple and the next in sand shotgunned with such dimples. Heed what the forest tells you in a whisper, and you’ll find more elk.
Should you follow elk that have figured you out? Odds are against you—though a couple of times I’ve successfully tracked elk aware of my presence behind them. One bull made off with a herd after I bungled a shot. The bullet had touched nary a hair, and the snow was noisy. But I took the trail, staying well to the side to keep out of sight. The track led through a meadow, but I paused in cover to glass the far edge. Elk often look back across an opening. By great good luck, I spied a slice of hair in the pines and took the bull offhand with my .300 Holland.
If you surprise an elk in timber, you can sometimes get a shot by running hard toward the animal as it crashes away. Its noise covers yours. The elk may stop where it feels safe from you where you were. If you’ve closed the gap, you may see enough of him to get a shot. Once I jumped two bulls near the nose of a timbered ridge. They split as they crashed away. Arbitrarily choosing the left-hand elk, I dashed in that direction, leaping logs, dodging staubs. I pulled up where I could see a trail that appeared suddenly below. The bull could have raced through that slot. Instead he paused there. I sent a 140-grain bullet from my 6.5x55 through his ribs. He ran again. So did I. A second shot broke his neck.
Sometimes, being still pays off. Elk noises that drew my attention on a Montana hill pulled me to an alley in open timber. I was above the animals, the grass supple and quiet. But I fought the urge to slip closer. Trees that give elk scant cover are too sparse to hide you. Unless you’re after a lone bull or can see each of several animals, you risk alarming hidden elk. So I slinged up in a sit and waited. Minutes passed. A twig snapped. A cow elk ghosted through the alley. Eye to the lens, I steadied my .300 Winchester. The bull never paused. But he snagged the crosswire. It stayed on the leading edge of his shoulder for a couple of feet as I squeezed. It was all the space I had. It was enough.
These days, on public land, a little cue can deliver you a chance. Successful elk hunters make the most of every one.