When wanderlust strikes sometimes I climb on my Harley and head south on Lee Highway, through the Manassas Battlefield. To the west of it lies Bull Run Mountain. Beyond that, across Virginia's vast piedmont, lies the Blue Ridge, and beyond that lies the Shenandoah Valley. Elk once roamed that valley. Astride the bike on cool Saturday mornings in September I revel in the sights, sounds and scents of fall. I think about moving west, about the wanderlust of Americans who preceded me, and about elk and elk hunting.
In pre-Columbian times, as many as 10 million elk inhabited North America. They roamed from coast to coast, and from southern Mexico to the brink of the Arctic Circle in Canada. Today more elk—about a million—inhabit the United States than at any other time in the last 100 years thanks to hunter-conservationists. And though they also inhabit some states east of the Mississippi, I still can't think of elk without simultaneously thinking about the Rocky Mountains, which are decidedly farther west than I am able to move and still maintain a desirable commute to NRA HQ.
Such is the siren song conjured by the bugle of a mature bull. Hear it once and you're bound to return to his landscape again and again. Hunt him, or better yet place a bullet just so in his boiler room, and you're hooked for life on a glorious pursuit.
I don't use such words lightly, because most assuredly an elk hunt is never boring; the critters and the landscape they inhabit see to that.
Whether it's among pictographs in New Mexico or down a buffalo jump in Montana, every step I take in elk country reminds me that I am hardly the first to hunt what many consider America's most magnificent big game. After a morning of butt-kicking, oxygen-robbing, heartbreaking effort, I wonder what those who walked before me would think of my vain pursuit. Would they commiserate with or laugh at my foolish mistakes? Would they approve of my stalks and shots? When lunch in the sun beneath the quakies lulls me to sleep, I dream of them, their trials and their trophies. Though the hunting days of the ones who came before me are long gone, I awaken every time to the knowledge that my hunt is never over until the last moment of legal shooting light on my last day in the West. So when my optimism is rewarded I curtail my exhilaration and stop to give thanks, and I remember I have once again renewed my membership in an exclusive club.
I envy those who live in elk country. I pity those who have never seen it and felt it and hunted it. Though I am happy I have entered and hunted it often and killed a mere four elk, if I kill 40 more I don't think it will be enough to stanch my desire to stalk the animals on their ground. I'm an elk hunter—I'm sure of it. I may not live within earshot of elk, but I carry their song with me always.
Tips to Lay Out Ol' Tom
Fly-down time at dawn
is, quite naturally, assumed by many hunters to be the best time all day to bag a tom. Trouble is, the hen or hens that old fella is visiting at that time of day may not let him off the hook long enough to pay attention to your calls and come anywhere near your setup. But during the peak of the breeding season, those hens are apt to visit their nests by noon. Your best shot at calling him close may come then, when old tom is lonely for attention.
Many times a tom hangs up
not because of an obstacle, but because he's walked far enough toward your call and, having not seen a hen, walks away. Your mistake: setting up too far outside that all-important range and never seeing him. When you call, be sure of a good line of sight through terrain and vegetation, and depending on cover, try to get within 100 yards of him before plopping down.
If you hear a gobbler moving away from you,
don't waste more time and breath trying to call him back. Instead, get up and hustle in a wide circle around him. If you need to hear him for reference, use a locator call. When you feel you are ahead of him, quickly set up and give a series of aggressive yelps with a call you haven't used yet. Many times this "fresh hen" tactic will prove successful.
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Like the fossilized skeletons of its ancestors displayed in the Smithsonian, a 12-foot alligator can be scary even when it's dead—something that Shooting Illustrated's Adam Heggenstaller learned in person during a gator hunt in Florida. Read More »
Could 2011 be the year of the work truck? If so, the Ram Tradesman is ready to clock in. Equipped with a juiced-up HEMI® engine.... Read More »
The year that Sumner, Mo., erected a statue of "Maxie" to commemorate being the "Wild Goose Capital of the World."
Maxie sports a 65-foot wingspan while resting on a cinderblock building in a community park.
The number of cackling subspecies.
The cackling goose, a smaller-bodied goose prominent in Canada and Alaska, is a tundra-breeder with considerably more black plumage than the Canada. At one time, the cackling goose was considered the smallest subspecies of the Canada, but is now recognized as a separate species.