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.
Find the Hotspots
by Mike Hanback
The start of the rut can vary by days or a week depending on region. Determine whether the "chase stage" is on by checking muddy fields or creek bottoms for big (buck) and small (doe) tracks that indicate running, then set up in an area like one described below.
Don't hunt over rubs.
Hunt funnels along buck travel routes between feeding and bedding areas laced with lots of rubs that indicate lots of deer traffic to up your odds of seeing bucks.
Transition zones are good bets.
Bucks prowl "break lines" between pines and hardwoods, rubbing and scraping as they move. Same goes for transitions between crops and woods: If you determine bucks are prowling the edge between those two zones, set a stand and sit tight.
The weather is your friend.
My research suggests bucks rut hardest when the temperature hovers between 25-30 degrees. Be sure to check scrapes one to two days after it rains or snows. If they've been pawed, hunt them.
Find fence lines.
Those that link crops with a point of woods 100-200 yards away can't be ignored. No good trees for a stand? Set up a blind on a downwind edge where the fence dumps into the woods. "Small" is the operative word—don't build a Taj Mahal.
Establish a "pressure plan."
Since everybody and his brother hunts the rut, a thick-cover draw a half-mile or more off a crop field might produce results, even in the absence of rut sign. Once guns boom, bucks will find the sanctuary and pile into it.
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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.