The North American Elk, or wapiti, is a recluse. It’s shy, retiring – much preferring a quite refuge in deep, dark timber to showing itself in open terrain during daylight. Yet when the power of the mating urge begins to take over a bull elk’s psyche, he has a tool to tell the world he’s there and he’s a force with which to be reckoned.
A bull elk’s eerie bugle drifting off the mountain and through the trees will stir the soul of any hunter. It’s a “you’ve got to be there” moment.
Pursuing elk challenges today’s hunter on two levels. First, there is the majestic animal itself – big, boisterous in the rut, yet highly elusive to the point of seeming mythical in the wilderness that is its home. And then there is the other challenge: the sheer immensity, remoteness and steepness of the hunting arena. To successfully hunt wapiti you need to be in excellent physical shape and ready to work to earn any reward that may wait in front of your bullet or broadhead.
The Boone and Crockett Club recognizes two elk subspecies of North American elk — the Rocky Mountain elk of its namesake mountains and their associated ranges; and the Roosevelt elk of the Pacific Northwest, Coastal British Columbia, and some Alaskan islands. A third subspecies, the Tule elk, is limited in range exclusively to the Central Valley of California and some of its coastal islands, and can only be hunted on restricted permit drawings with regulations specific to each hunt area. Safari Club International includes listings for California Tule elk in its record book.
Bull elk wear impressive headgear – graceful, back-sweeping antlers up to five feet long, weighing up to 40 pounds each, and sporting as many as 6, 7 or even 8 points per side. Six-pointers (known as royal elk) are a goal of many hunters. Younger or smaller-antlered bulls are called rag horns, and some young bulls sport just spikes.
Most elk have tan coats with dark-brown heads and necks, but mature bulls sometimes appear almost blond. The legs and feet (especially on rutting bulls) are black, and all elk have a nearly black belly. Elk rumps vary from creamy yellow to almost orange, and they present good giveaways to look for when glassing for animals. The elk’s tail is short and stubby.
Elk have a keen sense of smell, and excellent ears. You must keep wind in your favor when elk hunting, or they will detect you from a great distance. Elk eyesight is very good, too, so it’s critical to use terrain and cover to your advantage when making a stalk. If you’re sitting a stand or calling an elk to you, it’s imperative that you stay perfectly still and well camouflaged as elk can spot even your slightest movement.
Most elk are migratory in the vertical sense, though they may move up to 100 cross-country miles too. Building winter snows push elk out of the high country and down into foothills and ranch country where food is blown free of snow, or where the sun has opened up south-facing slopes.
Elk are grazers most of the year, which means they eat grass, explaining their affinity for meadows, fields, clear cuts and other open areas where grass, forbs and weeds abound. In winter, elk browse on sage, willow, aspen and dogwood, or eat cured grass. Because of habitat change and reduction, elk frequently invade lowland farm country in the winter to get at hay yards to supplement naturally available feed. In traditional wintering areas, elk present a tourist attraction as viewers flock in from all over the world to see thousands of animals gathered with they are most visible.
Despite their size, elk can move. A herd can trot seemingly forever at 10 to 20 mph and not even breathe hard. When really busting out, elk have been clocked at 35 mph; as fast as a whitetail.
Rocky Mountain Elk
Rocky Mountain Elk inhabit the Rockies from British Columbia and Alberta down through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. On their great expedition in 1803 through 1805, Lewis and Clark observed uncountable elk on the North American prairie. Whether today’s elk always lived in the mountains, or was pushed there by subsistence and market hunting, is a matter of conjecture. A mature Rocky Mountain bull will weigh anywhere from 550 to 700 or so pounds, cows about 300 to 400.
Rocky Mountain Elk have also been successfully reintroduced into states well east of their current range including Minnesota, Michigan, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The programs have been so successful these states offer limited hunting seasons on special draws. In Pennsylvania, for example, outfitters are required to assist in the hunt for elk on these highly coveted tags.
Roosevelt elk are larger in body size, with bulls weighing 700 to 900 pounds which may be a function of their food-rich habitat. Cows weigh up to 450 pounds. Roosevelt elk are usually darker or redder colored than Rocky Mountain elk, reflecting the Roosevelt elk’s habitat in Pacific rainforest and coastal areas.
Tule elk are the smallest of the North American elk with a mature bull seldom tipping the scale to 600 pounds. Likewise their antlers are the smallest often appearing much more “deer like” in their size and configuration.
Besides getting yourself physically ready for elk hunting, it’s essential to adjust your approach to the time of hunting season. There are essentially three segments.
First is the bugling or rutting season, when prime bulls are gathering, holding and guarding their harems of cows. This often coincides with archery seasons (September to early October), but there are some rifle and muzzleloader seasons as well. One technique is to call to bulls using challenge bugles, to goad them into coming in for a fight. But today’s hard pressured bull elk will often steer his cows away and avoid a ruckus. That’s why cow calls (mews and chirps) can work to attract bulls — maybe not the big boss with a harem, but certainly a “satellite” bull or two.
Most rifle elk seasons happen during the transition period when the rut is over but migration hasn’t taken place. Hunting pressure often holes up the elk in thick cover (often called dark timber) during the day, and they only come out to feed at night. This means you must get into the woods and work for your elk; spotting elk in the limited time they spend outside of the dark timber and making a stalk is the most productive tactic.
Finally there is the migration period, usually rifle and muzzleloader hunting time. This can be great hunting. Now elk are streaming out of the high country to foothills and ranchlands below. Set up and wait along migration corridors, or glass a herd and make a stalk along their anticipated travel route.