Cervus canadensis (Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt) Cervus nannodes (Tule). Wapiti (Indian name)
Big, tough, wily, and elusive are also words used to describe elk. Some of the most impressive antlers in North America belong to the bull elk. Enduring images remain of high mountain meadows in the fall, a dusting of snow on the ground, the high pitched, shrill whistle of a bull elk bugling, followed by the grunts and then the roar identifying the caller as a full fledged mature herd bull. Once you have experienced this it is a life long memory and most likely the beginning of a quest to experience it, again. Hunters make extraordinary expenditures of time, energy, and money pursuing elk.
Bull elk will stand five feet at the shoulder and may be up to eight feet long. They will weigh 600- 800 pounds with large bulls weighing over 1000 lbs. Cows will weigh about 25% less. Some large cows will rival medium sized bulls in weight. Roosevelt elk are larger bodied and weigh more, but their antlers tend to be smaller. Smallest bodied of all is the Tule elk of California..
Elk tend to have large ranges. During the year they travel from the high meadows where the winds and temperature help keep the flies at bay, to the lower elevations of their winter ranges when the snow falls. These distances can be over one hundred miles. It is not unusual for elk to travel miles from their daylight haunts to a watering and grazing area for the night. Then they go back up the mountain the next morning. They may not do this every day, but they will develop a pattern of movement that is repeated during the summer and fall. When hunting elk, the ability to predict their movements is very helpful. Scouting elk during the spring, summer and fall is an invaluable way to learn how and when elk are moving in an area. It is best to scout elk in a manner that does not alert them to your presence because when alerted they may leave an area and change their patterns. This is the one aspect of elk hunting that is different from most other game.
From mid September to early October the bulls are in the rut and are with the cows. The big bulls will compete to be the breeding bulls. That may be as the master of a large herd or to break off a few cows for themselves. For about three weeks they will spend all of their energy herding and pursuing cows, warding off other bulls, bugling and eating and drinking the minimum. This is when a big bull is individually least aware of his surroundings and the most easily approached or lured into an ambush, except, (and this is a big except), that he has cows around him. These cows are aware, are on alert and are difficult to get around. When bugling or hunting big bulls during the rut it is most likely the cows that will detect you and it is they you should spend most of your time concerning yourself with. During mid-October and early November the bulls leave the cows and become secluded. This is when they are the hardest to find. In late November, the bulls gather in small herds and are feeding voraciously, trying to makeup for the valuable weight they lost during the rut. This is when you can find small herds of bulls. Sometimes you can find a number of big mature bulls spending the late fall feeding, together.
The three senses that elk use to detect danger are smell, sound, and sight, in that order. If you are visually detected, elk have to almost always see you moving to be alerted. If you simply hold still, whether for a few seconds or many minutes, the elk that detected you will eventually lose interest. If you move while their heads are still up, then they will probably leave. Just stand there motionless, even though the elk is looking right at you, and they will soon drop their heads and continue feeding or walking. If they are looking at you they are not sure what you are. If they are going to flee they will turn their heads to the side, raise their noses, hesitate for a couple of seconds, and then leave. If the cows give out a resonant, deep, dog-like bark they are sounding a warning to you. It means “stay away”, but they are still not sure what you are. When elk hear you, they will usually go on alert at the first sound and leave on the second or third. They will always get the most spooked by non-natural sounds such as zippers and nylon scraping on vegetation.. If they smell you, they are gone. Of the three senses, smell is the one that elk have the least doubt about. If your scent is detected it is most unlikely that you will get into a good position. The closer you get to elk the more likely a swirling wind will bring your scent to their noses, except when the wind is blowing very strong in one direction or when it is raining. There is one other time, and this is when there is no wind at all. This actually occurs very, very seldom, and when it does it does not last long. Bowhunters, who have to work in close, go to extreme efforts to eliminate and cover their scents. Even with these efforts they still have to consider the wind, because elk have very sensitive noses. You do not have to exert yourself very much to generate a detectable odor.
On the North American continent elk may be the game animals that are the most often to be not taken cleanly. They are tough to put down if you allow them to get their adrenaline pumping. It is important to put your first shot in the right place. Before the hunting season, practice shooting with the rifle you are going to use. In fact, practice, practice, practice. Practice shooting from different positions, not just from the bench at the range. Off hand you should be able to hit a pie plate, or a quart oil can, five out of five times at 100 yards. You should be able to hit that pie plate five out of five times from a rested position at three hundred yards. Practice shooting repeating shots without taking the rifle from your shoulder. Remember these are the best conditions you will probably encounter. When hunting, you will most likely be tired and/or winded, have obstructions in your field of view, and be shooting from a less than ideal rest. Seeing a big bull in range, in season, can start your heart racing. Keeping calm and staying controlled will be important. If the elk detect you, your chances of getting a better shot decrease dramatically with time. Carry a rifle that you can shoot well. Carry a rifle chambered for the largest cartridge that you can shoot well. Accuracy is the most important factor in lethality, but it is not the only one. Bigger bullets, constructed properly, will give you an edge. On the other hand, do not carry a rifle chambered for a large cartridge that you cannot shoot well, due either to recoil sensitivity or lack of familiarity. Elk are tough, and when wounded they can go a long ways. Not by coincidence this is almost never in the direction of the horses or the truck. Make your first shot count and always be prepared to follow it up. Just as a word of caution, never shoot a big bull elk, during the rut, in the neck. The tissues are swelled and he might as well be armor plated. The best shot is behind the shoulder on a broadside view, into the near shoulder on a quartering approach and through the chest, into the far shoulder on a quartering away view. If you are zeroed more than two inches high at one hundred yards and the elk is closer than 100 yards, aim a few inches low ( That is inches not feet). If you are shooting at extreme uphill or downhill angles( greater than 30 degrees), and the game is closer than 200 yards, again, aim a few inches low. Calm yourself, take one or two deep breaths, take one more and let it part of the way out, using the release of air to bring the crosshairs onto the target, then hold your breathing. If your point of aim stays within the chest cavity you can take the shot. Squeeze, the trigger. Do not pull. If your point of aim is wondering outside the chest cavity, do not take the shot. In the latter case improve your position and/or your control before taking the shot. The best place from which to pack the elk is right there. If everything goes well you will now get to experience from several hours to several days of hard work that will also be remembered and talked about for many years. Take care of your meat and good luck.