By Mike Willis
Few experiences compare to wandering through the western wilderness, listening to the bugling symphony in September. The elk rut is a sacred time of year for those who have been fortunate enough to experience it. The thrilling encounter with a bugling bull proves to be both intense and intimidating. From the first moment that you stand an arrow’s shot away from a powerful bull, you will be hooked for life.
An elk hunt really should be on every hunter’s bucket list. For those who love the running and gunning action of a turkey hunt, elk hunting can be very much the same but on a much larger scale. Not only is the animal massive, but the playing field is as well.
One of the best parts about elk hunting is being able to communicate with these majestic mountain dwellers. The sounds that they produce are something that can best be explained as prehistoric. From a mile away, you know that something massive is making its presence known. Many first-time elk hunters find themselves questioning their commitment as the colossal creatures flaunt their dominance a mere 20 yards away.
Just like most other big game, the wind is a key consideration. However, hunting in the mountains makes wind very unpredictable at times. Swirling winds are nearly impossible to hunt and should be avoided whenever possible. It is better to return another day than to get busted by a herd of elk.
When hunting in the mountains, you should always be mindful of the thermals and drainages that have persistent wind directions. As the sun rises, the air travels upslope. Alternatively, air falls downslope as the sun sets and temperatures drop. During the middle of the day, conditions vary, and therefore wind directions become unstable.
With a mature bull weighing close to 800 pounds, a shot to the boiler room is a calculated decision. Not only is shot placement critical, but the location that the animal goes down is also of utmost importance. Unlike deer or turkey, retrieving elk meat out of the field is a daunting task, often requiring the help of many people.
If you are elk hunting in the early bow season, heat will be key in whether or not you can shoot. It is better to shoot a bull at last light to give yourself the entire evening of cool weather to pack meat. If encountering a herd of elk in the late morning, you will have to contemplate your proximity to the truck and help. Otherwise, you could lose a lot of valuable meat trying to extract your animal.
A helpful way to accelerate the cooling process is to field dress the animal immediately. There are ways to avoid gutting big game when quartering them, but this is too risky in the early season. Using sticks to hold the legs and body cavity open will encourage rapid cooling.
Whenever there is a nearby creek, it is often worth it to pack the animal’s quarters to it for cooling. Either hang the meat in meat bags over the cool water or seal it in trash bags and submerge it.
Those who prefer to hunt alone often hunt during the latter part of the season. The mountain becomes your freezer as you get deeper into the fall. With freezing or near-freezing temperatures, you can effectively stop the clock on meat spoilage. During the late season, successful elk hunters have the luxury of spending days packing their prize out of the country’s remote corners.
Another important consideration for the successful elk hunter is the presence of predators. As winter approaches, every animal in the woods feels the pressure to feed intensely. Wolves, bears, mountain lions, and coyotes are just a handful of the opportunistic feeders lurking about the mountain. However, as winter sets in, you can scratch bears off that list; by this time, they have found their way into a den where they will remain until spring.
Elk hunters hang their game bags high in the trees to buy themselves time to return for their next pack-load of meat.
Another strategy for deterring animals is to urinate around your kill site and leave some of your clothes draped over the carcass. The idea is to spread your scent around to keep predators and scavengers leery of the area.
Regardless of how much effort elk hunting is, it is always a privilege to overcome these challenges. Many hunters spend years relentlessly pursuing this coveted game with little to no success. Steep grades and woods littered with deadfall often make any attempts to sneak up on these animals a futile effort. However, for many elk junkies, nothing else compares to the experience of trying.