I have just returned from my annual elk hunting trip to the Northern Rockies of British Columbia. Geoff and I have hunted the area for the past ten years, and we have been fortunate come home with elk most years. It was a particularly challenging hunt this year. Area locals told us that there’d been a second tough winter that prompted a major die off of the elk herd. Apparently early snow had turned into a hard ice layer that prevented the herd from accessing forage and allowed predators an advantage. Wolves travel more efficiently atop the ice layer, whereas the elk punch through the ice making travel much less efficient.
We also began to note the bull elk didn’t seem to have mature antler development. We were hunting an open season for 6 point bull elk, meaning that an elk must have at least six points on one antler. Each point must be at least 1” in length. Typically, 4 or 5 year old bull elk will develop 6 point antlers in good habitat. If the bull elk has had a tough winter, or doesn’t have adequate spring and summer forage, they are less likely to grow antlers to their maximum potential. Based on our observations the elk that we did see mostly had only developed five point antlers. I checked in with an elk biologist friend after the trip and he confirmed that this was an indication of a second difficult winter and perhaps marginal spring and summer food conditions.
Over the course of our ten day hunt, we also had some winter like conditions. A couple of snow storms and very cold temperatures made hunting a bit more challenging, but the good news was that is chased away the majority of hunters in the area. There had been a group of three hunters in my favorite spot hunting the area everyday. They left the previous day, so on the last day of the hunt I had the spot to myself. The weather improved and the sun came back out and warmed up a bit.
I set out at 6am for my last elk hunt of the season. I headed in from the river, and started to work my way up my favorite valley. The valley bottom has a mix of mature popular trees and a few juvenile spruce trees with a lush understory of grasses, and shrubs. The cover and the forage make for ideal elk habitat. It didn’t take very long and I heard two or three elk bugling back-and-forth to each other up the valley about one kilometer away.
One of the elk had a deep guttural call. Most elk whistle when they call or “bugle”. This guy was more making more of a grunt and a cough, follow up by a lengthy chuckle. I was hoping this meant he was mature elk and that he may be a six point elk. “Chuckles” was clearly showing signs of being in “the rut” as he was bugling (grunting, coughing and chuckling) repeatedly and responding to the other bulls that were calling nearby.
I know this valley well and I knew where Chuckles was likely calling from. The elk tend to hang out in the timbered flat of the valley bottom throughout the evenings, and then work their way up the hillsides in the morning to their bedding areas. The elk were still on the timbered flat. Staying downwind from Chuckles I found a spot where I could set up to call. It had some cover and a decent vantage of some well used elk habitat. I could see about 80 meter in most directions. My plan was to imitate a cow call in hopes that I could entice him into my little piece of habitat. It was about 6:30 and I started to call. Almost immediately I heard crunching coming towards me. An elk is coming to check me out. I caught a glimpse through the trees and saw that it was a cow elk, but she was actually sneaking away from me. I guess she didn’t like my call.
After about 40 minutes it sounded like Chuckles was moving closer to my location, his bugles coming slightly closer every few minutes. I then hear significant snow crunching and the branches snapping, but I can only see about 80 yards through the trees and I can’t see an elk yet. Chuckles keeps bugling, and he seems to be getting closer. I can hear him thrashing trees with his antlers, but still can’t see him. After each cow call Chuckles would bugle almost immediately. At this point I am confident this is going to work out and eventually an elk will appear. He keeps calling but then his calls are starting to fade a little bit. I could hear him passing by me and circling in behind downwind of my location. This isn’t a good thing. He is trying to get my wind. All ungulate are very cautious, and will alway try to come into an uncertain situation from downwind. I decided to move and avoid him getting my scent so I hustled uphill above the area where the elk were calling and hanging out.
By now it is 8:30. For the most part calling elk in is over by now. Usually elk will only come into calls for the first couple of hours of day light. So I thought I would just enjoy the view for a while and perhaps come back and try to hunt the area for the evening. I climbed up the mountain a ways to where I could see a few other grassy slopes nearby, and I spent some time glassing around in hopes of finding a herd of elk out in the warm sun.
Down below I heard a different bull elk bugling, so I thought I would take a chance at him and work my way above where the bull was calling. I got set up a couple hundred yards from where the elk was calling and tried to cow call and entice him in my direction. The elk bugled back when I cow called, but didn’t show any sign of coming towards me. I then heard Chuckles get fired up again, and he was working his way back across the flat below me towards the elk that was bugling.
At this point I stopped calling, both elk had their chance to come into my calls and they had not come in. Chuckles was calling regularly so I could pin point his location and wind was right again. I decided I was going to try to sneak up on him. This wan’t going to be an easy sneak since the snow and leaves on the ground were crunchy and extremely noisy. Using the advantage of being downwind of the elk I started sneaking my way through the timber towards the bellowing elk.
I worked my way towards what seemed like 100 yards from his calls. I started to see motion in the timber in front of me. There were parts of elk in every direction though the forest. I had worked my way in on the entire elk herd. Everywhere that I looked, I could see elk grazing their way through the timber. Chuckles had a harem of cows with him. I was pinned down. If I tried to move through the herd, the cows would make me out, and then the herd would scatter.
I had to quickly adjust my strategy. I carefully exited the way I came in, and then I raced about 300 yards in a half-moon pattern to get out in front of the herd in hopes the bull might wander my direction. Normally I would never make as much noise in the bush with the crunchy snow and the blowdown everywhere. I must’ve sounded a little bit like a tractor working my way through the bush. However, I was gambling that the elk were making an equal amount of noise. I had spotted at least 12 elk and there was probably lots more that I didn’t see, so I was guessing that they would not be able to hear my movement over and above the sounds of the herd.
My gamble worked out almost perfectly. I set up in a spot where I could see the ridge the elk herd had been moving along and almost immediately I heard Chuckles bellow from close by. I brought up my binoculars and I spotted and elk working its way through the trees towards me. I saw antler and my heart started to race. The next step is to start counting points. I could see that he was a mature bull just by the weight of his antlers. He was very big! I had a pretty good look at one antler on his right side and counted. I counted the lower four points, but didn’t get a great look at the top points which is where the sixth-point would be if he was a legal bull. I kept looking though my binoculars and could see flashes of him as he worked his way through he timber. Eventually I got a full flash of his right side, and could see that his fifth point split in two and he had a 6th point. The sixth point needs to be an inch long to be legal, and I couldn’t be sure if it it was. I couldn’t make out his left antler from my position. The elk was still moving and before I knew it he had moved past me and out of sight.
I made a second crescent and tried to get above the herd again, but by this time the herd was moving out of the timbered flat and up on to the hillside toward their safe bedding zone. I could still hear the bull calling but the calls were getting father way quickly.
Normally I would have retreated from this hunt at this point, and come back early the next day to try again. But this was the last day, so I only had one chance left. My plan was to to climb up the hill and try to get to the herd’s bedding zone before them. So I took off a couple layers of clothing and raced up the steep hill.
When I got to the top of the hill I was just below the bench where the herd likes to bed down. I snuck up on the bench looking for the elk herd, hoping that they were still working their way up to hill. I couldn’t see any movement below me on the elk trails or through the timber on the way up to the bench. I had to assume that they were already at their destination. But now it was 11 o’clock, way past elk hunting hours, when I should be back at camp having a nap.
I decided to give one small bugle call to hear if I could locate the bull elk one last time. Under normal circumstances elk will stop calling around 9am, so this was a “hail mary” effort. Chuckles was a really vocal elk and seemed to be willing to carry on the conversation with me. I bugled one last time. I heard something and then I saw movement on the bench above me. A bull stood up about 40 meters on the edge of the bench above me. At that distance I could easily make out that he was a mature bull and it was likely Chuckles staring down in my direction. He was looking for the bull elk that had just disturbed his nap.
Fortunately there were several trees between Chuckles and I that helped obscure my silhouette. I could only see bits and slivers of him filtered through the trees trunks. Using my binoculars I focused on his antlers and started to count. With the tree trunks obscuring my view I could only make out his right antler. I could see the small fork on the back right. I still was not confident to shoot based on the small sixth point. I had to wait and watch for him to turn his head the other way so I could see his left side. It is amazing how long elk can stay motionless. It could have been half an hour before he briefly looked uphill and I could see his left antler. He had a distinct 6th point! He then focused down in my direction again. I didn’t get a long enough look at the left antler to ensure that he had the other five points. After another long wait he started to get anxious, he moved his feet, and turned his head slightly. I counted 6 points. He was legal! I felt a rush of excitement, I shuffled over enough so that I could use the tree to support my gun and take aim. I didn’t have a clear shot at the vitals. I had a slightly obscured shot at his neck. I told myself to calm down and wait for the right shot. With my movement, Chuckles was getting more uncertain, and slowly started to move. I anticipated the direction he was heading and picked and opening between two trees. As he stepped into the opening, I had a clear shot at his lungs, and I pulled the trigger. He startled and tried to run uphill. He then turned and ran out of view of down hill. I listened carefully and I could hear him run for about 15 seconds and then I couldn’t hear anything. I was hoping that this was a good sign. If I had missed I probably would’ve have heard him run for a mile or so.
I had my fingers crossed that it was a good shot and I sat down and waited for 20 minutes before resuming the search. After 20 minutes I made my way up to the spot where he was standing when I shot. I could see where he had dug up the ground when he spun around. I began to carefully search for signs of blood. There was no sign of blood on top of the hill where he was sanding when I shot. I followed his tracks down hill and still no blood for the next ten steps. My heart was starting to sink thinking that I had rushed the shot and that I missed this beautiful animal.
I thought back on how tough of a hunt we had this year. With the poor weather, the hunting competition, and the lack of opportunities throughout the last ten days. I finally had a good opportunity and I missed! Just then I found a tiny drop of blood. I was encouraged to see that, but I wanted to see lots of blood knowing that it would mean that an elk would be dead nearby. I carried on following the blood trail and the more and more blood appeared. I looked up ahead on the trail and I could see the dramatic antlers of the elk resting on the ground ahead. What a magnificent animal!
I was relived and overwhelmed with emotions. I sat with the elk looking out over his home in the beautiful wilderness of the Northern Rockies. I give thanks to the elk and the to wilderness around me and then I get to work.
This is the 10th elk that I have killed and the excitement and overwhelming emotional consequences seem to be as pronounced as when I took my first elk. The work that follows of cutting up the elk and packing him back to camp is by far the most physically challenging experience of my year. The excitement, the emotion, and the hard work makes me feel alive. I guess this is why I hunt.