Sunday, 11 October 2009

Elk Hunting

Native hunters believe an animal gives himself to the hunter, an idea that is hard to reject once you have experienced a seemingly magical appearance of the very animal you have been seeking for a long time. After many miles of hunting with an intensely focused attention when, on foot and with rifle in hand, you see an elk it seems like a minor miracle has occurred. To hunt well you must anticipate seeing your quarry at every moment and when the expectation is realized it simply feels like the unfolding of the natural order, everything is as it should be; and yet at the same time it is a surprise.

This year an old friend from Ithaca N.Y. drew an out of state elk tag and he came out to hunt with me. The area we hunted opened on October first which is two weeks before the general elk seasons open in any nearby area in Southeast WY. the area I hunt is essentially where I live which makes things a little easier, and yet it is a grueling schedule that wears you down; up at 5:30 or earlier, out of the door before 6:15 to be on the mountain by sunup or as near sunup as possible. We would typically hunt until around noon or a bit later and then drive back to the house for lunch and perhaps a short nap before heading out again around two for an afternoon/evening hunt which ends, by law, 1/2 hour after sunset. This would get us back to the house around 7:30 or 8:00. There is a huge advantage in living only a few miles from where you hunt but the schedule is still hard.

Because the elk tags opened our hunting season at the beginning of October (at the same time the general deer season opens) we had the luxury of hunting both elk and mule deer at the same time. It harkened back to the early part of the last century when one could buy a kind of general game license and take off into the wilderness and just hunt what you found. Before he was a Colonel, Townsend Whelen took off into the Canadian wilderness with such a license in the 1901 and lived off the land for an extended period.

On the other hand, there are three downsides to this open season on both deer and elk. Firstly, although they are often adjacent to one another, mule deer and elk tend to prefer different habitat. We had good habitat of both kinds available to us and a single hunt often covered both. And besides, this objection is not entirely true. One morning we jumped a doe and a cow elk within 50 yards of one another in a mixed stand of aspens and lodgepole pines. Secondly, a potential disadvantage is that deer and elk really are quite different animals; you look for different things when hunting one or the other. When still hunting, you tend to try to key in to deer or to elk. Just a splotch of reddish brown in the timber is a key for elk, a flat gray patch is a key for mule deer. Any horizontal in a vertical world of lodgepole pines is a key for both, as is an ear or the tip of an antler. Thirdly, a rifle specialist may prefer to hunt different rifles for mule deer and elk. Shots at mule deer are typically longer than shots at elk which are usually found in the dense timber. In general, mule deer are not as tough to kill as elk are and so do not require the larger calibers one might prefer for elk. This too is not entirely true. Most of the deer and three elk I've previously killed have been shot with a Winchester 270 caliber rifle. I know one elk hunter who has killed more than 15 elk with a 270. This year I was planning to use a 35 Whelen for elk; it shoots a .358" diameter bullet weighing 250 grains traveling at 2600 fps instead of the 270 Winchesters .277" diameter bullet weighing 140 grains going 3100 fps. Regarding using larger calibers for deer sized game Elmer Keith once famously remarked "You mean you can kill them too dead?" Certainly not, but a longer shot is easier if the bullet drop is less. At 300 yards, which is a long but not unreasonable shot for a 270, the 35 Whelen bullet drops 14 inches compared to only 6 inches for the 270.

There are two large parcels of public land that hold elk in our allotted hunt area. Most of the land in the area is private and therefore off limits to us. Initially we primarily focused our efforts on one of the two public lands in the hunt area. It has a good mix of mule deer and elk habitat. On my first day out I'd had an easy shot at a nice 3x3 mule deer buck but passed on the shot hoping the larger 4x4 I'd seen with him would show himself. When they first jumped off their mid-morning beds my mind cried "Elk!" and then instantly I realized they were deer. They were a group of four bucks that stood up; one stotted a few yards further into the aspen stand, others just took a few steps deeper into the cover, and then they stopped. I stopped dead still and watched them as they nervously looked in my direction, trying to identify the danger they'd sensed. It was a stand off, they knew something was not right but they could not wind me and they weren't sure what had startled them. I had the 3x3 in my sights but waited because I was hoping to see the larger 4x4 that I'd mistaken for an elk, and also, there was a spike horn buck standing right behind the deer I had my sights on. A 140 grain Barnes bullet from a 270 at 70 yards is quite likely to go all the way through the animal in front and into the one behind. So I waited, and after what seemed like an eternity, but what may have only been 5 minutes, the deer decided something was no good and they quietly turned and started walking off deeper into the thicket. They did not run but walked away with with the kind of intention I might have when walking alone down an empty street late at night in lower Manhattan. I'd decided to take the 3x3 if I got a shot and I set my sights on a small opening in the trees I thought they'd have to pass through but he never showed himself. I never saw either buck again though I looked long and hard for them that day and the next.

That first weekend Garrett saw a very large bull elk at less than 50 yards in heavy timber but he was not able to get a shot off before he was gone; ghost of the timber.

By the second week of hunting we'd convinced ourselves that we and others had pushed the elk off the public land or into the extremely steep dark timbered draws that are virtually impossible to move through quietly because of the steepness, the density of trees and the tangle of deadfalls. We switched our efforts to the other portion of public land in the area.

We had really good elk hunting weather in early October this year with some light snow falling on September 30 leaving a few inches in the higher elevations and then a good eight inches fell on October 9. Snow makes tracking possible though it certainly complicates getting the truck up the steep dirt track roads into the best country. We don't always have such good weather for hunting. In some recent years we've had entire general elk seasons with no snow at all, or we only ever got a light dusting that was good for tracking in the morning and gone by early afternoon.

On our Sunday hunt on the eleventh we had blowing snow and high winds. Gerry and I hunted together. Traversing a steep timbered hillside I spotted an elk ahead of us and froze in my tracks and Gerry did too. The wind was roaring toward us from the direction of the elk and so they did not hear us or scent us. I mounted my rifle and put the crosshairs on the animal's chest, an easy offhand 60 yard heart shot. There was no question it was an elk, and I thought it was a cow but was not sure. I have never shot at an animal that I could not fully identify and also, since it was still early in the season I was willing to wait for a bull and only shoot a cow later in the season. After a minute or two watching it, and it clearly sensed something was amiss, the animal turned and I saw that it was a 5x5 bull. I had not been able to see the antlers through the timber until it turned. They were two bachelor bulls together. When they sensed us, they turned uphill and ran. I started running too. My strategy was to stay above them so it involved heated uphill running. Gerry, who celebrated his 71st birthday the week before was not able to run up the steep slope and he traversed below in case they dropped down. I chased the two bulls into the wind up and across a very steep hillside, staying above them, for about 1/2 mile.

My theory is that startled elk will at first run what ever direction takes them away from the perceived danger and that once they believe they are clear, they will turn into the wind. By the time I reached my high point I knew they were still below me and I did not believe they'd ever seen me. I suspected they would now relax and so I stopped to catch my breath, to clean my scope and binoculars which were wet and fogged with snow and my own hot breath and cool down.

I ended up shooting the animal about 35 minutes after I started the chase. I shot him at 50 yards or so, he and his smaller partner, who never suspected I was chasing them, were quartering back toward me into the wind. At the shot his right leg buckled and he slid about 10 yards down the steep slope dead. The bullet went in through the right side of the chest just in front of the shoulder and I found a 129 gr. remnant of the 250 grain bullet under the hide on the left side behind the left shoulder. With the animal down and dead after one shot I was very disappointed to discover I did not have my camera. His antlers were rather striking with reddish and orange streaks.

Since I've been in WY I've killed four elk and on two occasions have been hunting with partners who killed elk. This is the second bull elk that I have killed. He was estimated to be 4 1/2 years old by an expert at the Wyoming Vet Lab. Elk can live 14 to 16 years.