Posted by: Bob McMichael | October 29, 2010

Elk

spike elk in lodgepole timber

Spike elk in the lodgepole on opening day

After ten years of trying, I finally killed an elk this season. I can no longer claim to be the world’s most avid unsuccessful elk hunter. The following is a start-to-finish account from field to freezer, intended for those who don’t understand but are willing to try…

Learning

Figure out what kinds of places elk like and why they like them. Look for evidence of their recent presence. The best example of recent “sign” is fresh poop which usually looks like a pile of Milk Duds.

Elk droppings

Elk droppings

The darker and slimier it is the smaller the gap between their presence and yours. Sometimes, when the wind is right, you can smell them, getting nostrils of musk.

In the early fall, you look for elk in woods that are not disturbed by nearby roads or ATVs. They like to be left alone and are very sensitive to intrusion. They can hear better than you, can see better than you, and can smell better than champion bird dogs. In other words, if you sneak up on elk you’re either very lucky or extremely skillful, or both.

Elk rub at the edge of a logging road

Elk rub at the edge of a logging road

Other things will tell you if elk have been in the area recently: tracks and rubs are the two most convincing signs. Animal tracking is an art and a science, and you need to learn to distinguish between all the different ungulates in the woods: cattle (if the area is grazed), white tail deer, mule deer, moose, and elk all have distinctly different prints. Within each species, the sex and age of an animal shows itself in the print. Also, reading prints well will tell you how many animals were together, how fast or slow, and what time of day they were traveling.

A rub is a smaller tree, usually a conifer, that a bull elk has more or less demolished with its antlers. The bulls get in the habit of rubbing the velvet off their antlers in the late spring and early summer, and keep doing it throughout the fall even though their velvet is long gone. By looking closely at a rub and touching the sap exposed on the skinned trunk you can tell within a narrow window how recently the bull was getting medieval on the tree with its rack.

Outside of sheer luck, intentionally seeing elk or any other wild animal in the woods requires studied attention and gathered knowledge. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to know something about the animal, what it likes to eat, what its habits are, what it doesn’t  like. This is the crux of hunting.

Scouting

Lodgepole pine forest

This is what the lodgepole forest looks like from the outside

The main reason I hadn’t killed an elk until this year is that I didn’t have time to scout. If you haven’t hired a guide and are hunting on public land, hunting without scouting is needle-in-haystack stuff. Scouting means finding a group of animals and drawing a kind of mental map of the area they inhabit, and monitoring it for a period close to when you will hunt. Over the past several years I had seen and heard an increasing number of elk in the area I chose to hunt this year. This was the first year I had a tag to hunt here; previous years I hunted – also without scouting – other places in different parts of the state. I chose my areas based largely on the ambiance and no motorized vehicle regulations, half hoping and half thinking elk would be there. I learned this the hard way. There’s nothing more frustrating than hiking a couple of hours in the dark to a place you think will produce a good hunting experience only to have five guys on ATVs roll up in front of you just at daylight, driving off any animals that might have been in the area.

This year, I had time to scout. I spent hours walking very slowly, stopping, listening, looking for sign, monitoring the wind, hanging out, and enjoying being in the house of elk. Once I mapped their environment and noticed and understood small changes in it, I learned prevailing wind patterns so I could plan to approach them always with the wind in my face. If they smell you, they disappear. To combat swirling wind and unpredictable changes I did three things: stored all hunting clothes and gear in a large plastic bin with pine and aspen boughs; showered with no soap before I went out; and anointed my clothes and boots with elk urine (purchased from a sporting goods store).

Over a period of several weeks I was able to spend quite a few hours keeping track of the group of elk I planned to hunt, taking care not to get too deep into their territory so that I might disturb them and encourage them to find another place to hang out. I also hoped for no major weather changes between the end of my scouting and opening day, as a hard freeze, for example, might render the grass they grazed on unpalatable and force them to higher elevations in areas I hadn’t scouted.

Inside the lodgepole

Inside the lodgepole - notice the deadfall

In the zone I planned to hunt with my rifle I could only kill a spike elk, which is a male about a year-and-a-half in age with “spike” antlers that have no branches longer than an inch. Spikes are not trophies, but sought by those who want good meat. Older, larger bulls with huge antlers that make for good trophies and great bragging do not make for the best eating. This meat can be pretty tough. From a “harvesting” perspective, I am in it primarily for the meat. But spike elk are fairly rare, comprising only about five percent (give or take) of the elk population in a given area. Since I figured there to be about twenty to thirty elk in this spot, scattered throughout the timber and half-meadows, I guessed there might be one or two spikes.

Until two days before opening morning I had only encountered large bulls and a few cow elk in this spot. On my last day of scouting, however, I saw at close range but in heavy timber what looked like a spike moving back to its bedding area after a morning of grazing. I didn’t get a good enough view of its antlers before it vanished to know if there were any branches on it, but I knew it was a spike whose harvesting legality remained up in the air.

The Hunt

On opening morning, as luck would have it, the weather had remained stable in the few days since I last scouted. I left the cabin on foot just as it was light enough to see my feet, about 40 minutes before sunrise. I walked quickly but slowly enough to hear the sounds of the forest, hoping to hear some bugling which would let me know the elk were still hanging around. I headed up along a creek that ran next to an old logging road that had been closed for over a decade, which is why the elk have come back here. ATVs can’t legally drive around this area, so the wildlife find it much more appealing.

As I got close to my “ground zero” spot I heard an ATV puttering slowly, and illegally, up the road ahead of me, clearly road hunters on a 4-wheeler. This changed everything. I debated whether to give up the hunt and try to find the ATV so I could report its license plate (if it even had one) to the Forest Service but decided against that since even if I had a photo and the license number there was only a tiny chance anything would have been done. I cursed the portion of humanity that feels exempt from following rules that benefit everyone. But I consoled myself by thinking that these idiots probably wouldn’t see any elk. The sound of the 4-wheeler would most likely keep the elk in the woods, where the motorist probably would not go and where I planned to find them.

I decided to keep looking and listening for elk, moving extremely slowly. Taking five steps and stopping, listening for sounds of large animals moving. One thing elk are sometimes not careful about, which is ironic, is stepping on deadfall. When a 500-pound animal places its hoof on a small dead tree or branch lying on the ground, you can hear the snap quite a ways away.

Heavy timber

It's tough to get a clear shot at any distance in heavy timber like this

Before too long, once I was deep in the heavy timber, I heard a few such snaps. So I crouched down and noticed I was on a faint game trail. Scanning the small gaps between standing lodgepole trees, soon I saw movement. When you’re in timber this heavy visual perspective changes and things take on different optical relationships. What I saw initially looked like a house of tan fur moving about a mile an hour from right to left, coming toward me at an oblique angle. Then I glimpsed dark fur: neck and head. Then one antler: left spike. Then another: right spike. No branches. The snapshots I got as the animal slalomed its way through the trees collectively made it a legal spike elk. I kept doubting this because of the length of the spikes and the size of the animal. It seemed too big.

I watched it a little longer with the binoculars and confirmed I could shoot. I raised the rifle and found him through the scope. I could not see the whole animal, just the vitals: a small area just behind the elbow and a little below the halfway point on the body. I wanted a clearer view, but he was in a position to move farther away from me and I knew this would be my best chance to fill my tag this year. For an instant I flashed on recent years when I passed on good opportunities and had to live with the regret until the next season. I mentally noted the approximate distance – about 80 yards – stabilized the shot (right knee down, left elbow on left knee) and squeezed the trigger.

The Kill

A lot of things go through your mind when you squeeze the trigger. My first thought: I hope I missed. I’m not sure why this was my first thought, especially after ten years of trying and failing to kill an elk, but I knew I hadn’t missed.

The crack of the rifle shot broke the serene silence of the timber in the still, cool morning air. The spike quickly did an about-face, and bolted more as a response to the sound than to being hit. He didn’t go far before stopping, but I knew that unless you waited at least thirty minutes after hitting a big, resilient animal that you could alarm it to run for miles and reduce the probability of recovering it with each step. I knew that most animals hit well in the vitals will – if they don’t feel they’re being pursued – go a short distance, lie down, and die peacefully (or at least more peacefully than fighting for their lives with a wolf or seeing the hunter who keeps shooting and missing or making a non-lethal shot, which is not uncommon).

This is the best scenario for killing big game: since they are not accustomed to being shot (some become accustomed to being shot at, which often makes them live a long life among even the best hunters), they do not understand what happened or why. I imagine it is similar to dying of cancer or getting a cold, not that these things are otherwise anything alike. There is no reason you get cancer, but still it kills you. I realize I am trying to make killing this animal seem more benign, but believe there is some truth to this description. Without presuming too much about what or how elk think, I believe that they don’t reflect on things like humans do, and that they live a much more sensually oriented life than we do. This, I believe, makes them both better than people and less obsessed with tragedy than we are. Dying is a fact not dwelled on by them. We dwell on their deaths (as I am doing here, as we all do about any death that matters to us), but they don’t.

It was very hard to sit quietly and wait thirty minutes after shooting. For one, my heart was pounding and time moved very, very slowly. The place got its silence back. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find him, wouldn’t find a good enough blood trail to locate him. I kept checking my watch. Three more minutes passed; eleven total since shooting, nineteen more to wait before I could stand up and start looking for him. I replayed the shot and his response, over and over, hoping for the best: that I would find him dead very close by.

Then I heard another ATV come up the old logging road, illegally. I was about 200 yards into the timber from the road, but could tell they stopped right near where I went in, and could hear voices coming toward me. The really stupid thing about this group, aside from that fact that I could hear them so clearly (and thus any elk within hundreds of yards, assuming they were hunting), is that they drove less than half a mile from the “ROAD CLOSED” gate.

Spike elk

The spike's resting place

It had been only twenty minutes since I shot, and I worried these people would frighten the spike – if he was still alive and nearby – into getting up and running. I decided to look for him. I stood up slowly, wrapped some flagging tape on the tree closest to where I took the shot, and crept along the game trail toward where I thought I hit him. Before I had gone thirty steps I saw him, lying down, head up, facing away from me. He was dying but not dead yet. I heard the people coming closer, and so did the spike. He stood up, broadside to me, thirty yards away. I fired again, hitting him in the lungs, which is the most lethal shot you can take. He stood there for about thirty seconds, took about five steps, and fell over. He never got up again.

Just after my second shot, I could hear the people quickly turn around and go back to their ATV, which they fired up and drove away. I felt grateful that I was able to find and finish off the spike before these outlaws scared him into running. I was grateful things worked out, and that doing this correctly paid off for me.

The Meat

Without going into too much detail, “field dressing” an animal the size of an elk is a lot of work, especially if you have to carry it out by yourself. In addition to parceling it into movable pieces you have to know enough about its anatomy so that you don’t waste any meat or do more work than you need to. The spike weighed close to 500 pounds. I’m fairly strong and fit but almost 50 years old and can’t handle much more than 80 pounds at a time. I separated the front and rear quarters, and removed the other meat from the carcass, and was able to get it all to the closed road by 2:30 or 3:00, about five hours after he died.

I’d been able to radio my wife at the cabin (about two miles away), and she drove the pickup to the closed gate and brought me my frame pack and a plastic sled. I put one front quarter and some meat into the frame pack and carried the other front quarter to the truck, then returned for the heavier rear quarters that I’d strapped onto the sled and dragged that, with Leslie’s help, back to the truck. By 5:00 p.m. I had the meat cleaned, bagged, and hanging in a room in the cabin with the windows open to keep it cool. I can’t remember being more exhausted or better appreciating a shower.

Ground elk meat

Ground elk meat

I was fortunate the weather stayed cool enough to hang the meat for about a week. Butchering, which you can pay someone to do, is another huge job. I wanted to do it myself, partly to save money and partly so I could get exactly what I wanted from the meat. Three days of cutting, grinding, and wrapping later, and I have more meat than I can eat in a year. Leslie doesn’t care for red meat so I will be sharing this with my friends and family. If you do eat red meat, there isn’t a better or cleaner source than this. I have eaten some of it already, and there is no gamy taste to it whatsoever, and also no fat. Elk is the closest taste to good beef among the wild game you can hunt in the U.S.

Afterthoughts

I can’t say how typical my experience is to other hunters who harvest elk. I have not taken this killing lightly. For me it is not a simple, easily digestible thing. In the couple of weeks that have passed I have felt substantial remorse and sadness about taking the spike’s life. I have made mental lists of the pros and cons of killing big game. I have been exuberant and felt great luck. And I appreciate having clean meat in my freezer.

I want to make one thing clear, though: the elk’s death was not deserved. I didn’t “deserve” to get an elk. Nobody deserves to get an elk. I say this because there are a lot of hunters out there who seem to think that hunting – which appears to be defined primarily by killing – is their God given right. It is not. In a civilization such as the one some of us want to sustain, hunting and the killing that goes along with it is a privilege accompanied by lots of responsibility. To make it fair for others to hunt and harvest animals, regulations must be heeded. No law abiding hunter is more deserving of filling his tag than another. And despite all of this, no creature deserves to die. I killed it. Law allowed it. If it weren’t for the legal regulation of this hunt I wouldn’t have done it. It feels strange to have law dictate acceptability, but, again, that’s civilization for you.

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Responses

  1. Bob, I enjoyed your reflection of your hunt and look forward to sharing a meal of it with you. Yum!

  2. It is a pleasure to read your take on hunting. I’m pretty tired of hearing the typical hillbilly’s account of his yearly exploits. I wish more people took it as serious as you, both during the act and in regards to the animal.

    • Hey Dylan, I was surprised to hear quite a few comments like yours. Thanks for reading.

  3. This is such a great story, it really explains in detail the thoughts and emotions felt while hunting elk, or any animal for that matter. I really enjoyed reading it, and look forward to reading about future hunting adventures. Thank you for sharing!!


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