When Elk Go Away

Archetypal elk hunts bring hunters to wild places horseback. Here: Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness.

Had we climbed faster, we’d have beaten daylight to the basin head. We’d also have missed the elk. A storm, brooding all night in the Madison Range, met us mid-ascent. Dishwater skies wept globs of snow big as marbles. Peaks vanished in cloud; fog erased the valley floor.

“See anything?”

“I’m not sure,” said Ray.

Oddly familiar, that exchange. I may first have read it – in an article on elk hunting published in 1936. Before Winchester sold its first Model 70. Before Hitler rolled into Poland. Elk were not plentiful then. In fact, perusing a dozen issues of popular hunting rags of that day, I found just one feature on elk!

West-wide, big game prospered during and following WW II. Hunters left to shoulder Garands in far-away places. Improved grazing practices blessed wildlife habitat. Poison and bounties worked against predators. Mild winters hiked elk recruitment. Nascent wildlife agencies put poachers on notice.

One autumn day in 1949 as John Holzwarth was tending chores on his Granby, Colorado ranch, his son spied an elk eating from a haystack. John downed the bull with his .30-06. After sharing the meat with neighbors, he preserved the rest in 55-gallon drums buried in snow. The bull’s antlers weathered in the ranch yard for a decade before someone scored them at 391 inches. In that day, meat mattered most.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, pack trips and white wall tents came to define the archetypal elk hunt. As elk numbers on both public and private lands grew, so did hunting opportunity. A shift in focus, from meat to antlers, followed. Fee hunting and limited-entry permits would soon establish a new paradigm.

“What’s that?” Ray squinted into his binocular. Scrubbing the snow from my glass, I saw ghost-images of elk, animal-cracker size on a bench below. “There’s a bull,” he added.

The snow curtain shifted. A wolf appeared, testing the elk. The cow in charge lowered her head and marched toward it, the herd in a V-phalanx following. The wolf retreated. Ray suggested we hunt the wolf. I shook my head. Odds of killing the bull were slim. Of shooting a wolf slipping away in a blizzard half a mile distant? Near zero.

Half an hour later, sneaking when the storm afforded cover and hunkering when it relented, we crawled to a rock. The animal crackers were bigger now, but no clearer. I barely made out antlers when the bull sifted from the herd. “That’s him,” Ray hissed. My Core-Loct sped 280 yards. The bull moved. I picked him up again in the swirling snow. Another shot, and he followed the herd into the fog. We found tracks, filling fast. The bull lay dead some distance on, lungs shredded twice.

It was the only bull we had seen in a week.

October hunters may get some response bugling; but by mid-month, most bulls are silent, reclusive.

On public land where most people of ordinary means now hunt elk, such lean times can seem the rule. But like that hunter in 1936, they’re willing to keep looking. Scarce or abundant, elk can leave you thinking they’ve gone someplace else, that you have such a slim chance of finding one, you might as well stop looking. Successful hunters persevere.

Mobility can be your biggest asset on an elk hunt, especially mid-season – after rut, after hunters have pestered them, but before winter’s blast prompts migration. Wolf predation puts another thumb on the scale, as it forces the elk into tight places where wolves struggle to kill. Elk that elude wolves also, by their altered habits, become less accessible to hunters.

So you prowl and glass big slabs of elk country day after day until weather or luck or persistence changes your fortunes.


Checking rubs, beds and wallows in early fall can pay off. But such evidence tells you only where elk were. Bulls scraping velvet and thrashing trees to flaunt their virility usually rest elsewhere after rut, even when not pressured. Hungry and tired, they seek easy forage and solitude. Trail sign misleads many hunters, though. Meadows flattened by bedded elk are mainly night stops. Warm-weather wallows draw fewer customers after frost. Early snows can improve hunting, but only heavy accumulation nudges elk into migration corridors. Day-length must confirm what snow suggests. In Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, I found that light dustings of snow late, after an extended fall, shoved streams of elk into the valleys – elk that in years with early snows hunkered high until winter proper signaled migration.

Elk country “hunts big” because elk use distance to stay safe. They soon learn that, away from roads, hunters move slowly, have limited range and focus on easy places.

Early dustings of snow, here in Montana, won’t move elk. Heavy November snow prompts migration.

So it was that in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness some years back we’d not seen an elk in nearly a week of post-rut hunting. We’d heard them, and in thick cover I’d sneaked close to the growlings of a herd bull. Alas, a cow caught my scent; the ‘poles had emptied instantly. At dawn the fifth day we topped a ridge on whose other side yawned a great canyon. Promise of morning sun after a cold night had coaxed elk onto a grassy shelf. Ron saw them first. I spied big antlers. “We should go now,” I said. Many chances have been lost to hunters waiting, dawdling or sifting strategies. Conditions hardly ever improve.

We raced downhill, scrambling on the steep canyon head, slipping behind a rim as a cow popped up on the divide below. She eased over it and into an old burn. A rivulet of other elk followed, branching through pickets of charred boles, streaming toward the black bottom of the adjacent draw. Out of breath, cover and time at 330 yards, I slinged up prone, found antlers and fired when the bull paused. Thwuck! I dropped the Ruger’s lever to thumb in another AccuBond.

Ken’s insistence at ridge-top that I trade the iron-sighted Winchester 71 for his scoped Number One brought me that elk. With the .450 Alaskan, I’d not even have fired.

Still-hunting for elk is as for whitetails. But there’s often more time and distance between sightings!

Getting fit before you must sprint down a ridge or hike for days in high, steep country is a logical but often ignored requisite for elk hunting. Though you’ll move slowly when sneaking on elk, a brisk step between productive coverts make the most of your time. To climb steadily in thin air – or steady your rifle quickly after a climb – you must be in shape!


You don’t need horses to reach elk – though they do extend your reach, and deliver camp closer to where you might wish to hunt. But in many places, the farther you pack in, the closer you get to people coming from the other side. I’ve climbed as far as 27 miles and met other hunters. Livestock limited camp options for all parties. High basins and benches afford stock the grass and water needed for extended stay, For that reason, alpine flats get crowded in elk seasons. You’ll find less traffic where post-rut bulls go to avoid it – mainly mid-elevation timber. Most elk I’ve shot have come from such places, short miles from roads and ranches. Pack trains pass these places by; hunters without strong legs don’t reach them.

Once, in morning mist that confined my scent, I probed a clump of young firs on the shoulder of a ridge that had sustained heavy pressure opening weekend. Suddenly a bull elk rose to stare, unbelieving, a few feet from my muzzle. This elk had found a safe place a few yards below hunters unwilling to leave it. I would eventually take four bulls from that slope.

Another time, Aaron and I left camp before dawn, passing grassy slopes to reach a steep, north-facing bowl. Its lodgepoles had recently burned. Their dark boles jutted from granite and crusted snow. A bleak place under gray skies. But shortly, we spied color. Elk! Glassing showed us nearly 40 animals. The cadaverous trees afforded poor cover. Each move that hid me from one animal exposed me to another. At glacial pace, I slipped to within 300 yards and killed the bull with my .270 Weatherby.

You won’t always find elk on heavily-used trails, or where forage is most plentiful. Between rut and migration, while many hunters inspect old sign and patrol meadows, you’re smart to look where the animals hide. Look for little hot-spots in the Big Empty.

In Wyoming’s Wind River country once, I sat to glass at a trail fork. A branch in a pine skeleton on a hill caught my eye. The limb arced not down, but up. Next to it: a horizontal sliver of dun. More than 120 yards off, this elk stood near my self-imposed limit for iron sights, and the tree blocked its shoulder. Covering the first ribs and plenty of lodgepole with the bead, I fired my . 32 Special. The bull vanished. I climbed to the spot. Blood-spray in the snow led me a stone’s throw to the dead six-point.

High ground seems to make elk feel secure. The logic: predators that must scale a bluff advance slowly, with effort. Prey on top has ample time to escape. On a trail below this Wyoming bull, I had not only picked a good glassing site, but appeared an insignificant threat.

A borrowed Ruger No. 1 bored for a 7mm wildcat brought Wayne this bull in Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness.

Elk drink often, and commonly at mid-day, especially in warm weather. Once, hiking fast from an unproductive place to try my luck elsewhere, I chanced upon a bull drinking from a puddle. We were both surprised; he’d have escaped but for a brief look back. Another bull, visiting a pond just before dusk, paused just long enough for my shot. Still, waiting at water is no guarantee of success. Good elk country has plenty of water; recent rains can leave it everywhere. Also, elk approach it with care. If you’ve posted there awhile, they could meet your scent pool first – and leave. In 44 years of elk hunting I’ve killed only a handful of bulls near water.

Distance between herds or sequestered bulls, and the far-ranging habits of elk, put a premium on fast, efficient travel between places you’ll hunt carefully. Moving elk seldom stray from established trails. Nor should you. Trails help you move quietly too. Elk – themselves noisy – may discount what noise you do make there. In this way, elk hunting contrasts with still-hunting whitetails, which often lie low in grass and sneak around you in patches of brush and dodge, rabbit-like, from one copse to another. Elk country is just too big to give every thicket whitetail time and scrutiny.

Yes, elk can hold tight too, and tip-toe around you. One did that to me on an Oregon hill, its step light as a squirrel’s. At last I eased off-trail to peer, on hands and knees, through low boughs. The big bull was egg-walking away, close enough to arrow. But the presentation was wrong. I watched him go.

Such mid-season elk remained unavailable to hunters parked at ridge-top with long-range rifles. I don’t begrudge them their vigil; it means less traffic for me where elk live.

Photos and now videos of elk in meadows are misleading. It’s true that this animal is primarily a grazer, not a browser. Its broad mouth contrasts with the slim, tapered face of browsers like the whitetail. So it favors open, grassy places. It also likes easy country – slopes of less than 30 percent, according to studies. It’s a big animal, so in meadows or light cover it’s quite visible. But elk photographed  in parks, or on private tracts, or during rut or on winter range, are not the pressured elk you seek in October ‘poles.

Having shot elk with 36 cartridges, Wayne thinks the mild .250 Savage, circa 1913, light but lethal.

Some hunters, it seems, look for places that make for easy shooting at elk, instead of going where elk live. Open hillsides and meadows hemming roads are mostly empty during the day. Ditto ridge-crests and canyon guts threaded by pack trails. Post-rut elk stay in or near forest. In the mountains, they move cross-slope on paths through timber a rifle-shot below the bald tops so popular with hunters. Pressure can force them into canyons, but they don’t long abide poor daytime wind coverage, when thermal drift is up. Running water drowns the approach of hunters. Elk like to bed where they can move up or down when threatened. They also favor jackstraw timber (windfall, burn slash) they can clear with their long legs but that stalls predators. I believe elk also know that in such jungles hunters can’t tread quietly.

Promising cover that yields nothing can merit a return visit. On one logged bench I had prowled several times, I almost marched right past a bull the last weekend of the season. My .300 caught him as he paused at cover’s edge. He’d evidently found the place more appealing after an early snow. Haunts vacant on the opener can draw elk as weather, day-length, hunting pressure and other factors change.

Overlooking a bull can be a costly mistake. You’re smart to inspect near cover before looking far. Re-focus your binocular to look close. Once, topping a Washington ridge, I zeroed in on second-growth timber across a canyon. Ringed by tall conifers, it was just the place to find an elk. I began glassing. Then a hoof thumped. A bull’s antlers winked out in cover 50 yards below me just as I cheeked my rifle.

Sometimes the elk you think have gone far away are right below your muzzle!–Wayne Van Zwoll

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