For humans, elk are the most challenging of North American big game animals to hunt. Don’t let their size fool you; these critters can be as quiet as an empty cartridge case and avoid detection far better than a set of misplaced car keys. In fact, seasoned hunters often refer to elk as “the ghosts of the woods” for their stealth-like abilities.
The good news is that there are more elk roaming the woods of North America today than at any other time in the last 100 years. Wildlife biologists believe that more than one million elk currently inhabit our continent. Their recovery is a model of what can be done in the name of conservation.
Prior to the arrival of the first European settlers, experts believe, more than 10 million elk roamed North America, with animals ranging from coast to coast. However, by 1907, elk numbers had plummeted to fewer than 90,000 animals. Western colonization, habitat loss, unregulated hunting and some ranchers in no mood to share their grass with elk, were to blame for their dramatic decline.
Yellowstone National Park (established in 1872) was likely the reason elk numbers were saved from virtual obliteration, since it contained the only viable population during those dark years of the late 1800s and early 1900s when elk had all but vanished from the landscape. In later years, Yellowstone Park elk were transplanted to many states where residents realized what they had lost only after the elk were gone.
As elk herds grew, states began to allow hunting to keep animal numbers in check and from competing with ranchers’ cattle. For example, Colorado began to allow hunting in 1929; Arizona in 1935. By 1985, 400,000 elk roamed the western United States, mostly on national forest land.
Elk numbers have continued to grow thanks, in no small part, to state and federal wildlife agencies and conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Oregon’s elk population, for example, is estimated to exceed 125,000 animals.
So how do you find yourself an elk? First realize that the somewhat tame elk that you spotted last spring or summer are long gone. Earlier hunting activity by primitive weapon archer and rifle deer hunters already has alerted elk to the human threat. In fact, elk (even cow elk) only get more difficult to detect as the fall hunt season progresses.
Try contacting the department of fish and wildlife district office nearest your hunting location for information about where to look for elk. Although no one can tell you with certainty where to bag an elk, I’ve found state wildlife personal helpful in pointing me to areas or watersheds elk frequent during hunting season, and which direction they’re likely to travel if a big snow hits.
For advice from a pro about how to find elk, I called veteran elk hunter Jim Sproul, 541-575-1952. Jim has killed many elk including one monster bull that once scored 11th in the world. According to Jim, elk like quiet places near water that are located above roads or human activity.
Although not a guide, Jim specializes in hunting mature bull elk and says a startled bull, unlike a cow or young male, will almost always stop briefly to size up the situation after initially moving 10-50 feet away from an intruder. Unless you spot him first, this will likely be your only chance at the bull because he’ll then beeline away from you with the goal of traveling miles and hiding where he thinks you won’t look.
Jim has also found that a big bull, like a mature buck deer, will hold and let you walk by if he thinks you haven’t spotted him. But, be aware that if you make eye contact, he will disappear faster than the last diet Coke at a Weight Watchers convention.
Elk use cover to hide from predators and will normally restrict movement to brush-covered draws or canyons when traveling. Keep in mind that elk almost never skyline themselves; instead moving along the sloped side of a hill.
Your best opportunity to bag an elk will likely occur opening morning (this is when most hunters get their elk). If you are in an area where there is fresh elk sign and know other hunters will be working the area too, try taking a stand above a known traveling lane where elk might exit when pushed.
If all else fails, pray for snow. When there is snow, anyone can feel like an accomplished elk hunter. But you will likely learn that it’s near impossible to catch up with elk by following fresh tracks. If you are to catch “the ghost of the woods,” it’s much better to let your partner follow the trail while you circle ahead and try to ambush the always weary elk.