column By: Jack Ballard | November, 18
After several long minutes in hiding, fortune turned my way. An elk, modest in stature with more yellowed flanks than its company, was ambling behind several cows. The yearling bull passed within slingshot range downslope on the faint spit of a game trail. An easy shot with my dad’s .300 Savage high on the point of its shoulder dropped my first bull like the legendary ton of bricks. Hunting regulations at the time required the harvest of a “branch-antlered” bull which meant the animal had to have a 4-inch fork on at least one of its antlers. Mine was a legal forkhorn on both sides but not by much. Observing the diminutive rack back at camp an elder relative appraised the antlers.
“Hmph,” he concluded, “just a glorified spike.”
The spike bull’s counterpart in the cervid duo of slighter species is the mule deer or whitetail forkhorn. But whereas spike antlers are the norm for elk and forkhorns are the exception, the opposite is true for the majority of Rocky Mountain mule deer and generally the case for healthy whitetails in productive habitat. A bull elk might retain the antler configuration of the normal yearling (spike or forkhorn) in subsequent antler development, but such cases are exceptionally rare. Among mule deer, though, outlandish forkhorns are more frequently observed among mature males and are not particularly uncommon in some populations. Only on one occasion have I observed a bull elk of some age with yearling-esque antlers, an oddball with a spike on one side and a forkhorn on the other with beams at least as long as an average 5-point.
Hunting districts across the West allowing the take of any antlered bull typically find a high percentage of the harvest comprised of spikes. In a few states, some hunting units are “spike only.” These are normally trophy areas where the hunting of brow-tined bulls is restricted to holders of a special tag. In Montana, my state of residence, elk hunting regulations were modified to protect spikes in most regions around the early 1980s. Hunting districts experiencing high pressure routinely found very low bull-to-cow ratios by winter’s end, requiring spikes to accomplish the majority of the breeding in the subsequent autumn. Regulation changes designed to protect yearling bulls from hunters were intended to increase conception rates among cows as two-year-old bulls are more reproductively capable than spikes.
In my favored hunting district, the regulation evolution went from “any bull” to “branch-antlered bull,” first defined as an animal with any visible fork, to “branch-antlered bull,” refined to those having at least a 4-inch fork on one antler. Currently, the definition is “brow-tined bull” which means at least one tine on the lower one-third of at least one antler.
Spikes are supremely content to rejoin cow herds in late summer but are forcefully ejected by dominant bulls shortly thereafter. The morose youngsters may hang about the periphery of the harems or team up into small herds of yearling bulls. Occasionally they wander alone.
It’s perhaps unfair to label spikes as “dumb,” but they are typically possessed of a more naive and curious nature than their elders. On a pleasant October morning, I once hunted a large tract of dense timber on a north-facing slope where elk congregated to escape hunting pressure. An ideal day for stillhunting, several inches of wet snow had melted into the thin soil, dampening the sound of footfalls and providing elasticity to the brittle twigs and small branches prone to breaking with a noisy snap. The atmosphere was unusually calm, save for the slight movement of air upslope.
In an expanse of hunter-friendly timber where my visual field lengthened to around 80 yards, I spied two telltale, tawny patches ahead in the sylvan mosaic of gray and green. Scrutiny with a handy set of compact binoculars revealed a pair of spike bulls standing idly among the lodgepoles.
Off-limits for harvest, I nonetheless snuck toward the unsuspecting yearlings. A truly mature bull isn’t likely to keep company with a band of spikes, but young 4 and 5-points may. As I closed the gap on the duo, two more yearlings were revealed, bedded about 10 paces on the up and downhill sides of the pair. One was a forkhorn, the other a straight spike. Now within archery range though carrying a .444 Marlin in the rifle season, I leaned against the scratchy trunk of an evergreen and waited for the elk to sense their hunter.
When it became obvious they hadn’t a clue of my presence, I pursed my lips and emitted a short whistle. Four fuzzy pairs of ears precisely triangulated the source of the sound as they stared intently in my direction. “Eek,” I shrilled at low volume. The ears cocked more determinedly forward but the curious youngsters gave no indication of immediate flight though the two lounging yearlings casually rose from their beds.
I next offered a soft “ugh” with as low a pitch as I could muster. One of the yearlings turned as if to flee, but three other necks extended comically toward the source of the sound. Nearly laughing out loud, I extended my thumb and fingers on one hand and closed them quickly. The fledgling bulls now had visual as well as auditory contact. A few quick handclasps at last caused the most skittish member of the company to bolt, followed by his fellows. Not quite out of sight, the more inquisitive trio broke from the leader to stop and again stare in my direction. A lofty wave of an arm sent them again into flight.
Even where protected from harvest, there’s plenty to be gained by paying attention to spikes. Their size and body condition give a good indication of the previous winter’s stress, or lack thereof. Their numbers offer a harbinger of hunting opportunities for larger bulls in the coming years. Where there are spikes, cows are often a short distance away.
Small of body and short of antler, a bossy cow can give me a whipping and I’ll keep a fearful eye toward the big fellows. But my nickname hints of bolder days ahead. Call me “Spike.”