feature By: Jack Ballard | March, 19
There is an adage that’s widely applied to life’s successes, from marriage proposals, to real estate investments to fishing for bluegill: “Timing is everything.” After 40 years of hunting the big brown mammals the Shawnee Indians called “wapiti,” I can’t help but conclude the proverb most completely captures the essence of elk hunting. Yes, there are times when I’ve killed a member of the species through sheer effort, such as the season in which the best bull of my life was downed after more than a week of dawn-to-dark hunting. But year in and year out, the majority of my shooting opportunities have presented themselves in the best minutes of the day, and during a handful of particularly fruitful days within the season.
Barring a current weather event that suppresses elk activity, there are 70 minutes in a normal day that represent the greatest odds of spotting elk. Just over half of those, 45 minutes, occur in the half hour before sunrise and the 15 minutes thereafter. The other 25 minutes take place from five minutes after sunset until legal shooting light expires.
Of course, none of this is breaking news to any experienced elk chaser. However, the discipline required to fully capitalize on such opportunities easily eludes even experienced big-game hunters, as two events in my past amply illustrate.
Having observed a sizeable herd of elk feeding on a grassy ridge and among the sage on its southern flank for two consecutive evenings before the season opener, a cousin and I were determined to be there at first light on opening morning. Calculating backward, we needed to arise two and a half hours before shooting light, giving an hour and a half for a quick breakfast, feeding and saddling horses, and another hour to ride to the ridge.
But a fellow named Murphy has a law that applies as accurately to unforeseen impediments in elk camp as the morning commute. First off, the mantle in the propane lantern in the cook tent was torn in two, probably due to a brief blast of wind during the night that rattled the globe. A spare was quickly retrieved from the lantern box, but the replacement burned up in 10 minutes. After bridling my horse, I absently dropped the reins while leading it to a tree where I planned to tie it up while I retrieved my rifle and pack from the sleeping tent. The gelding managed to step on a rein precisely over the serrated edge of a sharp stone. When I gave a yank on the ribbon of leather, it promptly parted beneath the steed’s iron shoe, necessitating another repair, this one requiring twice as much time as the lantern.
Already behind the game and knowing it, we pushed our mounts up the steep trail leading to the eastern end of the windswept feeding ground. Light bled all to swiftly into the eastern sky. The watch on my wrist read three minutes past legal shooting time when I depressed the button to illuminate its face as we neared our destination.
We dismounted, tied the horses to a couple of scruffy limbered pines and eased around a knob to see the back ends of a half-dozen elk casually drifting off the ridge. On a sprint, I made more than respectable time covering the half mile to the point of the animals’ departure toward a sea of timber lower on the slope. Gingerly cresting the rise, I ruefully marked around 50 head striding through scattered aspens and Douglas fir trees to reach a dense jungle of lodgepoles. A 5x5 bull brought up the rear of the departing band a quarter mile away. Significantly behind it were two spikes intent on devouring a few more mouthfuls of forage before heading to cover. At half the distance to the branch-antlered bull, the spikes were well within range but securely outside the regulations that allowed for the taking of an antlerless elk or a brow-tined bull. Determined to avoid a similar “tardy slip” the next morning, we arrived at the clearing well before shooting light. Apparently no one bothered to inform the elk of the intended rendezvous.
Some years prior, the son of my then-employer and I set out on a similar predawn mission to cut off a herd of elk in a favored meadow before they sauntered into the nearby timber to bed for the day. Although it was the second weekend of the season, my optimism for an elk encounter was high. The previous evening a short but nasty snow squall occurred just before sunset, which I suspected would suppress the animals’ nighttime feeding and make them doubly hungry in the morning. Our hiking route to the wapiti pasture covered two miles on a well-maintained forest service trail. When we passed the trailhead on the way to our nearby camp the previous day, not a single vehicle was parked at the departure point, and it appeared not a soul had used the path for several days.
Opportunity knocked, and my youthful friend answered at meadow’s edge. A bull and a small herd of cows and calves were grazing smack-dab in the center of the clearing. Having arrived with time to spare, we anxiously ticked off a number of very long minutes waiting for legal shooting light to arrive. Thirty seconds into the permissible portion of daylight, a 5x5 bull met its demise from a smartly placed .270 bullet to the ribs. Had we arrived 15 or 20 minutes later, odds are high we would have found ample evidence of the elk’s feeding in the form of tracks, barely chilled droppings and muzzle marks in the snow-covered grass, but missed the elk.
Elk hunters with an eye toward success make a punctual appearance at prime areas at the front end of daylight. They also tarry until the witching moments at dusk, a habit that normally requires more discipline than shrugging off the covers in time to make the morning vigil.
Numerous studies have shown that elk deliberately buffer themselves from human activity, most notably intrusions into their habitat by motorized vehicles. Hunters are thus advised to focus their efforts most intensely in elk havens a couple miles from vehicle access. If you remain in such areas until shooting light expires at twilight, it means a dark, oftentimes chilly hike or ride back to a rig or camp. Coming on the heels of a very long day (if the effort is made to get there at daybreak), it takes no small measure of determination to stay put, but the rewards can be fantastic.
On the first day of his first elk hunt as a 12 year old, my oldest son and I found ourselves four miles from our camp along an access road and two miles from the grizzled muzzle of the aging mount that would carry Micah’s tired, young body up a winding trail to the tents. Just before sunset we parked our behinds at the base of an immense fir in one of my most favorite places on planet Earth.
Near the top of a moderate slope, the ancient tree lords over an expanse of open timber with a cadre of similarly aged patriarchs. Most of the giant evergreens require the outstretched arms of two grown men to span the circumference of their trunks. Their measured spacing allows grass to sprout in their lightly shaded understory and elk to forage comfortably on their watch, long minutes before the dark, moist noses of wary cows are willing to rustle a meal in the open.
The youth seemed genuinely taken by a picturesque sunset that framed a yonder peak. Over the course of the next 15 minutes however, his countenance took on a slightly anxious air as cold descended and the landscape began to darken. “Dad, don’t you think it’s time to head back?” he whispered. I shook my head. If elk appear in this little honey hole, they typically do so only scant moments before shooting light is extinguished.
The distinct thud of a cloven hoof striking a fallen log over which an ungulate is stepping reached our ears moments later. We remained motionless to observe several cows drift from the dense forest behind us to feed among the firs, one of which walked to within bow range of our front row seat in a boundless outdoor arena. With designs on a bull, we left the unsuspecting cows unmolested. By the time we reached camp, my footsteps dogged by an affectionate old gelding and a spent youth nodding in the saddle, the Milky Way lit up the sky with a radiance putting the most bedazzling nighttime cityscape to shame. The boy, I hoped, had learned a foundational lesson about elk hunting. Had we departed our perch at his suggested timing 10 minutes sooner, we would have completely missed the cows.
Opportunity knocks most loudly for an elk hunter not only at those small slivers of time at daylight and dusk, but also during specific days of an extended (or sometimes abbreviated) hunting season. Most of these occur in relation to weather events. Above-average temperatures suppress elk activity in autumn, primarily due to the discomfort of moving about in hot weather with a thickening winter coat. Cold fronts almost invariably stimulate movement among wapiti in such situations. The cessation of inclement weather in the form of rain or snow also stimulates activity, most forcefully during the first nicer day.
While hunting in northwestern Wyoming one season, my wife and I endured several days of steady, very much out of the ordinary, rain. We hunted in the drizzle for the first two days without sighting an elk. On the third day we spent the morning listening to the pitter-patter on the fly of the wall tent, then made an hour-long drive to escape the disheartening conditions in a warm, homey coffee shop in Jackson.
During the afternoon of the next day, the precipitation abated and the sky lifted. Late that afternoon and evening, we spotted more than 50 elk in several different herds, animals that were on their hooves and looking to fill their bellies in more pleasant weather.
Year in and year out, elk hunters who put in the most time tend to fill the most tags. It is possible, however, to substantially reduce the days needed to fill your tag by having an ear to the door when opportunity comes a knockin’.