Learning about elk helps with elk hunting.
In order to successfully hunt elk, you must first know a little about them and learning about the elk in Montana is not as easy as you may think. They are much more than big deer that live in the hills. You'll have to take what you learn about elk and apply it to the different terrains and food sources available in different seasons. If you are going to hunt for record book bulls you will need to know what kind of bull it will take to make the record books, and to be able to judge them in the field from a distance. Along with that you will have to know where the big boys are holding, luckily, we can help with that. Not all elk country is the same, but we've got large numbers of elk in the Rock Creek area so the percentages of successful elk hunting is good.
Elk and elk hunting is like working on a jigsaw puzzle, and as we learn more and more about the animals, through books, videos, and experience, the pieces start to fit together very nicely.
Most people who want to hunt elk know what an elk looks like from pictures in magazines, videos, and the mounts they've seen. But why do hunters mistakenly shoot moose, deer, cattle, and even an occasional horse? When you are looking through a tangled mess of dead fall and thick timber, or in the early morning and early evening low light situations, visiblility can be a bit difficult. The first place to start when identifying an elk is to remember there name, wapiti, which is the Indian name for white rump. Older elk, especially the older bulls will have a light buckskin color to them. Bulls that have a darker, shiny coat will be younger bulls. Deer will have more gray in their coats, moose will be dark brown to just about all black, and horses will vary greatly in color, but will generally have a saddle on them as well as a bridal and a lead rope, and perhaps even another hunter! The muzzle and head of a big and mature bull will be more massive than that of the younger bulls. A mature bull may weigh from 700 pounds to as much as 1000 pounds live weight, and that would be an exceptional animal. Bulls are bigger than cows as are cows bigger than calves. A cow elk may run from 500 - 800 pounds and calves will be anywhere from around the 100 pound range to several hundred pounds. The weight of the calf would vary depending on when they were born and the time of the year you are hunting. A hunter living in elk country has the advantage of first hand knowledge of the living library where the elk hunter that resides where there are no elk has to depend on pictures and books. All the tiny details of the puzzle fit together faster and easier for the hunter in elk country than the other hunter. The hunter in elk country is generally able to spend much more time among the elk than the short, brief visit of the day hunter. The hunter that does not reside in elk country needs to look at pictures, and lots of pictures to try and pick out the subtle differences amoung the elk.
Whether you are looking for just a bull, a good bull or that monster record book bull, you will have to be able to tell the difference when you see him. You also have to understand the odds in order to get him. You will know when you see a big bull as soon as you see him, whether it be a big 6x6 or 7x7 as there headgear will surely stick out. What you will have to quickly decide is the difference between just big and huge. When you are looking at a bull for trophy potential you have several things that you need to look at to help you decide, including the size and the number of points he has. First look for the fourth point or sword point and count back from there. It is the longest point and can be spotted very easily and quickly. Just count how many points he has beyond that. One behind that is a 5 point, two is a 6 point, and 3 is a 7 point. Once you learn to recognize this sword point , it will allow you to recognize a 5x5, 6x6, 7x7 and even 8x8 very easily. You count the points, take a look at how heavy the rack is, and how wide the spread is and you will then make the decision on whether or not you want to pull the trigger. You will need a big bull with a big spread and good symmetry to get a good score, and check the third tine to make sure that it isn't too small, as that will cost you dearly in your scoring. You just can't go anywhere to find a trophy bull, you have to go where the trophies are.
There are a lot of factors that go into producing these monster bulls. And if you want to run into one, they all have to be there. There must be a history of big bulls in a given area if you ever hope to bump into one, so the genetics must be there. They will also need a good water supply and a good food source high in mineral content. And most of all, a big bull needs to be able to grow old to grow big. And with todays high power magnums and hunting pressure, this poses a problem with elk being able to grow old and big. The main beam needs to be about 55" and a minimum inside spread of 45". The eyeguards second point, and third point all need to at least 18", and the fourth point at least 24" in length. The fifth and sixth need to be at least a foot long. There are record book trophies and there are what you want as you trophy. You must decide by yourself which one it is that you want, as it does not have to make the books for one to call it a trophy.
Elk calls and bugles.
With more and more hunting pressure put on elk, the elk have gotten smarter and have learned to be less vocal than they were years ago. This is not only due to added hunting pressure, but also due to more and more hunters trying to call elk. This makes it tougher than ever to call in a big bull elk. Most hunters think of elk language as bugles and barks. But there is much more to it than that. Let us not forget about the calves. They do not just learn to bark and bugle when they are all grown up. There is more than just the barks and bugles. There are grunts, and squeals also. There is a universal language that is known as cow talk and is used by cows, calves, and bulls.
After the birth of calves, the cows and calves will start to form nursery groups. In this group there will be a lot of babysitting that will go on. The cow elk will communicate with the calves with calling and barking during the nursery time, and this is where the calves really develop their voice. The calves will talk repeatedly and the mothers will answer them back. During this time there is a lot of talking going on,and even more should danger be near. If danger is near, the talking really begins. And it is done by every elk in the group, cows, calves, and the young bulls.
Cow talk is probably the deadliest factor to the elk hunter. In the past, hunters would always try to call in the big bull elk. They saw them, they heard them , and they wanted them. So they tried to call them in by trying to imitate the bull elk's bugle, and ignored the sounds made by cow elk and the calves. The fact is that the bugles, grunts and whistles made by the bull elk does work given the right conditions. If there is a rut crazed bull elk nearby, it will work. Elk hunters need a bit of help to get those big bulls in, and the solution is cow talk. Some elk hunters refused to believe how effective this cow talk was until the tried it themselves. It is amazing how effective this method is. Elk are very communal animals right from the day they are born, and understand that there is security for them in herds. A big bull elk during the rut doesn't want another bull elk. What he does want though, are cows. He wants not only the cows, but the security of the herd as well. So it would stand to reason that cow calls will bring in bull elk, and Big Bull Elk.
The sound of a big bull elk's bugle in the wild is unlike any other sound. It is power, it is mystery, and it is what excites every elk hunter there is. The successful elk hunter needs to understand the animal they are after. They need to know the places that they go and when they will go there. They must also know how to call. Herd bulls require a different strategy than that of brush bulls and spike bulls. Learning to make those sweet sounding bugles and grunts takes practice, and lots of it. There is no set pattern or sequence that one will use. What will work on one bull elk may not work on another. You will need to know when and where to call as well as how to call. Elk talk is nothing more than four basic calls. The calf call, a one second chirp and mewing sound, the cow call which is almost the same, a little longer and a bit deeper tone, the bull elk squeal which is like a high pitched single note, like a nasal whistle, and the full blown, full bull bugle. It is like a rising extended version of the squeal with a series of grunts on the end.
You will need to learn all of these sounds and practice making these sounds. A good place to learn this is at home with the aid of books, tapes, and videos, and of course the call itself.
Shot placement when elk hunting.
Every hunter, whether they are hunting elk or any game animal, has a responsibility, not only as a hunter but for the animal as well, to make quick kills and to recover the game animal. Accurate shot placement is the key to quick kills and recovery as well as the knowledge of ones own firearm and the limits of not only the firearm, but the limits of the hunter also. Shot placement is just as important as choosing the right firearm as well as choosing the right bullet for the job. It is also especcially important for the elk hunter due to the size of the animal. They are somewhat larger than any deer you may have hunted, about 3 times the size. With the average cow weighing around 500 pounds, and a bull getting up in the 750 - 800 pound range and sometimes may top that. Besides being much larger and heavier than deer, it also means that your bullet will have to penetrate thicker hides and heavier bones to be efficient enough to do the job.
Bullets kill game by massive shock and tissue destruction, and if fired from firearms adequate for the game being hunted, can smash even heavy bone and enter the vital organs. Hunting elk with muzzleloading rifles is popular and presents special shot placement considerations due to the slow and heavy bullets being fired and the muzzleloader generally will not have the option of a second shot if needed. For these reasons , a muzzleloading hunter should restrict his/her shots to 100 yards or less. The broadside shot offers several excellent shots for the hunter. The best target is the shoulder and chest area. A bullet of the correct weight and fired from an adequate firearm will break the shoulder and enter the lungs or heart. A neck shot will drop an animal instantly with no meat damage. but should only be used if you are proficient with your firearm and that is the only shot you may have. Head shots should be avoided.
It is just as important to learn about the anatomy of elk as is is to learn about their habits. Without a general knowledge of the anatomy, one cannot expect to have thae quick kill. It is your responsibility to youself and the animal, and the hunting future depends partly on that responsibily.
The elk rut.
To know elk, you must also know that the seasons determine what the elk do. The seasons will bring the elk down from the high country just as the seasons will allow elk to return to the high country. The seasons also tell elk when it is time to begin the rut, or to spread there genes. This is more than likely the hunters favorite time of year, the early part of fall. The time of the year that not only hunters get excited, but the elk as well. It is that time of year that one can listen to the majestic bull elk bugle in the high country. A sound like no other as it makes the adrennilin pump through every elk hunters veins. A sound that can only be appreciated by listening to it in the wilds of elk country.
During the late summer the majority of the bulls are segregated from the cows, in what is known as bachelor groups. They will feed in the morning and the evening when the temperatures are cool, and then retreat to the timber to rest in the shade. Their anlers have grown back after shedding them in April and May, and are still covered in velvet. It is now that the equinox is starting to take place and the daylight is getting less and less every day. The shortening of daylight will trigger the elk's biological clock and the rut will begin. As the light decreases in the fall, glands are stimulated (by the amount of daylight which comes in through the eyes) and these glands will release hormones. In the cows, this will begin the oestrous cycle. In the bulls, there antler growth will stop, the velvet will dry up, their necks will swell, and their testicles will fill up with seman.
The bulls first shed their velvet, their antlers are white. During the rut the antlers will darken, or become stained from dirt, mud, bark, sap, and blood, turning them to various shades of browns to almost black. The bulls will be less and less social with their summer time companions. They will soon begin to seek out the cows and form their harems. Only the largest and stongest of the bulls will become herd bulls and be able to take and hold a herd of cows. This is natures way of insuring that only the best bulls do the breeding. Their genes can now be passed on for future gerations of elk.
During the rut, a bulls neck and hump may swell to twice it's normal size. The hair on the mane will grow darker and longer, and the antlers will be dark with white tips. All these features will help the bulls to look more massive than they already are. He will be very aggressive with outstretched neck, raised hackles, deep bugle, and shake his antlers violently. This will show him as being an overwhelming opponent, and not to be messed with.
These bulls will seek out the cows and if they are not already taken by a larger bull, he will claim possession of them. He will chase off any smaller bulls, usually without having to fight, but with just his massive size and aggrssiveness. As the height of the rut passes, the herd bulls will wander off and once again form bachelor groups. At the end of the rut, a bull will have lost roughly 100 pounds and will need to feed heavily to replace the lost stores of fat needed for the upcoming winter months.
After it's down.
Now that your Elk is on the ground, the real work begins. Here is where you will really find out the difference between a deer and an Elk. First when you try to roll it over for gutting, and when you start to pack it out , it will become obvious that this animal is not your typical deer.
You first need to get the animal to a cooler ASAP, because that is the right thing to do. But when you are 5 miles in and nothing but you and your framepack, that just isn't easy to do.To make matters even worse you may be hunting during September or early October, and the temperatures may be considerably warm. Temps into the 60' and 70's is not at all uncommon.
First of all, make sure that you go prepared. Bring a flashlight to locate your Elk in case of that late afternoon shot. Along with your sharp knife, also include a stone or steel to redo the edge as it dulls. You will also need some rope, a small saw or a hatchet , for getting through the heavy bone of an Elk. You may even wish to take along a compact block and tackle to hang your meat should you have to leave it overnight. you will also want to have some game bags to protect your meat from dirt and insects.You will need to skin it as soon as you can. Elk doesn't cool fast anyway, so don't make matters worse by leaving the skin on.
Now , your animal is down. You already gutted it. It is time to quarter it so you can pack it out. This is where your conditioning really pays off. You have a choice of boning it or not boning it. I have always left the meat on the bone for easy handling. This will also keep the meat in a condition that will allow it to cool, because it will not be clumped together in a mass, not allowing the air to circulate. With the bone in, it allows it to be tied onto your pack easier. It is extra weight but I have found that it is the easiest. But the choice is yours.
Field dressing an elk.
Preserving your meat starts with proper field dressing, whether it be an Elk, a deer , or any other game.Using the standard field dressing procedures, slit the hide from the anus up to the brisket. When doing this be sure not to puncture the stomach or the intestines. Cut the skin around both sides of the penis and testicles (assuming it is a bull) and lay them back between the legs out of the way. What ever you do, don't cut the penis or the urine will squirt out. Cut cleanly around the anus to free the hide from the large intestine.
Now reach up inside the chest cavity and start pulling the innards out. You will have to reach way up inside to cut the diaphragm away from the rib cage, and the wind pipe and esophagus at the base of the neck. Cut slowly and precisely so you don't cut yourself.
As you cut things loose, keep rolling the innards from the cavity to the ground. Pull gently on the intestines to pull the anus and attached penis out through the body cavity. You will probably have to use your knife alongside the anus and around the inside of the pelvis to free it. But use caution so you do not cut the urine sack. When you have cored around the pelvis, you can pretty much pull large intestine with the anus attached through the cavity.
After all the organs are out, you can slit the skin on forward from the brisket to the chin. Split the brisket with your saw or hatchet so the animal can be opened to cool.
A good way to keep the flies off the meat is to use a commercial spray available, or a can of black pepper. I have always used the black pepper and have had good results.
To skin it or not is up to you. For every person that tells you that you should skin it, there is one that will tell not to skin it. I think it really depends on the circumstances. If it is a hot day, and there are many of them during the early part of the season, then I would skin it to allow it to cool faster. Be reminded that by skinning it , it does open the meat up to dirt. If you do skin it, leave the fat on to protect the meat from dirt and it will prevent the meat from drying out.
For packing it out, you should remove the legs. All they are is extra weight, and they will get caught on every little branch that is out there. You have enough hard work to do, don't make a hard job harder.
You are now ready to quarter your Elk for packing it back to camp or the vehicle. This is not as hard as some may think, and it really does not take that much time to do.