Heading West for Elk What Eastern deer hunters should know before leaving home

Like many hunters, I cut my teeth on Eastern whitetails. I learned to hunt in the hardwood forests of Virginia, and also hunted the South Texas Brush Country. But once I ventured out West and saw the Rockies, I was hooked. I was drawn to hunting the majestic elk and thought my deer-hunting experience would put me in good stead. I was wrong. The time-honored axioms of Eastern deer hunting didn't apply in the high country. I found that to be successful I had to adapt to the ways of the elk and forget my deer-hunting upbringing.

Hunting Elk vs. Deer

There are many good reference books on elk-hunting tactics (see sidebar, page HB2), and it doesn't take much reading to figure out that this is a different ball game. First, there are basic differences in the habits of the animals. Elk are grazers, deer are browsers; elk have much larger home ranges; elk tend to travel in larger herds; elk migrate seasonally and deer don't. Then there are differences in the land. Most Rocky Mountain elk hunting takes place on vast tracts of public land, much of it steep and at altitudes above 8,000 feet. Just getting around can be a chore and requires planning. Consequently, elk hunting demands a different approach.

Home on the Range

Whitetails have small home ranges--on the order of a square mile or so. Deer are homebodies and rarely venture outside these ranges. Once you find a good area you simply pattern whitetails and try to put yourself in the right place at the right time for a shot. If you don't see deer for a few days it doesn't mean they've left the country; they're just not moving during the day. Deer-hunting gospel says hunt hard early and late, and be patient. Perseverance usually pays off when hunting deer. Not so with elk. Elk range over large areas, so if you don't see any for a few days, chances are they're somewhere else--maybe far away.

As Jim Zumbo notes in his book Hunt Elk, "You're essentially looking for a band of animals in a vast chunk of land." Looking for elk until you find them is paramount. Don't settle on a hunting area until you're sure elk are there. The only way to be sure is to go in and actually see the animals or find enough fresh sign that you're satisfied you're in the right area. And don't plan to hunt from a stand over elk sign as you would back East--elk are less predictable in their movements than whitetails. Go to the elk, rather than wait for them to come to you.

Break Out the Glass

Wide-open vistas are common in the Rockies, unlike in eastern forests. One of the best ways to locate elk is to find a vantage point where you can see a great distance in several directions and use a binocular or spotting scope to look for elk at daybreak and dusk. Since elk are grazers, meadows (high or low) are obvious places to look, but many forests also have ample forage. Don't waste your time on areas near roads or trails because most elk have learned to avoid such routes during hunting season.

Your best bets will be small openings deep in the forest or remote high meadows above timberline. Focus on areas with varied vegetation: stands of dense spruce or fir mixed with grassy openings or aspen groves. Elk commonly feed in meadows or alfalfa fields at night and retreat up mountains and back into the trees shortly after daybreak. Try to observe where they emerge from the trees in the evening or enter the trees in the morning. Slip into the area in anticipation of hunting during those times.

Another way to locate elk is to walk the hunting area. This is not the same as still-hunting for deer, because you're not quietly stalking through the woods. You're covering a lot of ground, looking for elk or fresh sign. If you locate fresh sign, slow down and hunt more carefully, but your main goal is to eliminate unproductive ground and find the areas with elk.

Packing Elk

Elk country is huge, and you have to be comfortable negotiating it so you can get off the beaten track and find elk where they live.

If you're traveling on foot, you'll need to put some thought into where you'll hunt. How far you want to pack out elk quarters is your main consideration. My personal limit is about three miles on level or moderate downhill slopes. I'm an avid backpacker, so your limit might be different. I won't hunt where I'll have to pack an elk uphill for any distance--not because it can't be done, but because I don't want to do it. Likewise, I won't attempt to pack elk down steep slopes--this is hard on the knees and can cause falls or twisted ankles.

A large bull can weigh 1,000 pounds. Don't make the mistake of downing an elk in a remote area only to find that you're unable to pack out the meat. Besides being illegal, leaving an animal behind will ruin the experience for any hunter.

Get in Shape

Anyone contemplating a hunt in the Rockies who isn't in top physical shape should consult a physician and start an exercise program at least four to six months before the hunt. You don't have to be in perfect condition to hunt elk, but you'll enjoy the experience much more if you are.

You'll need to work on cardiovascular fitness and prepare your legs for some tough climbing. To do this, exercise continuously for at least 30 minutes, three or four times a week. Jogging, stair machines, treadmills and exercise bikes are all good. Exercise hard enough to elevate your heart rate and breathing, but stay at a pace you can maintain. A rule of thumb: If you can't hold a conversation, slow down.

Mental Challenges

The physical challenges of elk hunting are obvious, but few consider the mental challenges. The Rockies can be intimidating for Eastern hunters. The first time I hunted Colorado, I was already proficient in navigating unfamiliar terrain, but my partner Pat wasn't. We'd used horses to pack 15 miles into the Flat Tops Wilderness. The vastness of the country spooked Pat--he was reluctant to venture far from camp and as a result saw no elk. I didn't manage to bag an elk on that first hunt, but by ranging far from camp I located two herds, saw a legal bull and almost got a shot.

Finding Your Way

There are a couple of ways to become proficient in navigation. Bjorn Kjellstrom's Be Expert With Map & Compass (see sidebar below) is a good place to start. For hands-on experience before you head west, try orienteering, which is a sport involving navigation through unfamiliar terrain using a map and compass. The object of the exercise is to complete a pre-set course in the shortest time possible. Elite orienteers combine the endurance of cross-country runners with expert navigational skills, but you don't have to compete at that level to learn to navigate. Log onto the US Orienteering Federation's website (www.us. orienteering.org) for educational links with excellent tutorials.

Hand-held global positioning system (GPS) units are handy, but can't replace good map and compass skills. GPS units are useful in recording the coordinates of a point, such as camp or a downed elk, so that you can return easily. But a GPS unit can't help you interpret the terrain and select the best routes; a good topo map can. I prefer the standard U.S.G.S. 1:24,000 maps, which show terrain features in the greatest detail. Commercial vendors also offer handy waterproof maps (see sidebar, page HB2).

Ready for Anything

You also need to be prepared for unpredictable weather during elk season. Since you'll be walking a lot and spending time away from camp, think like a hiker. Use a daypack or large fanny pack to stow extra clothes, a water bottle, lunch, a map and compass, GPS, knife, utility tool, bone saw, flashlight, camera, rope and emergency gear such as a first-aid kit (and, depending on where you are, a canister of bear spray).

Take advantage of items manufactured for backpackers. Browse on-line catalogs (see sidebar, page HB2) to see what's available. For example, use lightweight fleece and Gore-Tex garments in layers that can be adjusted to the temperature and level of exertion. Take along a headlamp for hands-free travel after dark in case you have to pack out elk meat.

Hunting elk in the Rockies is a blast, providing you've planned carefully and are willing and able to adapt to the rugged country.

Before You Go

Following are some sources of information and advice that will help you plan your elk-hunting trip. Some of the books listed can be purchased in book stores. However, you have a better chance of locating and buying the books on-line.

BOOKS

--Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, North American Elk: Ecology and Management, by Toweill, Thomas; Smithsonian Institution Press 1-800-CALL ELK; www.rmef.org --Hunt Elk, by Jim Zumbo; Winchester Press --The Elk Hunter, by Don Laubach; Falcon Publishing Co. --Bugling for Elk, by Dwight Schuh; Stoneydale Press --Be Expert With Map & Compass, by Bjorn Kjellstrom; John Wiley & Sons

MAPS/NAVIGATION

--United States Geological Survey Rocky Mountain Mapping Center; 800-ASK-USGS --National Geographic Trails Illustrated; 800-962-1643; www.trails illustrated.com --U.S. Orienteering Federation Forest Park, Georgia; www.us.orienteering.org

HIKING AND HUNTING GEAR

--Cabela's, Inc.; 800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com --L.L. Bean; 800-441-5713; www.llbean.com --Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI); 800-426-4840; www.rei.com