MERIDIAN — (NOTE) Area elk hunters are tuning equipment, studying maps and laying plans for mountain elk hunts. The rut starts next month! This is the story of an elk hunt.
On this third morning of a hunt in northwest Colorado, several herd bulls were sounding off with their threatening screams, a sound as thrilling as the mating call of a wild turkey gobbler. In fact a hunter’s calling to each of these finest of game animals has its similarities. However their response to such calling can arise from different compulsions. The gobbler that responds to your yelps wants to romance you. A bull elk answers your challenging bugles because he wants to kill you. Both are exciting indeed.
Typically, the bull elk had screamed at each other and the rest of the world all night long in the juniper thickets and open “parks” (large clearings) of remote, rocky terrain known as Brown’s Park (earlier Brown's Hole to Butch and Sundance.) I had left my tent camp some 30 minutes earlier and arrived before daylight so I could position myself near a bull under the cover of darkness.
The bull nearest me sounded like the dominant one of the area. His bugle began as a deafening roar, ascended to a shrill scream and tailed off with an elongated grunt not unlike a huge hog. This was followed by the standard staccato chuckles. I took off after him, notwithstanding the fact that every bull I had stalked so far during the 11 day season had outdistanced me.
At dawn, elk herds leave the open grazing areas where they have fed and watered all night. They head for daytime bedding cover, usually on higher slopes and benches. Observed through binoculars, they appear to be simply wandering along as they nibble brush and follow a lead cow that chooses a bedding site after climbing an hour or two. But their speed is deceptive. Their long legs let them amble faster than a man can climb through the boulders and sagebrush to overtake them.
Fortunately, this herd was headed for relatively level country. And for the first mile it seemed I would catch up. The bull bugled every few minutes which helped me course the herd. I got so close that I eased around juniper trees several times with raised rifle, thinking I would be looking at them. The bull’s cries were so loud that I was certain the distance to him was only a hundred yards or so time after time. It would be later in the stalk before I realized that sound carries far better in the thin, low juniper cover, low density high altitude air and across the rocky terrain than in the wooded lowlands to which I was accustomed.
I followed on and on, tiring significantly because I had to zigzag in order to keep the wind in my favor. Herded elk travel with the wind. This puzzled me at first until I realized that most of their danger comes from behind because the often constant bugling of the herd bull gives trailing predators (like myself) an auditory target to stalk.
After two hours without sighting the herd, my weariness began to take a psychological toll. I had stumbled and sneaked more than two miles. But each time I would stop and consider giving up, the bull would scream and I would trudge on. Several times I looked at a certain landmark and vowed that if I hadn’t caught up by the time I reached it I would quit. Each time the bull would roar and re-energize me. When I crossed a ranch trail, I knew I couldn’t physically go much farther, so I left my back pack there to lighten my load.
Read more about Otha Barham’s bull elk in next week’s Outdoors page.