Elk Winter Behavior
When deep snows hit southwest Idaho, our rural "backyard" quickly fills up with wintering elk. The sagebrush canyon behind our house has held up to 125 animals. So far, this year has been snow-scarce, but about 45 elk have moved in scattered over a two-mile area. If the deep snows come to the mountains behind us, the pattern of the past will no doubt prevail. Small herds of elk will move down daily, joining bigger herds, driven by hunger toward lush willows and other pickins’ in the valleys and lower canyons.
by Lew Watson
Spring weather eventually draws these animals past our home again as they return to summer hideouts in tall timber. Both coming and going, this annual migration lets us study elk behavior "close-up" for hours on end. What we’ve seen through our kitchen window has changed our fall hunting techniques!
For example, even winter-hungry wapiti tend to hang back in sheltering timber until almost sundown. Two city pals who wanted to see elk showed up one day at 4 p.m. We drank coffee and talked for an hour or so, but nothing showed. I assured my visitors that sundown would bring dozens of animals out of north-slope forests, but they had to get back to town. Ten minutes later, a nearby mountain was covered with tawny figures galloping toward south-slope grasses.
Those same elk feed actively all night long and move back toward the timber at first light. I usually get up at dawn, and on winter mornings I like to eat breakfast while watching the last few animals trailing slowly up over the hill. By sunup, they’re all gone. A newcomer would swear there’s no elk in the country!
Anyone who has hunted elk much knows that they feed mostly at night, especially on moonlit nights, and especially during hunting season. They’ve also heard that dawn and dusk are the best times of day to spot elk in the open. But until you’ve watched dozens of "backyard elk" appearing on schedule at sundown and disappearing reliably before sunup, you don’t really appreciate the truth of those old elk-hunting axioms. Yes, elk break their own rules now and then, but they follow their general patterns pretty darn well.
Taking this dawn/dusk advice to heart, I recently left an elk hunting camp in pre-dawn blackness. I wanted to climb to a high basin I knew about and maybe ambush a late-feeding bull before it brushed-up for the day. Trouble is, the principle worked too well. In the forest gloom I walked smack into a big herd and stood there, my hair on end, while escaping animals snorted, crashed through brush, and pounded frozen earth all around me! It was still too dark to see them.
Mid-Day Herd Behavior
Most elk hunters, of course, like to hunt all day long, not just a few minutes near sunrise and sunset. So what have I learned from my backyard elk about mid-day herd behavior? For one thing, they get accustomed to a new area slowly, but surely. Once assured there’s no imminent daily danger, they get progressively bolder and start bedding down in sight of our house. Even wood-splitting and other country-chore sounds don’t interrupt their noon cud-chewing. But let one strange motorized vehicle come up our lonely road and half the herd is immediately standing and ready to run. I figure these animals have been shot at by road hunters in the past and simply associate the sound of engines with danger. Seeing how easily spooked they are by vehicles, I don’t put much stock in cruising backroads as an elk hunting technique, even if it were legal and ethical.
If undisturbed, my backyard elk remain bedded all day long atop small canyon knobs where they can see in all directions. An occasional solitary animal will get up and graze or browse for a half-hour or so, then lie down again. A dozen bedded elk may scatter over 100 yards of hillside, so if you ever try stalking an animal you’ve spotted, you’d better stay alert for outlying cows that could spot your approach and bark an alarm!
If you want a trophy bull, you’re advised to hunt somewhat away from the main herd in late season. It’s hard to generalize about post-rut bull behavior, but I have observed that larger wintering bulls insist on privacy much more than cows do. To that end, they usually bed down farther up the mountain, across the road in steep and inaccessible canyons, or anywhere else that humans rarely go. In a word, look for mature post-rut bulls in rugged, remote, hard-to-reach canyons where these old grumps are rarely bothered by much of anything.
We’ve been impressed with how far elk herds are willing to travel each day to reach prime grazing-browsing areas. Two miles is a snap for these long-legged animals. Numerous times we’ve watched herds trailing single-file down the canyon at dusk, then returning again to uphill cover the next morning. Following their snowy tracks once, I found a weedy field well over a mile away where they had clearly fed throughout the night.
Keep that in mind next autumn. If you find fresh tracks and droppings in the open, chances are they were passing through on their daily trip between bed and board. Once you figure out where those two locations are, you might ambush passing animals at dusk or dawn. Or, try still-hunting the herd in extreme slow-motion right in the heart of their tangled daytime bedrooms.
A friend of mine once bagged 12 bulls over 12 seasons, hunting close-to-town areas only on weekends. He used both rifle and bow and was equally successful. I asked how in the world he kept up an average like that on such limited time. His favorite method was to travel fast till he found fresh tracks, then dope out where the herd was bedded -- usually in the thickest, most impenetrable tangle in the country. He then entered the shadowy thicket, walking into the wind and maybe 50 yards an hour! Most of his bulls, he said, were shot at point-blank range, several still in their beds.
Moving fast in the open and slowly in dense cover is good advice for another reason: when undisturbed, elk talk to each other constantly, clamming up only when they’ve been alerted or are on the run. We listen to our backyard elk chirp and bark and whistle all night long. On calm days they will talk to each other, but much less than at night. If you’re moving slowly through the forest, you not only avoid alerting a herd with your own noise, but may also hear them hundreds of yards away, maybe off in a canyon where you hadn’t planned to go.
Bunches of Elk
We’ve also been struck at how elk bunch up far more than deer do. Several square miles of canyon are visible through binoculars out our back window. In all that vast area, only one or two herds may be present, but together they may number almost a hundred animals! Hunters should remember this. Don’t expect to be excited and entertained by two or three elk in every second canyon. Chances are much greater that you’ll see nothing at all until you run into a dozen or more elk herded up in prime cover.
With such concentrations of quite large animals, smell itself becomes a means of locating elk. Strolling up my backyard canyon, you’d swear we were walking through a barnyard. Any time you smell "cattle" while elk hunting, you’d better unsling your rifle and get ready.
Finally, the huge numbers of elk drifting past my window each winter indicate that wapiti numbers in southern Idaho are indeed high right now. One good hunting friend thinks that elk are more plentiful in the steep, semi-open foothills of southern Idaho this year than in the more famous wilderness areas and cut-over rain forests up north. With dozens of animals bedded, browsing, and barking all around my house, I’m inclined to agree.
If nothing else, my backyard elk assure me that those big critters are real venison-on-the-hoof, not just imaginary forest phantoms that elude me most seasons. Watching their behavior closely for many weeks, I’ve got a hunch that my .308 has a date with a bull when next fall comes! I’m ever hopeful.
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