Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
All is not quiet on the Western Front. It is, in fact, getting noisier by the day. Across the vast expanse of the American West; the annual elk rut is in full swing. From the rugged slopes of northern Montana to the rim rock canyons of Arizona; majestic heavy antlered bulls have gathered to scream, bugle, and wage war. What began as halfhearted shoving matches have now become deadly duels as mature bulls defend harems and compete to be crowned King of the Mountain. For those hunters fortunate enough to pursue the animal with bow and arrow, it is a time like no other.
Averaging in excess of 700 pounds, elk are among the world’s largest game animals. Prime of life bulls grow amazing sets of antlers with some racks weighing in excess of 40 pounds. A classic example of just how big an elk can get occurred when my friend Ed Kotz downed a gargantuan bull near Raton, New Mexico. When the taxidermist eventually called to say the mount was finished, I volunteered to pick up and deliver the trophy. Didn’t happen. Although I arrived in a full size ¾ ton pickup, the massive antlers wouldn’t even begin to fit into the truck bed. I ended up calling Ed to tell him that he’d have to find a larger mode of transportation.
Around 1 million elk are currently at large in the American West. But getting an opportunity to hunt one is not something to be taken for granted. Although some states do offer over the counter licenses; getting your hands on most elk tags will require competing with other hunters in lottery drawings for limited permits. Obtaining an elk tag for some of the best areas may literally take years of repeated application and represents a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I’ve never held a genuine elk tag. Instead, I’m what you’d call an Elk Hunter Wanna Be. Nevertheless, I still cling to the hope of one day having my picture taken as I sit framed between the massive antlers of a magnificent bull — one hand gripping the handle of my bow with the other wrapped firmly around the antler’s huge beam. Hey, if a guy’s going to dream; he might as well dream big.
So much for the dream. The reality is that at least for now, I’m living vicariously through the adrenaline charged hunts of friends who actually do hold tags. Like my good friend Dave who once watched a called-in Colorado bull come to within mere feet while bugling, blowing snot, and throwing a general tantrum as its huge antlers raked the branches of a trembling cedar bush — the same trembling cedar bush where Dave crouched on the opposite side; bow in hand, waiting for a clear shot. Although the bull never did catch his scent, it finally lost interest and walked away again without ever presenting the opportunity to launch an arrow. My hands began to shake from just hearing that story. Can’t imagine what it must have been like to actually be there.
There was another hunt where my friend Brian [while in the company of another hunter] made a perfect hit on a good elk. Following up on the shot, the team quickly located the animal. They were surprised, however, to find a large bear already laying claim to the fresh carcass. The bruin wasn’t about to give up its prize; standing its ground, snapping its teeth, and growling as the hunters cautiously approached. Incredibility, Brian’s partner was also in possession of a valid bear tag. Slowly knocking an arrow, he took careful aim and let fly – making a perfect shot with the bear still standing over the downed elk. You just can’t make this stuff up.
But just because I don’t hold an archery elk tag, doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t participate in the adventure. No matter where you happen to go, the Elk Photography Season is open 24/7 every single day of the year — no license required. I realize that with a camera, the ‘method of take’ may be second best to the real thing. But for now I’ll have to be content with bagging my bull on film. I recently “shot” the mature 6X6 bull accompanying this column on the western side of the Black Hills National Forest where a limited number of elk tags are available [by draw] to South Dakota residents only. After photographing this monster, we encountered another bull watching over a group of cows and calves.
Following a spectacular sunset, we were reluctantly forced to call it a day. With darkness closing in we moved down range to the Bugling Bull Cafe; one of our favorite Black Hills eateries where the décor includes massive elk heads, elk paintings, and a huge full body mounted cougar that stares down on diners from its corner driftwood perch. Located on the main drag of Custer, the Bugling Bull serves up a full flavored, stick to your ribs elk stew dinner that is simply out of this world. If there’s a more pleasurable way to conclude an exciting afternoon in elk country, someone will have to tell me what it is.