Elk Hunting During the Rut
Tomorrow morning I leave for my trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness area in northwestern Colorado for my muzzle loader elk hunting trip, and I am incredibly excited! I would be up there right now, but my best friend Rich couldn’t be here until tomorrow, and that’s fine, we are going to have a great time. Rich won’t be hunting; he is just coming along for the trip and to help me out if I get an elk. As I have written about recently, my physical condition is still not where I need to be, but my recovery goal from my back surgeries in March was to be taking this trip, and I will have reached that goal, even though I am not 100% yet.
I saw my surgeon last Tuesday, he took x-rays and said that the bone growth in my back is doing excellent, and now I can start doing whatever I want to do, as long as I ease into it. I am not sure riding a horse 6 miles into a remote mountain hunting camp is easing into it, but it will be better than hiking. I am sure that first day is going to be pretty rough; I guess we’ll see how I feel when I get off of that horse when we reach the Cut Off Camp. I already know that I won’t be crawling through any thick timber and blow-downs, or scaling or descending any steep mountain sides with any speed, so I am setting my expectations pretty low as far as my physical ability to hunt like I normally would, but that’s OK, at least I will be there.
While the weather outlook is pretty mild, we did have a cold snap here last week, even some snow, and I am hoping the elk will be heavy into their rut activity. The moon should be about half full on Tuesday, waning as the week goes on, which isn’t ideal, but better than a full moon. The more moon light there is, the more the elk are active during the night, when you can’t hunt. But because it is mid-September the rutting bulls should be actively building and protecting their harems, and their minds will be on other things than me sneaking through the woods, I hope.
Elk hunting in the Rocky Mountains is tough work; long days, and lots of miles on your boots, and I am ready for it, as ready as I can be just six months after some serious back surgery. With the predicted mild weather I know that bull elk will frequent wallows, and I know of a few that are not too far from where I will be camped, and I plan to check them out every day. Bull elk like to thrash around in a wallow (which is a shallow pool of water and mud, sometimes as small as 8 feet across). They like to cover themselves with mud, their own urine, and scrape up some vegetation with their antlers, all to attract the cows and to look menacing to other bulls. It’s truly amazing to watch a big bull elk in a wallow, they just go nuts tearing up the area, flinging mud as high as 30 feet in the air. To know if a wallow is active, look for tracks around the area, and if the water is muddy it has been visited recently by a bull. Also look for torn up vegetation, and look for mud splashed high on the surrounding trees. You can also smell the musky odor of a bull if one has been around.
Aside from the wallows, I will be listening for the haunting, high-pitched bugles of bull elk early in the morning and late in the day. I will use a cow call more than a bugle; most bulls with a harem do not want to fight unless they are immediately threatened, and a bugle from me could chase them into the next drainage or farther. But if I am not hearing any bugles, I will send one out from my call to see if I get an answer, and I will sound like a small, young bull so I am not threatening. A lot of times a bugle like that mixed with a few cow calls will entice a bigger bull to think I am a young bull with cows, and entice him into check it out, especially if he is a bull without his own cows.
My third strategy on this trip will be to identify feeding and bedding areas, and look for interception points in between. I have an either sex tag, so I can take a cow if I have the opportunity, and I will not pass on an opportunity to shoot a cow. Any elk guide will tell you this; “Take the elk you see like it was your last day of the season,” meaning that you may not have another chance. I have guided hunters who passed on decent 5×5’s and even 6×6’s hoping for something better, and they went home empty handed. As I have said many times, I don’t hunt for the size of the rack, I hunt for the experience, and if I have a good chance at a cow, I will take it.
Whether I get an elk this year or not, the trip is already a success simply because I am taking it. I can’t wait to be in that cool mountain air climbing the mountain on a horse, experiencing the wilderness as it has been since earth was created. I can’t wait to spend quality time with my best friend, playing cribbage in the canvas wall tent next to the wood burning stove on a cold mountain night. It will be a fantastic trip!