The following information on elk hunting comes from Chapter 9 of Hunting Our Biggest Game by Clyde Ormond. Hunting Our Biggest Game is also available to purchase in print.
Elk hunting reaches its highest form in the art of bugle-locating the animals at daylight, then foot-stalking them to within rifle-range.
There are, however, other methods of hunting which, though seldom so thrilling, are nevertheless productive. Often these procedures are based upon the type of country, the migration of game, or the distances between camp and the game.
In many good elk regions, the animals are hunted from a permanent outfitter’s camp, and on horse-back. In fact, this type of hunting is becoming increasingly popular, both for the conveniences it offers the visiting big-game hunter, and the growing distances at which this species must be hunted, and found, from road’s-end. Often these permanent camps are assigned to an outfitter by the game commission of his state, the Forest Service, and other agencies—on the basis of game populations, accessibility, distance from other outfitters, availability of horse-feed, and similar allied factors.
The very fact that such camps are necessarily large, in order to accommodate the hunting parties of an entire season, and are permanent in nature, naturally precludes the likelihood of this species remaining close to camp. Elk are most spooky.
Further, in many good elk areas the type of country is such that many miles must be covered by the hunter and guide each day, if the hunter is to connect. This is especially true of such areas as Wyoming’s Thorofare, Yellowstone, and similar regions. The entire country is rugged, broken into craggy bluffs and canyon-apexes far removed from the meadow-edges where the game gravitates at dusk.
Under these conditions, it becomes foolish to hunt out of the main camp on foot. Horses are a necessity, and horses, like men, have to be well-fed to hunt. Except for grain packed in on the pack-string, the only horse-feed is obtained from grazing. The riding and pack-stock are hobbled, belled, and turned loose to feed at night. As touched upon previously, it is literally impossible to wrangle the stock in the morning, and have them ready for hunting at daylight in the areas where the elk are. Even if stock were kept corralled overnight, the hunter still could not reach the game country in time for that choice daylight period of bugling.
Next to daylight, the best period for elk hunting is the last hour of daylight, before dark. When hunting under above conditions, this dusk period is the one capitalized upon. Hunting at this period, and at the necessary long distances from the base camp, involves a good breakfast, more or less leisurely start, a hard day’s riding, a possible chance at dusk, a rapid dressing out of the animal, and, usually, a ride back to camp in pitch-dark.
This is a rugged form of hunting, which often separates the boys from the men. Many a time I have heard a visiting dude, unused to such rigors, exclaim after getting in late at night, “Boy, I got my elk, but did that cowboy ever give me a ride!” Guides employed for such hunting usually are born in the saddle, and can get a good, mountain-broke saddle-horse into and out of places where many a man could not go.
Despite the rigors, many guides and hunters prefer this type of elk hunting. It does have advantages. First, elk will bugle during this dusk-to-dark period, if unmolested, just as at daylight. All game animals move downward at night, and any elk seen are apt to be in the lower, more available areas. If the timbered elk country borders any meadow-land, the animals are very apt to be entirely in the open during the last thirty minutes of light. They can be approached more easily without spooking at this hour. The shot is more apt to be at standing or walking animals, than one running through timber.
If the hunter connects, blowflies during the cool of night will not bother the dressed carcass till morning. And the quarters have all night to cool out, without the nuisance of predatory birds such as magpies and jays.
In this type of hunting, the day is not wasted. Rather, the day is spent in climbing to high country, glassing the upper-most basin-heads for game or game-sign, and getting to a position well above any game in the area to spot the quarry once it begins to move, and hunt it downward as it moves from shade to the more open areas.
It is useless to hunt vigorously during mid-day, and especially so if it involves moving about through timber. Such misplaced effort simply frightens the game, makes it wary, and upsets the normal behavior for later in the evening, and upon which the experienced hunter plans his day, and depends. It is true that game is occasionally spotted during mid-day, and after the climb into high country. Even so, such game should not be hunted down until evening. Elk will normally quit bugling and shade up for the day at around nine o’clock in the morning. Thereafter, and while resting, they seek out the thickest copses of timber in the canyon-apexes, gorge-bottoms, and in heavy stands of timber just under basin-rims on the northern slopes. Heavy timber and the unavoidable noise which any enemy of an elk must necessarily make to traverse it, is the elk’s protection against his foes. The inexperienced hunter simply cannot believe what blow-down tangles elk will seek out for shading up, the faintest noises they can hear while so alert but resting, and how silently and fast they can “evaporate” from such mazes without giving a sight or sound of themselves.
At approximately four o’clock, the wise horse-back hunter actually begins to hunt. This often as not takes the form of tying his horse out of sight in a clump of timber, finding the best vantage-points for scrutinizing the lower elevations, and sitting on them with a pair of binoculars or rifle-scope. All the lower country is glassed, to pick up any game beginning to move.
As the evening gets late, game which the woods-barging hunter would never know existed will get restless and begin to change positions. Bulls will answer to the perfect challenges of an artificial bugle. As the long fingers of shadow reach out to the opposing canyon-side, the game slowly begins to move with it, and just inside the shadow-belt. Elk seem to dislike sunlight in the fall season, and prefer always to move inside the shadow-belt. With full dusk, the animals gradually feed out into the available open country. It is then that the hunter has his chance. He endeavors to make a perfect stalk and a clean kill.
Often as not in such wilderness areas maintaining permanent, widely-spaced hunting-camps, the same guides are employed from year to year. If not, the previous year’s record as to locations and kill is available to the outfitter. The same “lucky” areas are hunted annually. As with trout, elk are likely to be found most anywhere within their habitat, but are far more apt to be in certain well-defined areas. These areas are directly related to the time of day.
Often such hunting, so far removed from camp, and so seemingly haphazard, becomes almost pointless to the visiting hunter. He has so many days to spend, and fidgets to see any hunting hours “wasted.” In most of the instances, the guide knows what he is doing.
A Wyoming guide told me this past fall of a perfect example of this. He’d taken his hunter several hard miles from camp, and they had reached a rocky rim, overlooking a small pocket of a basin beneath. Thereupon, the guide simply tied his horse out of sight, lay down and went to sleep. The dude squirmed and fussed about for several hours, then could take such laziness no longer. Waking the guide, he demanded, “How in hell we goin’ git any elk if we snooze all day?”
The guide simply drawled, “It’s a shame you woke me up. I was just dreamin’ I seen several elk down in that basin below us. Now I’ll have to go back to sleep to find out just where they’re goin’ show up.”
Pushing his hat farther over his eyes, the guide slept another couple of hours. Wakening up just at dusk, he drawled again, “Well, I finished my dream. Your bull elk should show up right about down there.”
Pointing a couple of hundred yards down into the pocket, to where the timber met the meadow, the guide showed his hunter the several elk which he’d, naturally, known were there all along. The hunter, too amazed to argue, killed his bull elk with one shot.
Governor Joe Foss of South Dakota and I experienced a typical example of this kind of hunting in Wyoming this past fall. We spent the day leisurely riding many miles from camp into the Thorofare region. At mid-day we ate lunch, then climbed into crags country with the horses. At ten minutes till two o’clock, I killed my bull after we’d spotted him while studying the country below us. This was lucky. The lone beast was standing just inside the shadow-belt of a thick spruce-copse at a canyon-head, and we happened to spot him from the crags above. After slowly glassing the adjacent canyon-heads till five o’clock, I got two more bulls to answer to bugling. These subsequently appeared too far up the opposite canyon-side for a decent shot. Upon hunting downward into the open meadows at full dusk, we heard four separate bulls bugling at the timber-edge. Joe killed his royal bull in darkness too intense for me to see the animal.
Another type of elk hunting is straight tracking and timber-hunting. This works best when there is snow on the ground, and the hunter can track down his game. To be successful, except on a chance basis, timber-hunting necessitates a reasonable amount of game, which is not migrating, but, rather, moving about normally within its range. Too, this kind of elk hunting often pays off when the game of a timbered area—such as the vast rolling Island Park in Idaho adjacent to Yellowstone Park—is being pushed about through hunter-pressure, but does not move out of an area.
Timber-hunting is a game of wits. The hunter and the hunted play hide-and-seek, with many of the advantages in favor of the game. Elk can out-see, out-smell, and out-hear the hunter in a ratio of several-to-one. Due to his habit of planning any movement so that the back-track can habitually be watched from a position of vantage, the elk, in the majority of instances, sees the hunter first. Due to his further habit of doing his listening when stopped, the animal is silent, with the hunter moving, during this listening contest. And again, with elk, any form of obstruction such as rocks, timber, and blow-down is habitually placed by design between the quarry and anything following the back-track—insuring an obstructed view at best.
The hunter’s equipment, on the other hand, is everlasting patience, noiseless moving, knowledge of animal characteristic so that he can interpret the game’s probable location and intent, and a modern high-power rifle. .
Hunting procedure for timber-tracking is obvious. Anticipate the game’s movement. Hunt slowly enough, and noiselessly enough, to match the game’s normal movement. Beat the quarry’s patience by allowing the game to move while the hunter listens, instead of vice versa.
Often as not in such timber-hunting, the hunter while following spoor will actually come upon another animal than the one he tracks. Or, by paralleling the spoor instead of following it, he catches the animal at an unsuspected angle, or as it circles back.
Elk pursued in timber may be expected to do their stopping, if any, on ridge-spines, promontories, or just inside timber-fringes before they cross semi-open areas—seldom in any kind of opening, at least for very long. Elk hunted in thick timber can seldom be “pushed” successfully for any distance. It is possible, however, to “dog” elk which are not suspicious of being pursued. This is done by one or more hunters posting themselves at the vantage-points where the animals are expected to come out—such as timber-necks, saddles between canyons, or known game-crossings—then have another hunter slowly “work” the timber-belt between. The resultant woods-movement will often push the animals out.
Timber-hunting of elk is best done on foot. Saddle-horses make too much noise, and many of them snort or neigh at the first sight of an elk. Horses are useful, though, in such hunting, for cutting distances from one likely spot to another. When actually hunting, the hunter had best tie his horse out of sight, then hunt the area on foot.
This procedure has at least one inherent danger for the reckless hunter. I know of more than one hunter who has tied his horse, circled his elk, suddenly spotted a “whopper,” and promptly shot his horse.
Often at hunting-camps you will overhear inexperienced hunters ask an outfitter, “Is it safe to shoot from this horse?”
The answer should invariably be “No!”, TV cowboys to the contrary; it is never a good policy to shoot from a horse. First, most hunting-horses simply won’t stand for such nonsense. The tyro fires, grabs for the horn after the horse turns wrong-side out, and comes up with a handful of dirt.
I watched a good example of this once in Wyoming’s Big Piney country. The hunter riding ahead of me, on a rented Palomino stallion, suddenly saw a monstrous mule deer buck jump from its bed in the snow just ahead of him. One or two bounds would have put the prize into the fringing quaking aspens. Instinctively, this fellow jerked his carbine from the scabbard, and cut loose at the buck, which was not over forty yards away. Luckily, he killed the deer. But as he fired from the strange horse, the animal came uncorked. The rider followed the plunging steed up all right. But the horse missed him entirely, coming down.
Another good reason for never shooting at game from a horse is purely humane. When approaching game on horse-back, the hunter normally comes upon the quarry with the horse’s head pointed that way. Indeed, one of the greatest virtues of a really fine hunting-horse is this natural, and acquired, tendency to point his ears directly at game. I have many times sighted down the plane of a horse’s nose, directly between his forward-pointing ears, and have seen immobile game which otherwise would have escaped detection.
With the horse’s head pointed towards the game, the thoughtless hunter cuts loose. The muzzle-blast, right over the poor beast’s ears, nearly deafens it. No sportsman with consideration for animals will ever do such a thing.
The best procedure after spotting game from on horse-back is to dismount quickly and quietly; tie the horse, and then try for a shot. True, opportunities are lost this way. But the assets are generally greater than the liabilities. To dismount too quickly, jerk the rifle upward, and try for a hasty snap-shot, invariably scares wary game. Further, many horses, even with the reins dropped, will take off immediately for camp. Good hunting-horses are often “duded out” by their owners during the summer months to dude ranches, where every conceivable kind of rider uses them. Such horses can recognize a green tenderfoot within a hundred yards of where the rider has lumbered up on top of him—often by the aid of the outfitter. These horses, too, know the connection between heading for the camp oats, and a further rugged climb—and act accordingly.
To dismount slowly, giving the illusion to the alerted and watching game that its presence doesn’t concern the hunter, habitually causes it to pause longer than otherwise. Then, after a leisurely tying of the horse, the hunter slowly raises his rifle and tries for the shot.
Old Socks, a Western hunting-horse, typifies most all the traits of the experienced hunting-horse. I have used this same horse on grizzly, moose, and elk hunts until the outfitter reserves Old Super-Charger, as he calls him, for my special use.
Upon mounting Socks for the ride to base-camp, he’ll groan and mince along, tediously slow, as if he’s already dead on his shod hoofs. During the summer’s duding-out, Socks has repeatedly had tenderfoot riders who witnessed such “pain” and babied him accordingly. One good kick in the slats, or the simple wearing of a spur, cures this habit immediately. Socks knows when he can get by with anything.
In the hunting country, I have numerous times had Socks stop dead still, head angled away and ears pointed. Usually there is a deer, elk, or other animal at the end of his vision—or a hidden bog-hole into which Socks cannot be made to step.
Three years ago, I piled off Socks to shoot an elk in a meadow at dusk. There was nothing to tie the steed to, and I promptly chose the shot at the elk to a long walk back to camp. Socks acted true to form. Head turned sideways, dragging the reins, he slowly stepped away. As Don, my guide, mounted his own horse to catch up, Socks shifted into over-drive. The race across the meadow while Don collected him, was nearly as exciting as the elk hunt.
A year later, Socks lost a fine bull for the outfitter, who hunted his own game after the dudes had all gone. While riding heavy timber, Sandy came quietly upon an unsuspecting five-point bull, partially in the open, and not over seventy yards. Quietly swinging down, unscabbarding his rifle in the same moment, Sandy began to hitch Socks to a tree. At this inopportune moment, Socks spotted the bull.
“Wheeeeeeee!” he whinnied, in challenge, and that was that!
“I came damn near shooting Old Super-Charger on the spot,” Sandy swore. But I noticed he still had him ready for me again this fall. Mountain-broke hunting-horses with Old Sock’s know-how are rare.
Milan Casper, a neighbor who has repeatedly had trouble with his own valued horse running away while hunting, has solved the problem in a most unique manner. He has made a two-pronged “anchor,” by bending 3/8-inch iron rod into two hooks, one at either end of the rod and with shanks measuring about five inches across, ·plus a rope-loop at the center. While hunting, Milan ties twenty feet of light, tough nylon rope to this anchor, with the other end tied to the halter ring, and the middle part coiled and carried in his hand.
“When I ride up on anything,” Milan says, “I simply toss the anchor to the ground and pile off. Even if I shoot and follow the game a half-mile, the old black horse is still close to where I left him when I get back. The anchor invariably hooks on some kind of tree, brush, or sage-bush.”
Whenever possible, the hunter who is desk-bound for fifty weeks of the year, should condition himself in advance of the hunt if horse-back riding is involved. Riding-clubs and sheriff’s posses are springing up over much of the country, bringing back, to some degree, the importance of Dobbin. More, these clubs are perpetuating fine breeds of riding-stock such as the Morgan, Quarter-Horse, American Saddler, Appaloosa (the prized, tough “speckled” horse of the Nez Perce Indian, and in reality the same blood-spotted “tribute” horse of the Chinese in the B.C. era), the Palomino, and others. There is more opportunity today than two decades ago, for most any sportsman to take a few horse-back rides, if he’ll but sort out an opportunity. Even two or three short rides, en route, or after he reaches the outfitter’s camp, will help toughen unused muscles in advance.
I once asked Don Smith, outfitter via boat down the noted Rivers of No Return in the Salmon country, how women-hunters stood some of the necessary horse-back riding.
“You might not believe it,” he answered without hesitation, “but all the women dudes I’ve ever had will take a horse-back ride better than the men. Maybe it’s cause their upholstering is better.”
Where no opportunity exists for the hunter to pre-condition himself on a horse, simple long walks will help. Also, if the hunter happens to have his own riding-gear, he should bring it along. All good outfitters furnish a riding-saddle for the hunter, but one rides far easier in a saddle built for his own particular rump.
In many areas of the West, the elevations of game country vary greatly. The summer ranges of elk may be above the 8,000-foot level, yet be within a few miles of the winter range hovering at the 5,000-foot elevation. Elk like to follow the melting snows of spring, far up into crag country away from heat, flies, and competition for food with domestic stock. Winter and heavy snows move them downward to the available forage of winter ranges. In this sense, elk bands are most migratory.
In many areas the hunting season is set to take advantage of this migration, so long as such hunting does not constitute a slaughter; or in spot areas where an elk band must be drastically reduced to prevent winter starvation. Hunting for animals on their periodic migration is called “hunting the drift.”
The most noted example of elk migrating to lower winter-range occurs in the famed Jackson Hole country of western Wyoming. Many of the elk in that large herd are Yellowstone Park elk. They summer in the Falcon Creek-Yellowstone River-Thorofare country at elevations often exceeding 8,500 feet. With winter they drift downward to the Jackson Hole feeding-grounds. There the diet is supplemented with domestic hay, until the herd of animals can again forage on new spring growth.
Elk are among nature’s most accurate weather-prophets. An elk band will normally move downward when snow reaches the 18-inch depth. This is especially true if more big storms are to come. Elk can accurately predict the Big Storm as much as twenty-four hours in advance—much as Canadian Honkers will fly southward ahead of coming blizzards and when the mercury falls to around the 28-degree mark.
Winter snows in such areas, when they do start, settle down to a depth not believed by the plains-dweller. Snows reaching thirty to forty inches in depth, without abating, are not uncommon in late season around the Two-Ocean Pass country. Our elk hunting party was once caught in high country in Idaho’s Selway, where one single, continuous, freak September storm laid down a measured thirty inches of snow without ever stopping.
Once the Big Storms really set in, the Jackson Hole elk begin migrating downward in a mass movement. They lose much of their innate wariness, and nothing can stop the migration. In a period of not over two days, several thousand elk may migrate towards the refuge.
Hunting such drifting elk is sporting to the degree that the animals are given a fair chance, and are thinly enough spread so that they really have to be hunted, not just killed.
Camping facilities for hunting such drifts naturally have to take into account extremes of weather, deep snows, and limited mobility. The actual hunting is often done on snow-shoes.
A similar but lesser drift occurs in Idaho’s Island Park region. Another occurs in Montana’s Bitter Root country at the Montana-Idaho Divide. A minor elk drift takes place into the sandhills country north of Dubois, Idaho. Hunting the Island Park elk drift, as one example, is considered to be entirely sporting. The area is vast, rolling, timbered. The ratio of animals-to-acres is small. It is difficult country to hunt, in that the hunters easily get lost. Nowhere else in the West or Canada have I experienced country with so few land-marks, or the deceptive, timbered sameness. Because of these localized conditions, the success-ratio is also small. Most hunters agree that anyone who bags an Island Park elk has certainly earned him.
Several general characteristics of our great wapiti are useful to the hunter who knows and interprets them:
Elks are increasingly spooky just prior to storm. During actual rain and snow storms, elk huddle and stay yarded in the protection of thick stands of conifers. Bulls won’t normally bugle during storm, fog, or high wind. With clearing weather, elk will begin moving upward, often an hour or so in advance. They will often, too, begin to move upward just in advance of heavy fog that is burning-off. They will, oppositely, move temporarily downward in advance of normal, local storms. The snow-line of high country during the normal, late-fall weather, is an ideal elevation at which to look for elk. Cows having spring calves with them will occasionally bark to warn their young of danger which they can smell or hear, but cannot see. A cow elk’s bark is literally a bark of sharp, piercing intensity, not unlike the yap of a young dog.
What is a suitable, adequate rifle-and-cartridge for hunting elk?
A hundred average hunters, experienced on the species of deer and antelope, will give the widest variety of answers imaginable. But those hunters who have had considerable experience on elk, and who annually come home with one, will come far closer to a minimum standard and an ideal shooting outfit. The person inexperienced on elk should not be guided in the choice of suitable ordnance by his own experience with lesser species of game. Neither should he blandly accept the conclusions set down in black-and-white, on the available ballistic-charts. Neither should he be wholly influenced by the writings of accepted authorities who bluntly say a .270 Winchester is adequate for any species of North American big-game, but whose findings are based more on the experience of others than upon their own.
It would seem far more sensible to be guided in the choice of a cartridge-and-rifle by those hunters of broad field experience coupled to an intelligent understanding of ballistics, and a high regard for keen, calm field-observation. The experience of a hunter having killed one elk means little. The calm appraisal of a man with a dozen or more elk to his credit, who also has a high regard for facts usually gained under hunter-excitement, and with a vast knowledge of many rifles and cartridges and their inherent possibilities— the opinion of such a person means far more.
Consider this: An elk, especially a bull, is, pound for pound, one of the toughest North American game animals to kill. Unless a bull elk is hit somewhere along the spinal length, he will not, nine times out of ten, “keel over.” A bull elk, having any one of his three legs shot into uselessness, will promptly take to the worst country available, and often goes two to five miles. Unless the hunter is experienced in tracking, unless there is snow, and unless he never gives up, the hunter usually loses such a beast. Lung-shot elk, if a suitable expanding bullet is used, seldom travel over a hundred yards before bleeding out and choking to death on their feet. I’ve had royal bulls, with two bullet-holes directly through their massive hearts, get up at each succeeding shot, after going to their knees, and walk a full hundred yards before going down.
Repeatedly I have been with hunters who have gut-shot elk, and who have spent up to six hours following such wounded animals before getting in another killing shot. One time in the Selway, I watched a hunting partner shoot a cow elk full through the body just behind the rib-cage, with a 270-grain soft-nose bullet fired from a .375 H&H Magnum, and we trailed the animal a full quarter-mile. It was still alive, but lying down, when we reached it. I once put four “killing” shots into a five-point bull—one full into the spine, another through his lung, one into the “sticking-spot” as he faced me and he gave no indication of being hit. The fourth, breaking his great neck, dropped him. These were 180-grain factory bullets fired from a .300 H&H Magnum. An unbelieving, but experienced guide watched this performance.
I could cite dozens of factual field-instances where these great animals were well hit, but didn’t stop. They take real killing.
Another factor of vital interest to the hunter is this: Any wounded elk will promptly seek the worst tangle of blow-down, rocky crags, or similar inaccessibility, in which to escape. The hunter’s chances to kill such an animal dwindle rapidly, once his initial shot has failed, and he must trail the animal under such difficulties.
There is, at this writing, a great controversy raging over the popular .270 Winchester, as to its suitability on elk. Instances are cited wherein this rifle-and-cartridge has been used in literally hundreds of cases on elk, with the loss of but very few animals. Rangers who have the dirty chore of having to dispose of hundreds of sanctuary-elk in the face of certain starvation, have used this caliber with deadly result. Natives who have broad and sometimes illegal experience on elk, often use the .270 they used on mule deer, and with devastating result.
Facts conveniently omitted are that yarded elk, slaughtered at close range and broadside, and fat cow elk caught in migration and head-shot so that no meat will be spoiled, do not represent sport-hunting for elk, by the average hunter, and under hunting conditions. I have yet to talk with a conscientious hunter who had killed at least ten elk under today’s hunting conditions, who agrees that rifles of the .270 class were enough for elk.
Personally, I have killed eighty-odd head of North American big-game, including the toughest—from grizzlies on down. At this writing, I have taken eighteen annual, legal elk, in all kinds of elk country, and in every type of hunting condition. Further, while hunting these animals, I have been with partners who have killed perhaps two to three times that number, and whose reactions to rifle-fire I have personally witnessed. I have talked with innumerable elk hunters of varied hunting skills and shooting abilities, from virtually none, to the highest. I have checked elk hunters into and out of elk country, while working for the state game department, and have tabulated not only their varied ordnance, but their results on elk. I’ve listened to elation and alibi.
In all this, I have conscientiously endeavored to sort the kernel from the chaff, and to learn something of real hunting value as regards the relationship between cartridges and game. I am fully convinced that cartridges of the .270 class are not adequate for elk. I killed my first five consecutive bulls with a 7mm., using 175-grain soft-nose bullets, and “picking” my shots as much as the hunting condition would permit. I went to a larger, more powerful cartridge before losing an elk—an eventuality I was convinced would result if I stuck to so small a cartridge. My present battery of rifles for elk includes a standard .300 H&H Magnum, a .300 Weatherby Magnum, a .375 H&H Magnum, and the new Winchester .358. With past experience as a guide, and having to hunt elk under today’s varied conditions, I would not use either a .270 or the popular .30-06 by choice. Either would be adequate in a pinch, using the heaviest bullets in each caliber. Certainly many uncertain shots would have to be turned down, which handily could be taken with more powerful ordnance.
Some of the reasons why the heaviest rifles-and-cartridges which the hunter can field-shoot with accuracy and skill are best, are:
Today’s elk, in the majority of cases, do not present open shots at “reasonable” ranges. Rather, the typical elk shot will be one of two probabilities—either a quick shot in timber at close range, or the violently opposite shot across a great canyon at an extreme range. One is at a moving, fading target, the other, a tiny target.
In the first type of opportunity, the beast is come upon from behind, due to the characteristic of watching its backtrack. For the same reason, any intervening obstruction will certainly be placed between the hunter and the quarry. So will the animal, as it bounds off, utilize any possible obstruction. And ten to one, an animal watching its back-track will be first seen hind-end-on—the very worst position for a shot. Very often the hunter’s lone chance of a hunt occurs when he can see no more, clearly, than the big sunflower of rump as it bounds away; or the rack of a bull, like a picket fence rapidly fading above the chaparral or handy rock-crest.
In such “opportunities” the hunter must quickly and correctly ascertain exactly where the vital area is, in relation to the visible portion. In addition he must adequately plow through all intervening brush, and often, small trees, to the vital “boiler-room.”
The opposite type of likely shot will be full across an intervening canyon, such as those vast basins of the Selway, where to cut the distance is literally impossible. If the hunter works downward, thinking to lessen the distance, the timber natural to the canyon-bottom thereupon prevents his getting a view of the animals—another planned hunting strategy employed by wapiti. Or, should he then climb the opposing canyonside, to come within a reasonable range, he may be sure that the beasts have witnessed his antics, or at least heard him. They will subsequently watch his stealthy approach—him in the open, themselves concealed again inside the timber-belt.
That is the normal, typical shot which the elk hunter seems inevitably to get, after waiting a year and after the expenditure of considerable time, preparation, and money. That represents his lone opportunity; the only kind of shot any outfitter will guarantee (and very few outfitters will guarantee any kind of shot at elk), and the single opportunity of which the hunter must take advantage.
Add to this the common facts that the hunter is cold, likely wet, stiff from riding a horse he is not used to, or from climbing tough terrain at elevations for which his desk-conditioned lungs have not prepared him in the least, and upon terrain which offers no position for a solid shot, or even good standing. Place the desired, but often disastrous, quality of hunter-excitement and even buck-fever on top of this combination and it’s easy to see why many elk hunters graze all winter on alibis instead of elk steaks.
Surely, as any observing person will admit, these blunt but actual conditions are not those under which a .270 bullet “placed well into the chest cavity will surely kill an elk.” The main trouble is, the chest cavity of a hunted elk, under normal hunting conditions, is scarcely available.
A powerful cartridge-and-rifle, and the skill to use it under varied conditions, often supplies the margin of success which lesser ordnance lacks. It plows through, reaches the target, penetrates, and stops the same.
What then is a suitable outfit for elk?
Generally speaking, the same rifles and cartridges used for grizzly bear make suitable elk outfits. A broad choice may be made if the hunter knows for certain which type of elk country he will hunt. For pure timber-shooting, and even open shooting at the occasional lucky “reasonable” range, rifles of big caliber and heavy knock-down power are ideal. For across-canyon shooting, which may represent the majority of opportunities, then a flat-shooting rifle also having considerable remaining energy should be chosen.
From personal experience, I would consider the following combinations successful for elk: Winchester’s new .358; Winchester .348; .300 H&H Magnum; .300 Weatherby Magnum; .375 H&H Magnum. I’d recommend using the 250-grain bullet in the .358, the 250-grain bullet in the .348, either the 180-grain or the 220-grain bullet in the .300 H&H, the 180-grain or 220-grain in the .300 Weatherby, and the 270-grain bullet in the .375 H&H Magnum.
Such wildcat calibers as the .35 Whelen using heavy bullets, the old Model 95 Winchester using 250-grain bullets in .35 caliber, the same model using the .405 cartridge, and the various custom-made magnums using heavy bullets and duplicating the above factory cartridges are all suitable.
At the lighter end of this scale, ballistically speaking, is the new .358 Winchester. After one season’s use, I’d recommend this rifle highly for the beginning elk hunter. This would include the lady elk hunter, the youngster experienced on such species as deer and now after bigger game, the man past his prime or who otherwise could not stand the weight or recoil of heavier rifles, or the man whose elk hunting was principally woods-hunting.
This caliber in the relatively new Model 70 Featherweight rifle, equipped with a good, low-power scope such as the Weaver 3-power, and a gunsling, is an ideal rifle-combination for the above classes of hunters. This combination is light enough to be carried without fatigue, and has sufficient caliber-size and knockdown power at medium ranges to be certain on elk. The same caliber, chambered in 1956 for the new Model 88 lever-action rifle, should be the answer to the innumerable horse-back elk hunters who have long liked the handy qualities of the old .30-30 Model 94 carbine, both in and out of a scabbard, but who found the old .30-30 far too light for elk.
Of the other recommended combinations, it is a matter of personal choice. For the elk hunter who must choose but one caliber and rifle, in factory model and shooting factory ammunition, my choice would be the Model 70 Winchester in .300 H&H caliber, Remington’s Model 721 in the same caliber is virtually as good a choice.
With any rifle for elk, the virtues of a good scope sight in low power cannot be ignored. The full potential of any rifle cannot be brought out with iron sights. More, a majority of today’s elk hunters are middle-aged men, whose gradually-diminishing eyesight requires the advantages of a glass sight. And lastly, a good scope sight doubles more for a binocular in any elk country, than it is used for actual shooting.
The average sighting-in distance for all the above rifles should be approximately two hundred yards. The experienced shooter using this setting can easily hold over, or a trifle under, for ranges beyond or closer than that distance.
For close shooting on elk, a neck shot is good if the hunter knows he can make it. Otherwise, the best area to hold for is a square of animal from withers to brisket, and front shoulder-line to rear of rib-cage. Any bullet falling well within this area will hit a vital spot. Spine-shots along the spinal-length are stoppers, if, as with neck shots, they are placed with certainty. They are good for shots at elk running just beyond ridges, rocks, or blowdown with only the upper half of the animal showing.
Shots, under hunting conditions, at an elk’s brain are fine things to boast about around the camp-fire. In actuality, brain-shots on any elk are for the birds. Ninety hunters out of a hundred can’t hit an elk’s brain.