Bull Elk are almost another species from cow elk and certainly much different from spike elk. As a group all elk graze, sleep, move in herds, breed and avoid hunters, but that is where the similarities end.
Bulls are not only bigger but also slower and lazier than cows or spikes. A well-mounted rider can run a bull into the ground in 200 yards. A well-conditioned young person can walk a big bull into the ground. Really.
Bull elk use terrain and timber to leave their predators wondering, “Where did those bulls go?”
Cows are more athletic. Cows enjoy larger herds than bulls.
Spikes are as agile as cows. Actually spikes can be the hardest type of elk to kill. They can take shot after shot and still not go down. The problem that spikes have is they are only a year old and haven’t learned much.
The difference between slower lazier bulls and athletic cows keeps them split all year—except during breeding season. Due to their inexperience and better physical condition (possibly more reasons) spikes are rarely found with bulls of the 5x5 class and larger.
In the accompanying video (here, or here) you can see that they run off when alerted to danger. Then they stop and look, confirming the danger. If they believe it is still present they will move off again. Next, they will do one of two things: get into thick timber and play “mess-around” with the danger; or, they will move about one terrain feature away before stopping, waiting and assessing the situation. I have never seen a bull elk-training manual—they must keep them secret, but the one terrain feature seems to be nearly universal. They may go over a ridge, across a stream or up a hill. Additionally, bulls will almost always try to use elevation to elude a hunter.
Bulls aren’t any smarter than cows. The older cows are probably the smartest of the bunch. Bulls do react differently in the trees. The “messing around” mentioned earlier is typical. While cows will—most of the time—move out in a direction, bulls tend to slow down, take their time and make fishhooks. The denser the timber the smaller the size of the fish hooks.
By making fishhooks bulls can stand quietly and watch the hunter go by, then drift off making another fishhook. Bulls can and will do this all day. It allows them to be lazy and not expend energy.
ELK DO NOT JUST REACT. ELK THINK AND ACT.
That point is important. Many people look at animals as “dumb animals.” Most are not.
I once took gunsmith Albert Turner up the west side of Beartop Mountain (Beartop Lookout is on top) to look for a large bull we had seen the day before. There was about an inch of wet snow. We found his tracks. He was a good 7x7 and had gotten that way by being a tight-ass. I had never seen it before, but this bull was making fishhooks hours before anyone was tracking him. After playing mess-around for nearly half a day, the bull walked through a bunch of smaller bull that had been bedded. Timber, twigs, branches and patches of dark brown hair and light blonde hair and a flurry of legs and flashes of ivory-tipped horns made it impossible to know who was who. An hour after the smaller bulls bolted we were able to find “our” bull’s tracks. What followed was several hours of mess around. He must have been tired of the game, so he finally found a sharp ravine that was filled with 10-12 foot snowbrush. The ravine was only about eight feet wide. He walked downhill along the edge of the snowbrush for a couple hundred yards, turned up the hill—away from the ravine, walked 20 feet into the spruce jungle, and the tracks ended.
West side of Beartop Mountain. The Forest Service Lookout is on the tip of the sharp peak, center left.
It took several minutes to see what he had done. He backed down the hill in his tracks, and then backed up the ravine another 40 feet, and leaped across the ravine. The other side of the ravine—the north side—was a small meadow bathed in sunlight and there was no snow. He had walked up the meadow, entered the timber, turned around and watched us for quite sometime.
I’ve never seen a more nervous bull (or smarter bull). We didn’t get him.
That terrain dictated that I track the bull, but if I am in an area that I know well I usually won’t track a bull. That is playing a silly, exhausting, sometimes daylong game (refer to the silly story above). Although while guiding, I was sometimes forced to track them. It is a guess which way a bull may mess-around, and making a wrong guess can make the guide look inexperienced. Additionally, hunters who hadn’t hunted with me almost always questioned me when I left a good set of bull tracks. On the other hand, some of my most memorable elk experiences have come from leaving the tracks and working bulls in timber. Its even fun in summer when there are no hunters. The grown-ups used to tell me not to chase the elk, but being a kid in the mountains, I sometimes forgot.
If you don’t know the area you have to track them—no way around it.
Whether you track them or not, changing the speed of your stalk works well. Bulls seem to adjust their speed with that of their pursuer. The caveat is that if you get too aggressive you may blow them out without seeing anything but a flash of white rump.
This post is a change for me. I usually don’t talk to people about elk habits. Bulls, cows, calves, spikes are all elk. They all have a special place in my heart. When I talk to people about elk I feel that I am giving away state secrets—sort of a traitor to the species.
Elk--Grand animal of the world.