May 10, 2023
By Chuck Adams
I had been climbing for about a half-hour when the bull strolled over a ridge. His antlers looked huge against the evening sky, even from a half-mile away. But silhouettes can be deceiving. I dropped my pack, grabbed my spotting scope, and adjusted the tripod.
A dozen cow elk were milling around the bull like leaves in a whirlwind, but his extra-large body and tan sides stood out in the crowd. I turned the focus ring, and the animal snapped into crystal clarity.
This was the 11th day of my 2022 Wyoming elk hunt. I had seen quite a few bulls, but nothing like this one. His rack was massive, the tines long and even, the back Y’s genuine “whale tails” guaranteed to excite any serious elk hunter. The bull tipped back his head to bugle, and his main beams dropped to the front of his butt. A rump-scratcher for sure!
The first 10 days had been both exciting and disappointing. There were more elk in my favorite honey hole than normal, with bugles and grunts floating across canyons every morning and evening. As is usually the case in the second half of September, large summer elk herds had splintered into small rutting pods with an average of six to 12 cows, one dominant bull, and smaller males around the edges. But try as I might, I could not locate a truly outsized elk.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have always believed that any elk is a trophy — be it cow, spike, raghorn, or giant. However, with more than two weeks to search, I wanted to hold out for a genuine big one until near the end. That meant more fun before I dropped an elk and hard work began.
The 2022 elk season showed me numerous mature 6x6 bulls as I hiked, called to locate, and glassed distant slopes. I sneaked within 30 yards of several bulls, but they all had one or more antler deficiencies. Most carried short third points (a common elk trait), short main beams, under-developed back forks, or smallish beam diameters. All in all, I decided it was a below-average antler year for elk in my area. By Day 11, I had also decided any decent 320-inch bull would be in deep trouble if I could get close.
Wyoming is an excellent elk state, and the country I was combing was typically good. The entire area was a patchwork of public and privately owned tracts — something commonly found in the Rocky Mountain West. The onX app on my smartphone showed me exactly which sections, half-sections, and oddball tracts were BLM, state, or private ground. I had permission to hunt from a few landowners, but much of the private ground was off-limits. More than one bull I spotted crossed several chunks of public and non-public property in a single morning or evening. This made hunting tricky.
The mountains I was hiking always abound with water — springs, stock ponds, and natural catchments for rain. Last year was unusually wet, with frequent precipitation throughout the summer. There are no agricultural fields like alfalfa to draw elk, so waiting on stand would have been a dead-end strategy. With only native grass to eat and lots of places to drink, bulls in my neck of the woods tend to be far-ranging nomads with no fondness for a single canyon or ridge. I often refer to them as “track stars,” because they sometimes move far and fast. I commonly see a particular bull only once before he vanishes forever into parts unknown.
I hustled across a saddle, trotted along a hill, and looked past a patch of stunted pines. The bull was crossing a draw 400 yards below me, and he was all alone. His cows were clustered above him with a medium-sized 6x6 grunting and bugling to keep them in a tight group. Whale Tail had been driven off by a more aggressive male.
The big elk trotted across a ravine, disappeared in a deep canyon, and reappeared on the far slope. This was an old burn with almost no trees, and the bull was easy to see. Other elk were milling on a ridge a half-mile in front of him, including a bull with decent antlers. Another rutting cluster.
I planted my fanny and watched through 10X binoculars. The big, lone elk bee-lined toward the herd, swaggered into the mob, and chased the other bull downslope. Confident he had another harem, Whale Tail circled a few times before bedding with eight cows feeding around him.
Even from half a mile, I knew a stalking setup when I saw one. The wind was ripping down-canyon in my face, and the elk were bunched on a small bench with a tight, steep draw on the downwind edge. I ran off the slope, trotted across the canyon, and climbed the other side. It was 5:45 p.m., and the sun was dipping low.
In less than 20 minutes, I had eased across the last ravine and dropped to my knees for a final crawl. A minute later, I peeked through foot-high grass at the bench in front of me. Several cows were feeding less than 20 yards away, moving in and out of second-growth pines. The bull grunted just out of sight.
The next 10 minutes were eventful. One cow was larger than the rest — a sway-backed and paunchy old bat with a long, narrow face. Suddenly she turned, walked directly toward me, and planted her front feet on the edge of the bench less than six feet from my nose!
I was flat on the ground, looking directly up at the old gal, as she swung her head back and forth to scan the country beyond me. I’ve never been that close to an elk for that long without being busted. Her eyes glittered in the sinking sunlight, and her nostrils flared to test the wind. Then she looked right down at me. I was frozen. She stared hard and long at me. She was close enough to kick my head off. Then she dropped her head to grab a mouthful of grass and turned away. Thank goodness for a strong, steady breeze!
Minutes later, tips of polished antlers flashed 30 yards in front of me. The bull trotted into the clear, stepped closer, turned away, and tipped back his head to bugle. My rangefinding binoculars said 25 yards.
Cows were lifting their heads in alarm as I rolled to my knees, drew my Bear Alaskan bow, and sent an Easton FMJ arrow on its way. But the quartering bull never saw a thing. The G5 Striker broadhead smashed through the last rib on the left side and blew out in front of the right shoulder. The bull staggered downhill and collapsed.
As quick as I could, I gutted the elk, butterflied the shoulders, skinned the tops of the hams, sliced into the back of the neck, and jammed wrist-thick branches underneath to ensure rapid cooling. It was supposed to drop to 50 degrees that night, and it was already cool. There are no bears in my elk area to worry about, and I knew the meat would be good.
Never mind the three-mile hike back to my pickup in the dark. Never mind the half-dozen massive backpack loads of meat and antlers up a steep, severe slope the next morning. My rancher pal Tommy Moore, his son, Shaw, and hired hand, Joel, met me at the top with Tommy’s 4-wheeler to transport the meat up a mile-long ridge to my pickup. Thank God for good friends!
My track-star bull gross-scored over 360 inches. Catching fast-moving elk is never easy, but sometimes pays off!
Elk Care In Tough Situations
If you drop an elk in a bad spot, especially close to nightfall, there are necessary steps to save the meat.
In warm weather, the animal must be gutted, quartered, and hung or draped over logs or rocks to cool — even if you have to do this by flashlight or headlamp. Lightweight game bags are advisable to ward off egg-laying blowflies during daylight hours.
Cool weather makes things easier. You can gut your elk and slice through the armpits to butterfly the shoulders away from the neck and ribs. Skin as much of the hindquarters as you can. Cut deep into the back of the neck to prevent lingering, spoiling heat in this vulnerable area. If possible, prop the carcass on logs or limbs to ensure cooling air circulation. The tenderloins and backstraps should cool quickly because they lie against the exposed ribcage.
As I did with my 2022 elk, it is crucial to return to a late-evening kill at daybreak and start transporting meat. The foregoing procedures can be risky in grizzly country, but it is ill-advised to carry meat at night with dangerous bruins around. Do the best you can, and keep your fingers crossed!