Elk / Wapiti (Cervus elaphus)
There are few big game animals that captivate the human imagination like that of a Rocky Mountain bull Elk. The mere sight of one of these grand creatures bugling on a misty September morning, or thrusting its way through chest-deep snow in mid-November is enough to make some hunters abandon all trace of common sense and go to extremes to harvest one of the magnificent beasts. Elk hunting is never easy, but the rewards for patience and perseverance are high. A six-point or better bull Elk placed conspicuously on the trophy-room wall is true testament to a hunter's prowess.
Alberta has a growing population of Elk (also known as Wapiti) that numbers in the neighborhood of 26,000 animals. They are found predominantly along the eastern shadow of the Rocky Mountain zones (WMUs in the 400s), and in the high basins of the Foothill zones (WMUs in the 300s), although in recent years they have been expanding their range into the forested Northern Boreal zones (WMUs in the 500s) and Parkland zones (WMUs in the 200s). This nocturnal creature is primarily a grazer, feeding on woody vegetation and lichen. Once the velvet of his antlers has been discarded, the bull Elk begins assembling his harem of up to 60 cows. The gestation period for calves is 255-275 days. The Elk's main predator is the mountain lion, and sometimes bears consume the young.
It was at one time thought that all the best Elk bulls in Alberta were found in Banff, Waterton and Jasper National Parks and that they seldom ventured outside the confines of these protected areas into adjacent hunting zones until well after the season closed. However, in the past few years hunters have been killing an inordinate amount of big bulls in Alberta. This includes a non-typical in 1999 that stretched the tape to over 440 inches and a 414 5/8 non-typical taken in 2002. This is partly due to the fact that Alberta's Elk mature quickly and it is not uncommon for three-year-old bulls to sport 6x6 racks.
During the late summer breeding season the bugling of bull Elk echoes through the mountains. These powerful animals strip the velvet off their new antlers, using them in violent clashes that determine mating pairs. Males with the bigger antlers, (typically older, more experienced animals) usually win these battles and dominate small herds. In the winter, Wapiti reconvene into larger herds, though males and females typically remain separate. The herds return to lower valley pastures where Elk spend the season pawing through snow to browse on grass or settling for shrubs that stand clear of the snow cover. Elk hunting begins in late August and early September with the archery season. Archery hunting is permitted in most zones prior to the rifle season, and there are two archery-only zones in the province of Alberta containing strong populations of trophy Elk.
Many of the rifle seasons open in mid-September and stretch until the end of November. During the early hunts, when the Elk are in rut, the favored method of hunting is bugling and cow calling. This method involves trying to draw the bull to you rather than stalking or pursuing the animal. In this manner, it is possible to convince the herd bull you are trying to steal his cows, and he will come to confront the challenge. The rut often lasts into mid- October and the action can be as good (if not better) at this time of year, as bulls compete to find the few remaining open cows.
As the rut draws to a close, bulls leave the cows and begin to form bachelor herds that will often remain together until the following year's rut. Spot and stalk becomes the method of choice during this period, as bulls are drawn to prime feeding areas to replenish their fat reserves for the impending winter. The majority of Mountain and Foothill hunts are conducted from horseback, and hunters will often spend several days in remote camps within close proximity of the Elk herds. Hunts in the Boreal forest and Parkland regions utilize trucks, quads and good old-fashioned boot leather. Elk will typically lay-up in the dark, heavy timber during the day and are often nearly impossible to approach. Thankfully, due to their immense body size, they must eat large amounts of food and are usually found moving to or from feeding areas during legal hunting times.
Since Elk are such big animals, rifles like the .300 or .338 are preferred, although many bulls are shot each year with the trusty .270 or 7mm. Rifles should be sighted in for 250 yards for late-season hunts. For early-season bugling hunts, shots are usually under 100 yards and sometimes as close as 30.
Winter often comes early to the high country and warm boots over top of heavy underwear are sometimes not out of place in early September. Late-season hunts, and especially those in the mountains, can be extremely cold. Good felt-pack boots and warm, layered clothing are a must. Camouflage is a good idea, especially during the rut when you are trying to bugle bulls in. Stick with patterns that exhibit a good blend of green and brown and don't forget to bring something to hide your hands and face.
Elk hunting in Alberta just seems to be getting better and better every year! There are more record book bulls being taken than ever before and there are larger bulls being shot than ever imagined by hunters in this province. The non-typical record was shattered in 1999 and while Clarence Brown's fine 1977, 419 5/8-inch bull still stands at number one for a typical elk in Alberta, there is much speculation that that record will also fall in the next couple years.