Winter Whiteout

Although many elk hunters end their seasons once the rut has passed, some of the best hunting doesn't begin until the winter snows arrive in full force.

Seems like most things you read about elk hunting these days have to do with bowhunting during the rut, or gun hunting in October, when a guy can also carry a deer tag in his pocket and, if things work out, double his pleasure.

But if you limit your elk hunting to these two popular time periods, you just might be missing out on your best chance to fill your freezer with elk meat. The best time to hunt elk just might be later, after the snow flies, when temperatures have dropped below freezing-sometimes below zero-and after the elk have began moving down out of the high country and into their winter range.

Serious, deep snow that stays until the following spring and can reach above an elk's bellyline triggers the annual exodus of elk herds from the high mountains to their winter range.

This annual migration has a profound impact on elk herds. In some high-country areas, elk basically have two different home range territories-summer range and winter range. An elk's summer range is always much larger, and encompasses the high mountain meadows and steep timbered mountainsides. But when the snows come, elk are forced to flatter ground where they can paw through the snow to find food. Generally speaking, an elk herd's winter range makes up 10 percent or less of its yearly habitat. This smaller total habitat area obviously will concentrate the elk, making them easier for you to locate.

Migration Hunts
One problem with hunting the migration is it can rarely be timed exactly. However, elk generally do follow the same historic routes year in and year out, and some elk will come down out of the high country at about the same time each year. Without deep snow, though, most elk-and almost all the bigger bulls-stay high until they're forced to move lower.

The amount of snow needed to move elk is dependent upon the distance they need to travel to reach their wintering grounds. If they have no more than a few miles to go, they're more likely to stay high longer. Elk that have to travel 40 or 50 miles, as many herds do, will depart the high country more quickly. As they move, they'll cover many miles each day, often stopping for a few days in small pockets of habitat that have good forage.

Deep Snow Strategies
There are two basic ways to hunt elk in deep snow. The first is the standard spot-and-stalk technique. Climb high to a good vantage point before daylight, put on your warm clothes and use your binoculars to spot elk as they travel or feed at first light. Elk often stay out later in the morning during this time than they do earlier in the fall simply because they have to eat more to stay warm. If I don't find an elk I want this way, I change to one of my favorite tactics for this time of year-picking up a fresh track in the snow and following it.

This sounds simple, but in reality it usually ends without a shot being fired. Unless the snow is powder-quiet, the elk will hear you coming. The wind, which can help cover this sound, must be steady to prevent elk from smelling you. Since a bull elk is walking and you have to follow his tracks, you can't be too choosy about wind direction. Try climbing above the track, keeping it in sight as you follow, which will help you see down into the trees and brush and hopefully spot the animal more quickly. Always move slowly in the timber, using your binoculars to glass for pieces of standing or bedded elk.

Late-Season Hotspots
The biggest problem in hunting the elk migration is finding a place to hunt. At present, with the exception of Montana-where the general rifle elk season runs through the end of November-other elk states usually close their seasons before the snows have come in strong enough to move the elk. Many states do offer special-draw tags for the late season, but they're extremely difficult to draw.

Prime areas to hunt during the elk migration are adjacent to national parks, where special late-season tags allow you to hunt elk that are protected inside park boundaries, but whose winter range is outside the park. Yellowstone and Canada's Banff national parks are prime examples-though this year permits to hunt migrating elk out of Yellowstone have been severely curtailed thanks to the devastating effects wolf and bear predation have had on that elk herd. Finding exact migration corridors is as easy as asking a local game warden or game department biologist.

Also, I've spotted many late-season elk while sitting in a truck parked on a highway or paved county road, using a spotting scope and window mount to glass long distances into the mountains at first and last light for both elk and elk tracks. I like to spot in the evenings. That way, if I see bulls I want to hunt, I find they'll usually be close to that same spot the next morning. So, I bite the bullet and leave camp many hours before sun-up and begin trudging up the mountain in the deep snow, hoping to reach the area where I last saw those elk before first light. If things work out-and they have many times-I spot the bulls as they feed in the same general area first thing in the morning.

Many a big bull or fat cow is taken by hardy hunters willing to overcome the difficulties of hunting thigh-deep snow in bitter cold. In winter, when things are right, you will have one of the best chances of all to take a monster bull. Such thoughts keep me toasty warm, even on a bitter winter's day.