Chatting with elk an autumn thrill

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

LOGAN, Utah (AP) -- It's like a giant game of hide-and-seek, only you don't always know who's It.

First you call the elk, then the elk calls you. You move to try to lure him to an open spot; he circles to stay concealed in the trees. After a long silence, just when you've given up hope of encountering the brute, he appears, near enough to tag. He doesn't crash in, he just materializes at the edge of the clearing, having moved with impossible silence through the dry leaves.

Then comes the moment of truth, whether you're waiting with a bow, a rifle, or -- as we were on a recent ''hunt'' -- a camera. The goal in all situations is a clear shot, which comes much easier some days than others.

In our case it took two hours on horse (and mule) and another hour on foot to get in position to draw in a bull. Finally we made contact with one, although his bugling ricocheted through the canyons, making it tough to pinpoint his position. We could hear the clack of antler on wood and hoof on log for several minutes as he approached. Then all fell silent, including the squirrels and magpies and other forest minions. He's gone, I thought.

Suddenly antlers protruded from the golden aspen leaves. Rifle shots in the distance had reminded us that this was hunting season, and the five-point bull was fully aware of that. His rack swiveled as he eagerly sought the cow whose call he'd answered, but he wasn't going to come charging out, as lust-crazed elk sometimes do. After two minutes he shook his head slightly, sensing something awry, turned and was gone.

''That's why they call it hunting,'' shrugged Bret Wursten, straightening from a crouch. ''He spotted us right away.''

Wursten, along with Travis Sparks, had guided a photographer and a writer to a remote section of the Cache to look for trophy bulls. A week earlier the pair had harvested a 7x7 bull in the area, and we were hoping to see more of the same. But we had invested a good hour in seducing the five-point, and the window for calling elk was small -- roughly suppertime to dark -- and closing rapidly.

So we humped it over the hill and through the woods to a well-used wallow, where the bugling intensified. With at least three bulls answering the cow calls uttered by our guides, we abandoned all pretense of subtlety and crunched through the leaves at a run.

''They'll think it's a cow coming to them,'' Sparks explained.

And so they did, trotting out to welcome the anticipated paramour, or at least the smaller bulls did. Big Daddy, bellowing furiously from higher on the hill, never showed, and then the sun dropped and within minutes we could hardly see our feet.

''Did you get anything?'' I asked the photographer. He shook his head, but it turned out that by using a long exposure he had enticed enough light into his lens to profile a young raghorn trying to make sense of us. Not a trophy, but at least we didn't go home empty-handed.

There can be no more regal sound in nature than the bugle of the bull elk.

In their book Elk Talk, Don Laubach and Mark Henckel describe it thusly: ''The sweet music of a bull elk's bugle is unlike any other sound in the wild. It is power. It is mystery. It is rugged grace.''

For the hunter, bugling is only one of the calls that must be mastered. Along with a tube call, Wursten carries seven or eight reeds and diaphragms, ''and they all have a different sound.''

Even his three identical Carlton's calls sound different, because he modified the reeds to produce a variety of chirps, barks and mews.

''You're always learning,'' Wursten said. ''Every time somebody makes a new call I go buy it. Some are junk, some are good.''

Some are so good that they drastically reduce the learning curve in becoming a good caller, but it still took Wursten ''a couple of years before I felt confident with it.''

The calls can be disarmingly effective; more than once Wursten and Sparks have called in a curious cougar, and last week a pair of Montana hunters called in a grizzly bear, which gave one of the men a good mauling. The bulls themselves can be frightening up close, with their piercing antlers and blood-crazed eyes. Usually they take out their sexual rage on saplings, but sometimes any target will do.

With the advent of better calls, and with more hunters in the field, Laubach and Henckel surmise that ''the elk themselves have grown quiet. It's tougher than ever before to call in a bull. The elk have somehow gotten smarter than the elk hunters.''

Wursten said during the hunt the bulls ''get really wise to people'' and become more nocturnal, piping down during daylight to dodge hunting pressure, so calling is only one aspect of hunting. He and Sparks constantly checked the wind, and sought out fresh droppings and urine puddles on the trails. In some areas the pungent smell of the bulls was vivid.

After a bull is located, said Wursten, ''Everybody does his own thing. Generally we won't bugle unless we want to locate a bull. Once we find 'em we almost exclusively use the cow calls.''

As bowhunters, Wursten and Sparks try to draw the bulls to within a stone's throw, so during our outing, when calling in the five-point bull, Sparks had walked away while calling to pull the elk to the rest of us.

''They're concentrated on what's further back doing the calling,'' Wursten noted. ''Sometime they'll come right up on you.''

But more often they're spooky, like the five-point bull that got away, and Big Daddy who wouldn't come down the hill.

''We screwed up twice tonight,'' Sparks said.

When you're stalking elk it's easy to get lost in the moment and forget time, but, done right (that is to say, without ATVs) this is not easy work. After snapping the photo, we bagged our gear and headed out. It was 9 p.m., and in our zeal we had rushed up and over a hill that left us 45 steep minutes from the mules.

We stumbled through the thick trees, spruce branches clawing at our blind eyes and roots impeding our boots. It was a relief to top out and find our mounts quietly grazing, tied to quakies.

Climbing into the saddle I looked skyward and saw a crescent moon giving only the slimmest reflection. The trail back to the trucks was faint at best; many times we would have to veer off into the deadfalls and stumps of the darkened forest. And we were trusting our lives to an animal legendary for its obstinate nature.

And, thankfully, for its surefootedness. The ride out put any amusement park ride to shame, and I quickly grew to appreciate Betsy's unfailing steps. The stars sprayed overhead, so many they obscured the major constellations and we could barely pick out the North Star and Cassiopeia. Wursten and Sparks each bleated an occasional cow call, and bugled replies wafted back. The air was crisp and clean, and it felt like there could be no better place to be.

When I got home I shook pine needles out of the back of my pants and every pocket, tiny mementos of an evening spent talking with the animals.


(Distributed by The Associated Press) More

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