Hunting Roosevelt Elk in the Pacific Northwest
The faint sound of a snapping twig forced a shot of adrenaline through my veins. I knew exactly what it was, but failed to pinpoint where the sound came from. Motionless, I sat, my beating heart thumping louder in anticipation of what was about to unfold.
Seconds later, the sound of unmistakable, cautious footsteps fell across the dry forest floor. As the tentative steps drew near, my heart sank, for I realized I had no prayer of getting an arrow into the approaching bull.
I was bowhunting the rugged Coast Range of western Oregon, and had been calling to a specific Roosevelt elk located during summer scouting missions. I set up on the crest of a ridge, calling into a deep canyon to the west, but the bull was approaching from behind, up the thickest, steepest part of the mountain.
As the bull materialized through the curtain of vine maple and fir trees, he stopped, stood still as a statue for nearly five minutes, looking and listening for the cow sounds that lured him from his brushy domain. His wet, black nostrils pumped the air. His ears independently rotated like mini satellite dishes, searching for direction. Then his eyes rolled back as he lip-curled, urinated and proceeded to thrash a fir tree; all this transpired less than 20 yards away.
The heavy-racked, massive-bodied bull was the one I was after; one I’d caught on trail cameras and saw brief glimpses of before the season. He was close, but the brush was so dense I had no prayer of threading an arrow through it.
I knew the gig was up when the bull unexpectedly approached from behind, rather than the front, as planned. After shredding the 12-foot tall tree, the bull started walking my way. That’s when he hit the trail I’d walked in on, smelled where I’d stepped 45 minutes prior, let out a violent alarm bark, whirled and launched his enormous body and sounded like a freight train crashing through the forest, back into his place of hiding.
A lot of times I don’t care if an elk sees or hears me, but I’ve never killed an elk that smelled me. Not surprisingly, that was the last time I saw that giant Roosevelt bull during the month-long archery season. With these elusive ghosts of the forest, you often only get one chance, and mistakes like I’d just made are not forgiven, either by the bull or hunter.
Two months later, a rifle hunter tagged that bull, less than 2 miles from where I’d hunted. The dark-racked beast scored 319”, a true bull of a lifetime for a Roosevelt elk hunter.
JUNGLE BULLS: Meet Mr. Roosevelt
Roosevelt elk are the largest-bodied elk subspecies in North America. Bulls can live into their teens and tip the scales to over 1,200 pounds, and mature bulls average almost 900 pounds on the hoof. They commonly run at least 200 pounds larger than a Rocky Mountain bull.
These giant elk are named after President Theodore Roosevelt, who established what is now the Olympic National Park in Washington state for the purpose of preserving this magnificent rain forest subspecies. Roosevelt elk live in the Coast Range and western slopes of the Cascade Range from northern California, through Oregon and Washington, and into southern British Columbia. Roosevelt elk also exist on Alaska’s Afognak and Raspberry islands, where bulls have been recorded weighing in excess of 1,300 pounds.
Roosies, as the locals know them (pronounced like “rosey”, are darker-colored than their smaller-bodied and more abundant cousin, the Rocky Mountain elk. The antlers of mature Roosies are also darker, more massive and compact, than those of Rocky Mountain bulls. The largest typical Roosevelt bull ever taken by a rifle hunter scored 4043/4” and was shot less than an hour from my Oregon home by Scott Ballard, on the floor of the Willamette Valley. I was fortunate to help officially score that bull, an experience I’ll never forget. Growing up, avid elk hunters in the region claimed 400” Roosies were mythical creatures.For hunters who’ve spent a lifetime pursuing Roosevelt elk, the addicting challenge of outwitting these elusive animals is where the passion lies. Personally, I rank consistently tagging a mature Roosevelt elk to be the second most challenging big-game hunt in North America–second only to Columbia black-tailed deer, who share the habitat with Roosies. True, sheep and goat hunts are more physically challenging, but if you’re in shape, your chances rise. With Roosevelt elk, no matter how hard you work or what great shape you’re in, it may take years to fill a tag. When hunting Roosevelt elk, nature owes you nothing, and tags are not filled on pity. This is why there are so many awesome OTC opportunities: It ain’t easy in the jungle!
There is a lot of solid opportunity, especially in walk-in areas, where you will have quite a reasonable chance to get a shot at a bull.
Over-the-counter tags and a lot of public-land access exists in Roosevelt elk country. But just because a tag is easy to get, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s simple to fill.
“I’ve got a quick question for you,” a man recently chimed, a serious look on his face. I’d just finished delivering a seminar on bowhunting for Roosevelt elk, and once the crowd left, the gentleman approached me. “I’ve been hunting Roosies for 12 years, and I’ve yet to get a shot,” the man continued. “I nock an arrow every season, and every season have bulls within 20 yards of me, but I just can’t get a shot through the thick brush. What am I doing wrong?”
After a nearly 30-minute conversation with the hunter, what struck me most was his deep passion and dedication to hunting these elk. He wasn’t frustrated, he wasn’t about to give up, he just wanted to kill a bull in the worst way. It’s this level of drive and passion that hunters must possess if they wish to be successful elk hunters in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.
Roosevelt elk graze and browse. Bulls gather harems during the September rut, but once that’s over, big bulls typically recede into the deepest, darkest canyons, usually by mid-October. These elk are hunted from September into January throughout much of their range, by hunters packing bows, rifles and muzzleloaders.
“The thing a lot of hunters don’t realize is how physically demanding a Roosevelt elk hunt can be,” shares noted guide Jody Smith, of Elkton, Oregon (jodysmithguideservice.com). Smith is sixth generation in this tiny Oregon community nestled into the Coast Range, the name of which is apropos for Smith’s lifestyle and chosen career.
“Parts of the Coast Range are a lot like the Rocky Mountains, not in elevation, but in ruggedness,” continues Smith. “Now, cover that terrain in jungle-like brush, and it’s a wonder anyone ever sees a Roosevelt elk, let alone fills a tag.”
STICK & STRING BULLS
Archery hunters have the best chance of encountering a Roosevelt bull, as the September season runs through the peak of the rut. Searching for a herd of elk in September is much easier than locating a lone bull in October and November. Remember, locating an elk is far different than killing one.
“I know a lot of rifle hunters who have turned to bowhunting for Roosevelt elk, simply to have more encounters with them,” points out Smith. “The thing that I hear most from these folks is how many elk there really are in the woods; something they had no idea of when pursuing them during rifle season when bulls are less vocal and more secluded.”
Roosie bulls are notorious for coming in slow and silent to hunters who are calling them. On one hunt I shared with Smith, we had two bulls bugling, which was a rarity to experience on public land. No matter how hard we tried, however, the bulls wouldn’t budge. Then we heard the shuffling of leaves coming up the canyon, right at us. Pivoting on my backside, I caught a glimpse of antlers; a third bull was headed our way. I reached full-draw as Smith cow called, stopping the bull in it’s tracks. I let the arrow fly. The 15-yard shot was simple. Immediately, I started cow calling fast and loud. The bull stopped, turned, and trotted right back at us, expiring five yards from where I’d arrowed him.
“Don’t get in a rush and mess things, up,” offers Smith, when asked for his top piece of advice for archers looking to travel to the Pacific Northwest and hunt Roosevelt elk for the first time. “These elk have a small home range, and if the wind is wrong and you bump a mature bull, you might not ever see him again. If the wind isn’t absolutely perfect, back out and come in from a different angle, or try it again later that day, even the next day.”
Smith also encourages bowhunters to be prepared for hunting in thick, mountainous terrain. “Shot angles can be very steep, and most often taken from your knees, so practice from that position. Be able to comfortably and confidently shoot under overhanging tree branches and do all within your power to hold your composure when a giant bull closes in tight. Our average shot distance in archery season is about 30 yards, but last year we had three shots inside 15 yards, one at seven yards.”
RIFLE SEASON ROOSIES
If looking to rifle hunt for Roosevelt elk in the Cascade Range, Oregon’s season opens in October, for about a week. Western Washington—both the Cascades and the Coast Range—is typically opened for 12 days during the first part of November. Oregon has two November rifle hunts in the Coast Range, and both states offer muzzleloader hunts throughout the winter months. California has very limited Roosevelt elk hunting opportunities.
“The thing hunters need to realize about rifle hunting Roosevelt elk is that these bulls have been pressured for a month by archers who are trying to get close to them,” clarifies Smith. “The elk know what’s going on, and the biggest, smartest bulls hold up in cover so thick, so rugged, it can be impossible to find them.”
Thanks to a lack of logging on public land, relying on spotting scopes and high powered binoculars to locate Roosevelt elk isn’t as effective as it was 40 years ago. That said, some private timber companies do sell hunting rights in areas that are being actively logged and managed, and with these prime habitats come some exceptional opportunities for hunters. There are also some logging company lands that can be accessed by hike-in only with minimal or no charge.
Calling and tracking are two approaches rifle hunters will want to consider.
I’ve heard Roosevelt bulls bugle past Thanksgiving, so don’t dismiss those November hunts as being too late to call. Using cow calls and young bull bugling sounds to elicit a bugle from a mature bull gives rifle hunters a confident starting point. Don’t look for these late calling bulls to show themselves, rather listen for their reply so you know where to concentrate hunting efforts.
Some of the most successful Roosevelt elk hunters are the ones who put a pack on their back and hike down into the deepest, darkest canyons, cut a bull track and follow it until they catch up. This may mean leaving two hours before the sun rises, and coming out of the woods well after dark, but if you want a big bull, that’s the kind of effort it might take.
“Another thing people need to understand is the actual size of these elk and how tough they are,” offers Smith. “A bull, even a cow, can absorb a lot of lead, even on perfectly placed shots.” Smith suggests rifle hunters come in with no less power than a 7mm or .300 magnum, with well constructed bullets. While shots often come at close range in the timber, if you do happen to catch a bull in a meadow or on the edge of a clearing, being able to shoot out to 250 or 300- yards can make a difference in whether or not you fill a tag.
GO IN PREPARED
No matter how you choose to hunt Roosevelt elk, be prepared. Being able to walk in and out of the woods in the dark, use a navigation aid, withstand torrential downpours and patiently wait several hours for dense fog to lift, will greatly help in filling a tag. Then again, rainy, windy, foggy weather can be some of the best conditions in which to hunt these jungle-dwelling bulls.
With the dry trends the Northwest has seen in recent falls, wild fires and excessively noisy forests have greatly hampered the ability of archers and October rifle hunters to get where they need to be. In these conditions, play the wind, and once a bull is located, devise a game plan and don’t make a move until the thermals have stabilized.
Before leaving home, contact regional fish and wildlife personnel to learn all you can about where to hunt for Roosevelt elk. The Cascades and Coast Range are very big, and rugged, and having a starting point before the season begins is of utmost importance. If you have time to scout in the summer, that’s even better. Roosevelt bulls are most visible in June, July and August, when their growing antlers are in full velvet. Bulls don’t want to damage their headgear, so reside in openings during the summer, rather than their usual thick brush zones.
Once an elk is down, get to work on it, even it if means it’ll take all night. A high percentage of Roosevelt elk are shot in the first and last hour of the day. If shooting an animal right before dark, be willing to follow the blood trail, quarter the animal and pack it out. It might take the entire night and well into the next day, but that’s Roosie hunting. These elk have massive muscles, and the meat, which is some of the best wild game on the planet, must be quickly cooled.
Get in shape, do your homework, practice patience, and you’ll be in a good position to have at go at hunting Roosevelt elk. Once you see the magnitude of the land these giant elk thrive in, you’ll understand why many avid hunters chasing the North American big-game slam wait to pursue Roosevelt elk, last.
Then again, don’t let the challenges thwart your dreams of hunting Roosevelt elk in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. The better condition you’re in and the more adept your survival and navigation skills are, the greater the chance of putting a tag on one of the most underrated, overlooked big-game animals on the continent.