When it comes to hunting, elk have been my cross to bear. I have never been a lucky hunter, and every critter of any description I have taken has been at a premium price paid in the currency of sweat, tears and often a little blood. Yet with perseverance I have managed to find success with most, and if not on the first attempt, certainly soon after. Except elk.
My first elk hunt was in Montana more years ago than I care to admit. Severe weather had driven the elk off the mountains and into the “no - hunting - allowed” winter range, leaving us to wander in the now - empty mountains.
Four years later I was again in Montana. We packed deep into the mountains near Glacier National Park, and for 10 cold November days we didn't see our camp during daylight. Each day was spent looking hard for elk, but in the end nobody had even seen one.
Then came the hunt from hell.
I booked for a September bugle season hunt in southern British Columbia with what turned out to be a psychotic outfitter. In two days we hunted less than four hours while she slid further into irrationality. Her bizarre behavior led to a nasty confrontation, so I decided to leave camp. I learned later from others that it got worse.
In the dark and lonely hours of the nights spent in a hotel waiting for a plane out of there, I thought that perhaps I should accept that I was not destined to be an elk hunter.
Still, elk haunted me. I love the mountains where they dwell, and the process of elk hunting is as engaging as any hunting I have experienced. Unable to resist the mountains' calling, the next fall found me in a Wyoming camp near the border of Yellowstone Park.
This time, before we really even got started, we were into elk, and only a few hours after the start of the hunt we were looking at a good 6x6 bull hiding in the burned timber on the next ridge. It was a long shot at a little piece of elk neck, but I hadn't endured all that pain and come this far to take any chances with my equipment. If I failed to take an elk, I'd be damned if it was going to be because of something so easily controlled as my gun.
Before I even recovered from the recoil, the guide was slapping my back and yelling something about a great shot. The elk dropped so fast that I missed seeing it, and I refused to allow myself any elation until I had my hands on his rack.
We found him lying on the tracks he had been standing in. The 225 - grain Barnes X - Bullet had broken - no, shattered - his neck. It was a classic case of preparation meeting opportunity. Good equipment and lots of practice paid off.
Elk Are Tough
Elk hunting has changed since Jack O'Connor, Warren Page and Les Bowman roamed those Wyoming mountains. Today's opportunities on good bulls are harder to find, and many of the best elk are taken in the thick timber at far shorter ranges. Shot placement angles are not always as controllable, and hunters in the know choose a big caliber with heavy, premium bullets that will penetrate from any angle.
A big bull elk weighs 600 to 800 pounds or more - they are the tough guys of the deer family. They will take hits that would put the much - larger moose down for good, yet an elk might run to the other side of the mountain. Bull elk are notorious for their determination and tenacity, and if you don't kill them well, they can lead you on a chase you will regret to your last breath.
They have thick hides that are often caked with mud; behind that are big, tough muscles and massive bones. A big bull can soak up a lot of bullet energy, and “too much gun” is a lot better than “not enough.” To cause enough damage to something as big as an elk, you need deep penetration to reach important organs.
Don't Under - Gun Yourself
So what makes an elk gun? Most articles on elk rifles deal with cartridges that are adequate, and certainly a lot of cartridges can get the job done under most conditions. For a resident hunter who not only lives with the elk but has plenty of opportunity to hunt and is probably looking for meat as much as anything else, these adequate rifles might make sense. But we are addressing rifles for the hunter who has saved for years and may not be able to hunt elk again for a while. This hunter has only the few days of vacation to hunt, and the ultimate goal is a trophy bull. The hunter cannot pick and choose the shots; the first ethical opportunity must be taken no matter what it presents. This raises the demands on rifle and cartridge selection.
Although cross - canyon and other long shots are not uncommon, it's just as likely that a hunter will need to shoot at a patch of elk hide showing through 50 yards of brush. Shot angles are not always the best, and if the hunter waits for a better chance, often the bull will melt into the brush and disappear. Most serious elk hunters today are using big, powerful cartridges with heavy, premium - quality bullets. They want a bullet that will penetrate to an elk's vitals from any angle and anchor the bull. They also want a rifle that is relatively light and easy to carry while hunting in the rough, high country that is commonly associated with elk hunting.
Currently, there are no short - action calibers fitting those criteria. The .308 Win. and 7mm - 08 Rem. can kill elk, but they fall short of our definition of an elk gun. Risking the wrath of the O'Connor fan club, I will also eliminate the .270 Win. and anything smaller. The heaviest bullet you can get in a .270 Win. factory load is 150 grains, and that's not enough. The .280 Rem. might work with 160 - grain bullets, but I'll not include it on my list of serious elk guns.
Getting into the Right Calibers
Real elk guns start with the .30 - 06 Springfield, and then only with the best premium - quality 180 - grain bullets. Even at that, you will need to pick your shots. A rear - on quartering angle requiring lots of penetration to reach the chest cavity is not favorable to a .30 - 06.
The .35 Whelen is excellent - particularly if you use the heavy 225 - to 250 - grain bullets necessary for good penetration - but is a bit limited for long - range shooting.
The 7mm Rem. Mag. was developed and tested on elk. It and the nearly identical 7mm Wthby Mag. are viable elk guns but are at their best when loaded with high - quality 175 - grain bullets. The trouble is, most hunters want the high velocity of lighter bullets, so they hunt with guns and ammo designed for shooting deer. The 7mm STW adds a bit more velocity and energy to the bullet, and with the new Winchester 160 - grain Fail Safe load, it finally has a decent bullet for true big game like elk.
Any of the .300 magnums need 200 - grain bullets to fill their potential. The 180 - grains sometimes fail to get all the way through, and I am from the school that believes that all bullets should exit the animal. Bigger cases simply mean more velocity and more energy. The .300 Wthby Mag. tops the .300 Win. Mag., and the .300 Rem. Ultra Mag. beats them both. The .30 - 378 Wthby Mag. is the king of the .30 calibers.
The .340 and .338 - 378 Wthby Mag. are very powerful cartridges that will work quite well for elk, but many hunters cannot handle the fierce recoil, even with the heavy rifles in which the cartridges are chambered. If you can shoot them and you don't mind lugging a big rifle, they merit consideration.
If chambered in a rifle that is light enough to allow practical use in the elk mountains, the .375 H&H Mag. is an outstanding elk cartridge. Using bullets of 270 to 300 grains, it shoots relatively flat, and it certainly packs a lot of punch. Some hunters will argue that it's too big, but at the risk of redundancy, better too big than too small. The problem is that most .375 H&H rifles are too heavy. There are exceptions if you seek them out, particularly in the custom rifle route.
Arguably the best elk cartridge today is the .338 Win. Mag. When using high - quality bullets of 225 to 250 grains, it shoots flat enough for the long shots and packs enough energy and momentum to penetrate elk with an expanded bullet from any angle. It sure did the job for me in Wyoming.
Did breaking the ice with that Wyoming elk change my luck?
Well, sort of.
That was a long time ago, and I have been on several elk hunts since then. The bulls still come very hard, but you know what? I think that secretly, that's what I like about elk hunting.