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How To/Pro-Tips

Bullets For Bulls

While many standard (as opposed to magnum) rifle cartridges are elk-adequate in power, your projectile is critical. The one place not to scrimp in your elk-hunting budget is on your bullets. Big, tough elk are best taken by big, tough bullets. The so-called "premium" bullets which offer controlled expansion and deep penetration are what you need to punch a big bull's ticket. There are several strategies for building tough bullets. Some feature a partition, some a bonded core and some are all copper with expansion cavities in the nose. Style really doesn't matter as long as the bullet mushrooms adequately, penetrates deeply, doesn't fall apart and shoots well in your particular rifle. Another factor to keep in mind is that long, heavy bullets retain velocity and energy and penetrate better than short, lightweight projectiles. The ballistic term for this is Sectional Density, which is the relationship of the bullet's weight to its diameter. Bullets with sectional densities over .250 both fly and penetrate best.

Elk Cartridges

The "perfect elk cartridge" may be the most often-wrote gun-writer topic next to the "perfect whitetail rifle." Oddly, many of the cartridges mentioned in both articles may be the same. When you consider most whitetails weigh less than 200 pounds and many elk go considerably over 500, you would think that far more powerful guns would be necessary for elk. More power for these bigger animals is often preferable but not always necessary. Most elk outfitters and guides want their clients to bring the most powerful guns they can shoot comfortably and well. If you can handle the weight and the recoil, big cartridges like the .338 and .300 Winchester magnums add options, range and assurance to your elk hunting. On the other hand, deer-class cartridges, such as the .308, .270 and ..30-06, will certainly bag a big bull when used for reasonable shots at reasonable range. If you shoot your "deer" rifle well and a magnum poorly, you're better off with less gun.

Rocky Mountain High

Getting in shape to go elk hunting is standard advice. Elk typically live in tough country and often at high altitudes. This means tough hunting in thin air that many people are not used to. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) affects some people who are accustomed to low elevations when they ascend too high, too rapidly. The symptoms are dizziness, headache, nausea, shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping. Untreated AMS can progress to the serious and potentially fatal conditions of High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Altitudes as low as 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level may affect particularly sensitive people. However, elevations above 8,000 feet broaden the category of potential risk. This ailment is related to an individual's response to altitude, not physical condition. Being in great shape won't necessarily protect you. To avoid high-altitude sickness, acclimate yourself to altitude by spending a couple of nights at a mid-range elevation between that of your home area and the elevations where you expect to hunt.

The Road Not Taken

The elk hunter's dilemma between easy access and too much competition is a real one. Places that are easy, or even only moderately difficult to get to, are often crowded and overhunted. On the other hand, hiking to the backside of nowhere is a tough pull. From a time and effort perspective, you can walk only so far in. And, suppose you actually bag a bull on the backside of nowhere? Packing an elk a long way through unbroken forest is a big undertaking. Finally, elk hunters are a tough bunch. If you walked for most of the wee hours to get way back in, odds are good someone else did too. There is a middle ground. Look for temporary timber-harvest roads closed to vehicular traffic. These furnish trail-head jump-off points for hiking along the closed road. You'll still have to take a substantial hike to beat the crowd but at least the walking will be easier going in -- and coming out when you're loaded with elk meat.

The Waterhole

Elk are the most prestigious Western big game animals but hunters should remember that the West is mostly a dry place. Out here, water rules. Great land without dependable water is almost worthless -- for both people and wildlife. Hunters from the well-watered East tend to not understand how critical a wildlife water supply is. For elk, waterholes and wallows are two big factors in life. Obviously, waterholes furnish drinking water and the opportunity to cool down. Given the chance, elk will go to water a couple of times a day. In dry country, an ambush at a waterhole is a good bet. Wallows have social, sexual, and comfort significance for bulls. Even without enough open water to drink, a bull loves a good mud wallow. He will often spike this pungent patch of muck with his own urine. Caked with personally scented mud, he is, in effect, wearing his "scrape" and advertising to cows. A stand near a fresh (take a whiff) wallow can pay off.

 
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