A First Timer’s Elk (Wapiti) Hunt
By: Laura Heinrichs
Where: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Last year, I had the pleasure of being drawn for an elk/moose archery tag. As an archery applicant I was able to enter the draw as a single hunter, whereas applicants for general seasons must apply in pairs. I wasn’t sure what my chances of being drawn were, since I was a first time applicant. I was ecstatic when I received my confirmation and bill, in the mail. After a little more waiting my tag arrived, and then it dawned on me. I had never been elk or moose hunting in my life or even seen them in the Province of Manitoba. Of course I had read about it, watched the outdoor shows and knew people who had done it. But, I really had no clue how to hunt these animals!
The drawn tags in Manitoba are issued to specific hunting areas, or GHAs (General Hunting Areas). When I applied I selected a GHA where I previously hunted white tail deer and where people I knew hunted elk and moose. My friend Tom, his son Robbie and I went up on opening weekend in September 2011 to scope out the situation and see what we could find. It was a tough scene as most of the land in the area is privately owned.
We were cruising around in the truck just looking for signs or animals. Lo and behold, through the tree line skirting the fence, we saw a herd of about 30 elk grazing in the field. I am aware that, to some, this may not be a lot of elk, but for Manitoba, it was a fair sized gathering. I, having never seen wild elk here before, was in complete awe. Robbie and I had our binoculars glued to our faces and could see three different bulls, one of which looked to be a pretty nice size. Tom suggested we try a call to see if the bulls were actively calling yet. I tried out my “Hoochie Mama” cow call that I had just picked up and surprisingly the bulls responded almost immediately.
This was awe inspiring for me as I had of course never heard the sound of a screaming bull elk before. It must have been a first for Robbie too since we both stood there wide eyed for quite some time listening to these bulls yelling back at us. They eventually figured out that we were not actually stray cows and they took off into the bush.
Figure 1 “Photo” A photograph of a North American Elk, a dream game for many hunters around the world, and Laura Heinrichs’ new hunting goal!
We continued cruising and ended up stopping at Dennis’ house, a friend of Tom’s who lives in the area. We told Dennis what we were up to and what we had just seen. He informed us that he had permission to hunt on several properties, one of which was where we had just seen the elk herd. To my surprise and excitement he offered to guide me and take me into some spots he knew of. It was at that point that I decided to focus solely on elk hunting, for the time being, and if I happened to get a shot at a deer I would take it.
As we sat around talking about all this, we suddenly realized that we were really late to get out and hunt. If we were still going to make it before dark, we had to go IMMEDIATELY. I grabbed what I needed from the truck, and Tom and Robbie took off back to the hunting shack. They were headed for a tree stand they had set up near a nice looking deer trail. Dennis and I jumped into his truck and sped off towards the area we had seen the elk earlier. We were losing light fast but he seemed convinced we still might see something, and he wasn’t wrong.
We pulled up to a wire gate, opened it quickly and drove into a rolling grassy field. We followed a bumpy, rutted trail through a clump of trees and parked before we hit the next clearing. Still having a ways to walk, we were trying to go fast and be quiet which can be a challenge. We had been walking for a while when we rounded a bend, Dennis ducking into a bluff of trees that jutted into the field. I, not having known our exact destination, overshot this corner and stood at the point, watching elk butts disappearing into the trees.
It happened so fast and with the quickly waning light, I wasn’t sure it had actually happened. One look at Dennis told me it had, as he was struggling to stifle hysterical laughter into his sleeve. I had stomped around the bend and spooked them all off. From what I could tell, those elk butts would have been very near to, if not within shooting range, Oops!
I joined my guide in the natural blind of the bluff and we attempted some cow calls to see if we might bring in a curious, lingering spike bull. To our surprise, bulls responded immediately and they did not sound far away! Nor did they sound like young spikes. This was the closest I had heard bulls calling and the sound gave me goose bumps. The sun was setting and as the last rays of light faded, our only sighting remained the disappearing rumps.
My guide and I both work Monday to Friday jobs. On top of this, Dennis also does some farm work, which frequently overlaps with the weekends. Given that it was early fall, it made finding time to hunt a challenge and trying to map and pattern the elk very difficult.
Over the next several weekends, Dennis and I made several attempts, both mornings and evenings, to bring something in. We tried various spots he knew of, some littered with elk tracks, droppings, beds and even rubs. More times than not we were very successful with our calling and I found it tremendous to just be able to listen to these great creatures and know that they were so close by. Calling as they were, we headed into a spell of hearing lots and seeing nothing, which lasted for what seemed like an eternity.
*I know some of you are going to be wondering why we didn’t go after these animals and stalk them. I told this story to someone and he said, “If you can hear them, they are close enough to sneak up on” and I don’t doubt this. However, as I mentioned earlier, the area is a tough one to hunt with properties divided into quarter mile sections and the sections we had permission to hunt on were not all adjacent to one another. Call this what you will, an excuse, cop-out, whatever, the fact remains that we simply could not access all the areas the elk were going.*
Several weeks went by and we were looking at mid-October. Archery elk/moose season close very early in November and archery deer season closed at the same time. I had not yet had a chance at an elk nor even tried to get at a white tail. The elk had nearly stopped calling or had moved off to locations beyond our realm. On Thanksgiving Day something cool happened. We were driving down a gravel road and saw a bull moose meandering through a farmer’s field.
This was the first moose I had ever seen up close in my life and was able to get a few pictures. This was nowhere near where we had permission to hunt. We simply watched him as he took his time strolling back to the trees, looking stiff and sore. We suspected he had likely taken a beating from another bull at an earlier time.
Figure 2 “Photo” A bull moose that Laura Heinrichs lucked upon one day while out hunting Elk.
Moose seasons have been cut drastically in Manitoba over the past few years due to significant drops in population. I really was not upset that I didn’t get a chance to shoot this moose. I was thrilled to simply lay my eyes on it. I decided to focus on trying to arrow a deer rather than trying to call the now seemingly nonexistent elk.
There was a particular field where we had seen deer grazing several times, so we decided to give that a try. We headed over late in the morning to find a spot to set up in later. We ended up making a gorgeous little natural blind just off the edge of the field where there was tall grass and thistles amid tall trees. All we really had to do was clear away the grass where we wanted to stand. We snapped a few overhanging branches from the trees I was to stand behind/between. It seemed like the perfect spot.
Figure 3 “Photo” The view from the field expedient blind that Laura and her guide, Dennis, built to come back to later.
Later that day Dennis and I headed back to our little homemade blind, got into position, and began waiting. We got there nice and early to be sure we weren’t spooking any animals away on our walk in. We walked though the long grass we had removed from the blind area. We also did not bring any chairs to sit on. I had planned to lean on a tree, but quickly discovered that my camo and the tree bark had a Velcro effect, involving a loud ripping sound every time I leaned away from the tree. I just stood there, trying to be still and patient, waiting. Nothing was coming.
Figure 4 “Photo” Laura Heinrichs in her a natural “field expedient” blind, made in a wooded edge by clearing some grass away and using the natural cover that mother nature provides.
The sun was beginning to slowly set. Time dragged on as we continued to stand there waiting for something that seemed would never come. I could tell Dennis was getting impatient. He leaned over and asked me, in a whisper, if I wanted to head back for the truck. I was pondering it. We started whisper-laughing and joking about our bad luck, “Where are all the animals Dennis?”, “What kind of guide are you anyways Dennis?!” etc.
Meanwhile, I can only assume by some inherent instinct, I was still scanning the area in front of us. I had been looking far to the right. I slowly turning my head to the left to say to Dennis “Yeah, okay let’s get out of here” when I had to whip my head back around for a double take. I stared at them for a good couple seconds before my brain was able to process that there were two cow elk both with calves walking down the middle of the field towards us. I hadn’t even seen them come out of the bush.
I turned to Dennis and said “There are elk like, RIGHT there” and pointed. They were only eighty or ninety yards away. He looked; saw the elk, and his demeanor immediately changed. This was serious now. Without seeming to move, he clutched the back side of a tree trunk, peering around it. I tried snapping a photo before they got too close and still cannot believe they didn’t spook, when my flash horrifically went off unexpectedly. One cow looked but only briefly before they continued their jaunt. Relieved, I slipped the range finder out of my chest pocket and began taking range. They were getting closer and they were big! Then I realized there was a bull too. He was unusually dark colored. By the waning light of dusk, I could barely make him out against the opposite tree line about 80 yards away. I think he was a 6×6, not huge, but nice, I was more interested in his nearly black hide.
Figure 5 “Photo” The photograph that Laura Heinrichs chanced while hunting Elk on a late day. Luckily the flash did not spook the group.
The cows and their calves were now grazing around the 50 yard mark and I was faced with a couple dilemmas. My first thought was that Dennis, the property owner, and I had previously come to the consensus that I should shoot for a bull of any size, or a dry cow. Second, which is probably more important than animal selection, was that I wasn’t sure about shooting at 50 yards. I had practiced up to that distance but wasn’t comfortable with my consistency. Also I wasn’t sure what kind of penetration a 50 lbs bow would get on an elk at 50 yards.
Another thing scratching in the back of my mind was that these guys; the property owner and my guide, Dennis, are strict rifle hunters who like their animals to drop in the scope. I was the first bow hunter that had been allowed to hunt there in many years, so I was more terrified than usual of making a poor shot and wounding an animal. I had all this going through my head and the previously elusive elk standing right there at 50 yards!
I was having a savage internal battle and nearly drew my bow several times. But I did not. We simply watched these magnificent creatures walk up a hill and out of sight, the calves frolicking playfully at times. This hunt, however successful (or not successful depending on your view point) would be my last elk hunt for the year.
During and after hunting seasons many of my non-hunting friends and family ask me how my season is going. The conversation usually goes something like this: “So, did you get anything?”, “Nope, not yet!” “Oh, that’s too bad.” It makes me laugh. These people clearly don’t understand why I, and so many others hunt.
It really is not ‘too bad’ that I didn’t get an elk. I enjoyed every moment hunting these animals, even when it was just listening to them calling in the distance, or investigating their tracks and droppings. All of this was brand new to me and I gained valuable knowledge during each hunt. I have absolutely no regrets about not taking a shot at one that final day (Even though I did make some really good shots at 50 yards at a 3D shoot later on).
To me, hunting is all about the experience; getting out there, trying new things, seeing and hearing new things, and above all learning from it all. So, elk or no elk, I feel I accomplished all of these things during my first season elk hunting and look forward, with excitement, to the next chance I get to hunt these incredible animals!
To my guide Dennis, who took no money from me, and to the property owner, who was more than thrilled to let a female archer hunt on his land, THANK YOU! I appreciate your help more than you know. If it wasn’t for generous people like you two, I likely would not have experienced half the things I have on my hunting journey so far.
Some final notes from Ricky Mills, WILD Jaeger Board of Directors, on this article: Thank you Laura for portraying to us how you felt in a manner that pulled us into your experience. Outstanding story, experience and hunting adventure. Hunting is not about the harvest. Yes that is part of it, but it is the journey that counts. The hours of preparation, mental thought process and time in the field with friends/family are what really make it worth the energy/effort involved. You never know what you are going to see when you’re in the WILD (Moose, Elk, etc.), but you have to be out there in order for these outstanding and sometimes life changing events to happen. Where is your WILD?
To find out the 5Ws (Who, What, Where, When and Why) of hunting Elk in Canada, contact Mike Hawkridge at Big Country Outfitters (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit the Big Country Outfitters website by clicking the company logo photograph below.
Figure 6 “Photo” Big Country Outfitters are located in central British Columbia on the North Chilcotin plateau. To get to their website click this company logo photograph or this website (http://www.bigcountryguides.com/).