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The unique challenges of Michigan elk hunting during the second segment of the early elk season

Tom Lounsbury

Thu, 01 Oct 2020 19:42:32 EDT

 


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Michigan's early elk season is divided up into three 4-day segments, which, having just completed 2 of the segments, I have come to truly appreciate its entire makeup. I can state for a fact that after 4 days of intense hunting, getting a break isn't a bad thing at all. The three segments (September 1-4, September 18-21 and October 2-5) also allow elk hunters to pursue elk during the transition period which leads into the annual elk rut.
The first segment represented a late-summertime atmosphere entailing 80 degree days and full moon nights, which in my (humble) opinion, didn't represent ideal hunting conditions for locating elk. Certainly some elk were taken, but in our case, as well as with many other hunters, elk or even elk sign, was very scant the first 3 days, and it wasn't until the 4th, final morning that any elk were finally actually sighted. This is when my hunting companion, Lou Leavens of Sterling Heights, finally managed to tag an enormous (500 lb) cow elk, which was clearly hard-earned on his part.
When the elk herd was first sighted in the early rays of daylight, they were grouped up in heavy cover, and when Leavens was able to sight in on a lone cow which had stepped forward, an elk calf immediately moved into the line of fire, preventing a shot. Then the herd was on the move, requiring Leavens and hunting guide John Jones to head cross country on foot to eventually intercept the elk, and bag a large cow trailing at the back of the herd.
According to John Jones, owner of Michigan Bear and Elk Adventures in Atlanta, bagging a cow elk is 4 times (at least) harder than bagging a bull elk, due to the fact cows are usually with a herd which has many eyes, ears and noses, and tend to be instinctively more flighty than the bulls. Mixed in the herd is always a quantity of calves and also young spike-horn bulls which are similar in size to the cows, and the spike antlers are often not easy to discern, and when an antlerless only tag is entailed, spikes aren't legal targets (although calves are). Care must be taken in using some very acute observation before ever touching the trigger, especially when there is a number of elk moving about, and can suddenly step into the line of fire. It is also very possible for a bullet to pass completely through an elk, and strike another, so the target must be completely isolated to avoid making any mistakes. My only encounter with a small herd of cows and calves entailed a highly animated scene with elk (at 150 yards) quickly being side by side, then not, or a having a calf moving suddenly into the line of fire, effectively preventing a shot. It is a challenging moment entailing quick decisions, and it is best to decide wisely, and to, hopefully, shoot straight.
Whenever a shot is fired, it must be immediately reported to the MDNR Elk Check Station, who then notifies a Conservation officer who will immediately come to investigate the scene. Dead elk are then officially verified, and any "misses" are also carefully followed up on, because very tough and tenacious elk can actually be hit, even mortally so, and keep on moving as if untouched. They are quite notorious for this fact. If it is determined the elk has been wounded, the hunter is all done hunting until every effort to recover the animal has been performed. If the wounded animal can't be recovered, it is then up to the Conservation Officer to determine, according to the situation, whether or not the hunter can continue elk hunting.
It is a very thorough process which I fully appreciate and respect, and is an important matter that is always properly handled as it should be.
The typical and most popular method for hunting Michigan elk, especially during the early season (which lacks the usual tracking snow of the late season), is to drive around the endless backcountry roads and "gas trails" to locate the elk, which can be anywhere in an immense area. They can, for a fact, move quite a distance from one spot to another, literally overnight. When elk are located, it is time to quietly exit the vehicle, uncase the unloaded firearm, load it, and proceed into a stalk until, hopefully, a shot is provided. An important tool to have along is "shooting sticks" (I prefer bi-pod or tripod) which can be used to stabilize a shot from a standing position, which is often the case in this unique environment.
In my case, a special system had to be developed in order to get me into position for a stalk. I have a severely injured right knee at present, which has been slow to heal, and getting out of the vehicle requires both my hands. My son Jake, who has been my dependable (and necessary) "Sherpa" throughout this hunt, sits behind me on the passenger side with my unloaded and properly cased rifle, and who gets out, uncases the rifle and hands it to me. I then slip in the loaded magazine, and carefully bolt in a round. By this time, John Jones has reached my side and has his right arm ready to lend me support, with the shooting sticks carried in his left hand, and we begin our usually stooped over stalk in this manner. It is a dependable and much appreciated piece of teamwork which certainly works for me!
Of our four-day second-segment hunt, only one day lacked sighting any elk (although we always found fresh elk sign). During the other three days, I could have easily attempted to fill out a "bull tag" each day, had I had one, and often at some surprisingly close ranges. Except for the one occasion, finding any cow elk was like looking for "hen's teeth". Our hope was, where there were bulls, the cows couldn't be far away, and John Jones, after 2 decades of guiding Michigan elk hunters, sure knows how to find elk. However the elk rut hasn't quite fully set in yet. There are certainly hints of it with the occasional "bugling" here and there, and scrapes and rubs were everywhere.
During the final morning of the recent hunt, it was right at the daybreak "starting time" when we spotted elk on a hillside, and performed our stooped-over stalking routine down the trailside, and then eased our way into the brush just below them for a clear shot. It turned out to be two bull elk sparing away, which we enjoyed watching for several minutes, in the hopes some cow elk would eventually show up to watch the show as well, but none did, and the bulls soon went their separate ways. It was actually a scene to watch which resembled being in Colorado instead!
Shortly after this on another trail, we encountered a huge bull (an obvious very large 6x6 called a "Royal") which, at only 50 yards, started to depart, but stopped in a confused state when Jones sent "cow chirps" from the open truck window. My son Jake was able to slip out of the truck's backdoor, stalk up to a bush and photograph the bull until it decided to depart. Yep, folks, having a bull tag would have been real handy right then!
One thing is for sure, when it comes to Michigan elk hunting, bagging a cow elk isn't as easy to successfully perform as some might assume. They are downright challenging for a fact, and I've been thoroughly enjoying every minute of the Michigan early season elk hunt, and savoring the different aspects of the first and second segments. With fall colors and frosty mornings fast approaching, I'm already looking forward to the third segment in a couple weeks.
Maybe all the pieces will come together in bagging a cow elk, and maybe they won't. It is after all called "hunting". And no matter what, it is truly an honor to be able to participate in this once in a lifetime, very special elk hunting season.


   


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