After a climb represented by a change of four contour lines on our topo map we leveled out on top. The afternoon was slipping into evening as we tried to get our bearings. Jon had spent hours going over the maps to find this magic place. A spot where small meadows, tall timber and snow run-off creeks came together to provide abundant edge habitat for elk.
The dry hillside we had just negotiated was void of any sign that elk were in the area but when we reached the plateau that changed.
It was the day before the season started and Jon had done his homework well. There was water here and the mountain canyons funneled well-used trails through to the farm land below. We followed a trail into the trees and out into a clear cut where the new planted trees had a two year start.
We saw it at the same time. A five point elk antler lying in the sword ferns. Jon reached down and plucked it up. Whether he brought home an elk or not, he at least had a trophy.
Buck deer and bull elk drop their antlers between February and April. Shed antlers can bear testimony to the quality of the herds in the area you spend your summer and fall photographing or hunting deer and elk.
Sometimes it can be hard to know where the animals you are after spend their winters. Because these animals migrate from the high country to the lowlands they can be many miles from where you find them in summer and fall. Spend some time with a topographical map and talk to Fish and Wildlife biologists to determine the most likely areas. Some work with binoculars in the winter can help you locate the herds. Then spend a few spring days there looking for dropped antlers.
Walk fence lines, watching for crossing points and trails, looking for fallen trees. These places where the deer have to go under or over an obstacle are good spots to look because this is where the antlers can jar loose and fall to the ground.
Hunting shed antlers can become an addictive pastime as some have found. Some sell their finds to people who turn them into knife handles or rustic home furnishings. Others, finding a matched set, will have them mounted much the way it would have looked on the original owner. After a few years of collecting in the same place, patterns will emerge as the sheds of one buck may turn up year after year, showing first growth then decline as the buck ages.
To take a red-coated, velvet-antlered trophy buck with camera and film in the summer or a royal bull elk with a rifle in the fall, takes understanding of the animals habits. I’m convinced that you can’t just read information and hope to apply it in hunting season. You need to experience deer and elk to really understand them. Observing them all through the year will help you gain the experience and the knowledge to find the animals whenever you go looking for them.
When the snow melts, deer fatten up on opening buds, tender shoots and ground browse. In the spring it is possible to find does with spotted fawns. Bucks have tender shoots of their own in the spring as they regenerate their headgear. Mature bucks live apart from the females and young most of the time, though often you will see a youngster with his first antlers still following his mother.
Spring is a good time to watch and intercept deer and elk on their migrations back to the hills. As in the fall, morning and evening are the best times to spot moving and feeding deer. Unless you are out there when they are moving, you may see few, if any animals.
As summer approaches the deer will be moving higher into the mountains. On cool days you may spot them feeding or bedding on sunny slopes. Though their coats are lighter than in the winter, all that hair can make an animal warm. As the temperature rises try glassing north-facing ridges to spot deer and elk.
Spend the time this spring to pattern the animals. Find out where they spend their winters and track migrations through the foothills and into the mountain meadows. Study topographical maps to determine probable routes. Whether you set up in late summer with a bow or camera or use a rifle in the fall you may find the animal you are looking for. Its antlers might even match the ones you find this spring.