Double duty

How one hunter extended his season and helped control Saskatchewan’s problem elk population in the process

An elk season open until February 24? I could hardly believe my eyes as I thumbed through the 2014 Saskatchewan Hunters’ and Trappers’ Guide. But there it was, printed in bold orange letters: “One elk, either-sex; Moose Mountain Provincial Park only.” The dates were February 5 to 24, 2015, the final of four opportunities last hunting season to pursue elk in the rolling parkland forest of southeast Saskatchewan.

The reason for the special season was clear: Elk in the park and surrounding wildlife management zone were getting out of hand, the population well above long-term objectives. They were having an increasingly negative impact on the habitat and becoming a substantial nuisance to area farmers. Game managers were calling on hunters to help.

In Canada, elk seasons typically start in early September, with some running as late as December. Within this time frame, temperatures can be as high as 30°C and as low as -30°C, while elk behaviour changes considerably. When elk are in the rut in early fall, herd bulls jealously guard harems both vocally and physically from smaller satellite bulls lurking around the herd trying to breed a cow. In the winter, however, everything changes—elk behaviour, their habitat and, of course, the weather. That means your tactics and gear have to change, too.

Here’s how my hunting partner and I prepared for our winter hunt in Moose Mountain Provincial Park, and what happened once we got out there. And even though an elk hunt in February is uncommon, the techniques we used could apply to any post-rut elk hunt with snow on the ground. 

The scouting

The Moose Mountains comprise a 13,000-square-kilometre forested plateau rising above the surrounding prairies. A mix of small wetlands and lakes surrounded by aspen forest, it’s the perfect blend of habitat for elk (below).

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 During our hunt, sunrise was approximately 8:15 a.m., while sunset came quickly around 6 p.m. That meant we had fewer than 11 hours a day to hunt.

Like most wildlife during the winter, elk spend their days looking for food and trying to keep warm. The rut is long over, so the classic harems have dispersed and the bulls are certainly not bugling. So, to make the most of our limited time, my hunting buddy made several pre-season trips to the area to scout out the best spots.

Because there are recreational winter activities such as snowmobiling and skiing in around the park, along with hunting pressure, my friend found that the elks’ patterns evolved as they kept looking for places to hang out away from people. Generally, though, he found the elk were moving from the park to the farmlands to feed, most likely at night, then back to the safety of heavy cover during the day.

The gear

An elk hunt in the dead of winter is more like a typical Saskatchewan whitetail hunt. In other words, it can be very cold in contrast to hunting elk on warm September days. The cold is a big issue, especially if you’re staying still waiting for game to move to you. You need plenty of layers, along with a facemask, good gloves and warm boots.

Layers are important, because you’ll likely need to add or remove clothing depending on your activity level. When you’re on the move, you can remove outer layers to prevent overheating. Once you find a good place to stop and glass, you can then bundle up again.  

Unlike white-tailed deer, winter elk travel great distances between their bedding and feeding areas, so if you see tracks, it’s no guarantee you’ll also see the elk themselves in the same vicinity. That means you have to be mobile to get to where the elk are. To move quickly across the snow, my hunting partner and I decided on different methods.

Assuming the snow would be deep, I opted for snowshoes. They’re compact, easy to use and a must for staying on top of snow that’s deeper than your shins. My buddy, meanwhile, brought backcountry touring skis, which are wider than standard skis in order to stay atop deep snow. Without the snowshoes and skis, we would have been postholing with every step, which is exhausting, far too slow and not a lot of fun.

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Hauling gear in and game out is hard work at the best of times, and it’s even more difficult in deep snow. My friend got around this by making a homemade ski pulk to pull behind him (above). All he needed was an inexpensive, high-density polyethylene utility sled, some plastic pipe, a waist belt from a large backpack and a handful of hardware to connect everything together. If you would like to build one yourself, you can find a variety of plans and ideas on the Internet.

The hunt

When we arrived at Moose Mountain Provincial Park before sunrise on day one of our hunt, moonlight illuminated the wide-open spaces, allowing for a good look through the clearings in the forest and out onto the lakes. After loading our gear into backpacks and the pulk, we headed out, hoping to find a fresh elk trail. I headed south, while my partner skied west. Our plan was to meet at a predetermined spot around noon.

The frozen waterways allowed for quick travel, and I made good time. I found a narrow spit of land between two small lakes that served as a natural funnel for animals. There were a few elk tracks, but it was difficult to tell how fresh they were. Just as the first rays of sunlight washed across the winter sky, I bundled up, sat in the cold and waited.

After an hour, the cold crept through my boots and chilled my feet. I decided to move and logged many more kilometres hoping to find fresh tracks. A strong wind was shifting the powdery snow, however, and even my own tracks soon disappeared behind me.

The snowshoes (below) were working well except for one thing—thanks to a warm spell one week earlier, the surface of the snow was glazed in ice that crunched with every step. Still, I carried on as quietly as possible, stopping periodically to scan the south-facing slopes in hopes of discovering an elk snoozing in the sun.

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Finding elk outside of the rut is much more difficult than during, as they’re not disclosing their locations with bugles and mews. We’d selected this particular area to hunt because my partner had found plenty of fresh sign during a scouting trip a few weeks earlier. But by the time we began, it was the last part of the season and the elk had already been hunted hard. Feeling pressured, they’d no doubt changed their pattern. After many kilometres, we ended day one without seeing one elk. It was proving to be a more difficult hunt than I had anticipated.

On day two, we decided to skirt the west side of the park. We saw several elk tracks crossing the road as we travelled south to a central access point. The advantage of this site was that it had several well-used snowmobile trails that we could follow into the park. The bad part was, we didn’t know whether the noise from the machines had created another elk-free area. Time would tell.

As I followed one trail just before first light, there were several spots where elk had been travelling east into the park. The tracks were relatively fresh, but it was difficult to tell whether they were made within the past hour or in the middle of the night. The good news was, the tracks were headed into the park, meaning at least some elk had to be nearby.

I’d left my snowshoes in the truck, thinking it would be faster and quieter without them on the hard-packed snowmobile trails. My buddy used his skis again and quickly disappeared from sight off the trail. Unlike my snowshoes, his skis didn’t break through the icy surface with each stride, making for a much more stealthy approach.

Again, the plan was to meet up at noon. After the first two kilometres, I’d counted 10 fresh elk tracks crossing my path. But to follow them meant wading through thigh-deep snow in the bush, so I stayed on the trail hoping to come across a herd. At one point, the trail led me onto a lake, so I moved quickly to get back into the trees and out of sight of any elk that might have been nearby.

Then it happened—I got that feeling you get when you know you’re being watched. Scanning the treeline, I watched for movement. And there he was, hiding in the trees: a raghorn bull elk. He promptly spooked and took off, but instead of running farther into the bush, he ran out onto the lake. On a fast trot, he headed for the spot where the trail jutted back into the forest.

Dropping to the prone position, I rested my rifle on my pack for stability. Not being a fan of the running shot, even on targets the size of an elk, I yelled, “Hey!” The bull stopped for a split second, just long enough for me to squeeze off a shot. He flinched and ran into the trees. 

Flat on my belly on a frozen lake on a frosty February morning in Saskatchewan. That’s not how most people envision elk hunting, myself included. But it most certainly was the position I found myself in. Did I really just shoot an elk on a wide-open frozen lake? I thought.

dedLowell Strauss

I’m sure it was a good shot, because I heard the thwack of the impact. I picked myself up, brushed off the snow and slipped on my pack. Making my way to where the elk paused, I saw bright red blood in the snow. I followed his trail to the trees, and there he was, expired about 10 metres from the snowmobile trail (above). Conveniently sheltered by the trees from the brisk breeze, I tagged and field dressed the bull, propping open the chest cavity to let it cool down.

I met my buddy around noon at our rendezvous spot. “Did you see anything?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied smugly. “That’s blood on my pants.” After a double take, he realized the shot he’d heard earlier that morning was me taking my bull.

After retracing my footsteps to the downed elk, we removed the bones to make the load as light as possible. Equipped with the pulk and an extra sled, we hauled all the deboned meat, as well as the antlers and hide, back to the truck in just one trip (below).

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Aside from my own personal accomplishment, this late-season hunt also met its conservation goals. Some 1,400 hunters took part, and the park’s elk numbers are now back in check. It also taught me an important lesson: closely read the regulations every year, as you never know when there might be a special controlled hunt. By seeking out and taking advantage of such unique opportunities, you not only get to spend more time in the woods, you can also do your part for wildlife management. And that’s a win-win.

Saskatchewan contributor Lowell Strauss also frequently writes about dogs for Outdoor Canada.