Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross: Mid-September brings elk bugling season to the mountains

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Do you speak elk? Or, more specifically, can you talk like a cow elk? If not, there’s still time to learn before the bull elk begin bugling in earnest in the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs this month. And there’s no need to invest in a set of CDs from Rosetta Stone. You’ll pick up the basics of speaking elk pretty quickly on your own.

Very soon now, the bull elk that grow big antlers in the Routt National Forest will begin bugling as the estrous cycle of the cow elk kicks in and the bulls — how can I put this delicately? — grow restless in their search for multiple female companions.

You might be thinking, “I’m not a hunter! Who cares about calling horny elk?”

I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing like walking through an aspen forest at twilight in September and hearing the eerie sound of an elk, sometimes called wapiti, bugling from across the drainage. It’s one of the most primal sounds to be heard in the natural world, and it’s accessible right in our big backyard.

You could potentially hear elk bugling on Buffalo Pass, out Twentymile Road and along Routt County Road 53 south of Hayden all the way to the Williams Fork.

I’ve even lain awake in my bed in Steamboat Springs at 4 a.m. on a September morning and heard elk bugling above Priest Creek Ranch, or farther away on Emerald Mountain.

You can improve your chances by using a simple elk call like the one known as “Cow Talk” to mimic the sound of the cows as they communicate with one another. You can purchase one for about $11, and if you can’t find one in a local sporting goods shop, they’re easy to find through national retailers. Essentially a 3-inch-long sandwich of two pieces of plastic with a taught rubber band in the middle, the Cow Talk lets amateurs like me mew like a cow elk. If you learn to put a little soul into it, you just might find yourself attracting bachelor bull elk to your patch of the forest. Be careful!

To be accurate, the term bugling doesn’t adequately describe the sound that bull elk make when they are trying to attract mates and draw challengers into battle. It begins with a high-pitched squeal that becomes raspy as it descends in pitch before being punctuated by one or two undeniably sexual grunts: E-e-E-e-e ungh! Ungh!

Cows sound more like this: E-e-yunk. E-e-yunk.

I’m not a hunter, but I have indelible memories of the times I have been in close proximity to bugling elk. There was the September night on the North Platte River, just a mile from the Wyoming border, when I was standing in the water focused on rising trout. I had already been hearing bugling before a small bull came out of a steep ravine to pursue a band of cows up the river bank in my direction. Next, a bigger bull arrived on the scene, snorting and huffing to force the smaller bull into the river next to me.

I stood motionless, seemingly unnoticed. But when all of the elk simultaneously got a whiff of me, a stampede ensued.

It was about Sept. 15 in 2008 when we watched three bulls vying to lure cows away from each other’s harems (alert: using wildlife calls is illegal in the national parks). We also spent a wild night camped in the Ashley National Forest of northern Utah on about Oct. 1, 2005, when multiple bulls kept us up all night with their bugling from all directions.

You can bet I will pack my Cow Talk in my gear bag on a trip to the mountains of Wyoming and Montana later this month. I plan to speak a little elk to the natives.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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