5:30 A.M. It’s almost completely dark, I can’t see anything around me but my breath in the 25 degree morning air. The sound of a distant elk bugling and breaking branches with his antlers is coming from the west. The frosty grass crunches under my feet as I slowly make my way across the open meadow toward a small pine grove. I’m trying to control my shivering, but the cold is biting at me through my layers of clothing – the first couple of minutes out of the truck are always the hardest. My eyes are beginning to adjust to the low light level. I can almost make out the fallen timber that snags my boots as I fumble around among the pines. I’m trying to be as quiet as possible, but I feel like a bull in a china shop. Finally reaching the edge of the trees, I wipe the frost off of a big fallen log and sit down. Silence. The light is getting a little better now, and I can just make out the faint outline of bushes and trees around me. I set up my tripod and camera and begin scanning the grasses and pines, listening and looking for movement mostly, because shapes can be very deceiving in this light. On a similar morning recently, an attempt to photograph a lone bull moose in a bushy bog had somehow transformed into a lone photographer sitting under the only bush in an otherwise barren bog surrounded by several moose as the light improved. The stillness is interrupted by the sound of cracking timber under hooves, elk in the pines to the west are on the move. A nearby bugle fills the air, and shapes explode out of the trees and into the meadow in front of me. A group of cow and calf elk spills out into the grass, and a big bull stomps out of the trees and lets out a long bugle.
Suddenly two “bushes” to my right stand up and become bull elk, and each of them respond with their own unique rutting call. The big bull herds his harem into the open, circling the cows and calves and chasing stragglers back into the center of the group. Young spike bulls hover around the outskirts of the herd, nervously bugling and then running away as soon as the dominant bull approaches. Satellite bulls, usually 3, 4 or 5 pointers, circle the group and attempt to lure cows away from the herd. One satellite bull gets too close to the ladies, and the big guy chases him far to the south. Two other satellites seize the opportunity and rush in on the herd, scattering the group in every direction. A cow and two calves run right past me and into the timber, followed by a bugling 4 point bull with broken brow tines. I can hear them crashing around right behind me, but I can’t turn around. Even the slightest movement might give away my location and ruin my chances of getting the shots of the big bull that I want. A cow runs right up to me, stops, tilts her head as she stares at me, then runs off – the light is getting better. The herd bull has now returned, and is furiously bellowing and running in circles as he tries to get the cows herded again. A calf gets in front of the bull and the big guy lowers his head, ramming the calf with his antlers and tossing it out of the way. The calf slowly gets up and limps back to the safety of the herd. The satellite bull in the trees behind me is bugling and breaking branches, and it’s beginning to get the harem bull’s attention. The big guy bugles and grunts a couple of times, and when the smaller bull bugles back, the dominant bull heads in my direction at full speed. I scoot to my left against a tree, and the big guy stops in his tracks, about 15 feet away, staring at me. He bugles and lowers his head, and the cow and calf shoot out of the pines to my right, followed by the satellite bull. The big bull lifts his head and bugles.
Click, click, click – still too dark for my camera, blurry shot. The bull stares at me for a couple of seconds, then turns and goes back to rounding up his harem. I gather my things and head to the truck – 6:30, time for work.