Hunting Roosevelt Elk

by Patrick Meitin

Anyone who’s followed my writing understands I’ve spent a great deal of time bowhunting and guiding for Rocky Mountain elk. I guided paying elk hunters 23 years, have personally taken something like 13 P&Y-quality bulls with bow and arrow. I’ve learned a thing or two about Rocky Mountain elk but upon first venturing to the Pacific Northwest to try my hand at Roosevelt, I found the education I had received in the elk habitat of the Southwest had left me ill-prepared to succeed on the secretive Roosevelt elk. I gained a lot of newfound respect for those who find regular archery success on the shaggy coastal wapiti. I’ve long rated public-lands Coues whitetail as the toughest trophy in all of North America. After bowhunting both Oregon and Washington public-lands Roosevelt I now consider them just as hard-won as the Coues. The big qualifier here being “public lands,” as there are, no doubt, private preserves or exclusive properties out there where hunting pressure is light and big bulls less secretive and reclusive – or British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

Roosevelt Elk Thrive In Thick Vegetation
The lush coastal ranges of the Pacific Northwest are thickly overgrown and tediously difficult to traverse quickly.

Roosevelt are found only in the wet, dripping coastal ranges of the Pacific Northwest, a limited range that makes them little known to outsiders. This encompasses habitat from extreme northwestern California (where tags are tightly controlled) through extreme western Oregon and Washington (with over-the-counter archery tags available) and north to British Columbia’s Vancouver Island (were the biggest bulls live but limited tags mean hunts run from $15,000 to $20,000). These challenging rainforest environments include limited visibility and often non-stop rain.

On average Roosevelt elk sport much smaller antlers than their Rocky Mountain cousins, though the very largest bulls can score in the 350s and 360s (The highest-scoring Rocky Mountains 40 to 50 inches more). And while 225 inches gets your name into archery record books, 260 inches is required to enter Rocky Mountain elk. Roosevelt make up for their smaller antlers with notably larger body mass, a combination of lush feed and mild winters often creating real live weights in excess of 1,000 pounds. For an elk hunter used to handling 700-pound animals it is a real eye opener.

Roosevelt Elk Taken In Oregon
Scott Haugen is no stranger to Roosevelt elk hunting.  He took this handsome bull on Oregon's central coast region.

Calling is how most Roosevelt are tagged by bowhunters, though some patiently sit stands to get their bull. The myth that has long stood says that Roosevelt bulls rarely bugle. It’s the nature of the habitat that’s likely created this long-held wives’ tale. In those swallowing Coast Range confines hearing elk talk is simply less likely; bugles quickly soaked up by thronged vegetation. The greater surprise is that even the biggest bulls in Roosevelt country respond to calls, to bugling. In fact, if it weren’t for this fact few would be tagged at all.

Too, bowhunting Roosevelt isn’t the physical dodge I’d grown accustomed to through bowhunting Rocky Mountain elk. Roosevelt hunting is a game of chess, covering ground, yes, but doing so smartly. Most importantly, to get a bow shot you don’t go to Roosevelt. Roosevelt must come to you.

My own Roosevelt hunts have consisted mostly of traveling labyrinthine logging roads in a truck, parking well back from landings or inconspicuous road bends, stalking road edges to bugle into sudden clearcuts. We occasionally and quietly trekked blocked logging skids, bugling at odd intervals, but typically turned back when that skid abruptly ended. On rare occasions my hosts might lead the way in investigating a secreted, fern-blanketed bench that traditionally harbored elk. This normally meant fighting nasty brush and spiked devil’s club a half mile or more, choking on fern dust, emerging to produce a couple bugles that fell on seemingly deaf ears before turning around and fighting back.

Logging Creates Feeding Areas For Elk
Logging activity in Pacific Northwest Roosevelt habitat creates new feeding areas and access roads allowing you to cover more ground in less time.

Roosevelt’s demeanor seems to more closely mirror that of whitetail deer than nomadic Rocky Mountain elk. Fresh sign is everywhere, but the elk themselves remain invisible. You’re typically hunting on faith gained through scouting. The locals I have hunted with spend countless hours during summer months locating elk concentrations, and particular bulls, glassing open clearcuts, attempting to establish patterns, determining if new logging activity has created or destroyed hotspots. In short, it’s the kind of scouting that holds little reward when bowhunting Rocky Mountain elk. Rocky Mountain elk seldom camp out on a single swatch of ground very long. Roosevelt are simply less inclined to wander. Even with hunting pressure they are more likely to hunker down than seek greener pastures. For this reason alone my efforts to tag my first Roosevelt meant concentrating efforts on a relative few locations, almost to the point of tedium.

While bowhunting Roosevelt I’ve normally spent at least as much time in the truck as hiking. For the bowhunter used to stretching his legs it becomes somewhat monotonous. This is not the physical game of bowhunting elk at home, but something more mental in nature. During my first hunt, for example, in four days we’d discovered only one bugling bull – completely uninterested in our calls. We approached seven or eight cows and a single spike in three separate encounters. At home, bowhunting Rocky Mountain elk, I might average six to eight encounters for every shot opportunity, making bowhunting success a game of numbers. With Roosevelt we certainly were not racking up anything close to such figures – in all fairness due most entirely to dry, hot weather that sent elk into the darkest, thickest cover. This is part of the long odds in bow-killing a Roosevelt bull – creating enough encounters to make something happen at all.

In the end I did get a Roosevelt on my first bowhunt for them. But approaching my downed bull I fully understood how lucky I’d been. Roosevelt just might be North America’s toughest archery trophy. The steep, jungley terrain’s certainly portion, the secretive nature of animals evolved in such a dark and obscuring place, but I’ve also come to understand Roosevelt hunting requires as much mental toughness as Rocky Mountain elk requires physical stamina.

No doubt about it; Roosevelt are different.

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