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Elk hunters will have the best success by getting off the roads and away from other hunters when the general season opens on October 26th. A good GPS will help guide you through the mountains of Central Washington where the elk live. (Photo courtesy Rob Phillips)

YAKIMA, Wash. — I heard the bugle in the distance. The wind was blowing and I was not totally sure it was an elk. But then, there it was again. An elk’s bugle is a little bit eerie, but it is unique and when you hear it you know it.

The bull bugled again and at that point I wondered if it was maybe another hunter trying to call an elk into muzzle loader range.

“Naw,” I said to myself. “That has to be an elk.”

So, as quietly as I could I started working my way towards where I was hearing the bugles. Every few steps I would stop and listen, and occasionally I would hear the bull bugle again.

As I approached a small draw I really slowed down and took one step at a time, pausing to listen before I moved forward slightly.

I was just starting to take another step when I heard brush rustling, and looked to my left to see a small aspen tree shaking. In the tree I could make out the antler points of an elk. I froze.

A second later the big six-point bull stepped out of the tree and stood perfectly broadside to me. He was only 60 yards away and provided the perfect shot. He took another step and raised his head and bugled again. The shrill of his call made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I could see his nostrils flare as he completed his mating call.

At that point I raised my rifle, put the green bead of the front sights right behind his front shoulder and whispered “bang!”

In short order the bull either smelled me, or saw the movement of me lowering my rifle and he turned and trotted over the rise. His lucky day for sure. I was among the many hunters in the field this week with a general elk tag in my pocket, which only allowed me to take a spike bull elk with my black powder rifle.

As any elk hunter can tell you, trying to put some delicious elk venison in the freezer is not an easy task. And when you hunt with a muzzle loader, or bow and arrow, the challenge becomes even greater.

Here in most game management units in Central Washington, you can’t just shoot any elk. Hunters need to be drawn for a special permit to shoot any bull or cow elk.

This year it was even tougher to draw a special permit. In an effort to help bring herd numbers back up to their management objectives, WDFW officials significantly reduced the number of special permits, especially for cows. So, hunters who applied for the permits for this fall’s hunting season found that their odds of getting drawn were reduced significantly.

Even without a special elk permit, hunters still turn out in large numbers to hunt in Yakima and Kittitas Counties, because that is where the biggest populations of elk are. Last year, some 17,000 hunters hit the woods in the two counties during the various modern firearm, muzzle loader and archery seasons. And they bagged 1,244 elk, including 594 antlerless elk and 650 bulls. Of the bulls taken in the district, 423 were spikes.

So, finding a legal spike is possible, but again, it is difficult. Something my hunting partners Merle Shuyler and Greg Wilson and I found as the muzzle loader elk season opened this past weekend.

Hunting up in the Manastash we found very few elk during the few days we hunted. Normally we will see quite a few elk during the muzzle loading season, but this year the animals were extremely hard to locate.

The colder weather with snow in the high elevations last week may have moved some of the animals to lower elevations and out of the area we were hunting, but whatever the reason, it was definitely an off year for us.

It might all be different when general modern firearm elk hunting season opens on Oct. 26 in most of the GMU’s in Central Washington. Again, the recent snows in the high country should get the elk moving to lower elevations. Then again, it might take more than a snow or two to spark them into moving.

No matter what the elevation, the most successful hunters are the ones who get away from the roads and the adjacent areas next to the roads. Because there are plenty of forest service roads throughout much of the most popular hunting areas, there is a considerable amount of road hunting that goes on.

Frankly, with archery elk and deer hunting seasons opening in September, and with different deer and elk seasons running up to the opening of the general elk season, the animals have been pushed around and it is hard to find an elk standing by the side of the road. Get away from the roads and you’ll see more animals.

That was our strategy, and even then we didn’t see many animals. But it was still a fun hunt. We saw several deer, a few elk, and I had a really cool encounter with a big bugling bull. No meat in the freezer, but still a great hunt.

Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at rob1@spdandg.com