Camo That Works In Elk Country & Color Vision in Elk
Bowhunters have long acknowledged the inestimable value of wearing effective camouflage when seeking to gain an advantage in pursuit of Wapiti. It has only been in the past ten years or so however, that significant numbers of hunters in the rifle hunting community have come to acknowledge this same truth. For years rifle hunters argued that since their shots would likely occur at long range, there was no need to go to the trouble and expense of buying camo-hunting gear. As many shot opportunities go during rifle season, I might agree with this argument were it not for those times, and we all know of them, when a fine bull or cow has popped up close and silent, catching the hunter “with his britches down” so-to-speak, with little cover in which to conceal his movement while he prepared for the shot. As a result there stands the hunter, a big vertical solid mass that looks and smells in every way to the elk…like a human. The elk’s reaction…swap ends and exit the country…now!
On rare occasions I have personally heard a few long-time rifle hunters say something to the effect of, “I don’t need no cam-u-flage to kill an elk.” Well, I agree, you don’t. I have yet to witness or hear of the first elk to be brought to ground by a set of camouflage. I do believe however, that all else being equal those elk hunters who choose to don camo appropriate for the season and surroundings are much more likely to sneak up on and whack a nice branch-antlered bull or a plump cow than those who do not. Let’s take a look at a few thoughts and some recent research that supports the argument that good camouflage can make all the difference between success and failure on your next elk hunt.
Color Vision in Elk
Before we go too far down the road on the value of camouflage, here is something to think about that may help persuade you to don a set of camo next time you head out to elk country. At the very least it may cause you to rethink the duds that you hunt in.
Recent research demonstrates convincingly that contrary to much popular opinion of the past, white-tailed deer, and likely by ancestral association their cervid cousin, the elk, possess the anatomical requisites (cones) for color vision and do in fact discern a limited range of colors.
Since this discussion is likely to stir the pot of conventionally held wisdom concerning whether or not deer and elk do in fact discern colors, I want to make it clear that the sources of the research that support this conclusion are from well respected, peer-reviewed individuals and studies in the scientific community and not merely from the personal experience of one or more individuals. For the most part the actual empirical work discussed here was accomplished on deer. However, I personally interviewed no less than three state or federal terrestrial elk biologists plus several state wildlife officials who agree that on a whole, the conclusions contained in this body of research as they apply to deer are very likely to apply to elk as well.
In their study, A Review of Color Vision in White-tailed Deer (Wildlife Society Bulletin, 2003) Kurt C. Vercauteren and Michael J Pipas state that “during the day deer [elk, my emphasis] discriminate colors in the range blue to yellow-green and can also distinguish longer (orange-red) wavelengths. At night deer [elk] see color in the blue to blue-green range.” This sensitivity to the blue to blue-green portion of the spectrum peaks in those low light situations as experienced during predawn and late evening or twilight periods. As hunters these are traditionally some of the times that we choose to hunt with greater frequency.
Vercauteren and Pipas further conclude that, “Although deer [elk] can visually detect the color orange, it is the brightness [luminescence] of the fluorescent clothing worn by hunters and not the color per se that most likely draws a deer’s [elk’s] attention. Those who must approach … close [to] deer [elk] without being detected should not wear bright or contrasting clothing, and must respect the deer’s [elk’s] other senses (hearing, smell) at least equally.”
In the course of my interviews, given the regulatory requirement for hunters to wear some amount of fluorescent orange during many elk hunting seasons, it was discussed that this brightness factor of such clothing can be reduced by the wearing of fluorescent orange made from softer materials like cotton or wool, as opposed to those made from harder or more slick vinyl, plastic, or synthetic materials which by their nature are more luminescent or reflective.
Back to Camo
Until recently there were few commercial camo patterns that worked well for elk hunting out here in the West. Most of the readily available patterns were designed to photo realistically mimic eastern hardwoods or marshlands. In my experience these patterns fall short of meeting the need of the elk hunter who hunts low to the ground (rarely in a treestand), above timberline, often in shady dark pine timber, on open rocky talus or sage covered slopes or in juniper brush; or in all of the above.
The purpose of camouflage is to break up the human outline and allow the hunter to become visually indistinguishable from his surroundings. In the course of any hunt we may encounter a variety of environments so we need to ensure that our camo doesn’t create a problem rather than solve one. For example, if you are hunting above timberline on a rocky or grass covered slope while wearing a dark forest type camo pattern, you will stand out from the background rather than blending into it. Conversely you will encounter a similar problem while hunting dark timber in a light colored pattern. So what is the solution? Consider two sets of camo. I typically carry one of each to elk camp, a dark set for black timber and a very generic lighter set for hunting open ground, because I do not know from day to day what type of ground I will be hunting. Some of you are bound to ask; do I come back to camp and change during the day or carry the other set in my day pack? Well I have been accused of being a bit on the anal retentive side, but I’m not that anal. In most cases I do not go to this extreme unless I find myself back in camp for other reasons.
When its time to purchase that next set of camo, consider the type of terrain and cover that is predominant in the areas that you hunt. If you hunt higher elevations where the elk are often found during pre-rut and the rut, you may find that you are hunting above timberline a lot and need a pattern that works well in the open and on rocky slopes. In this environment patterns that resemble hardwoods, or marshes could even work against you. What you will need is an open pattern of generic shapes that includes a mixture of muted shades of gray and green to help you blend in more with sage, cactus, and rocks.
Late morning and midday when the elk have moved out of their feeding areas and back into the black timber to bed down can be, in my opinion, some of the most productive times to hunt. Rather than being on the move from one area to another, elk are more sedentary during these midday hours as they rest and digest. When hunting densely forested areas and blow downs, you will want to consider using a darker more 3-D camo pattern that blends in well in a pine type environment that is dominated by shadows and deadfalls.
What Triggers the Flight Response in Elk?
Have you ever thought for sure that you were busted when a bull or cow looked you dead in the eye from close range? Yet for some unexplained reason they continued to feed or go about their business. For one I have seen this behavior dozens of times in the field and on film as well. A friend of mine recently produced a nice video on elk that depicts various scenes of large bull elk. In more than one case, the bull will curiously look directly at the cameraman, but lacking any clue as to what the object of his attention is, he continues to graze only occasionally glancing back in the direction of the camera. Let’s look at why elk exhibit this type of behavior.
My theory and that of many of the elk biologists and professionals in the field that I interviewed in the course of doing research for this book explains this unexpected behavior. It is what I like to call my “Two Strikes and You Are Out Theory.”
The self-protection mechanism of elk depends primarily upon external input to their three primary senses: smell, sound, and vision. Because an elk’s sense of smell has been so finely attuned to detect danger over thousands of generations, in the case of a snoot full of “man odor” elk may elect to trigger or flee with just this one sense receiving input. However in situations where elk receive input from either their hearing or vision, I believe and many situations such as the one discussed above support this theory, that while elk may alert (show interest) with only one sensory input, they will likely not trigger (flee) until that initial sensory input is confirmed by input from a second self-defense sensory system, i.e. two strikes and you are out.
The Bull and the Bowhunter
To help make my point, try to visualize this scene that I saw about a year ago while I was watching a video produced by the manufacturer of a scent cover-up product. In this particular scene a rather nervous bowhunter is seen kneeling behind a fallen log covered from head to toe in camo and presumably a host of scent containment systems. His trusty bow is right there in his hand but alas the hunter is as fixed as a marble statue incapable of movement. Why? Well almost certainly because this monster bull elk is standing over the hapless hunter at what appears to be less than two feet with his nose about six inches from the poor bowhunter’s left ear. Strike one.
This business of the bull elk trying to determine who or what this funny looking critter behind the log is continues for what seems like minutes. To his credit ¾ and possibly his longevity ¾ the hunter remains completely motionless throughout most of this encounter. Surely his thoughts during this “time of trial” are less on whether or not he will be successful in his hunting efforts, but likely more so on whether or not he will make it through the event with clean shorts or even if he will survive the day. After what seems to the viewer like a very prolonged engagement between the bull and the bowhunter, it appears that the hunter could no longer stand the strain and moves just a hair. Strike two! The bull immediately detects this ever-so-slight movement and does a one-eighty and hightails it for parts unknown.
Clearly in this situation the bull could see the hunter, otherwise why would he have continued to indulge his interest for so long? But without additional clues from his other senses, i.e. motion, sound or scent, the hunter remained…merely a curiosity. Once the bull’s vision sense picked up a second clue…movement, the bull’s self-preservation mechanism kicked into gear. Putting one and one together made for strike two. The bull recognized the hunter for what he was, a potential threat, and the bull triggered or reacted accordingly.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, camouflage remained for years an integral asset of the bowhunter. Today more and more bowhunters are choosing to put their entire camp on their back and head out for the backcountry leaving eighty percent or more of their fellow hunters behind is search of those elusive big bulls.
For the remainder of this essay or more information on elk hunting from Elk Hunting 201, CLICK HERE