Pennsylvania's elk hunt brings unique opportunity to take record-size bulls
More than a few of Pennsylvania's elk are sick.
Not in the diseased way, thankfully. We're talking purely as a matter of size.
Knowledgeable hunters all over the world have a standard when it comes to deciding how many inches of antler it takes to make a trophy bull, said Jeremy Banfield, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's elk biologist. The elk roaming within the Keystone State are blowing it away.
“Most people, if they saw a bull that scored over 350 inches of antler, would say that's definitely a shooter. If it goes 380, that's really big. And if you get to 400 inches, that's just sick,” said Banfield.
“But every year, we get one or two bulls, if not three, that gross over 400 inches. That's just insane.”
Jack Manick of Mt. Pleasant knows about that.
One of the owners of Elk County Outfitters, he and his partners guided 15 hunters in 2011. Four of them shot bulls approaching or exceeding 400 inches, he said. One of them is the reigning state record non-typical elk, a bull that scored 442 6/8, enough to rank it No. 8 all-time in the world.
“I don't know if you can ever hope to repeat something like that,” Manick said.
Pennsylvania's hunters have come amazingly close.
The commission reinstituted elk hunting in 2001 after 70 years of no hunting. Some feared then that hunters would shoot off all of the biggest bulls right away.
That hasn't happened. In fact, the hunting has gotten better over time. The elk herd is bigger now than it was in 2001, comprising about 1,000 animals now compared to maybe 750 or 800 then, said Rawley Cogan, president and CEO of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance and previously the commission's elk biologist. The number of truly big bulls has remained steady, if not increased, he said.
The chance to take one of those animals is what makes Pennsylvania elk hunting so unique, he added.
“Pennsylvania is never going to have thousands of elk. It's just not. We've got 12 million people living here and limits on space for elk,” Cogan said.
“But what we do have is some real high-quality habitat and the ability to grow large, mature bulls. That's what most hunters are looking for. And that's our attraction.”
That's by design, Banfield said. The commission manages its elk herd for trophy bulls.
In some western states, whose elk are heavily hunted, there might be 10 “branch-antlered” bulls for every 100 cows in the herd, he said. In Pennsylvania, there are 33 to 34.
Many of those are animals are always at the height of their potential, too.
A bull elk enters its peak age about age 6, Banfield said. That's when its antlers usually sport at least six points per side, if not seven. It will maintain that size or grow even larger, through about age 10.
Banfield said the commission — by limiting bull elk hunting licenses — never lets hunters kill more of those animals in a year than naturally move into that age bracket. In other words, it's letting hunters take 27 bulls this year only because it expects at least 27 new bulls to reach age 6 by this fall.
“It's a sustainability thing,” Banfield said.
That's led to some incredible hunting, especially lately.
The elk hunt has been around for 13 years. Of the 35 elk entered in the state record book since, 11 have been taken in the past five years alone, including the top three typical and two of the top three nontypical.
That's reflection of hunters — often at the urging of their guides — understanding what's out there, Cogan said.
“I think people are becoming more selective. They're realizing, ‘I don't have to pull the trigger on day one of my hunt on the first elk I see.' They know if they wait they may have a chance at something really special,” Cogan said.
“I think that's more of the mentality out there right now.”
Manick expects good hunting to continue. The herd has expanded its range, and the animals are much warier than before, he said. The oldest, biggest bulls are finding new places to hide.
Hunters who figure out where that is may take some animals rivaling those he saw in that amazing 2011 season, he said.
“This would be a good year to get a tag,” he said. “The batch of bulls out there right now is just phenomenal.”
Banfield won't disagree. In fact, a new record “is always the possibility,” he said.
Either way, he expects to see some bruising big elk this fall. He previously worked in Montana, where the state Fish, Parks and Wildlife department estimated the elk herd at about 127,000 animals last year. The quality can't compare to what he's seen here, though.
“Not to say there aren't any big elk there, because there are, but oh my gosh, there are some big animals here. Oh my,” Banfield said.