With the possible exception of the pronghorn, there’s likely no keener eye, ear, nose and nerve combination in nature than that found in the genus Cervidae, the deer family. And within the deer family many would argue that elk are the most difficult to hunt for a number of reasons, including finely tuned senses that help them evade hunters in the vast majority of human-elk encounters.
As hunters know from hours, days and years of stalking, sitting, watching and waiting each fall in the woods, routine noises often come from three sources: squirrels, birds and the wind or other natural occurrences. The sounds of leaves rustling or branches breaking can usually be attributed to one of the three, and the telltale sounds of approaching elk (or other animals) are oftentimes nearly indistinguishable.
So hunters are constantly interpreting sounds (combined with visual input) to determine if an elk is nearby. It’s often imperative that split-second decisions be made based solely on these easy-to-misinterpret auditory inputs in order to successfully kill big game. The vast majority of noises heard by hunters do not require any action, but when they’re made by big game we must be prepared to act without being detected.
While elk hunting in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains during Oct. 2014, sitting next to a well-traveled game trail, I listened to birds and squirrels coming and going and the wind occasionally rustling leaves or breaking branches, all contributing to the “normal” background sounds of the autumn woods.
However, after a couple hours of sitting, listening and observing, a barely audible noise compelled me to (without consciously thinking about it) slightly shift my sitting position to better face the game trail. Within seconds a mule deer doe and two fawns appeared, and I immediately directed my predatorial stare slightly away from the advancing trio, tracking their progress peripherally.
In his book “On The Wild Edge,” David Petersen wrote: “Two decades of devoted wapiti watching and hundreds of thrilling hours spent close to elk, deer, bears and turkeys have convinced me that all evolved prey species are sensitive to front-set predatory eyes and can feel a carnivorous stare. It’s a major element, I believe, of the mysterious ‘sixth sense’ hunters superstitiously grant to their prey and speak of with awe and frustration.”
In “Going Trad: Out There With Elkheart,” David adds: “Psychic Staring Effect (PSE) is the term researchers attach to the creepy feeling of being watched by an unseen entity, human or otherwise. PSE, in turn … is a subset or aspect of ESP (Extrasensory Perception) … something … facilitated, quite naturally, by ancient sensory survival instincts. Such instincts logically and with good reason would have evolved through thousands of human and prehuman generations spent living and dying among fellow wildlings, some of which we ate and others, lots of others, that killed and gnawed on us.”
“My pragmatically playful conclusion,” David says, “is that our PSE episodes in the woods are the products of a little-understood evolved ability within the human brain to tally-up almost microscopically subtle clues from five physical senses, thus creating a virtual sixth sense. These clues — and here’s the ‘extra’ sensory part — are so small and fleeting that they fail to register consciously. Yet they are duly noted in the subconscious where they are stashed, at least in short-term memory. When enough clues accrue that stick together like puzzle pieces, they are combined to produce a synthesized Psychic Staring Effect that can stand our hair on end.”
As David alludes to, when the mule deer were approaching I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I’d opted to react to their subtle sounds, which were essentially indistinguishable from the natural background sounds of the woods. But somewhere deep in our genetic psyche are instincts and urges that resulted in a subconscious PSE-like reaction to face, and possibly kill, the approaching animals.
A few days later I was again sitting motionless next to a game trail and, again, subtly shifted my sitting position in response to another innocuous sound that could have been made by almost anything. My visual scan of the trail noticed something by a tree about 100 feet distant. It might have been just an overlooked branch, log or shifting sunlight, and I nearly disregarded it out of hand, but for some reason continued watching.
Within seconds the object moved: a cow elk, came down the trail, poked her head further out from behind the tree and looked down the trail in my direction. What I’d seen was her head and ears, but in the early morning light the object — superimposed against the nearly indistinguishable background mosaic of light, brush, trees and rocks — could have easily been any multitude of things, all of which were not elk.
Elk traveling in groups are usually led by an older, more experienced cow that has survived many encounters with predators (human and otherwise) thanks to her keen senses and adroit evasion skills. She peered cautiously down the trail, unable to discern my motionless form sitting in the early morning shadows, and took a few more tentative steps. Behind her another adult cow appeared, then another, followed by a calf. The bull, if there was one, would be last in line.
I slowly lifted my rifle to a less-than-ideal shooting position. The lead cow closed to within some 25 feet, and I expected to be busted any second. Still no bull. The cow stopped, sensing something wasn’t right, but was unable to identify a specific culprit. Regardless, she opted to turn around, displaying only mild alarm, and the other elk followed, moving about 75 feet away before stopping again.
Meanwhile, I held my rifle and prepared to shoot, but I also started to quiver slightly due to the strain of maintaining an uncomfortable shooting position. The lead cow noticed and stared directly at me, shifting her head to get a better view. I didn’t return the stare and continued looking past the cows for a trailing bull. Meanwhile, the other elk calmed down and were mingling around, secure in the fact that the lead cow would tip them off to any imminent danger.
Then antlers appeared behind the cows, but strength rapidly drained from my arms. The cow still stared, but antlers have turned into a head. My subtle-but-noticeable quiver persisted and the cow took a peering step forward. Finally, the bull moved into the clear. One quick, deep breath (“steady,” I whispered) and the morning calm was momentarily shattered by thundering hooves along with the death bellow of a 6×6 bull, but it was over in seconds.
Millions of years of direct contact with wilderness and hunting-gathering are hard-baked into our genes, and a mere 10,000 years of existing mostly in cities and civilizations has not changed our basic genetic makeup. A few days of hunting (sitting, listening, waiting and watching) can bring latent skills and senses back to the forefront of our daily lives, keeping vital instincts alive and, sometimes, putting meat in the freezer.
David Lien is a former air force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers . He’s the author of “Age-Old Quests: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking” and in 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream magazine as a “Hero of Conservation.”