I had an opportunity few others ever get when I got to hunt elk in my home state of Michigan in December, 2014! I drew an any elk tag this past summer, which meant I could shoot a bull, so I started my research right away this past July. I spoke with several guides and DNR officers for information. One thing I quickly learned was that the “glory days” of the bull hunters killing giant elk pretty regularly are past us. The harsh winter, some over-hunting, and poaching in recent years has left the elk herd in Michigan down from years past. Five-plus years ago, a bull tag in December would almost guarantee a hunter a 340″+ bull. Now, a 300″ bull was a real trophy and something I’d have to likely work very hard for. That said, the bull to cow ratio is good. There are lots of young bulls in the herd. So with a once in a lifetime opportunity, I decided to hire a guide and give myself my best chances at shooting a bull to be proud of.
Justin Olk recommended I call Preston Casselman. Justin is a friend in the hunting industry (Game of Inches, Dreampoint Productions), and he had gotten lucky a couple years ago when he too drew a Michigan bull elk tag. His tag had been for the early season. Like me, he was dealt some very tough conditions, which I’ll get into shortly, but with the expertise of Preston guiding him, he shot a nice 5×5 bull on his last day of hunting. I spoke with several other guides from the list the DNR provided. Not to discriminate, but I was looking for someone a bit younger, and with experience. I didn’t just want to road-hunt like a lot of the “old guides” seem to do up there. It’s an effective method at times, and legal, but I wanted my Michigan elk hunting experience to be more than that. I also wanted to make sure my guide had an intimate knowledge of the area. Knowing every road, trail, field, clear-cut, and habitat type would be critical to success and something I couldn’t simply learn in a few days of scouting when you’re talking about an area that covers about an entire Michigan county! I spoke with Preston a couple times on the phone, and in mid-July we met in Gaylord to make sure we’d be a good fit. Preston is my age (39),
and he’s been guiding with his father, Dennis, since he was about 14. They prefer tracking elk, when conditions favor it. Road hunting is, as Preston described, “a necessary evil” at times, but he assured me we would get our exercise! Preston plants a lot of the food plots for the DNR, spending a lot of time in the Pigeon River Forest. It was clear during our conversations that he knew the area and the animals extremely well. He even pointed out a field my son Jacob and I walked to that evening in July where we watched 19 elk feed in a young cornfield. Preston was down to earth, and told it to me like it was, not sugar coating the herd situation. He didn’t give a hard sales pitch like a lot of outfitters yet he didn’t understate this once in a lifetime tag I was holding. My decision was made and I now just had to wait for December 6th to come around!
As December drew near, circumstances were not looking great. Gaylord got 4 feet of snow the 3rd week of November. I was about to start shopping for snowshoes for the hunt! But then the rains came, and warmer weather melted pretty much all the snow! Muzzleloader deer season also opened the day before the elk opener. A full moon on the opener, and a 10-day forecast that showed no precipitation of any kind meant we may be in for a rough hunt! I’ve elk hunted before in tough conditions and you seem to get just first light and last light activity, but this time we didn’t even have a rut to cling to. To top it off, we had what could be described as a record mast crop this year. There were acorns everywhere! This really spreads the elk out. Our work was cut out for us.
That week prior to the hunt, Preston explained over the phone that he had a couple bulls “close to” 300 inches located but admitted that he just wasn’t seeing the bigger bulls he’d seen in the past. They would be worth a look if they didn’t get spooked by muzzleloader hunters. But conditions were going to be tough. I felt my expectations were realistic as I made the drive north to Gaylord. I didn’t expect an easy hunt, and I was ready to work hard, but I couldn’t help but feel like a kid on Christmas Eve as the anticipation for my hunt built!
Preston hooked me up with a cabin a buddy of his had for rent just east of Vanderbilt. Thanks for the accommodations, Norm! Norm has an auto repair business in Gaylord and I want to thank him for the nice place to stay, along with him going out of his way to look at my truck one day while I was out hunting because the brakes didn’t seem right. Checkout N & J Repair if you’re ever in need of auto repair in Gaylord! Norm’s cabin was a sweet little elk camp! Not fancy, but satellite TV, washer dryer, kitchen and bath…everything a guy could ask for and more during the hunt of a lifetime!
The day before the elk opener, the DNR hosted a mandatory elk hunter orientation in Johannesburg, Michigan (about 12 miles east of Gaylord). During the presentation, we learned more about the elk herd in Michigan. Guides talked about hunting practices and DNR officers talked about safety, herd info, and tagging and registration processes. This is also where we received our kill tag and a bag of goodies from local businesses. My anticipation for the hunt only grew stronger!
My good friend, Eric Dementer, had also driven into town for the hunt. Eric and I have been best buds since high school, where we fished and hunted together every chance we could. The military kept him far away for many years but an early medical retirement brought him back to our hometown of Gladstone, Michigan, 2 years ago, and I cherished his willingness to drive down and join me for a few days on my once in a lifetime opportunity.
The evening before the opener, Preston drove Eric and me around the area to check for elk. One of Preston’s friends, Johnny, checked a different area because he would be guiding a young cow hunter the next day. We ended up seeing a couple cows and a small bull during our drive. Johnny and his cow hunter, however located a dandy 6×6 in the area they drove around in. They texted us a picture, and we agreed he’d likely hit at or just over that 300″ mark I’d set my standards for, at least early in the hunt. Man it was hard to sleep that night!
Michigan Elk Hunt: Opening Day
Opening morning dawned cold and frosty… about 14 degrees. Without snow, we couldn’t check roads for tracks, so the morning plan was to check certain fields for elk. Well, wouldn’t you know it, we crawled the truck into a “smaller” field about 10 minutes after daylight, and there stood 3 bulls at the back of it. One of them looked pretty good! Preston and I looked it over. They were 300 yards and paying no attention to us. “Is he 300 inches?” I asked Preston. I could hear his hesitation, “He’s close if he’s not.” I could see the bull was heavy and mature, but his fifths and thirds were pretty short. I couldn’t believe it, but 10 minutes into the hunt I was about to pass on a beautiful 6×6 Michigan bull elk! I could tell he was one I’d regret if it ended up being the largest I saw, but…. I had 9 days to hunt, there were a few other bulls now we thought were about his size that we still had chances at getting a look at, AND…honestly…I was looking for more of a hunt. I really didn’t want to just jump out of the truck and whack one 10 minutes into my hunt of a lifetime, especially when it really wasn’t a true “no brainer”. Yes, I felt good as we left that field. All my experiences from here forward might not have been had I shot that bull, and I was at peace with that.
Morning action ceased almost as soon as it started, but about an hour and a half later, we got a call from Johnny that his cow hunter had tagged out. Cool! So we drove over to where they were and met up with them to help celebrate and lend a hand. I recall his name was Cameron, and the 14 year old had dropped a nice cow right by the road. Easy work! We listened to his story, took a few pictures, and before long were back on our way. The woods being basically snow-less and dry, made still hunting and tracking about impossible, so we had no choice but to road hunt for now. The elk in northern Michigan are used to gawkers, and as long as you keep your vehicle running, they seem to be okay. We road hunted the next few hours then broke for lunch at a little bar in Vanderbilt.
Good food, refueled, and back at it, we headed out for the afternoon where we were to still hunt our way to a clearcut way back in the woods. It was an area Preston had watched a nice bull a few times before season. It was Saturday, however, and unfortunately we had 4 different trucks of muzzleloader deer hunters parked about a quarter mile apart right in the area we were wanting to head into. With the dry, crunchy (loud) conditions, we’d be lucky if they hadn’t already spooked the elk. Nevertheless, we found another way in to that clearcut and for the last few hours of the day, we made a long slow walk through some beautiful country. No elk sighted. End of day 1.
Elk Hunt Day 2
Day 2 was a similar scenario. At first light we spotted bulls about 1000 yards across a field. We had to wait about 20 minutes before good light. As we crawled close enough, I got eyes on 4 of the 6 bulls…all dinks. We backed out and drove around. Preston had a good idea where they were heading, and 10 minutes later we rounded a corner and there they were up in the woods. For about 15 minutes, we painstakingly tried to get eyes on each bull through the thick hardwoods. Eventually we did…only small bulls. Onward we went. However, as we turned the truck around at a private property boundary, we hadn’t gone 100 yards back the other way and several bulls jumped across the road in front of us! Four of them were part of the group we’d already watched, but two of them had pretty good racks! They stopped up on a ridge about 70 yards from us, and a quick glance with my Vortex binocs revealed a decent 6×6 (not a shooter) and a dandy, mature bull…but his right saber was broke clean off at the base! I’d have been really tempted to shoot him if he wasn’t broken, but since he was it made passing him easier. Still, he looked awesome in the bright morning sunlight. The elk slowly moved off, but then stood and watched us for a while on the ridge from about 125 yards out. What a neat sight!
The rest of morning two proved uneventful other than some great scenery and even better stories from Preston and Eric. For lunch, I wanted to head over to Atlanta to get a look at the elk pole that they have in town. They run an elk contest but only for the first two days of season, so this was our chance to go have a look. I had a touch of remorse in passing those 2 nicest bulls to this point when I saw that the small 7×6 that held “biggest elk” so far in the contest wasn’t nearly as big as the two I’d passed! Either of those would’ve won biggest rack and probably heaviest elk, and I could’ve won a couple rifles! No worries though, I was having a blast and felt good about prolonging my hunt by passing those elk.
After some sight seeing around Michigan’s elk capital (Atlanta), and lunch at Driftwood Point (good food!), we were back on our way. A nice local at the elk pole did give us a tip on a private landowner that usually had good elk around and may let us hunt, so Eric and I took a quick detour to stop by there on our way back to meet up with Preston. The landowner, however, hadn’t seen any elk around the property for several weeks, another indicator they were really keyed on the acorns in the national forest. Worth a try at least!
For the afternoon and evening, Preston took us to a walk-in only area that we’d seen several elk tracks go into during our morning drive-around. Since still hunting conditions were so loud, we’d stay right on the two-track until sign indicated a need to move. As we got about a mile in, we picked up fresh cow tracks in what little snow there was. We crept out to a clearcut and only saw a few deer. As we reached the south end of the clearcut, it was obvious the large group of cows had gotten past here already. We quickly decided to haul tail back to the truck so we’d still have about 20 minutes of daylight to drive around and hopefully get a look at the herd before dark. As we hustled back to the truck, we passed another guide with a cow hunter. The guide was driving his little blazer back in this walk-in-only area…figure that one out! No time to worry about them…keep marching! Well, after about three-quarters of a mile, and just a few hundred yards shy of the truck… elk! I scoped at least 30 different cows as they walked along a ridge paralleling the road…not a bull in the bunch. An exciting end to day two!
Elk Hunt, Day 3
About 20 minutes before daylight, we crept our truck up close to a field we planned on checking at first light. Suddenly, a bull crossed in front of us through our headlights! Then another, then another… at least five of them! With no snow, legal shooting hours arrived but it was still too dark to shoot. So we killed the lights and waited. We knew the bulls, if still in the field up ahead, would probably be a couple hundred yards out so we had to be sure we could look their racks over well enough.
But as we waited, the same guide from the previous day with his cow hunter, came crawling up the road in his blazer from the other direction! Out they popped and starting scoping the elk. Well, they appeared oblivious to us there waiting on them, so we figured we’d better go get a look before they spooked the elk into the woods. As we approached, sure enough there were 6 bulls out about 200 yards…no cows. I used my Vortex in the dim light to determine no shooters. Some “last couple days” bulls for sure, a couple small 5 and 6 points, but young…onward we went to check some other fields before it got too far into the morning.
We did see a few other small bulls that morning, but nothing even close to big enough. Preston’s father, Dennis, joined us as he had tagged out his bull hunter in a different unit with a decent 6×6. We broke for lunch in Vienna… had burgers at J&B’s Bar & Grill…good eats!
For our evening hunt, Preston took us on a long walk back in to a giant food plot he’d planted earlier in the summer. It was about a 2 mile walk each way, but pretty easy walking. Nothing. Sign indicated elk hadn’t been in the plot in a while…further proof those acorns were still the ticket! We marched back out and had just a few minutes to drive roads before dark. I got a quick look at a cow running through the woods, but that was it. However, there was some white stuff starting to fall as it got dark…snow!!!
Elk Hunt Day 4
On day four, we awoke to an inch of fresh snow… Now we’re talkin’ baby!! The snow brought us a little extra life this morning as we knew our chances just improved. Eric had to drive home so Dennis picked me up and we met up with Preston and what was becoming our “usual spot” to glass at first light. About ten minutes into shooting light, we saw 6 bulls about 80 yards from the road. There were some pine trees blocking us but I noticed the biggest one was that broken saber bull I’d passed day two! Preston and I looked at each other. The weather forecast was calling for warmer temps later in the week. We probably only had this day and the next to take advantage of this snow and then conditions would be really tough again. The decision was made to try for this bull, so I hopped out of the truck, uncased my muzzleloader, racked a primer in, and started sneaking up the road a bit.
As luck would have it, two trucks came up the road from the other direction just as I was settling in on the bull. He was at the back of the field by this time, however, and when those trucks pulled up, he hopped into the woods, and I missed my opportunity. But…today we could track them!!
We put a plan together to have Preston’s buddy, Johnny, start tracking them while I circled ahead down the road. The bulls hadn’t been really spooked, but they were in thick cover and a shot from in there was unlikely. Ten minutes later, I was in position down the road, and I heard elk coming…right at me!! More bad luck…they came out so close and so fast that I was unable to get a good shot.
Dennis joined Johnny and they stayed on the bulls’ tracks. Preston and I circled another block and anticipated where they might come through. But elk tracks revealed they’d already beaten us through. Lather, rinse, repeat. Three more times we attempted this, putting a few miles on and sweating up some clothes in the process. Each time the bull won. Finally, they got onto private ground and we had to look elsewhere.
There would be no lunch break today, however, as tracking snow meant we could stay on the elk! We found other bull tracks while tracking this first group, so when those went onto private, we headed back and picked up new tracks. In one group, there was a pair of small bulls, not shooters. In another group, the elk also made it to private ground before we got a good look. But overall, we had a really exciting day, putting on more miles this day than probably the first 3 combined! It was clear that Preston, Dennis, and Johnny were in their element with this tracking snow…to heck with that road hunting stuff!
Elk Hunt Day 5
Some parts of the Pigeon River Forest got a really light dusting of snow overnight…just enough to “deaden” the tracks from the previous day and make this morning’s stand out easily. For an hour before daylight, we drove roads looking for fresh bull tracks. Preston and I split off from Johnny and Dennis to cover more ground and quickly assess where elk had gone in and not come out. It was really cool seeing how they operate!
As daylight arrived, Preston and I inched our way in his old Toyota along a small two-track through some hardwoods. There were fresh tracks along the road and we were figuring out our next steps, when suddenly a bull jumped across the road in front of us! Out we flew, I primed the muzzleloader, and we snuck up the two-track. About 50 yards from the truck, we heard elk moving in the thick stuff to our left, so we hustled forward in hopes of getting a look. Preston and I spotted the two bulls about simultaneously. I scoped them, Preston used his binocs. “The second one’s pretty decent,” Preston said… all I needed to hear on Day Five. I had no angle from my spot so I hustled forward ten feet to Preston’s. But luck was on the elk’s side again as the elk got past us in the thick stuff without a good shot.
We stayed on their tracks for a while until it was clear that the terrain we were in was going to make it about impossible to get a shot before they spotted us and were gone. So we did a switcharoo and Dennis and Preston tracked some other elk tracks for a few hours while Johnny and I played the “circle around” game. Preston was tracking a good bull after a bit too…they even got a pretty good look at him twice. Johnny and I made a few long hikes, even jogged, to try to anticipate where the bull might come into an opening or cross a road. Eventually, the old bull got into a swamp that was just too thick to make it worth going after. On to the next bull!
Around noon, we decided to head back over to the area we’d ended up in the previous night, only focus more on the oaks. On our way, another guide with a cow hunter gave us a lead on a spot right over there where he’d seen some bull tracks cross the road that morning. So we got over there and did some more driving of the perimeters. We did find the tracks the guy had told us about. There appeared to be a decent bull track in with a few other smaller elk, but we had let Dennis out to walk the 4th edge of the block where we couldn’t drive and he’d picked up a lone big bull track going in. We didn’t see anything coming out in the 3 mile perimeter, so things were looking good! This time, I opted to pull out my Remington Model 700 30.06 and case my muzzleloader, just on the chance that a quick second shot may be necessary during this fast action of tracking elk.
We tracked the bull only about 200 yards when we got into a thick area with a couple points up ahead. I just knew he’d probably be bedded in there, just like deer and elk usually favor (watch Hill Country Bucks to learn more about bedding habits of these animals in hilly terrain). Sure enough, not ten seconds later, Dennis whispers “There!” We only saw some tan hide through the thick cover, and we heard antlers hitting branches, before the bull escaped unharmed. Preston’s plan was to follow the tracks a couple hundred yards to determine where the bull was headed. Then we’d put a plan together.
A couple hundred yards later, we glimpsed the bull one more time as he crested a hill, but still not well enough to know how big he was. At this point, we had Johnny go back to the truck to pick us up if we reached the road, we had Dennis stay on the track, and Preston and I circled downwind, anticipating the bull to circle back around. Unfortunately, the bull didn’t circle just yet, and he got across the road into another block before we saw him. When we met up with the guys at the road, we decided to have Johnny and Dennis go in on the track in this next block. Preston and I would again try to circle downwind. We felt the bull would either try circling back to where we first jumped him or he’d stay straight and head up into a swamp where we couldn’t get him anyway.
After about a half hour, Preston and I were in position along an opening. Twice we ran to different spots, each time just not feeling right about it. Finally we plopped down in a good opening where I could see about 100-150 yards each way. We hadn’t been there but a minute, and there he was! I saw a dark maned bull sneaking through the woods out towards our opening. The bull wasn’t running but he sure wasn’t going slow. Fortunately, as he reached the opening, he cautiously slowed to give a look. Preston, over my shoulder with the binocs, whispered, “he’s a good one, shoot him!” I confirmed in my scope that he had good mass and looked mature. As the bull slowed to a stop at the opening, I centered the crosshairs on the bulls ribs and, “WHU-BOOM!!!!”
I heard the unmistakable thump of the bullet hitting its mark. Preston confirmed, “You got him.” I quickly racked another shell in and attempted to find the bull in my scope. The bull walked quickly about 50 yards into the cover and stopped. I could only see a few bits and pieces but enough to see him start wobbling and staggering.
“Yeah baby!!” I high-fived Preston as we both knew my Michigan elk hunt was now over…so bittersweet! As we approached my bull, we saw a heavy, dark-antlered, mature 6×6. I was pumped! What a thrill to have everything play out the way it did. What a thrill to have a chance to hunt bull elk in my home state of Michigan!! It was an evening of celebration, pizza at the bar in Vanderbilt, phone calls and texts to friends and family, and a thrill to drive back to my home in Plainwell with a big Michigan bull elk in tow!
My bull ended up being the largest racked and heaviest bull killed during the 2014 December Michigan elk hunt. I’m very thankful to Preston Casselman, Dennis Casselman, and Johnny for their hard work and for sharing in my hunt of a lifetime!