CATALOOCHEE, NC -  Last weekend I took my second trip deep into the mountains of North Carolina to photograph the Cataloochee elk.  On my last trip, in January, I was trying to capture frost and possibly snow, but on this trip, my main focus was the incredible opportunities offered by the rut.

For those who do not know, the rut is the time of the year where the male (bull) elk is in search of cows with whom to mate.  During this time, the bull elk is extremely high on his natural hormone, testosterone. His main goal is mating and defending this harem.  Bulls will bugle to define their territory and fight head to head with rival males.

After a long car ride of about 3 hours, I exited interstate 40, and began the 10 mile trip through the rugged mountain pass.  This pass is 10 miles of dirt road that can barely fit two vehicles side by side.  At several points during the drive, it actually narrows to one car traffic.  It in the winter time it could be down right deadly.  This is a not a trip for anyone with mountain and height phobias.

After about twenty minutes to a half hour, I entered Cataloochee Valley and began searching for signs of elk.  The first several fields were empty except for a single young bull making his way to the other side of the valley.  I pressed on until I located several other photographers parked along the dirt road (always a good sign) and from there I could view the main herd on a hillside. 

On this particular day, the temperature had dropped to 50 degrees, a wind was blowing out of the west ,and scatterings of cold rain fell throughout the day.  Elk are not generally put off by such weather as they have thick coats to handle these conditions. The photographer on the other hand is a different story!  Donning my long sleeved thermal shirt, jeans, waterproof shoes, windbreaker and my photography gear, I got out of my car to setup for the shoot.

The elk were a long way off initially and simply too far for any great images.  This is where you just sit back, relax and enjoy the beauty God has put before you.  Some have even made the argument that it is times like these that make wildlife photography so enjoyable.

Since I really didn't have a good angle on the subject at this point, I began to move around the far right side of the massive field before me.  I found I could tuck myself in behind a tree line as to not spook the elk.  Here I settled in and waited.  It wasn't long before I was rewarded as a beautiful, young bull moving in from behind me into the open field.  I never heard him coming and that is a good lesson for us all. Wildlife are so quiet that there is almost no sound as the move through the woods and fields.  Always be aware of your surroundings and don't get tunnel vision.  It might save your life.

As the young bull moved out into the field, I noticed a nice fall background behind him and so I moved farther down the treeline to get a better angle. I waited, because I knew he would turn and check his six.  As soon as he turned I fired off eight shots from my Canon 7D.

A young bull elk turns back toward me checking for threats. Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 150-600mm

 As the young bull moved out of range, I took some opportunities to try and shoot the herd, but they were just too far off.  I waited here a bit longer, but then moved back down the tree line, up the road and into a tree line opposite from the shot above.  It is important to note that during the rut, it is not advisable nor legal to enter the fields which are occupied by the bulls.  Failure to abide by these rules could result in fines, injury or death.  You are no match for a large bull hopped up on testosterone.

As the day wore on, I continued to follow the main herd and was rewarded with several interesting images.  During a large rain, the entire herd bedded down in the middle of a field and I captured this environmental shot showing a portion of his 19 cows and calves.

A portion of this bull's cows and calves.  I counted 19 elk total. (Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 150-600mm)

After the rain ended, the bull went around and rounded up the cows and they moved down to another area of the field to feed.  During this time, I was able to get a couple very close images.  At one point the bull was only about 20 feet from me.  The rule is that you are not allowed to approach the elk, but they may do so at their choosing.  If this happens back away slowly and make no aggressive movements.

Generally, you want to get the entire rack (antlers) in the photo, but here I was going for a tighter portrait showing his eye, muzzle and powerful neck.  Note you can also see how wet he is from the morning rain (Canon EOS 1D Mark II, Sigma 150-600mm)

Bringing up the rear of the herd was this calf.  Unfortunately this is often how calves are lured away by coyotes and sometimes attacked by black bears.  Today, this little guy did fine.  (Canon 1D Mark II, Sigma 150-600mm- Image erroneously stamped 2014)

As the day wore on, so did the rain.  At times, with the wind whipping and me being ill prepared for the cold, it was quite cutting.  This of course is the life of the wildlife photographer and I fully embrace it and love it.  The sun did peek out from time to time though as seen in this photograph below of the bull elk.  Here the bull has his head tilted back smelling the air for the scent of the cows in estrus. (Canon 1D Mark II, Sigma 150-600mm)

Image above erroneously stamped as 2014. It should be 2016.

I have a few more images to post here, but I think you get the idea.  I had, as always, a great time photographing these amazing animals.  Just watching them is often reward enough, but taking images I can share with you, is really the reason I do this.  I hope you enjoyed seeing them, and I hope I can continue providing them for many years to come.

God Bless!


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