I've only hunted for deer a handful of days and never for elk. I'm a pheasant and quail hunter. But I've got several friends and neighbors who hunt both big-game species and here's what I've noticed:
Deer hunting for them is "recreational.'' They are out enjoying the woods, a bit ambivalent if they kill a buck or not, and have light-hearted good humor. There's always the four-day late season in mid-November if they really want a deer.
Elk hunting for them is a serious, serious matter. It's an intense time. The season is short and they hunt hard. Some elk camps are nicer than the first house I rented.
I asked several hunters and wildlife biologists if they've notice the same thing, and most said they have to some degree.
"The prize (elk) is often the largest animal they will ever hunt and that makes the hunt competitive at times,'' said Pat Miller, a veteran state wildlife biologist based in Longview. "There’s a race to get to the clear-cut first thing in the morning to the point of driving or hiking up in the middle of the night or several hours before daylight to be the first to look over that special unit.
"Elk season is the most common time that we see disputes over who killed an elk — that is also an indication of how important folks see the prize.''
Rob Phillips of Yakima, a hunter, free-lance writer and advertising executive, said there is a difference in deer hunters and elk hunters in a very similar way as between steelhead anglers and salmon anglers.
"It seems many of the salmon anglers are elk hunters, and deer hunters are steelhead anglers,'' Phillips said. "I have no proof of this, but my hunting and fishing buddies and I have discussed it many times.
"For some reason the pursuit of elk and salmon brings out a different crowd. It is hard to put a finger on the reason why, maybe it is as simple as elk are bigger animals, provide more meat, and seem to have more appeal with the hunter looking for meat for the freezer. Same with salmon. It is a bigger prize.''
State wildlife biologist Eric Holman of Clark County said he thinks the geography of the United States has an influence.
In the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., whitetail deer are the premier big-game species and hunters are very serious about deer.
"In the western U.S., there are many varieties of big-game animals including elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, moose, bighorn sheep, bear, cougar, pronghorn, mountain goats, etc.,'' Holman said. "I think that this generally has a way of sort of watering down the importance of blacktail deer to the hunting community.''
And, as Miller and Phillips noted, elk are bigger.
"Elk are very desirable because they are bigger, can have massive antlers, and often are regarded as better to eat than deer,'' Holman added.
Ray Croswell of Washougal, primarily a deer hunter, said elk hunters may place more importance on getting an animal.
"I would think when it comes to trophy hunters it does not matter if it's elk or or deer,'' he said.
Oregon author and hunter Scott Haugen gives seminars at Northwest sportsmen's shows and calls blacktail deer "the hardest animal in North America to hunt, bar none.''
Miller said blacktails are harder to hunt than elk.
"They are often in very small groups, they blend better with the background and they are smaller,'' he said. "It might be that the blacktail deer trophy is harder to get than a mule deer or whitetail.''
Holman said mule deer are "generally easier to hunt because of the habitats that they inhabit.''
Even though hunting areas for elk often are crowded, "elk have that appeal,'' Phillips said.
"I can't tell you why, but there is definitely a difference between the deer hunters and elk hunters, even though some are definitely the same folks.''