“Elk are where you find them, not where you want them to be”
Unless you have been living on a deserted island, you know who Dirk Durham is. His involvement with ELK101 and some various podcasts is what first got my attention. Then, in 2017, he exploded into instant elk hunting fame and YouTube stardom while hunting with The Born and Raised crew during the Land of the Free project.
In that epic YouTube series, Dirk skillfully secures his place in Western hunting legend. His humble yet hilarious personality is the only thing louder than his insane bugling skills. His personal brand is fitting; The Bugler. Dirk has a few world championship bugling titles under his belt, and an elk hunting track record that would be the envy of anybody who has had the pleasure of pursuing these monsters.
I first met Dirk at The Bighorn Show in Spokane, WA. I accused him of being the Garth Brooks of elk calling. Without missing a beat, he went right into an off-key rendition of “Friends in Low Places,” which highlights his sense of humor and instant likability.
Originally from Weippe, ID (which will be a significant detail later on), Dirk now lives where the river runs wide in Orofino, ID. I was able to catch up with him for this discussion.
Buckle up for a wild ride in elk hunting philosophy, as I sit down with Dirk and discuss the nooks and crannies of hunting, conservation, and advice from one of the leading experts on the mountain!
Jim: Alright Dirk, I always start with this; describe your earliest hunting memory.
Dirk: My first real big game hunt was when I was probably 8 years old. We had gone grouse hunting for as long as I can remember, but never actual boots on the ground for deer. I remember deer hunting with my dad for the first time. He was rifle hunting and I was carrying a small recurve bow that I had gotten from a neighbor’s yard sale. We saw tons of deer as back in those days, the deer herd was very strong. We walked a few miles that crisp October evening, but he didn’t get his deer that time.
Jim: What does hunting mean to you?
Dirk: Hunting has a deep spiritual meaning to me personally. As in; I connect with the forest and its creatures. Whether it’s the wild flowers, fall colors, squirrels, birds, or screaming bulls. It feeds my primal urge to be wild and hunt my food. It’s more than just killing animals. It’s becoming part of nature and finding where I fit into this world. It’s where I go find myself again, after modern day strife has taken pieces of me away. Hunting gives me a reason to do the things I do, and a place to be myself.
Jim: Tell us why elk hunting is your favorite:
Dirk: Elk are my favorite for many reasons. They live in beautiful mountain vistas, and they endure those harsh environmental conditions. Their size, strength, and how they are built for war with each other, elk are tough. But most of all, I love communicating with them. There’s nothing better than fooling a big old bull elk with your calls and have him come all the way in to fight. If I can call one in that’s 100% committed, I’ve accomplished my mission. If we can take him home with us to feed our families, well, that’s just icing on the cake.
Jim: Describe your thoughts on conservation in the West.
Dirk: Conservation is very important to hunters. We are the original conservationists. Sportsman’s dollars are put to work across the United States to a multitude of conservation programs. Unlike many so-called environmentalists and pseudo conservation organizations, hunter’s dollars go to work for the animals and their habitat, instead of emotionally based lawsuits.
Jim: What would you say your position on public lands is?
Dirk: I’m all for public land 100%. I’m not for adding any more wilderness areas to Idaho. We have a vast landscape of Roadless and non-motorized land already. There’s no need to make it a wilderness. We need to keep the backcountry trails open to dirt bikes where already permitted, because let’s face it, the USFS isn’t going to maintain most of the trails and the dirt bikers are the only ones cutting out the windfalls. Public land needs to be accessible for the public- Hikers, horseman, hunters, dirt bikers, and ATV’s. But all these groups must respect the rules of use and not abuse them. If the public cannot utilize the public land, then is it really “public?”
Jim: Good point. Let’s switch gears. How old were you when you got your first elk, and how did you become an elk hunter?
Dirk: I was raised in a hunting family. I listened to my dad and uncle tell takes of the “good old days” as I was growing up. My dad served in WW2 as a Marine in the South Pacific. When he returned from the war, he needed to find himself. He moved to Idaho. He found solitude and a vast backcountry and began to find himself again.
When I was eight years old or so, I remember watching a film where some hunters took to the mountains in search of bighorn sheep, goats, and elk. I was mesmerized and told my mom that’s what I wanted to do when I grow up- “hunt for a living.” Of course, my folks laughed. I never have sought a career in the hunting industry until recently. I had always just lived the hunting lifestyle and had jobs that would support it.
I began deer hunting successfully at thirteen, and found so many unanswered questions about the deer and where they live. I began scouting the forest year-round trying to figure them out. September 1st, when I was fourteen, my dad dropped me off before daylight to watch a pond, as I had been seeing bear tracks there and I wanted to shoot a bear. I began to hear the brush crackling and I thought “here we go, here comes my bear!” But to my dismay, it was elk! Three cows and a rag horn bull. I sat and watched as they drank and splashed around in the water. All I could think about was “if I only had a bow I could totally kill that bull!” My dad picked me up and I chattered like a squirrel about what I’d seen that morning. I said “take me to town so I can buy arrows and broadheads for my bow because I needed to get back out there the next morning to shoot that elk.” He laughed and said “you can’t kill a bull elk with a bow and arrow.” I was crushed and infuriated! I told him I’d save my money and do it next year.
So, I did just that. I worked the next summer putting up hay for the local farmers, bought a bow, all the gear, and elk calls. I spent the summer learning how to use them. Drivers Ed was in September, and there was NO WAY I would sacrifice my elk hunting time just to get a driver’s license when my mom or dad would just take me and drop me off. The 3rd day of September, I called in a 5×6 bull to 15 yards, made a perfect double lung shot, and the rest is history. I was fifteen, and I’ve been hooked on elk hunting with a bow ever since!
Jim: I love that story. I’m always intrigued by what different generations pass down to one another. Your wife, Jessica and you have two kids; Samantha is 23, and Austin is 21. Describe how you introduced them to hunting. Oh, and how are their bugling skills?
Dirk: From the time my kids were babies, we took them to the woods for camping and other recreation. When they were big enough to walk without me carrying them, we were in the woods looking for game. When they got a little older I would take them hunting. Austin’s first “real” elk hunt in the mountains was the day before his 10th birthday. He told me “I’ll help you drag your elk out when you get one,” he had no idea how big elk were. We called to several bulls but couldn’t connect. We rode dirt bikes around the mountain roads for the afternoon. As evening approached, I would stop and bugle off down into some hell hole to see if a bull would answer. He would look at me and say “you’re not going to hear one.” I’d laugh and say you never know. The last stop we made, I tried again and heard three bulls crack off not too far below us, so we scrambled down into the drainage to set up. In no time at all, a 5 point came in, but there was too much brush for a shot. Then another bull came in, but this time into 5 yards. I shot him and he bolted about 10 yards and stopped, looking around with confusion. I shot him again and he went down just out of sight. When we walked up to him, Austin said “dad, there’s no way we can drag this thing.” We spent the next day (his 10th birthday) packing elk meat. From then on we’ve spent time chasing bugles in the Idaho backcountry.
Austin can bugle pretty well. He and his sister both took to it easily. Neither one are really motivated to become a great elk caller. But they can both hold their own.
Jim: You have a way of making elk hunting sound easy! Aside from hunting with your son, what are some key characteristics of a great hunting partner?
Dirk: Good hunting partners must be dedicated. Willing to improvise, when need be. Someone who is a team player and wants you to succeed as much as them. Someone who will commit and follow through with the efforts of scouting, hunting, meat packing, etc. It’s important for you and your partners to be on the same page and share the same style of hunting. It’s hard to take two people with two different ways of hunting or thought processes to meet in the middle and make them blend.
Jim: How about hunting elk solo? Do you have a preference?
Dirk: I love hunting alone. Don’t get me wrong, I love hunting with my friends and family, but I enjoy being by myself and feeling small and vulnerable to the wild. I like making all the decisions, right or wrong. It’s all me. I have nobody to blame but myself. Complete ownership of the hunt. I like being alone to have no distractions and gather my thoughts, reconnecting with what makes me tick.
Jim: On the Elk Talk Podcast with Randy Newberg and Corey Jacobsen, you were asked to describe something you coined The Weippe Whiz Bang. What in the world is it?
Dirk: It’s basically a very aggressive tactic I use when I’ve been working a bull for quite some time and he’s hung up at 50 yards or so, in thick cover. It’s not for every scenario or type of terrain. It works best in thick brush and trees when the bull is really worked up, but won’t take a step closer and you’re at a stalemate.
You scream a challenge bugle at the bull and charge towards him 10-15 yards. You must be sure he can’t see you when you apply this tactic. Put a bushy tree or thick cover between you two, and charge him. Stop when you get to a place for a clear shot, so you are ready when the bull shows himself.
Jim: That sounds crazy, and crazy is right up my ally. Let’s turn the conversation to what may be a bit controversial. In your opinion, how has elk hunting changed since the reintroduction of wolves?
Dirk: Since wolves have saturated Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, the game has changed drastically. The Clearwater herd of North Central Idaho at one time boasted the largest elk herd of any state. We had a bad winter kill in 1996, The same year wolves were introduced. The elk numbers started to rebound, but by the year 2001, wolf numbers had increased to a point in which they started decimating the elk herds. We are at a point in North Idaho of no return, unless wolf numbers can be exponentially reduced. The wolves have eaten and moved most of the backcountry elk in North & Central Idaho. It’s a crying shame. The Wolf activists call themselves animal lovers, but they are far from it when you look at the backcountry wasteland we have today.
As far as tactics go, you simply can’t just go and set up a camp these days and hunt your one favorite drainage. Elk are constantly adapting to the presence of wolves. One drainage might be good one day, and completely quiet the next. Hunters must be mobile, and not get stuck on one spot. You must be willing to relocate 20-50 miles to hunt a different area if need be. What does that mean for non-resident hunters? It makes it much more difficult to have a successful hunt when you can’t find elk. I’m lucky because I live here and I’m familiar with the areas where elk can be found… Sometimes.
Jim: So, if you had all the legislative power in the West, how would you choose to manage wolves?
Dirk: If it were up to me, I’d first pass legislation to where it is illegal to continuously litigate the wolf debacle. It’s big business for the law firms to sue the state and federal government. The states should be able to use whatever means and go to any lengths they need to keep wolf numbers in check. Wolf management costs should be funded by the environmental groups who continue to litigate against wolf management.
Once the legalities of wolf management are in place and final, the states should take a hard line in wolf reduction to a point that our ungulates are able to recover from the onslaught of the wolves.
Should we wipe wolves off the face of the earth? No. But we as sportsmen should not have to sit by and let emotionally based lawsuits dictate the biological welfare of our game animals.
Jim: I would agree with that. Does your elk-calling change at all when hunting in wolf country?
Dirk: My calling is the same in wolf country as it is in non-wolf country. I cover lots of ground in search of a bull who wants to fight. Once found, I get aggressive.
Jim: Interesting. Let’s say you could separate the two, would you prefer hunting in grizzly country or wolf country?
Dirk: That’s a hard question. Nobody would typically answer that they would prefer hunting around grizzly bears. From my experience in hunting both areas, elk are more vocal in grizzly country than wolf infested country. Hunting in grizzly country heightens your awareness for sure, keeping your head on a swivel. I’m looking for elk that will bugle and wolf country does not usually lend itself to that.
Jim: Shifting gears again, let’s turn to helping hunters up their game. First, why are you such an effective elk hunter?
Dirk: I’d say having a never-give-up attitude and learning how to call elk. Without one of them, I’d be much less successful.
Jim: Let’s pretend we know a person who has never seen an elk or touched a bugle tube. They want to go archery elk hunting this year. What do you tell them?
Dirk: The best advice I can give is this: Buy at least four different diaphragm reeds. Find one that works for you. If you don’t find it with the first four, buy more until you find one that works for you. It might take investing $100, but I guarantee it will be worth it. So many hunters think it’s their own shortcomings that hold them up with elk calls, but more times than not, it’s the call they are trying to use. Once they have a call they like, PRACTICE! It takes practice to sound authentic. The better you sound the better you become.
Learn how to use Google Earth, and then learn how to use OnX Maps. Once you figure out the nuances between the two, they are a very powerful tool.
Watch elk hunting videos. Familiarize yourself with what elk hunting looks like. What it feels like. What you can expect on the hunt, and what elk sound like.
Set achievable goals. Set yourself up for success by hunting areas that have a large number of elk. Sometimes finding elk can be the largest hurdle.
Lastly, don’t set your goal to shoot a giant bull your first year out. Set out to take the first legal elk that is within your effective range.
Jim: What is the biggest misconception about hunting elk that new hunters have?
Dirk: That they must be miles into the backcountry to hunt and kill elk. There are elk that get overlooked, closer to your pickup than you might think…
Jim: How about any misconceptions on calling elk?
Dirk: Being too passive. Effective elk calling is an aggressive activity. If you’re too passive, elk lose interest and move away. You must evoke anger inside a bull if you want them to fight.
Jim: How proficient at bugling and calling does one need to be to get a reaction out of an elk?
Dirk: As with anything that’s worthwhile, the better you are- the better the results. You have to sound like an elk. Some sound beautiful, some sound sick. But you have to sound authentic, and you have to put emotion in your calls.
Jim: So, what about finding elk?
Dirk: If you’re wanting to call your elk in, don’t fall in love with the place you’re hunting. Fall in love with finding a bull that wants to fight. Elk are where you find them, not necessarily where you want them to be. More on this later.
Jim: I’m guilty of that. What does the future of elk hunting look like to you?
Dirk: I think elk hunting has a bright future as we have new hunters joining in each year. The key to longevity is this: our hunting rights get challenged on the daily. As hunters, we are kind of a passive bunch when it comes to getting involved for a cause. We must unite as one. Not bow hunters, gun hunters, etc. We are ALL hunters and we must stand together to keep the image of hunting tasteful, and then push back against the anti’s who want to steal away our way of life.
Jim: What would be an authentic Dirk Durham quote that would forever stand out in a new hunter’s mind?
Dirk: My favorite one that I use, and I got from my dad was this;
“Elk are where you find them”
It always frustrated me as a kid when he would tell me that. But years later I began to understand the meaning. Like I said before; “Elk are where you find them, not necessarily where you want them to be”. I can’t tell you how many times I got caught up in where I was going to kill an elk, instead of just focusing on finding one I could kill.
Jim: All great advice, Dirk. When you’re not chasing elk, what do you do as a day job?
Dirk: Just recently I went all in with elk hunting. That is, now I work for Phelps Game Calls as the Sales and Marketing manager.
Jim: You have recently released some calls with Phelps. The Maverick diaphragm reed happens to be my new favorite. Tell us about it.
Dirk: Jason Phelps had wanted to do a collaboration for quite some time, and since the call company who I’d been using their products for years wasn’t beating down my door, I thought “I want to do business with someone who finds value in me and has faith in me.”
I wanted to take everything I didn’t like about other diaphragm reeds, and fix it. I wanted to build a bulletproof call that wouldn’t blow out after one morning of calling. I wanted quality control that would lend itself to “call to call” consistency from one year to the next. I didn’t want customers buying 10 calls and only finding 2-3 that were good calls and the rest being garbage. Most of all, I wanted the call to be articulate, and sound authentic. We set some lofty goals, but I think we really nailed it. Veteran callers and new callers alike have given us tons of positive feedback. We hold the manufacturing tolerances to the highest standard on the Maverick.
As far as the name goes, I had another name picked out. Unfortunately, another call company had a similar name, and we didn’t want any friction between us and them. So, it was back to the drawing board. I looked at tons of names and spent a few hours with my nose in the thesaurus. Maverick kept popping up. I liked the ring of it, but when you look up the definition, it described me and my calling style perfectly.
Maverick: An unorthodox or independent-minded person.
Jim: What else have you been involved with?
Dirk: Besides working for Phelps and building my personal brand, THEBUGLER, I’ve made some appearances with Born and Raised Outdoors and ELK101 on their YouTube elk hunting series’. I also work hard advocating for whitetail deer here in Northern Idaho as president of NIWF (North Idaho Whitetails Forever).
You can buy my calls (The Maverick, and The Renegade Bugle Tube, etc.), hats and t-shirts from my website- www.thebuglerbrand.com
Jim: This has been a lot of fun. What would Mrs. Durham tell the world that we don’t know about you?
Jessica Durham: Dirk has been known to bugle in his sleep!
Jim: If there was a Pay-Per-View style arm wrestling match between you and Corey Jacobsen, who would I put my money on?
Dirk: Im betting on me left handed for sure as most guys aren’t good left handed. But, I’m not sure about right… He might be working out!
Jim: How about we close this out by you telling us who you consider to be the most influential hunting mentor in your life.
Dirk: I look up to authentic people. The “what you see is what you get” kind of guys. No fabricated BS to make things look better than they are.
When I was a kid I watched a lot of Larry D Jones, and thought he was pretty neat (still do think he’s neat).
Today, I look up to guys like Ryan Lampers, and Dan Staton. These guys hunt for the love of it and have dedication like no other. I also look up to my good friend Mark Cochran. Mark is a guy who doesn’t want a spotlight on him and likes to fly under the radar, but has killed more big Idaho bulls than about anyone I know. He’s tough, and hunts some of the toughest country I’ve seen. And he does it to just be out there for the love of it.
There you have it! Dirk’s authenticity will be one for the ages. He is an example of a principled sportsman, a wildly successful hunter, a conservationist, and a willing voice in hunting entertainment and education.
Do yourself a favor and make sure you are following TheBugler on Facebook and Instagram. Also, his YouTube channel is a must!
It’s been a blast doing this project with Dirk. We both love Northern Idaho and chasing September elk. I’m looking forward to see what he has planned for this fall, rumor has it that he is hiring a camera man as we speak…
In the distance, I can see September coming. I would guess you’re as excited as I am… See you on the mountain!