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Scouting for elk and what you should know about your hunting area.


Scouting for elk and what you should know about your hunting area.
by Cody Hensen

It's that time of year again, time to be out scouting and looking for bulls to hunt this coming Fall. 

Desktop scouting - Before ever going into the field, I suggest pouring over USGS quad maps and aerial photos (Google Earth is a GREAT resource).  Mapping programs can give you a 3-D image of the terrain.  This can save much time in the field.  Things to look for include:

Feeding areas - remember, these tend to be South and West slopes.  These can also be high alpine basins, avalanche chutes, old clear cuts and burns. 

Bedding areas - these tend to be North and East slopes.  Elk like to bed on finger ridges, usually in thick timber and on slopes that are near the top of the ridge.  I also like to look for benches; these are popular elk bedding areas as well.

Saddles - these are ALWAYS a good bet for game crossing areas.  These are also great spots to sit during the heat of the day.

Water - some areas of the country, this is VERY important.  In Montana where I hunt, it is not as important because there is water almost everywhere.  Still, you will need to try and figure out where these elk are watering.

Wallows - When it's hot out, bulls wallow often to help cool themselves.  Look for springs and at the head of small creeks not far from bedding areas to search for wallows.  These are another great place to hunt during the heat of the day.

Vantage points - It is obvious that anyone serious about scouting is going to be doing a lot of glassing.  Look for open ridges, rock slides, rocky points and other areas where you can see lots of country.

Heading to the field - By now, I have already locked into my GPS the coordinates of anything that looks “elky” from the maps and aerial photos.  Now its time to go ground check them.   While in the field you should be looking for the following:

Tracks - take the time to look closely at the tracks you are seeing.  Are they consistently in the area and in all directions, or were there just a few elk passing through?  Are they lone bulls or groups of bulls or mostly cows and calves?

Scat - Scat can tell you a lot about what time of year the animals are using that area.  If you are in and area an all the scat that you are seeing is clumped together, that is probably not an area that will be holding elk during hunting season.  When elk scat is clumped together that means they were in the area during the spring when the grass has its highest moisture content.  You want to be looking for scat that is in pellet form.  That will signify an area that is being used in the fall during hunting season.

Rubs - These are another great indicator that elk are in the area.  Look closely at the rubs.  A good area will have rubs of various ages.   If you see rubs from years ago, clear up until the present, that is probably an area that has consistently held elk over the years.  If all the rubs are from the same year, maybe that was just an area they hung out in for one season because of a drought year, or a fire year or whatever else.  Also, look at the type of rubs.  Elk rub their antlers from the day they start stripping velvet which is usually the end of August and will continue to rub until the day the shed their antlers in early spring which is usually the end of March.  Rubs I call "rut rubs" are very obvious.  These are usually smaller trees that have been obviously rubbed with aggression involved.   These saplings have been nearly destroyed, often broken or up rooted completely after being stripped from ground to head level of all bark and branches.  They will often show signs of mud in the bark from the wallowing the bulls have been doing.  When you see these rubs and you are a bow hunter - TAKE NOTE.

Game trails - Game trails are an important discovery.  These are great places to set up ambushes with blinds and tree stands in hunting season.  More importantly though, these game trails will tell you a lot about the patterns of the elk,  when stumbling onto these game trails, I liken it to opening the middle of a book.  Follow it one way and you can read the beginning of the story - follow it to the end and find the end of the story.  These game trails are coming from somewhere important like feed, water, or cover and they are going to somewhere like feed, water or cover.

Recent burns or logging activity - These may not show up on your maps or aerial photos, but are WELL WORTH knowing about.  The grass in recent burns is highly nutritious and sought after by the elk.  Also, the reseeding that is done after logging operations is high quality feed as well.  If you have either of these in your hunting area, I can just about assure you, you will find recent and steady elk activity there.  Talk to your local Forest Service office or local Fish and Game to find out about these areas.

Licks - Licks are natural game attractors.  If there are natural licks in the area, it goes without saying that there will be game activity there.

Other things to scout  - There are some considerations to think about aside from just the terrain and the animal sign.  Some things to think about:           

Prevailing winds - It will be important to know the prevailing winds in the area so that you can plan your approaches.

Thermals - These will also play an important role in planning your approaches.  The thermals in the west work like clock work and will switch 180 degrees difference at a given time almost religiously.

Approaches - Figure out your actual approach to that high alpine meadow.  How can you get there down wind and out of sight?

Times - Time your hikes so that you know how long it will take to get there in the dark.

Other Hunting pressure - Is this going to be a factor on opening day?   You may have not seen anybody while scouting, but maybe there will be others in the area come opening day.

Escape routes - If you anticipate pressure from other hunters, figure out the most likely escape routes the elk will use and USE THIS PRESSURE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE.  Saddles are a great place for animals to escape while crossing from one drainage to another.

Tips and Tools

Mark everything of interest.  Take a note pad and pen, enter coordinates into your GPS, and mark things on your map.  My maps are my little black books that contain all my secrets and most valuable information.  I laminate all my maps and take a black Sharpie marker along and mark all the following; feed, bedding areas, water, wallows, vantage points, saddles, game trails, burns, previous kill sites, horse tie up spots  - the list goes on and on.

Take a watch and start timing your hikes like mentioned above.  It will be essential to arrive early and be set up before daylight. DON'T BE LATE.  When opening day arrives the first hour will be the golden hour.

Listen to other hunters or guides; listen for the subtle things they may say.  No hunter will come right out and say this or that but subtle questions can give you tips and pointers to hunting the area or finding a big bull.

Talk to the Fish and Game biologists, wardens and local taxidermists.  Invaluable and time saving information can be gathered from these folks.

Trail cams are another great scouting tool.  They are getting to be more affordable every year.  They are invaluable in gathering intel about 2 things.  The time the animal was there and also how big the animal is.

Good optics - This has been stressed a thousand times by a thousand writers.  It goes without saying that great optics help you see better and allow you to glass longer without getting the headaches.

Coyote camping.  Throw a lightweight stove, some Mountain House food and a sleeping bag into your pack and stay out for a few days.  This type of camping allows you to go high and camp on the vantage points where you can glass at first light and last light each day.

Remember, if scouting for archery season, scout for where the herds will be.  That's where the bulls will be.  If scouting for rifle season.  Look for the areas where the bulls can live unmolested; low pressure areas that are often remote, steep and are rugged terrain.  However, don't under estimate the areas that are close to roads and trails, but they still have to be LOW PRESSURE AREAS.  These bulls are recouping from a tough rut and will not tolerate much pressure before moving on.


great read!! good scouting is 75% of the hunt! plus it makes you feel 100% better knowing you learned this animal and hunted him verses lucking into one while driving the road!

Hunt where others don't

Keep out of the timber the few days before season opens or you end up just pushing the elk to some one elses hunting area


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