Elk season is fast approaching, and in many of the western states the early rut season hunts are around six weeks away. I find myself this year with a great tag in an area that I have never hunted before. If you are in a situation like me, or maybe venturing into your first or second season hunting elk, then there is a good chance that you may also be on the hunt for a new spot. Elk hunting can be as exciting of a hunt as there is in many people’s opinion, but it can also be grueling and frustrating when you can’t fid elk. Here is how I am going about narrowing down some new areas to hunt this fall.
What Do You Want?
First, I had to ask myself what I was looking for in an elk hunting spot. Do I want to hunt big timber? Do I want to glass a lot? Am I looking to call or to spot and stalk? These are all very important questions, especially if you feel like a certain style plays more to your strengths as a hunter in comparison to others.
Over my past seasons as an elk hunter I have developed skill sets in both stalking and calling. For the longest time I spent all my energy learning how to call and communicate with elk. More recently I have pushed myself to keep the calls in my pack more often so that I could develop my stalking skills to a greater degree. No days I have the luxury of being able to play both sides of this coin, but you will have to decide for yourself what is best based on your skillset and the unit that you plan to hunt.
With the tag I have this year and the trophy potential of this nearly “once in a lifetime” type opportunity, I have chosen to mix in a large amount of glassing at a minimum. Calling can be very effective, and I would argue to the most effective when it comes to kill any bull during the rut. However, I want to narrow down my options and try to kill a bull that is old in the age class structure of this unit.
No matter which way you decide to elk hunt, habitat will remain king. The adage that “elk are where you find them” always rings true. If the habitat doesn’t hold elk, then hunting it is a waste of time. The obvious question then is “How do you narrow down an entire unit into a few spots when a lot of the country looks the same?”
Once I have determined how much I want to glass the next thing I look for on maps is bedding cover. When it comes to September many of the days will be warm to outright hot. Elk are big animals and they don’t fair well in too much heat. An elk is a big animal with less surface area for weight when compared to other animals that can with stand much more direct heat and sun like mule deer and antelope. An elk will seek complete shade under heavy timber when the temperatures are warm.
The cliché answer is to look for North facing timber, which is a decent place to start. If a ridge system has an aspect with limited North faces, it doesn’t mean it wont hold elk. East and west facing slopes can still provide dense timber stands that are adequate for elk bedding. The real key once I am in the field is finding heavy timber with no underbrush below it. The lack of underbrush comes from a lack of sunlight reaching the forest floor, and these areas are where you will typically find elk beds. Most of the elk areas I have hunted tend to provide these in stands of fir rather than pine, but I am sure some places will vary. Fir stands tend to provide much heavier shade and cooler temps than pine stands do though.
Elk seem to reuse bedding areas year after year in my experience. In an instance or two I have even killed a couple bulls by identifying which set of beds they were heading to in the morning and beating them there. When the bull showed up there another half an hour later, I was there waiting. Either way, these bedding areas are scout able in the summer, especially if you can find old or currently used beds that also have older rubs nearby. Bulls go to find the cows when they start to herd up, and so areas with good rutting activity tend to be the same year after year.
There is a lot of good timber in many units that provides this shade though, so with this I also look for flat benches. Flat spots, even small ones, tend to hold elk beds. The steeper the surrounding ground is the more this tends to be true. For this I use a topo map, and this is the primary reason I think everyone should buy a topo map of the areas they are looking to hunt for elk. The topo lines will allow you to find the small benches in hillsides that are hard to spot on satellite imagery sites like google earth. Google earth will give you the idea of how much timber cover there is and of what size. Your topo map will provide you the subtleties in contour that are important.
Look over all the heavily timbered areas in your unit that you find on google earth and then mark any corresponding benches, even ones that are slight, on your topo map. From here we can start to look for the rest of the things that elk need to survive.
Depending on the unit water could be everywhere or seemingly nowhere. Elk will need water at least once if not twice per day, and in most cases I tend to find more active beds in areas that a relatively close to some sort of water source. It doesn’t need to be a huge river, but some sort of water will be critical.
The tricky part here will be determining whether that water source is something that provides water year-round. I don’t know that I have a great answer on how to asses this other than eyeballing what the water source looks like on the topo maps and on satellite imagery and making an educated guess. Utilizing various dates of google earth imagery where available is probably the best guess I have outside of putting boots on the ground and checking.
Also take note of any water sources that cross near or on the benches that you marked earlier in the timber. These areas are likely to contain wallows on the benches. The same can also be said for any benching areas in lighter timber or brush which have water flowing across them.
Mark all of these water sources on your topo map as well and take note of any likely looking areas that may have wallows if you wish. At this point are there any spots that are starting to come together that have bedding and water in decent proximity (1/2 mile or less). Depending on the climate and the unit they may all fall into this category, or maybe none of them do.
Elk do browse some, but in September, and probably most of the year, they predominately graze from what I have experienced. They’re going to need grass to feed on. In country with a lot of heavy timber this may be your limiting factor. In open alpine country it may be the opposite and good bedding cover may isolate where the elk are.
Feeding areas are easiest to find from satellite imagery. Look for grass meadows and then mark them as accurately as possible on your topo map with reference to their location. I tent to have much better luck when selecting and hunting smaller pockets of feed. Sure, sometimes elk use massive areas of wide-open meadow, but ones that are more broken and patchier have faired much better for me in the past.
Often where I hunt these small pockets of meadows will come in strings along or near creeks. This means that they also contain water and wallows in many cases, and the wallows here are likely to be visible on satellite imagery. If you can spot heavy game trails or wallows in these pocket meadows on Google earth, you will know that you are probably headed in the right direction to finding elk.
In areas like western Oregon where a large amount of the land is predominately timber industry reprod, I tend to find the grass in stands of trees that are 8-15 feet tall in which the grass has began to grow back in between the trees in the plantation. These timber units become feed lots for the elk, and any time you see short, bushy trees you should stop and take note. These short, round, shrub-like douglas fir are growing in this manner from continual pruning of the leader and branches via elk browse.
I can’t speak to the climate types I haven’t hunted, but elk won’t survive without food. You will need to figure out what looks like elk feed and then refine your idea of that over time depending on the type of country you find yourself in. This is another great piece of intel that is picked up from on the ground scouting where you can see what kind of feed has fresh elk sign in it and then take note of what it looks like.
Putting it Together
Now sit back for a second and look at all the bedding, water and feeding areas that you have marked. Are there any near each other? What does the access from bedding to feeding look like from an elk’s perspective? Is there a rock cliff between them or can you check on Google earth and see a game trail?
Elk will certainly cover a lot of vertical elevation to transition from one to the other, but often times if there is bedding and feeding at similar elevation, they will choose to travel the sidehill. The routes between these are not only important for access by the elk to make the habitat feasible, but they are also important to your hunt. These routes can be great places to scout with trail cameras, and they can be great opportunities for calling and ambush hunting both when elk are moving in the evening and the morning.
Hopefully by now you have at least one spot that provides all the above criteria, and ideally you might have 5-15 of them. This is where I start to get a little more strategic and pick between the potential areas I have now highlighted within my unit. Some of these areas will likely be more conducive to glassing or calling or whichever method you think you want to hunt. Some will also be more accessible that others and may receive more hunting pressure.
Now that I have a list of options I start to look at trail and road access to narrow down the spots that I think may either be very hard to access for other people, or that are simply overlooked in some sort of odd location that gets driven by. If I can find spots that likely seem overlooked or that are hard to access I will start with these and circle them as my first spot to either scout or hunt (depending on how far I live from the unit). Sometimes long trail hikes into areas still get hunted very hard while a spot a mile from the trailhead in the opposite direction of the trail never gets hunted.
Hunting pressure may also not be a factor for a certain hunt either. A limited draw tag like the one I have this year gets less than 50 hunters a year, and in that case may only affect the ability of finding a giant.
With these areas circled that get the least pressure though, I now have what I would consider my first pick spots. If I am backpacking, I will look for the area with the highest concentration of these highlighted areas so that I can have multiple opportunities if I am going to spend the effort backpacking into a location. If the hunt is more day hunting based, the ability to drive to and hike into these spots in a single day from a central camp is more important. In this case I would pick a central point between them and try to camp somewhere in the middle that I could access a few of these locations from.
Also, don’t throw out the spots that look easy to access. Keep your topo map with you in the truck if not in your pack when you go to the field and have these as backups. Sometimes you may be surprised that one of them is overlooked. Other times some of the spots you had on your top tier list won’t pan out and you may need a backup plan to check out. Lastly sometimes you might find yourself with only a day or a morning left to hunt, and the only feasible way to kill an elk and pack it out quickly is to have a spot close to the road. These are all great reasons to have an easily accessible spot in your back pocket.
In closing I hope this helps you narrow down and find a new place to try this fall. Finding new country to hunt is exciting and can hold great opportunity. Over time I have refined my eye and process for finding new locations that pan out well for me. Not every one of them turns out great, but over the course of a hunt I have a couple that end up holding elk. Don’t get discouraged if spot 1-3 doesn’t end up having elk to hunt. If the sign isn’t fresh and you aren’t seeing what you want just keep moving down the list until you run into an area that works. It’s a process and a learning curve, but I do know that having a plan to start with like this has always worked out better for me than just showing up and hiking in a random direction with a bow in my hand.