Scouting for Elk by TR Michels
Scouting is important for hunting any animal. Unfortunately most non-residents, and many residents, do not have the luxury or time to scout an area for elk. For those who cannot scout there are some ways to increase their success rates. The most obvious way is to use the services of an outfitter. By using an outfitter you eliminate the need to scout, because the outfitter does it for you. They scout the area before the hunt, choose the best places to hunt and do the guiding. If you like to become more involved in the hunt you can choose a semi-guided hunt. Some guides offer pack-in and pre-scouting services to lessen the amount of time you have to scout during the hunt. A semi-guided hunt usually involves one guide for each four hunters, with the guide telling you where to hunt, rather than actually guiding you and going along. In this case you do your own daily scouting.
Another option for those who like to do their own scouting is a drop camp. A drop camp is exactly what the name implies: you are taken to the area by the guide, usually on horseback, and dropped off in an area where the camp, tents, cooking gear and firewood are ready for you. You provide your own sleeping gear and food, cook your own meals, and field dress, quarter and pack your game into camp, where the outfitter will pack it out to his headquarters. Usually you will not have horses in camp, and you have to do all of your scouting and hunting on foot. If you choose this type of hunt you should be in good physical condition, have First Aid, CPR and survival training.
If you have the ability and the time to do your own scouting, do it a couple of weeks before the hunt. For archery hunters this may be as early as late August. By this time some of the older bulls have begun to shed their velvet; making rubs, wallows; and they may be bugling and associating with the cows. However, many of the bulls may be in bachelor herds by themselves in high alpine meadows.
If you are hunting private land that you can drive on, be sure to stop far enough away from where you expect to see elk that you don’t disturb them. If you are using ATV’s to get into back country on National Forest land realize that it will alert the elk and drive them out of the area for you and every other hunter who has worked so hard to get into the area without disturbing the elk. If you really want to be successful as an elk hunter don’t go into elk country with a motor vehicle. To do a thorough job of scouting you will have to cover a lot of territory; elk home ranges may cover as much as forty square miles. Because of these large home ranges elk don’t leave a lot of sign in some of the areas they use. Not finding recent elk sign doesn’t mean there are no elk in the area, or that they won’t be using it the next day, or the next week.
Interpreting Elk Sign
When you are scouting you should look for sign along trails, in meadows, near likely bedding areas in heavy cover, and near water holes. Tracks and droppings should be evident if elk have used these areas any time in the past few months. The tracks of a mature bull elk are between 4 and 4.5 inches long without the dewclaws. Bull elk tracks have a square outline in comparison to those of cow elk and domestic cattle (that may also frequent the same area). Elk droppings are larger than deer droppings and are more oblong in shape. The pellets of bulls are often pointed on one end and indented on the other, while the pellets of cows are often pointed on both ends. When elk are foraging on moist, succulent grasses and forbes the droppings are often clumped and look like small cow pies.
When you are scouting, look for beds the elk use at night in open meadows, look for beds they use in the day in heavy cover. Look for scrapes in open nighttime bedding areas and heavily covered daytime bedding areas; and wallows near springs, low-lying areas or streams. Look for waist to shoulder height antler rubs (with the bark stripped from the tree) on pine, spruce and aspen trees. Look for broken off outer branches of spruce and brush where the bulls have thrashed the trees. Look for tooth scars (two parallel gouges from the incisor teeth) on the trees in aspen groves. All of these signs indicate elk use in the past, which means the elk may utilize the same areas again while you are hunting.
You should begin scouting by checking a topographical map to locate east-facing finger-ridges with adjacent watercourses, meadows and conifer forests. Saddles between high drainages and meadows are excellent elk crossings, and lookout points you can use to look and listen for elk. High ridges, where you can overlook several valleys and meadows, allow you to hear and see elk over a wide area. Look for elk at sunset as they come into open meadows to feed; stay as long as you can – because the bulls often don’t show themselves until the shadows cross the meadow, which may be up to a half-hour after the cows first begin to appear. When you see elk at sunset watch them to see which way the go when it gets dark. If they are not disturbed during the night, they may stay in the meadow all night long, or return to it again the next morning.
In the morning elk often feed until the shadows recede, then they move into nearby wooded areas to bed, usually near water they can use during midday. If you know where these bedding areas are before the hunt it makes it much easier to locate the elk once the season opens. Check wooded areas you think may be used as the bedding sites. When you find bedding areas determine if there is a way to stalk or ambush the elk while they are in the bedding area, or as they move into or out of it. Do not go into the bedding area as long as the elk are there; wait until you are sure the elk have left their beds, realizing that most forested bedding areas are used during the day, not at night.
When you see elk, take note of where they appear, the time you saw them in relation to sunrise or sunset, and which way they came from and left. When you hear bulls bugling, try to locate them by sight, or pinpoint them by sound, and record the time and place on your map and in your journal. Be careful not to disturb the elk during these scouting trips, particularly if you are using private land. If you “bump” the elk they may leave the area and not return for some time. You may drive them off the property – where you can’t hunt, but someone else can. The best tactic is to scout, observe, record and pattern the movement of the elk without disturbing them.
Becoming a Predator
One of the reasons humans aren’t successful when they hunt is because they don’t become a hunter. Putting on hunting clothes and picking up a hunting weapon does not make you a hunter. Taking a weapon into the field with the intention of hunting does not make you a hunter, or maybe it does. It does not make you what you should be if you want to be good as a hunter, that your ancestors were, which was a predator. The difference between a hunter and a predator is that the predator has an intimate knowledge of the game in the area, the area itself, and knows where to find the game under the current time of year, time of day and current environmental conditions. If you have hunted the same property for several years you understand what I mean.
The more experience you have on a particular piece of land, the more familiar you are with it. The more experience you have hunting, the better you’re hunting skills and hunting technique is. The more experience you have hunting particular species, the more you will know how it reacts at particular times of the year and times of the day under different environmental conditions. The more experience you have hunting a particular species on a particular piece of land, the more you will know where to find the animals on that land under all conditions.
A predator knows where to find the game under all conditions. To be successful as a predator you have to know the land, and the species; understand how the species will react under all environmental conditions; and have experience hunting the species, use proven, successful hunting techniques and be a good hunter.
One of the biggest problems for hunters is not knowing the lay of the land. Hunters don’t know the lay of the land because they may have never hunted it before or have not spent enough time and effort scouting it. No one can teach you the land. You have to learn the lay of the land yourself; and the more hours and years you spend on it, the more you will know about it. You can cut corners by getting information from someone who knows the land, and by having and being able to use topographical maps and aerial photos, which will give you an idea where the preferred habitat of the game is.
But, if you don’t understand the game you won’t know what type of habit it prefers or where to find it under varying environmental conditions. You can learn about the game by reading, listening to others, watching videos and by watching the animals themselves. The more time and effort you put into trying to understand the animals, the better you will be at predicting where to find them under all types of weather conditions. The best way to learn about the animals is to research them thoroughly and gain all the knowledge you can, then spend time and effort watching and hunting the animals yourself. Knowledge is only a partial substitute for personal experience.
You can learn good hunting techniques, but without good hunting skills, learned through personal experience, even the best hunting techniques won’t do you any good. Hunting skills (being quiet, unseen, unscented and a proficient shot) must be sharpened by putting them into practice over several years. The traits of patience, perseverance, persistence and curiosity are possessed by predators and can be taught through self-discipline. These traits and skills must be combined to make a good predatory hunter.
Knowing you should stay downwind of big game, knowing when to sit still and be quiet, knowing that if you hunt all day you’re chances of seeing game are good; and doing it is not the same thing. Knowing there may be an animal just over the next hill; and going there to find out is not the same thing. Knowing that sitting it out in cold, windy, wet weather will probably help your chances of seeing a trophy whitetail buck, or a flock of bluebills; and suffering through the weather is not the same thing. Knowing that putting in more time and effort will help you learn more, see more and become a better hunter; and just thinking about it, is not the same thing. Reading and listening can help you know and understand, but you have to supply the time, effort and experience if you want to become a predatory hunter.