Hunting public land is always a bit of a crapshoot: No matter how early you start hiking, you never know when a couple guys on horses will pass you. So when I came upon two sets of fresh bull tracks in 3 inches of fresh powder, it didn't take much convincing to take up the trail.
A couple hundred yards later the bull tracks climbed onto an old logging road and followed it around the curve of the mountain. On flat ground elk can cover a lot of country fast, but they could also stop to feed on the grass planted along the banks and edges. With any luck these bulls would be doing precisely that on their way to bed.
Sure enough, their tracks fell into a pattern of looping toward the inside bank to feed on chest-high grass, then returning to the middle of the road to cover 50 yards or so. Knowing this would likely continue, I kept my rifle at ready and continued trailing. Within a half-hour I was staring at two tan elk butts 100 yards away, and after 15 minutes of shadowing them, one of the bulls picked up its head, looked in my direction and turned broadside. I couldn't resist.
After quartering the 6-point and returning to the trailhead for my pack, I was shocked to see no other hunters around. It had been a mild fall, and most hunters were still waiting until harsher weather started the migration flowing from nearby Yellowstone Park. No one had apparently taken the advantage of new snow into account.
The Great Equalizer
Not that you can't track bulls and bucks down in snow that's been around for days. In fact, if you keep close enough tabs on the weather, you can find many windows of opportunity most hunters don't even consider. For instance, as long as it has stayed cold since a powdery snow fell and the snow hasn't compacted yet, watch the forecast for winds of 15 mph and more. Old tracks will fill in fast, and even relatively new tracks will begin to accumulate powder.
Also, hunt warm days when the snow starts to melt. Older tracks will dish out, and fresh tracks will show every small detail of the hooves that made them. Smart hunters keep constant track of the weather, and when conditions are about to change, they'll determine how that will affect their hunting spots. I've found AccuWeather.com to be an excellent hunting tool, especially using its hour-by-hour forecast for the upcoming 36 to 48 hours
Where to Start
So where do you start? It can be as easy as going still-hunting and following any fresh tracks you come across, just like that 6-point I shot. But if you head out with tracking in mind, concentrate on the following places:
■ Cruise backwoods roads that go through large tracts of national forests and state lands. Park and hike along gated logging roads on public land. You can cover a lot of ground walking these roads. They also lead to multiple clear-cuts where deer and elk like to feed.
■ Ridgelines and saddles are great places to pick up a track. These natural travel corridors are particularly good for finding big tracks in big country. Bucks will cover a lot of ground searching for does.
■ Glass open parks and meadows. You don't need to be right on top of tracks to see them. Western hunters spend lots of time glassing for tracks as well as animals. After a fresh snow, tracks can be visible from more than a mile away. Even with old snow, new tracks are easy to differentiate from old ones. As long as there's direct light, new tracks will look shiny and brighter because the sun reflects off the clumps of snow kicked up in front of each footprint.
■ Field edges and funnels are great place to pick up a track. If deer are feeding on crops or food plots, walk the edges to pick up tracks going back into the timber. Key in on terrain and narrow woodlots that funnel deer movement.