Hunting > Big Game

Find More Elk

If you have a hunting buddy, divide up promising territory, then share what you each found back at camp—doing so will double your chances of locating elk pockets.


Because my elk-hunting partner rudely decided to move three hours away, taking his horses with him, last season I was forced to hunt locally along with every other Joe trying to get into elk within 45 minutes of town. Not that I hadn’t been here before, but having had phenomenal bowhunting the previous season courtesy of Bob’s horses, my predicament was a bit of a letdown.

I’d decided to try a new spot one morning and got up extra early to beat other hunters to the trailhead. My goal was to reach the top of the mountain by first light. I never got that far. While taking my morning constitutional within 150 yards of my vehicle (well to the side of the trail), I noticed the aroma of elk urine.

So that morning, while listening to hunters’ trucks moving up and down the canyon road, I played cat-and-mouse with two bulls that obviously didn’t operate by the rule book. They bedded within a stone’s throw of lots of human activity. Though by nature I’m one of those farther-is-better kind of hunters, I realized more than ever before that hunting pressured land doesn’t necessarily mean packing in farther than most hunters are willing to go. I realized once again that you have to consider how hunting pressure affects elk. If all the hunter activity was up high, why wouldn’t the elk move lower? Until then I just assumed the elk would simply move to a quieter drainage.

Maximize Your Options
If you have the wherewithal to get deep into the high country, I still say, “Go for it.” It’s just that, wherever you hunt, however, you need to plan for contingencies. Elk country is vast, but pockets of elk activity are here and there. If you’re packing in, plan to camp within a few hours’ hike of multiple drainages and bowls that have moist, cool timber. Investing all of your hopes in one big basin or one mountainside that has a few finger ridges to break up the country means the area can get burned out fast from the pressure you or other hunters exert on the resident elk. Even if you don’t bump any elk, every time you hunt you’re leaving trails of human scent.

If you’re slugging it out with locals or car campers full of hunters like you might be in Colorado’s super-accessible national forests, you’ll need to be more creative in where you search for elk. Getting out early and hunting till dark—when elk are most active anyway—will maximize your chances of escaping the crowds. So will avoiding weekends and holidays.

Pinpoint Elk Pockets
Whenever you hunt, remember that the bow season can be hot. Gravitate toward shaded, cool spots where elk get relief from the sun. As the sun rises, elk will typically head for thick timber on north-facing slopes. Two exceptions are thickets of young firs that offer shade, even on sunny exposures, and finger ridges that face wherever a strong wind happens to be blowing. For afternoons seek out east-facing slopes that fall into shade first. Elk will be active earlier there, giving you more time to find vocal bulls.

Use pack trails to learn the country or to reach your destination fast, but be aware that most hunters will hunt along those very same trails. To avoid competition, hunt areas well off the beaten path.

Because there will be plenty of hunters like me who think the more pain, the more gain, explore country most hunters walk right by—land just off trailheads and roads. Better yet, focus on small draws and drainages without pack trails. Most hunters worry about getting lost. Learn to navigate the backcountry and your opportunities will increase exponentially. This is why the more convoluted the country you hunt, the better your chances of finding undisturbed elk. Every small ridge can create pockets of good elk cover.

Use Your Nose
Fresh elk urine is rank and musky—seek it out and you’ll find more elk. In the semi-arid West, elk tracks made weeks ago can look fresh, as can rubs on trees. You might be in a spot that looks lousy with elk, but if there’s no fresh elk scent, they’re no longer there. Elk won’t take much pressure before they move out. They also have what I call “mini-migrations” each fall, moving to different places as the fall progresses. So trust your nose. Even if you can’t see any tracks or rubs, the smell of fresh urine is undeniable evidence that elk are around.

That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the right sign. If an area doesn’t reek of fresh urine, keep walking. The key is being able to distinguish fresh from old urine. Old urine smells heavily of ammonia but can linger for more than a week; the fresh stuff is rank and musky.

Technology is Your Friend
Hunters have more tools than ever for ferreting out pockets of elk on public land. Topo maps are indispensible resources in the field; use them to detect potential feeding areas, water sources, bogs and benches and bowls with shaded timber. Some maps are hopelessly out of date. They’ll show the land’s contours, but they won’t show where, for example, logging might have occurred in the last 20 years. Not to worry: Thanks to Google maps and satellite imagery, you can check everything out on your computer back home. And with a GPS you can navigate off the beaten path with confidence.

If you have a hunting buddy, don’t waste a precious scouting resource by hunting together, at least during your first few days out. Dividing up promising territory, then sharing what you each found back at camp, will double your chances of locating elk pockets.

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