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’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
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
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
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.