The Right Elk Stuff

posted on September 17, 2014

“Why not go back there?” my son, Cole, exclaimed as we discussed our strategy for the day in public-land elk country under the glow of a tactical flashlight. “That’s where they were yesterday. Why wouldn’t they be there today?”

It sounded logical at first, but elk aren’t whitetails. They don’t adhere to a core home range where they retreat to much of the year. Plus, elk have a different escape behavior, one we had set in motion the day before as the herd drifted downwind of our ambush position. With heads held high and long legs in motion, the herd scattered down through the canyon and out its mouth. They may have returned to the remote canyon, but likely they would spend the day elsewhere hoping to find refuge from the increasing number of hunters now stalking the woods. It was time to bounce around for a bull and try a new location for higher odds of a chance elk meeting.

Whereas whitetails shift around in their home territory, elk simply walk out the front door without as much as a backward glance. They make major migrations from summer to winter range and vice versa. In between they may not migrate, but they definitely drift from area to area. In the natural world, outside hunting season, much of this drifting is a chase for nutrition. During the majority of the year mature bulls band together. In the winter they wander from slope to slope grazing on exposed grasses. They carefully monitor their energy expenditures, but if snow or depleted nutrition resources force a move they have no qualms about packing up and moving out. In the summer they follow a similar behavior. On the chase for the highest quality forage, bulls rove from park to park with vast home ranges and no loyalties to return to specific cores if they find other lush retreats.

During the breeding season, which correlates with hunting season in most of elk country, herds have no apprehension about disappearing as well. Elk are classified as long-legged cursors with an evolutionary tract that allows them to flee predators quickly and erratically to create confusion, essential in a semi-open environment. Long legs and a long neck work in their favor as they elegantly jog over small brush like sagebrush. With head held high they can see these obstacles and their enemies as they disappear into the surrounding terrain.

Without doubt, hunters fall into that definition of enemies today, along with wolves and bears. Although the latter two definitely have an increasing role in elk management and behavior, we as hunters can’t be discounted. According to a seven-year study recently released by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Montana State University, confirmed hunters also influence elk movement.

“Wolves influence elk distribution, movements, group sizes, and habitat selection to varying degrees in different areas, but hunting activity and hunter access have a greater impact on elk distribution, movements, group sizes, and habitat selection than do wolves,” the study reports.

As elk numbers swell throughout many areas of the West, state game-and-fish agencies rely on hunters to control herd growth, and to meet hopeful management goals. Putting more hunters in the field to meet this goal should have you considering bouncing around in anticipation of elk movement based on hunting pressure.

Elk Inclinations
To novice elk hunters, it seems like all elk country is created equal. Mountains span for miles and pines cover the slopes. You have access to national forests that oftentimes average a million or more acres per holding. Surrounding Bureau of Land Management parcels can exceed that figure. The country is there, but as larger animals still on the rebound from the trials of European settlement, elk don’t live in every square mile of elk country.

Unlike whitetail densities that may exceed 50 deer per square mile in unique circumstances and average 20 deer per square mile in many, elk densities vary depending on the terrain and time of year. Many areas only exhibit one or two elk per square mile, the year-round norm in northern regions of elk country. It can swell to six or more in southern areas and in specific, managed units. Nevertheless, elk hunter densities can oftentimes be double or triple that figure depending on the state and specific unit.

And then there is the rut. It brings animals together: You may find a bunch, possibly 10 or more in a group, but it may take you days to find them since elk numbers per square mile decrease with larger groups creating fewer encounter opportunities.

Ideal Habitat
As the Montana study and common sense point out, elk avoid humans in areas with consistent hunting pressure. No secret there. When you combine that with studies that show most hunters rarely venture more than 1.5 miles from trails, you see where to begin searching for possible areas to investigate for elk.

Jesse Bauer, a native of southwest Colorado, has been a worshipper in the house of elk since before he could walk. For nearly a decade he’s turned that reverence into an occupation by guiding elk hunters as co-owner of San Juan Outfitters. While outfitting on public lands in southwest Colorado, Bauer understands the consequences of putting all your elk eggs in one basket. When elk decide to move (it won’t be an “if”), you’ll be lonely except for the company of the occasional hunter you stumble across.

“It’s very important you know how much hunting pressure could occur in your prime hunting spot,” Bauer says. “Once other hunters discover what you already know it won’t take the elk long to leave. That’s why I always have at least two, three or more locations pre-scouted so when elk disappear, I’m ready to move and comfortable moving around the new location.”

Acquiring backup spots falls in line with your regular scouting. You simply need to expand your research, inquiries and snooping. Once you land at a solid option for your base camp, oftentimes it’s easy to begin scouting backup locations over the next ridge, mountain or at a different elevation.

An updated public-land map combined with a topographical map shows you the status of current roads, plus the topography characteristics. To get a real-world feel for your scouting areas from home, simply plug in the coordinates to a popular satellite imagery program like Google Earth. Map out areas a mile or more from roads and note them for a future, firsthand scouting mission.

“It’s real important to do most of your scouting away from roads,” says Bauer. “You can find elk off roads, possibly in steep country that most hunters look at as too extreme, or holed up on little benches protected by sheer access. But most hunters stick relatively close to the comfort of a truck. What I’ve discovered is that the elk you find farther away from a main road are more active longer in the day. I see elk changing their activity behavior when I get 3 miles or more away from an active road, and I always try to ride horses in at least 5 miles. It would take a guy hiking all day to get to the same location.”

Be sure to consider seasonal weather as well when putting X’s on the map. An 11,000-foot location in Wyoming may be snowed in, even in September, plus elk may have vacated the area for greener, lower pastures. Biologists and conservation officers can help you eliminate options and elevate others for your bounce-around efforts.

In addition to talking with biologists and public-land managers, Bauer notes that you should never underestimate the helpfulness of fellow hunters. He gets great information simply with a morning stop at the convenience store for fuel and java.

“Hunters are a pretty friendly group, and in the mornings I always ask hunters how they are doing, and if they’re seeing elk. They may not give you their exact location, but even information at what elevation they’re finding elk at is really helpful when you’re deciding what spot to hunt next.”

After zeroing in on several areas, it’s time to inventory them to ensure they have the “right elk stuff.” Habitat requirements vary depending on where you are hunting in elk country, but the basics have to be met: refuge, food and water. Hunting pressure plays a pivotal role in where elk end up, but the weather also influences travel patterns. Bauer realizes if unseasonably warm or cool temperatures occur, elk will move higher or possibly vacate timberline areas. He also believes refuge ranks higher than the other elements of survival.

“In most instances, pressured elk head for dark timber combined with steep canyons,” he says. “Elevation is also important. If elk are pushed they tend to go higher, but heat can also move them higher as well. And if they leave food behind they have no issues with traveling longer at night to meet that requirement.”

Bauer tends to head to dark timber, but he knows thick cover also attracts elk that have been pushed around. Whenever he lands in an area characterized by impenetrable, younger trees, like spruce and white fir, he takes notice. These young stands tend to materialize in moister areas, high or low, indicating water and forage. Plus, they provide dense protection in a cool setting. The concentration of young trees also gives bulls plenty of fodder for rub antics.

Steep is good. Rugged country favors elk escape efforts. Never underestimate the steepness of a slope elk will traverse to avoid you. Still, studies from Idaho to Montana demonstrate that elk favor slopes between 20 and 40 percent for daily living (baseline: 100 percent equals 45 degrees above horizontal). They rarely use slopes below or above that range; few use slopes greater than 60 percent in steepness. Elk traverse steep, rocky slopes without hesitation, but for bedding they still need flat pads to keep their roly-poly frames from rolling downhill while napping. So the advice of scouting for north-facing slopes with dark or dogtooth stands of timber meets the standard. Just use common sense.

During the early season elk seldom have difficulty finding food. Parks and meadows, large or small, provide nutrition for herds. Some lowland herds may even have the treat of agricultural fields such as alfalfa or even winter wheat. Despite the buffet, you’ll still see these elk retreating to timbered habitat if hunting pressure exists. In areas of the Southwest or in areas experiencing seasonal drought, finding food may become more problematic, requiring elk to move farther from ideal refuge.

This leads us to water. Like all mammals, elk require a good source of water; a herd needs consistent hydration. Elk senses allow them to snoop out water without difficulty, but for elk to stay in an area longer than a day or two, water has to be present. Maps pinpoint known and reliable sources of water, but many seeps, runoff basins and the like go undetected, giving elk added hydration opportunities undiscovered by mapmakers. Only firsthand accounts or sleuthing will reveal unmapped sources like these. Last year while scouting I stumbled across a natural spring not noted on a map. It ran water to the bottom of a canyon where the flow disappeared underground, veiling the presence of the higher-elevation spring. Signs of a past hunting camp indicated at least some old-timers were aware of the elk magnet. I’m part of that group now.

And Bauer points out that it never hurts to scout public-land corridors adjacent to large private ranches. Elk retreat to these properties to escape public-land hunting pressure, but they may cross back.

“If you discover elk living on a private ranch along public borders you can sometimes get into elk along the border,” he says. “Those elk may be difficult to call if they’ve been pressured, but you never know when a bull will wander from across the boundary line, giving you an opportunity.”

Bounce-Around Strategy
Your main goal for a successful elk hunt is to locate an area, scout it, understand elk movement in it and have total confidence in taking a bull. But what if someone else has the same plan for your piece of paradise? What if the elk suddenly skedaddle from a wolf pack? What if elk discover greener pastures 1,000 feet lower? Backup areas make sense, but what about a backup camp?

That’s been my personal strategy the past few years in Wyoming. Archery success rates favor the elk, so to ensure I’m always in elk I put in two camps to conveniently follow the critters as they bounce around. In my back yard elk generally move from higher to lower, but the strategy could be an important factor if the elk you pursue move up or even take on a cross-country mentality. And if the elk suddenly return to your beginning hunting location (which happens quite often), your base camp is up and ready for a few days of hunting.

Two camps means more work, but it also means you won’t be wasting precious hunting time tearing down a camp and setting up another. And you don’t necessarily need backcountry access. Many ATV trails and trailheads with restricted access provide jumping-off points for day hikes. Remember, studies indicate most hunters rarely get to the 2-mile mark past any trailhead. If you’re in elk shape (as you need to be in rough country), hiking 3 miles to place you away from the crowds is easily doable before sunrise.

My strategy includes trailhead options and one remote, backcountry camp with access via horses (and one mule that thinks it’s a Labrador retriever). Even before my son’s early-morning comment I was contemplating moving from our initial camp to the backcountry camp after a day of no elk encounters. Other hunters were stirring up the elk, but it was the weekend, meaning that moving to another camp would eat up a day of hunting for my high school-aged son. That said, we decided to give it one more try before I hit the saddle.

Cole and my friend Gale Smith went one direction and I headed in another with cameraman Lonnie Garland. Two teams would reduce our party size and possibly increase success. Garland and I stumbled around blindly and heard no bugles within earshot, but it was a different story on the other side of the mountain. Smith and Cole were diving into a steep drainage in pursuit of a bugle when a cow elk blew right by them.

Realizing a bull was likely the chaos factor, the duo set up. Cole ranged the trail, and seconds later a bull trotted down it. As the bull swooped past, Cole yanked back his Mathews and Smith cow-called. As if scripted, the bull stopped and the arrow smacked home. I wish my video hunt was scripted so well, but I couldn’t have been prouder as we regrouped at sunset for the demanding job of packing the bull back to camp. Bouncing around paid off in big-bull success.


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