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Elk Scouting

A Elk Hunting Article

Written by T.R. 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.