Practical scouting strategies for elk: Part 2

Backcountry elk hunting

After reading the first part in this elk scouting series, you’ve likely established a few good units that have caught your eye and appear to offer everything you are looking for in a hunting experience. For this article, I’ll be looking for an area to hunt elk during the general archery season with an over-the-counter (OTC) tag in Montana. 

In the next article, I will touch on specific programs and websites that I use when scouting new elk areas from home. I will also cover helpful hints and tricks I’ve learned within the programs to further our elk scouting effectiveness. So stay tuned...

Where do I begin for at home scouting?

Technology provides so many avenues for scouting that it can almost seem at times that there are too many options. At the base core of the scouting process, we need a good topographical map and satellite imagery. Other resources that can often be helpful include previous fire histories, yearly rainfall statistics, state specific harvest reports, and online forums, which can be very beneficial. goHUNT INSIDER is a wealth of information when it comes to historical temperatures and precipitations, harvest reports, etc.

How to map out an elk hunting area to scout

When it comes to topographical maps, my favorite website by far is CalTopo. While using the maps found on CalTopo, I have access to terrain, topographical maps, and aerial images as well as fire histories, slope gradients, and image overlay options. Some other great online mapping resources can also be found at:

Scouting for elk hunting locations on Google Earth

Beyond online mapping options, perhaps the most widely used program is easily Google Earth. This program can be downloaded for free and is something every elk hunter should have in their e-scouting arsenal. With this program, you can be set free in a 3D world with high quality satellite imagery of your prospective elk spots. Google Earth also comes packed with some very valuable tools that will be used later in this article. A great resource for how-to’s on some of these tools can be found in this article by Brady Miller. I use this program to identify feeding, bedding, and water areas as well as mark GPS coordinates to send to my GPS later.

Honing in your elk location

Mapping out an elk hunting area to scout

Once I have a list of units that I am interested in hunting, I begin taking the landscape apart one hunt district at a time. To start this, I open Google Earth and manipulate the map over a preselected area. I like to have the camera fairly zoomed out for this step as it helps when scanning the district for pockets of dense timber cover, north slopes, and seclusion from roads. Periodically, as I come upon likely looking areas I will also check the topographical maps through CalTopo in an effort to uncover any hidden roads or ATV trails. This process can take some time but will be well worth it come September when I’m trying to escape the crowds.

With some time and effort you will begin pulling some of the prime areas out of a given district and painting a picture for a game plan of success. Generally speaking, I will likely nix eight out of 10 spots that initially peaked my interest before I’m done based on terrain, access, or reciprocity to roads.

Mapping out the area

Once I’ve found a few locations that I feel comfortable will likely hold elk, I begin to meticulously analyze the area and formulate a plan. The key factors I am looking for when looking for elk country are food, water, cover (bedding), and remoteness. These are four necessities all elk need without exception and locating an area that possess all four within close proximity will be key. To keep things organized and tidy I like to break each one of these necessities down into individual categories so I can focus on one aspect at a time. This will ultimately keep me from passing up areas of interest that I may have previously overlooked. Food, cover, and water can be done in any order but because seclusion and low pressure are high on my priority list I check for remoteness and distance to roads first.

Location, location, location

Location is fairly simple. Essentially, I am checking to see how remote my new prospective area is while also looking to see how easy it will be for me, and others, to access this area. My preferred distance from roads will vary largely from spot to spot based on terrain. Areas that possess trails or gated roads may require me to get two or more miles from the truck where a roadless area may only require one mile. Generally speaking, the harder the effort the less likely other hunters will attempt the hike.

Creating new folder in Google Earth for elk scouting

Before I begin checking my area for hike in distance, I like to get a new file folder created for this particular area, which will lead to a more organized process down the road. I have separate file folders for whitetail, mule deer, elk, etc., and these can be organized any way that makes sense to you. New folders can be added at any time by simply right clicking in your “Places” toolbar on the left side of the screen and then selecting Add > Folder. Now you can name your folder and finish by selecting “OK”. By creating separate folders for each of my prospective elk areas, it’s much easier to read and organize the waypoints I’ll mark in the following steps.

Continued below.

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To start this step, I first mark my shortest hike I expect to encounter elk and then the furthest point I anticipate hiking for elk. This will give me a rough idea on how far I need to go in and will also help me establish distance boundaries. To measure these distances, click on the “Show Ruler” icon (blue ruler) on the upper toolbar, select path, and ensure “Miles” is set for your measuring distance. To begin, simply click on your starting point and then begin building your path. Once your desired route is mapped, click on “Save.” You will be redirected to name your route as well as select different color options for the line.

Routed distance to hike in for elk hunting area

Once I have my short and long route mapped out I can analyze the distance and elevation gain/loss and make an educated guess on whether or not this area shows promise. To look at this information right click on your route and select “Show Elevation Profile.” For my example area, the short hike showed a distance of approximately two miles with a 700’ elevation gain and the long hike showed a distance of approximately 3.25 miles with an elevation gain of 1500’. This shows me a few things:

  • At two miles, my short hike is a great starting point to distance myself from the crowds and will likely weed out 90% of the other hunters. 
  • The short hike features only 700’ of elevation gain (small for this area of Montana) but the bulk of which is in the first half mile of the hike; this will also weed out nearly all of the competition.
  • The long hike features about 850’ of elevation gain after the two mile mark, which will further hinder the spirits of anyone who has made it to this point.

Elevation gain to elk hunting area on Google Earth

With some serious schedule changes and a newborn on the way, I will likely be spending my September as a solo elk hunter and hike in distances of 1.5 to four miles will be about perfect for this endeavor. Any further in and I stand a big chance of losing meat on a packout. By using the measured distances and elevation profile, I can also find other access points that may be shorter and steeper or longer and flatter which can be a valuable time saver. Now that I know this area meets my criteria for remoteness I can begin picking it apart for elk habitat and necessities.

Locating water sources

Elk need water everyday and that's a fact that we can exploit, specifically in the early season. By mapping areas likely to hold water, I will uncover water holes and wallows and, consequently, also uncover water sources for myself if packing a water purifier. While elk rarely use the same watering area day after day, it’s important to locate these spots as they can be go to areas when the hunting is slow or the days are hot. To locate these spots I will look for obvious signs of water (ponds, creeks, etc.) as well as low lying depressions that appear greener than surrounding areas. In this early scouting phase, it is important to mark everything that looks intriguing. Once you find an area that looks like it holds water simply click on “Add Placemark (yellow pin)” icon and drag the waypoint to the desired location. I will generally name my waypoints as “Water #1” with the number increasing for each spot of sign.

Water locations for elk scouting on Google Earth

As you can see in the example above I’ve marked six locations that will likely hold water as well as two unnamed lakes. I like areas with lakes as these will generally have more standing water in the immediate area for wallows and can also provide a great location for a camp if overnighting. Be sure to zoom in completely on areas of interest as wallows can often be spotted on Google Earth.

Potential elk wallow areas scouted on Goolge Earth
Possible wallow area.

Honing in on food sources for elk

The next main component I will look for will be food sources. During the first few weeks of season, elk will generally be eating nutrient rich grasses found in openings and burn areas. Once the rut kicks in, look for elk to begin grazing on shrubs and forbs found in the denser areas. By identifying areas of possible feed, I can establish good glassing points and areas to keep an eye on during the first and last hours of daylight. I consider this step one of the least important as food sources can be hard to identify with aerial imagery. Still, these can be great early stepping stones if the elk are proving difficult to locate during season.

Identifying elk food sources on Google Earth

In the above picture, I’ve identified some areas that should hold feed though I am expecting a large portion of the resident elk’s diet to come from the burn on the east side of this area. As my hike in takes me across most of this burn, I will need to stop and glass in regular intervals in hopes of finding elk as they move up and out of this drainage.

How to identify areas of cover for elk

Cover can generally be described as areas that provide security and bedding. Not only can these be important when locating elk midday but can also be useful if a herd happens to be spooked and retreats to areas of sanctuary.

Completed Google Earth scouting for elk

For this, I like to focus on areas of heavy timber cover on north and east slopes as well as areas located in the upper two thirds of elevation of the surrounding ridges. Bedding areas are spots I will not enter unless prompted by a bugling bull, but they can be great areas to hunt the fringes during midday in hopes of drawing a bull away from his cows.

How do we apply all of these waypoints to scouting?

The next step in my process will be somewhat limited to those of you who own and use Garmin GPS units. For this, I create a communication link between Google Earth and my GPS to share waypoints back and forth. To do this you will need your GPS, the included micro-USB cable, and the newest version of Garmin Basecamp (free download).

Once you have Basecamp installed, plug your GPS unit into your computer and open the program. Once the program is opened and has recognized the device, open Google Earth to begin the transfer. Navigate to the new folder that you created before marking your Google Earth waypoints, right click, and select “Save places as…”.

How to save your elk scouting research on Google Earth

In the next screen, you can change the name of the file, choose the location it will be saved too, and select to save the file in a .kmz or .kml file format. For this, you’ll want to select the .kml option.

Saving your elk scouting research on Google Earth

Based on my example, I now have a file called “Possible Elk Spot #3.kml” saved to my desktop. Next, I will go back to Basecamp and select File > Import > ”File Name” to import all of my Google Earth files into Basecamp.

Sending your elk scouting information to your GPS

The waypoints will now be visible on the Basecamp map and are ready for transfer to the unit. To do this, simply click on the Device Transfer button in the upper left hand corner (up arrow). Be sure that waypoints, routes, and tracks are checked and double check that your GPS model name is visible in the drop down menu. After everything is set simply click “Send.” Now, everything you had previously marked is available on your handheld and ready to be taken into the field.

What if I don’t have a GPS?

If you don't have a GPS it’s not a huge deal and can be worked around. Fortunately, maps can be printed off Google Earth so you can take your waypoints with us. Depending on your hunting area, it may be necessary to print off a few maps in an effort to maintain picture quality. While the printed maps certainly won't lead you to an exact spot like the GPS can, they will still give you a starting point, which is essentially all that you will need during the scouting process.

Once again, if you missed part one in this scouting strategies for elk series, you can read that article here. In the third and final segment of this scouting series, I will cover actual in the field scouting practices as well as what to do with your gathered information once you return home. 


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