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Only one week to hunt elk? Here’s how to break it down


Randy Newberg hiking in the snow for elk
Photo credit: Steven Drake |

I end up with a lot of tags in units I’ve never been to mainly because this is what I have to do to get enough tags for the Fresh Tracks TV show. Yet, unfamiliarity can add a level of challenge that we don’t typically have to face when hunting units in our own backyards. Because I cannot rely on dumb luck, I have to do everything I can to make the most of the days I have. Once I am done in a certain unit, we load up and are off to the next hunt, repeating the process week after week.

Here's my day-by-day strategy for a five day hunt

In most seasons, half of our hunts take place in areas we had never previously hunted. I’ve developed a system I use for these types of hunts. It’s not only a system for finding elk, but also a strategy for implementing that system once I arrive at the hunting area.

I seldom get to hunt the same season, same unit, same time period, same weapon type, year after year. Being forced to hunt elk in so many different situations in so many different seasons and environments forces me to approach it a certain way. One of the most important ways to prepare is completing some pre-hunt planning. Here is why that works for me.

Pre-hunt planning

Randy Newberg doing some computer scouting for an elk hunt

For me, cyber-scouting is a major asset. I only have five days to get there, get some encounters on film, and, hopefully, fill a tag. I can’t afford to show up and spend the time just walking around. The “walk around and see what happens” strategy depends too much on luck and happenstance. 

Before I get there, I have called people who might be helpful: officers with both the Department of Natural Resources or U.S. Forest Service as well as any locals I might be able to contact to gain insider information. The Hunt Talk Forum is a great resource as long as you ask in the proper manner. Most of the time my calls and emails are not about where to go, but rather where not to waste my time. Wasted time is the biggest reason guys don’t find elk.

Using goHUNT INSIDER to research elk hunting opportunities
Researching OTC rifle elk units (with public land % filter added) in Colorado on INSIDER.

Eliminate as much of the unit as possible before you get there and your time in the hills will be far better spent. I also utilize the INSIDER Unit Profiles and Filtering 2.0 to gain information on finding new hunting areas, herd information, weather trends, public land percentage, and terrain. Here is my day-by-day process once I get in the field. You will see how pre-scouting from home plays such an important part in my strategy.

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Importance of locating 10 hunting spots

Randy Newberg finding hunting spots on a map

From my pre-scouting, I pinpoint 10 spots on a map that I think are very likely options. Each will have a different reason for being on the map, yet all will have several features in common, such as distance or topography, that will result in less pressure and, hopefully, a higher likelihood of elk. With that common thread of distance or topography, the variables are food sources, bedding cover, water, and what I anticipate the elks’ response will be to variables in weather. If it’s unseasonably warm, I need some spots that have dark timber. If it is colder than normal, I probably want some south or west facing areas marked on my map.

I want 10 spots — all with a specific purpose and in anticipation of variable conditions. Having that many marks on my map gives me an average of two spots per day on a five-day hunt. Most times, I don’t get to them all. Some I can cross off the list based on what I discovered while investigating some of the other spots. By the last two days, I want one to three spots remaining where I can dial it in with all my effort. With a hearty dose of good luck I usually have filled my tag within the first three days, but not always.

Randy Newberg glassing for elk in the snow

In my schedule, I try to plan at least one day for scouting. I use that scouting day to figure out my strategy for the first morning. I then hunt according to that plan the next morning and assess the results. I seldom go back to camp for lunch or naps. That time is too valuable and is used to investigate the next pinpointed areas on my map that will be my afternoon/evening hunt.

The afternoon/evening hunt is intended to find elk, but also help me eliminate more terrain. By that, I don’t only mean eliminating that particular area, but also eliminating similar areas that I may have on my map. The reason I like to go into new spots in the daylight, if at all possible, is that I can then mark them on my GPS and have that trail recorded in the event I find elk and need to come in before daylight the next morning.

Randy Newberg Montana elk

The night of the first day I assess what I have found. That determines what I do on day two. If I’ve found elk, I focus more on one of the first day’s locations. If no elk were found on day one, I go to some of my other spots and repeat the process on the second and third days.

By the end of day three, I have eliminated most of the areas on my map and I am dialed in on no more than three specific spots that have the best potential for these last two days of the hunt. When I look at my map on the third night, I have crossed off most locations and have a few that are still in contention. I then use my last two days to hunt those spots with the best strategies I can think of.

Late season elk hunting

It's hard to be that disciplined about it when you see your hunt days slowly ticking away, but having a plan and sticking to it gives you the confidence that it will work. Many guys hit the panic button by the end of day two if they do not have a plan. Or they just do not have the mental mindset to stick with a plan and then panic when the days are dwindling.

By having a plan in place, sticking to that plan, and then working the plan all the way to the end, you will find a lot more elk. You will fill more tags. And if it's a location that you can return and hunt each year, you will have done more homework than many of the locals.

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Bill D. - posted 2 years ago on 09-25-2017 01:03:14 pm
OK and CO

Great strategy, and I'm going to cheat and use if for other critters too, starting with an antelope hunt with my daughter in a couple of weeks. Good hunting this Fall, Randy!

Dylan P. - posted 2 years ago on 09-21-2017 05:12:49 am

Great article! It really shines a light on new western hunters wanting to know more that don't get ample opportunity and will take whatever they can get. Becoming a goHunt member has been an absolute game changer! Keep up the awesome work it is greatly appreciated!

David V. - posted 3 years ago on 08-17-2016 01:52:38 pm
Olrando, FL

Thank you for sharing all of your knowledge. It is very much appreciated!

Josh W. - posted 3 years ago on 06-06-2016 06:45:47 pm
Renton, WA

Awesome, thanks for the response Randy, much appreciated. Good to know! It's always a leap of faith going out of state, trying to avoid the "grass is always greener syndrome". Thanks for the article and your time!

Randy N. - posted 3 years ago on 06-06-2016 05:18:13 pm

Thanks, guys. Appreciate the comments.

@Josh W - Like many things, it depends. A spot in post-rut and late season can be pretty small, like less than 10 acres. A "spot" for me is usually a place I can glass from afar.

I am almost always glassing my spots, as hiking through them will usually move elk out, especially if they are in the "sanctuary and survival" mode of the later seasons. I might walk through a spot after I have glassed it all morning or evening, just to see why it has not produced what I thought it would from my e-scouting. Often I find out that the feed is different, or the water source dried up, or maybe there was other human disturbance I had not planned on. I will not hike through it until I have given up on it and then it is for the purpose of intel.

I try to have my spots in the same area I can reach from one camp, whether that is a base camp I have hauled in, or a camp at a trailhead. Time pulling/setting camp is time lost from hunting. Once there, all effort needs to be devoted to eliminating terrain and finding where the elk are. Once I started using this plan, I realized just how many different spots I can find within a five mile radius of my camp.

Scouting time, especially desk scouting, is in surplus. Hunting time is scarce and valuable. Have a plan ready when you get there so no time is wasted. Follow the plan in a disciplined manner and don't give up on it too soon. With each passing day, you have eliminated unproductive areas and your remaining spots have a high probability of elk.

Josh W. - posted 3 years ago on 06-05-2016 06:12:45 pm
Renton, WA

Great write up Randy, makes a lot of sense and seems like efficient planning. My only question for you is how big is a "spot"? Could a spot be one hillside that you'll glass for a morning or a series of draws that you'll hike through all day? Do you prefer ten spots that can be reached from one base camp on foot or will you choose some spots that require packing up and moving down the road?

Jody S. - posted 3 years ago on 06-05-2016 12:19:41 pm
Durant, OK

Great article, thanks for sharing----my buddy and I are in the process of planning our very first hunt to New Mexico unit 6C and will put these tactics to work.

Will C. - posted 3 years ago on 06-03-2016 08:19:47 pm
Ponder, TX

Great write up Randy. This site has taught me so much. I am putting together a hunt for myself and a group of friends. This article couldn't have come up at a better time. Great strategy and even better insight ! Thanks for sharing !