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Triangle theorem: 5 expert steps for elk success

Bull elk leaving feed

Regardless of the date on a calendar, elk move to and from three core resources during their daily routine: 1) bedding areas, 2) feeding areas and 3) water sources. Additionally, elk tend to take a direct route from one resource to another. When connected, these three core resources and direct travel corridors that elk utilize on a daily basis form a triangular shape. Although, use of these resources and travel corridors may change on a daily basis — and throughout the year during normal migrations — these “elk triangles” can be used by hunters as a means to predict elk movement and increase the chances of a successful harvest.

I was introduced to the concept of elk triangles by a US Forest Service (USFS) wildlife biologist. His ability to identify core resources utilized by a given population of elk was uncanny. As I grew to understand his abilities, I saw the practicality of the theorem as a tool to improve my own scouting techniques. After several years of application, my elk hunting/guiding success rate increased dramatically.

The elk triangle theorem at work

Scouting elk using the triangle theorem

The objective of the theorem is to develop a comprehensive map that depicts a true representation of elk movement in the area you will be hunting. Once completed, your map will have several triangle-like shapes, which define elk hotspots. Resources identified should include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Identification of core habitat resources.
  • Direction of travel to and from core resources.
  • Times of sightings at each resource and travel corridors.
  • Number of elk sightings.
  • Sightings of bulls and antlerless elk.

The ultimate goal of the theorem is to fragment a unit or region into several smaller, more manageable areas to scout.

Continued below.

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Five-step process to get started

Step 1: Get out your map

Scouting for elk from the computer

Paper maps — USFS or preferably topographic — are fine, but if you are used to the computer, then use a good mapping application.

Digital scouting with goHUNT's INSIDER

There are several products available online that offer a full line of features that include topography-satellite imagery switching, public-private land ownership overlays, GPS point and route entry, and much more. The maps found in goHUNT's INSIDER unit profiles are perfect for this first step!

In the West, hunting units can be enormous. In fact, some hunting units comprise several hundred square miles. Trying to scout an entire unit can be overwhelming, if not impossible. Therefore, I suggest breaking a hunting unit into logical subunits. Use major roads, power lines, waterways, and other natural features as your initial boundaries. Once you have a list of potential subunits, try to identify the core resources within those areas.

Triangle theorem to find more elk

Once you have a few areas defined, venture into the woods. Concentrate your efforts on one subunit and systematically scout each subunit until you feel you have enough information for the hunt.

Step 2: Identify well-used water sources

Elk water source

In my opinion, water is the single most limiting factor when it comes to elk movement and habitat utilization, especially in the regions of the West that are facing severe drought conditions. Elk are more likely to migrate from an area completely due to a depleted water source than by other changes to their habitat resources.

Scouting for water sources

For the hunter, water sources are the easiest points of the triangle to identify; most can be spotted simply by looking at a good map. However, do not assume anything. Get out and check possible water sources in person to make sure they still actually hold water. Periodically, recheck water sources to make sure they still hold water. You can gain quality information about elk activity by investigating areas near water sources used by elk. Analyze the sign around the water source by looking for tracks and, hopefully, at least one well-used trail. Trails are usually more defined near water sources. Use these trails as potential sides to define a triangle.

Step 3: Find the feed

Elk feeding in meadow

You can analyze your map and search for elk sign all day long, but in my mind, visual confirmation of elk in their natural habitat provides quick and easy validation and it is the most satisfying of any scouting discovery. In most elk habitat, feeding areas are highly visible and elk are usually in or near these locations early in the morning and late afternoon, making it a great location to glass, if possible.

On your map, look for a vantage point that overlooks a potential feeding area. If you have hunted this area before, you probably have a handle on where to look. If not, look for open areas with ample forage and that are located near water sources. Do this for each subunit defined. Prior to the hunt, put your optics to work. Pay close attention to where elk enter and exit feeding areas and try to estimate where they may be going. This will help to give more definition to your triangle sides.

Step 4: Get to the beds

Colorado elk bedding habitat

Across the West, elk reside in a diverse set of habitat types and bedding grounds in each habitat vary significantly; therefore, it is my opinion that this can be the most difficult point on the triangle to identify. In fact, you may have to go back to your map and use the data you have collected for a little assistance. When you checked your water source(s), you should have identified at least one well-used trail and established which direction elk travel as they come to or leave water sources.

Likewise, while glassing feeding areas you should have noted which direction elk came into or left the feeding area. Examine your map. You should have several almost complete triangles. Interpolate the sides of the triangles to see if they point to a potential bedding area. Note that elk may travel several miles in between any of the three major resources and that elk generally travel by following some topographic feature, whether it is a ridgeline, specific elevation contour or drainage. Try to estimate where elk may be bedding by studying the topographic features near any intersections you have found. Investigate your hypothesis by any means possible until you are a positive that you have closed in on a bedding area. Again, annotate each on your map.

Step 5: Unravel travel corridors

Bull elk near bedding area

After you have identified the three points of your triangle, you may find it helpful to connect the three points with straight lines as a way to estimate where the true travel corridors exist. Analyzing travel corridors will provide useful data such as which direction elk are traveling, the sex of the elk using a trail and how recently elk may have traveled it. For this step, try working further away from the resources or points that you have already identified and examined for elk sign. During your investigation, pay close attention to the size and direction of tracks. It is quite possible that bulls are using different trails than the cows, depending on the season.

Large velvet bull elk on trail camera

Trail cameras have grown in popularity as a tool for scouting for elk. Most importantly, trail cameras keep on working when you have to go back to work and continue to work on a 24-hour basis. Try hanging a trail camera on a travel corridor to confirm your findings and to compile new information. Trail cameras can provide a wealth of data including:

  • Date of sighting
  • Time of sighting
  • Number of sightings
  • Sizes of bulls

Put the Elk-Triangle-Theorem to the Test

Large bull elk taken with a bow

Most hunters hunt places that are merely a name on a map. These “spots” are just a vague location — not a true indicator of where elk reside and interact in their habitat on a daily basis. Since I started following the elk triangle theorem, I hunt high probability areas based on empirical data collected while scouting. No matter how far you get putting together your triangle, I am confident that the data you collect and compile will help you when your hunt finally rolls around.


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Darren C. - posted 2 years ago on 07-06-2015 11:33:22 am
Northern Arizona

Craig: I believe the general theory works for deer, but I do see a few differences. In my experience, I see elk using the above three resources during daylight/hunting hours more regularly than deer. I would say that Coues deer are more similar, but I believe mule deer tend to hit water in the cover of darkness most of the time. So, the triangle is there, but for mule deer I would try to uncover the portion of the triangle that is being used during daylight hours. Additionally, in my opinion, deer behavior is also quite different during the rut, maybe more with whitetails than mule deer.

Craig S. - posted 2 years ago on 07-05-2015 12:33:42 am
Scottsdale, AZ

This method would work for deer also?
Would you change this for deer?

david l. - posted 2 years ago on 06-30-2015 08:04:28 pm
cortez colorado

great article! very informative!

Brian H. - posted 2 years ago on 06-30-2015 04:11:17 pm

Good call