Where are all the elk at?

Where are all the elk at?

Photo credit: Chris Neville

Many times, it seems like we do our research, we find a spot that looks great, only to arrive and struggle to find elk where we think they should be. We put on the miles hiking to our preselected spotting, calling or listening points, looking at wallows picked out from the detailed satellite imagery that is provided on goHUNT Maps and, yet, we only find old sign and no elk. What is the difference between your elk hunting strategies and the guy back at the trailhead with antlers protruding from his truck bed? This is a complicated question to answer and it changes on a case-by-case basis; however, here are some common mistakes you might be making in the elk woods without evening knowing it.

The good spots

When examining aerial imagery and topographical maps on goHUNT’s mapping feature, there are times when an elk spot just pops out at you and you are positive there are going to be elk there. You'll notice the north-facing timber, the open meadows, the stream or ponds that provide water and the bonus? It’s only two to three miles from the truck. You are positive that this is where you are going to find elk bugling and chasing cows; however, in my experience, you are probably wrong. Don’t let me confuse you; you have found a perfect elk hunting spot and, in a perfect world with no pressure and no other elk hunters, a few 300” bulls would be packed in there. However, this is not a perfect world and you are not alone out there. The number one mistake that you are probably making is thinking like other elk hunters and assuming that you will be there first. What is happening is that other hunters are scouting or hunting that spot before you and pushing the elk out of that beautiful spot and into new basins. To combat this problem, I choose to plan an elk hunt as I normally would, then assume that a lot of other hunters are planning like me so I find spots that are more difficult, less appealing and, often, because of this, that is where I will find the elk.

Terrain and cover

The second mistake that a lot of hunters make is not being realistic with the terrain and cover and whether it fits with their hunting style. Let me explain this better. As hunters, we like to think that we are ready for the experience and whatever the elk have in store for us; however, if you are new to elk hunting, you might be a little overwhelmed. Understanding that not all country is conducive to glassing, some mountains are too steep to climb and some drainages are way bigger than they appear from aerial imagery are common mistakes we all make. It took me a long time to be able to find spots that fit my style of hunting, which is typically spot and stalk. Some areas were too thick to glass, some side hills were too loud and rocky to stalk and, sometimes, we need to change up our plans.

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Anytime we use days of our hunt to determine if a spot works for us only to say no are days we will never get back. This year, while planning your hunt, try to understand prior to your arrival if it is the right fit for your physical fitness as well as your hunting style. If it isn’t, then you will struggle to find elk day after day and get discouraged along the way.

Not paying attention

Another common mistake newer hunters make is that you are not paying attention to the little details and the elk are finding you first. The first and probably most important detail that you are not paying attention to is the wind. The wind directions in the mountains are governed by a prevailing wind, undulating terrain and thermals. All of these variables make watching your wind direction in the mountain very difficult; however, it is your job to try your best. If you are stalking an elk and the wind switches, you need to switch your stalk if you want to be successful. If you are having trouble finding elk, but you are coming over the top of the drainage in the morning and your thermals are dropping into the basin, the elk know that you are there and won’t behave normally. You should be coming under the elk in the morning so the thermals are hitting you in your face. Another common mistake that hunters do not pay attention to is their profile. If you are hiking ridges, crossing open sage flats or calling from the open, there is always a chance that elk are on the lookout for danger, which means that they spot you well before you spot them. Use cover, creek bottoms, terrain breaks and whatever else you can find to mask your movements so elk do not flee before you see them.

Hunting the wrong elevation 

The reason you are not finding elk during the season is that you are not hunting the right elevation. Elk are peculiar animals that sometimes are okay with hanging out in a foot of snow and sometimes are not. Some years, they may drop in elevation in September and, other years, stay high until December. Understanding that there is no year that you can positively plan on elk doing what they did last year is important. Though there are common patterns that repeat yearly, there are a lot of factors that can change from year to year. Sometimes hunting pressure or other predators can push elk out of an area or elevation that they previously stayed in. This is why it is always suggested to start searching for elk at higher elevations and work your way down the mountain or start low and work your way up until you find fresh elk sign or elk. Then, it is a safe bet to hunt different areas in the near vicinity on that elevation plane and you should find more elk or elk sign.

Every time we enter the elk woods our immediate goal is to find and harvest an elk. Yes, the experiences of being out in remote mountains can make up for the lack of elk; however, in the end, finding and harvesting an elk will mean a successful trip and a full freezer. If you have been struggling to find elk or are new to elk hunting this year, be sure to pay attention to the aforementioned mistakes that keep hunters from accomplishing their goals. Pass up some of the easily found elk spots, be realistic about the terrain and cover in relation to your hunting style and physical limitations, pay attention to the details, find the right elevation this year and you will find elk.

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Jake Horton

Jake Horton

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