It was mid-October, the morning of the third day of rifle elk season, when I opened the tent flap to 3 feet of snow. "We need to get off this mountain," insisted my buddies, Tom and Bob. We’d yet to see a single elk, and the snow was still coming down hard.
We packed up camp and traveled 18 miles on horseback, reaching the trailhead moments before dark. Later we’d learn 7 feet of snow fell in that storm. Our August scouting mission into this secluded paradise 9,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains had revealed loads of elk, but they were gone by rifle season.
The following year, Bob, Tom and I returned, this time during archery season. All three of us tagged big bulls on opening day, and we repeated our success the following season. We learned a lot that first year—primarily that the elk migrated off the mountain much earlier than we had anticipated. But elk were there in September, and calling in 20-plus bulls a day was the norm.
If you’re looking for a place to hunt elk this fall, be it with bow, rifle or muzzleloader, August is the best time to scout. Just bear in mind that the elk won’t stay in one place for very long.
Cover Some Ground
If you want to consistently fill elk tags, scouting is critical. Ideally, by the time the season rolls around, you’ll already have a hunting place or two nailed down. The opening day of elk season is not the time to be searching for a place to hunt.
Optics are an elk hunter’s best friend, especially when it comes to scouting. A set of good binoculars or a quality spotting scope allows ground to be covered with your eyes, not your feet. Quality glass enables you to search all day long without eye fatigue.
Get afield and search for elk and elk sign. This time of year, look for bachelor herds of bulls still in velvet. You have an advantage when you scout now: Bulls largely avoid thick brush when in velvet so as not to damage their headgear, and in the absence of hunting pressure they’re likely to be spending time out of thick cover. Search open areas and forest fringes for bulls feeding early and late in the day, and shady spots where they bed at midday.
Look for wallows, trails, droppings and elk themselves; later in August, keep your eyes peeled for fresh rubs where bulls are stripping velvet. Now is the time to discover if drought, wildfires or predators caused elk herds to move since last season. Wolf packs have greatly impacted Rocky Mountain elk herds in many areas, so call regional biologists for details.
Use Trail Cameras
"Trail cameras are my best scouting tool," says noted Roosevelt elk guide, Jody Smith (jodysmithguideservice.com). "Nothing has taught me more about elk movement."
Not surprisingly, trail cameras can help you pattern groups of elk that are using the land you are hunting. They also give you information about how elk move through your hunting area.
"I think what amazes me most about trail cameras is the number of Roosevelt bulls I only see one time," says Smith. "These are bulls I never see with my eyes, and only get a single shot of on all of my cameras. It shows how much these loner bulls can travel, and how secretive they are."
That information helps you understand how transient bulls pass through the area you hunt. If you understand and hunt these travel corridors, you are effectively hunting bulls that might have started the day a mile or more from where you are hunting.
Hunters who are after Rocky Mountain elk near where they live can realize the same benefits from trail cameras. If you, like many hunters in the West, travel a significant distance to hunt elk, using cameras can be a challenge. If you hunt private ranch land, though, it might be easier than you think to convince the landowner to to let you put up trail cams. Even old-school ranchers like to see pictures of the animals using their land, so if you share the photos with them, they might even be glad to check the cameras in the off-season.
Coastal Roosevelt Elk
Coastal Roosevelt elk are the easiest to scout due to the fact they’re closer to home for most hunters who target them. Trail cameras can be set and frequently checked during scouting trips after work and on weekends.
"It can be hard to scout these elk with a spotting scope, as we mostly hunt them in timber," says Smith. "This time of year, I narrow my scouting to timber
and brushy draws, where most of the big bulls are."
Some of my most productive coastal elk scouting has been in cool forests on north-facing slopes, where tall ferns flourish. Here, look for dry wallows made in moist dirt beneath tall ferns. In these settings bulls will roll and rub-urinate; no water is necessary. Elk are not dainty creatures; you’ll likely smell these places before you see them.
Another successful scouting approach is to use your ears. Early in the morning and in the evening, listen for cows and calves communicating as they spread out while feeding. As calves grow independent in their search for food, they’ll leave sight of the cows, and calling is how they keep track of one another in thick cover. They’ll call in the evening when spreading out and again in the morning when reassembling to bed down.
"These elk often cycle through the same areas every four or five days, so finding herds now is important," says Smith. "The last thing I want to waste time doing is to look for elk once the season opens."
Cascade Roosevelt Elk
Roosevelt elk living on the western slopes of the Cascade Range are a bit different than their coastal cousins. Cascade elk populations aren’t as dense, and these elk travel more, which means summer scouting is essential.
Try locating multiple bands of elk in the Cascades when scouting. This will give you backup plans come hunting season, should your initial plans not come together.
The more pressure Cascade Roosevelts receive, the more secretive their movements become. They may not be in the same open areas you saw them when you scouted in August and the elk were in velvet. Don’t jump to the conclusion they’ve left the area. Once the velvet is stripped and hunters hit the woods, bulls can occupy incredibly dense thickets and deep canyons. When you scout in August, note these areas of protection near where you spot elk, as these are the places you’ll likely want to focus your hunt.
Rocky Mountain Elk
Though Rocky Mountain elk are difficult for some hunters to scout due to travel logistics, it’s worth the effort. Hunters often use the same elk camps year after year, and it’s a terrible feeling to roll into camp a day or two prior to the season only to discover something has forced the elk out.
Hit the high spots and other settings that allow you to cover the greatest amount of land with your eyes. Remember, the goal when scouting is to find elk, not get close to them.
When the days are hot and the nights moonlit, some of my most productive scouting for Rocky Mountain elk has been after dark. This is when elk are on the move, feeding, drinking and wallowing.
Cows and calves can be very vocal at night, and the first, rough bugles of the season are often heard. On very calm nights, the footsteps of elk on shale and hard ground can be heard from a surprising distance. Nighttime scouting also reveals how early in the morning elk move back to cover—hours before daylight in many cases.
Focus scouting efforts on shaded hillsides, amid creek bottoms and on the edge of cover. Study what the elk are eating, where they’re watering and at what elevation they’re most active. Each of these factors reveal details as to where elk will be when hunting season rolls around.
While it takes time, preseason scouting is the best move an elk hunter can make. Not only does summer scouting show what’s out there, it gives you the information you need to make wise decisions, because one bad choice in elk season can mean the difference between putting meat in the freezer or not.
Where to Go
Top spots around the West for Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk.
Coastal Roosevelt Elk
The Coast Range of Oregon and Washington is a focal point for hunters seeking Roosevelt elk. Both states offer over-the-counter tags on public lands.
In Oregon, the Siuslaw Unit offers good public-land access, as does the Alsea Unit. Scout the coastal lands south of the Siletz River down to the Umpqua River and closer to the coast than the I-5 corridor.
In Washington, elk prospects on public lands near Longview—specifically the Willapa Hills and Ryderwood units—are worth checking out. The top Roosevelt public land in California is the Marble Mountain Unit, but tags are on a limited draw.
Cascade Roosevelt Elk
Some Cascade Roosevelt elk herds in Washington are still recovering from recent harsh winters, but King and Pierce counties are historically productive. The North Rainier herd spans multiple game management units in the Cascades and is worthy of research.
In Oregon, the western slopes of the southern Cascades are prime. However, the development of pay-to-play programs offered by Weyerhaeuser have made it hard for many hunters to gain access to some of the best lands. There’s plenty of public land surrounding Weyerhaeuser properties, but the lack of logging in these spots has made hunting tough. Be ready to beat the brush.
Rocky Mountain Elk
Rocky Mountain elk hunting throughout much of the West has become a game of preference points. Many states have excellent elk hunting across vast mountain ranges, but don’t overlook island ranges, like Montana’s Highwood Mountains, which are subranges of the Rockies and can hold a lot of elk.
Montana’s Little Belt Mountains offer non-resident do-it-yourself elk hunters great opportunities. As with public-land elk hunting anywhere, the farther you can get from the roads, the better.
Elk Migration And Your Hunt
Keep this guideline in mind.
Elk are famous for engaging in seasonal migrations in the fall. That fact might make you wonder whether pre-season scouting really helps you figure out where the elk will be once the season rolls around.
The good news for hunters who scout in the preseason is that across much of the Rockies, elk don’t leave their summer range until mid-November. As a very general rule of thumb, if your hunting season is before then, the elk will probably still be in their summer range. Mid-November is a rough estimate because a number of factors cause elk to move out of summer range. The most important factor is not the calendar date, but snow. No matter what the date, if the snow is more than about 8 inches deep, elk have a progressively more difficult time foraging on the forbs and grasses they like. If they can move to an area with less snow and more preferred feed, they will do so.
Typically, areas with less snow are at lower elevations. Elk are willing to travel miles to get there if they have to, but migrating takes energy and elk won’t spend more of it than they have to to find food.They will simply drop into a nearby canyon if the bottom of it provides the food, water and cover they need. Some elk actually winter in part of their summer range and don’t migrate at all.
In areas with widespread, pronounced winter snow, elk prefer the thermal refuge of evergreen thickets and aspens. When you scout for elk, pay attention not just to the elk you see, but where the best cover, green canyon bottoms and other food sources will be if the elk have to move out of the high meadows.