July 27, 2022
The shortest, most successful elk season—when a big bull is taken on opening day—is often the culmination of intensive pre-season scouting and tracking of elk movement.
By the time the season opens, you want to know where bulls are, what their movements are like and what the dynamics of the cow herds are. Ideally, you’ll have identified multiple places to hunt should you encounter fellow hunters on your prime spot, are forced out of an area by wildfires or simply blow an opportunity at a bull.
You can make these preparations for months before opening day, but of all the time you spend preparing for elk season, August is the most crucial month of all.
GETTING THINGS STARTED
Assuming you are a public-land hunter, start by researching places to hunt via satellite images of the areas you are considering. Many public lands that hold elk are huge, so you'll need to narrow your focus. Explore the habitat, lay of the land, drainages and wildfire trends. Talk with regional biologists about elk numbers as well as predator and wildfire impacts in areas you’re looking to hunt. A lot of "scouting" can be done at home, saving valuable time and legwork.
Next, determine if you'll be hunting migratory elk or homebodies.
If you are hunting elk that don't travel out of an area—like Roosevelt or low-elevation Rocky Mountain elk—you can scout for them year-round. If you are hunting in the early archery season, scout elk on their summer range, where you'll be hunting them.
On the other hand, hunters pursuing migratory elk in later rifle seasons should remember that these animals can move many miles in a single day. It might be worth scouting summer range to get an idea of elk numbers, but it’s more important to spend time learning the lay of the land you’ll be hunting come the season.
Daytime bedding and resting areas can be a couple of miles from prime feeding ground, so your scouting should help you discover both pieces of critical habitat, as well as the routes that elk will take as they travel between these places.
SCOUT DAY AND NIGHT
Nothing has helped me fill more elk tags over the years than boots-on-the-ground scouting. I go about it in four phases.
First, I spend many hours in the field all year long. Where I hunt Roosevelt elk near home, I scout every month of the off-season. Where I hunt Rocky Mountain elk in other states, I'll combine spring scouting missions with a bear or turkey hunt; I'll then return and scout areas in August if I'll be bowhunting.
Second, I closely monitor when calves are born. Elk have a gestation period of approximately 250 days, so this tells when the breeding occurs. Pre-rut, rut and post-rut are prime times for bowhunters, and understanding the progression of the rut phases is important. Knowing when the rut occurs in relation to when my tag is valid helps me determine where I will hunt based on elk behavior.
Third, I'll start scouting for bulls in May, but get more serious in July and August. An elk antler covered in velvet is some of the fastest growing organic tissue on the planet, capable of growing 2 inches per day. Bulls are protective of their headgear since it’s their status symbol, what they use to fight with and what they rely on to ward off predators. Bulls don't like going into thick brush when their antlers are growing, as brush can damage them. Avoiding brush puts bull elk in more open areas all day long, making them easier to find. Scout early and late in the morning when movement is high, but also scout shaded slopes during the heat of the day.
Finally, if you find a lot of sign in draws and lower elevations immediately before the season, but no elk, track them to bedding areas at higher elevations. Elk will cover a great deal of ground at night to find good food, then retreat to higher elevations to sleep for the day. Trail cameras are a great way to capture this movement, but so is scouting at night.
In August, as calves start exploring their world and moving away from cows in the herd, both cows and calves become very vocal to keep track of each other. The communication is most intense right after dark when they start separating, and prior to daylight, when they reassemble to move toward bedding areas. The only thing night scouting entails is listening—don't get too close, don't let elk wind you and navigate with a dim light. You simply want to find them without letting them know you are shadowing them.
Wildfires throughout the West have been horrific in recent years, with last August and September being among the worst on record. While season closures were frustrating at the time, last summer’s burns are where you might want to focus this summer's scouting efforts.
Due to a lack of logging on public land over the decades, fires now create some of the best habitat for elk. When large-scale logging took place on public land, elk habitat and elk hunting were phenomenal in many regions. Logging in dense forest allows more sunlight to hit the ground, leading to large increases in grasses and forbs, which means more food for the elk. With the lack of logging, fires have filled in as prime creators of habitat.
One thing I've noticed is that elk and deer will start feeding in burns once grass begins sprouting, which often happens with the first rains of fall a month or two after fires hit. Animals will also roll and bed in the ash of new burns to delouse themselves.
Don't think you have to wait years to hunt a burn area. A year or two after a fire sweeps through elk habitat is not too early to focus your hunting efforts there. Spend time scouting the edges of burns on south-facing slopes, especially in areas where runoff is high. Both spring and fall rain runoff means more water, which, when combined with sunlight, generates expedited growth in grass, forbs and woody plants. Runoff is greatest in steep, rocky terrain.
GET IN SHAPE
Of all the elk camps I’ve been in over the years, I've found that nothing prevents a hunter from notching a tag as surely as being out of shape. Elk country is big and hunting it all day can be physically taxing. If you can't get to where the elk are, you won't kill one. Period.
Being in shape for elk season is as important as scouting. If you're not in shape, focus first on your diet; you can't exercise away bad eating habits. And you don't have to run marathons or bench press 400 pounds to kill elk. However, cutting excess weight through a dedicated cardio workout is valuable, followed by building strength through lifting light weights in high repetition.
Consult a doctor prior to undertaking a strenuous workout routine. I have back issues and can't run much, so I use a stationary bike to build cardio. Combined with weightlifting, yoga, stretching and a healthy diet, I'm ready to hit the mountains come opening day.
By the time elk season arrives you should be in shape and have identified multiple places to hunt. Routinely filling elk tags requires a lot of work and dedication. If you're not yet ready, start now before it's too late.
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Studying animals from afar, without them knowing you're there, is the best way to observe and learn their movements. It's also a great way to field-judge bulls. If you are looking for a trophy-class bull, studying still images or video on today’s quality cell phones (or better yet on a full-size computer screen), will leave no doubt as to what you're looking at.