To an avid hunter, elk are what dreams are made of. They symbolize the upper echelon of big game in North America and, for many hunters, present a once-in-a-lifetime trophy. Hunters all over the country—from the Blue Mountains of Washington State to the Cumberlands of Pennsylvania—fantasize about mountains echoing with the screaming bugles of bulls. Although many elk hunters spend thousands of dollars on outfitters and guides to get their chance at a bull, many can’t afford to or choose not to go that route. These DIY hunters are taking on a challenge, one that can be among the most rewarding a hunter can experience. The first, and possibly most important, step toward a successful elk hunt is finding a place to hunt.
No matter where in the country you hunt them, elk generally behave the same way. They are one of the most habitual and therefore predictable game animals we hunt. By no means does this make them easy to pursue, but once you understand their habits, finding a good place to start hunting becomes much more straightforward. Generally, elk remain in a herd for most of the year, moving in small groups up and down ridges in the morning and evening to feed and bed down. It’s in that habitual migration where the hunter finds his first clue to locate a huntable bull.
Elk are grazers: They prefer grass as forage and tend to bed down in thicker stands of timber. Typically, elk leave their bedding areas in the timber just before dark or very early in the morning and head back into the timber at the same times. So small valleys or bowls with lots of grasses, surrounded by high, thick-timbered ridges are what you’re looking for in good elk habitat. Here they can come up or down depending on their elky inclinations.
Finding these sorts of locations requires the comprehensive study of topographical maps, aerial photos, or even better, a phone app like OnX Hunt. Find a medium that shows both the elevation changes of an area and the terrain. These spots vary with the time of year and the weather, so be prepared to spend a lot of time looking at them and trying to find a few good locations. After finding a couple of likely spots, scout them out.
Scouting a good section of elk territory takes a lot of leg work. Very rarely are elk hunters successful after just finding a spot on a map. Getting your elk comes from putting boots on the ground, getting into your territory and finding the elk sign. The thing to remember is that elk herds are migratory. Just because they’re in a certain range one day doesn’t mean they’re going to stay there. This is especially true during the rut. Bull elk tend to push other elk around during this time of year, out of range of both other bulls and the hunters pursuing them.
When scouting, find the trails between elk bedding and feeding areas as well as the open ground on the fringes of the timber where elk slow down to feed. Once you find a good patch of active elk territory, move around and find another spot within walking distance to the first. This gives you a good range of territory to cover and several options in case one area proves to be less fruitful than another.
Do-it-yourself elk hunting requires a lot of dedication. It can be an exhausting venture that must be endured. It leaves you feeling drained and sometimes questioning your own sanity. Yet when you’re successful, in that moment of wrapping your hands around a pair of elk antlers that you’ve earned through all your labor, you’re forever changed. You’ve turned your dreams into reality, and nothing will ever be the same again.