One of the unfortunate realities of elk hunting is that hunter success rates stand at around 15%.
They’re a tough animal to hunt and an even tougher animal to kill. Hunters need to take advantage of
every opportunity they can. Most think of hunting elk during rifle season as long days of glassing
wide open fields, snow covered mountain ridges, and sparse open plains. They think of catching elk in
the open and of taking long shots from steady rests. Yet there is another way. One that is often
underutilized by western hunters and one that expands their chance at taking that big bull they’ve
always dreamed about – hunting the timber.
Generally thought of as only a bow hunting strategy during the rut, a time when you can call elk into
range with minimal movement on your part, hunting elk in thick trees is a viable and often
productive option, even with a rifle. After the rut, elk herds gather together and begin to travel to their wintering ranges which can be miles away from the home ranges of early fall. They are constantly on the move during the early mornings and late evenings, moving from one patch of heavy cover to another. This is
the time when most elk hunters’ glass and pray that they’ll catch an elk in the open. Yet this strategy
leaves massive amounts of time when elk hunters simply aren’t hunting and, frankly, it’s time that
is being wasted. Instead, why not make the most of your time and try going after the elk when they’re
bedded down in the thick stuff? It’s a challenging but completely achievable hunting strategy, one that
might just make the difference between going home empty handed and having a full freezer and new
set of antlers for the wall.
How to Find Elk in The Timber
Finding elk in the timber can be a challenge. On any given mountain range there are hundreds of thousands
of acres of trees and only a few will have elk hanging out in them. This is where that morning glassing
you have been doing comes in handy. When you spot a herd out in the open that seems out of hiking
range, take note of where they are hanging and watch them for a bit. This may mean passing up on a bit
of morning hunting time, but knowing exactly which patch of timber the elk are heading into and
spending time in can be worth it. Note the direction the elk herd is moving in and, if you can keep them
in sight, which patch of timber they move into in the late morning. This will give you a good place to
If you’re unable to spot a herd of elk in the morning, things are a bit more challenging. You’re going to
have to move up into any likely areas and start scouting around for sign. Head up the mountain to open
areas where you’ve seen or feel that elk have been moving through or feeding. Start hunting around for
tracks and scat, the fresher the better, and get a feel for any recent elk activity. During the late season,
elk will move up into timber in the morning and down into open spots in the evening. So note the
freshness and direction of the elk tracks and get a general idea of which area of trees the elk are using
and when they are using them. Once that’s done, all that’s left is to plan your strategy and then head
into the woods after them.
Plan Your Approach
You can fool an elk’s eyes. You can fool an elk’s ears. But you definitely can’t fool an elk’s
nose. No matter how much cover scent you wear nor if you leave your hunting clothes outside
the night before, an elk will always smell you. So the first thing you have to make sure of before heading
into the timber after an elk is the wind direction. Usually during the late morning when elk are utilizing
the timber, the rising air temperatures is causing thermals, and so the wind is moving uphill. This often means you have to circle around the patch of trees you are planning on hunting to get above the elk,
which often search for danger approaching from below. Often you will have to swing an
extremely wide circle in order to get above them, climbing distant ridges, or plowing through lowland fields, thick brush, or up creek beds to get into position to surprise the elk.
Once you have gotten into position, don’t just plow into the timber like a juggernaut. Instead plan where
you’re going to enter. Look over the treeline and try to find a spot to enter where you are going to have
a good view of everything around you. Pick an entrance point where you have a lot of room to move and
a lot of cover, but not so much that you’re going to step on every twig, break every branch, and roll
every rock in the woods. Try to find an easy entrance spot and then as you move into the woods, keep
heading toward areas with the right balance of cover and field of view that will give you the best
chance at spotting a bedding or casually feeding elk before it sees you.
Tips and Tricks for Timber Hunting
The biggest thing you have to remember when you’re hunting elk in the timber is that they aren’t deer.
Unlike whitetail which tend to hide in the thickest part of the woods, usually alone or in pairs, elk can be
hanging out almost anywhere. They’ll bed down in small open glades, meander aimlessly around in the
trees, or even gather together on the very edge of the tree line. So, you have to remember to check
everywhere. Keep your head on a swivel and look for the elk anywhere and everywhere they could be.
Don’t just move in one direction, but rather in a small side to side grid-like pattern, searching for the elk
in every part of the woods around you. Move from tree to tree, looking for movement and for fresh sign
and always be ready to take a quick shot if you unexpectedly jump a bull.
The other thing to remember about hunting elk in timber is that while you want to be as silent as
possible, you don’t have to be completely silent. Again, elk aren’t deer. They’re big animals that make a
lot of noise as they move through the timber, so just because you step on a twig or break a branch, it
doesn’t mean your hunt is over. Most of the time, the elk will simply think your another elk shuffling
around and, though they may look in your direction, so long as you hold still after making a significant
noise, you should be okay.
Speaking of not being completely silent, when hunting elk in the timber, it’s a good idea to bring along a
elk call. Though the rut is mostly over by the start of rifle season and the big bulls will be mostly done
bugling, elk are always softly calling to one another. If you get into an area of the woods that feels “elky”
yet you don’t see any elk, hang out for a minute or two and let out a few gentle calf calls. Often cows or
bulls that hear the call will respond back or even move towards you just to see what is going on.
Finally, when you’re elk hunting in the trees, remember to use all of your senses. Don’t just look for elk
but listen for them. A stick breaking in the shadow of the trees, a gentle “crunch crunch…crunch crunch”
in the leaves on the other side of a hill, and of course distant calls, can all be indicators that elk are
either approaching or that you are heading in the right direction. Another thing to remember when the
wind is in your face is that elk have a very distinct smell. One that, if you haven’t smelled if before, will
put you in mind of a horse or cattle barn. If you get that smell, it’s time to slow down and really start
looking for your bull.
Making Your Own Opportunities
One of the reasons I think that hunter success rates on elk are so low is that so many hunters get
bogged down by clinging to one strategy. The whole belief that the only way to get an elk is by sticking
to a spot and stalk hunt when it just isn’t working out. To be a good elk hunter is to be able to adapt and
take advantage of whatever opportunity you find in front of you. You need to be able to think outside
the box. So go out and hunt hard. Climb mountains, ford rivers, and cover whatever ground is necessary
to find your bull. Even if that means finding what is hidden in shade of the trees.