Elk NetworkBOWHUNTING: Scout, Scheme and Keep an Open Mind

General | January 11, 2018

Locating elk on public land is always a challenge. Throw in radically changed conditions and it can seem impossible, but hopefully these pointers can help. 

When you bowhunt public land for elk, I have found that the only constant is change. From week to week and year to year, conditions are likely to shift and make you work to locate new concentrations of animals. In my experience, consistency in finding elk requires scouting, scheming, and an open mind about where to look next. There are seldom tried-and-true hotspots that produce year after year.

If you are a beginning elk archer, your first step in finding consistent elk areas should be to call the game department in the state you plan to hunt. Ask to speak to an elk or big game biologist, and let him help you pinpoint one or more general areas with lots of public land and high populations of elk. Don’t be shy about telling them how you like to hunt and how far you’re willing to hoof it.

Experienced bowhunters can also help because these guys probably know the general elk situation already. A serious elk hunter isn’t likely to give away his personal hotspots, but he might point you in the general direction of bumper elk herds. You meet those hunters at shooting ranges, volunteer events and at the trailhead. 

From there, you should scout by using maps and then walking terrain—preferably prior to elk season. Elk have three simple needs—water, grass and remote escape cover. If you find all three in a known elk area, you will probably find elk.

When I say “remote,” I mean places with thick timber or brush at least two or three miles from the nearest road. Almost without exception, I begin seeing lots of elk tracks about the time human footprints disappear. In my experience, the vast majority of bowhunters seldom hike more than one mile from roads, horse trails or two-tracks legally accessible by four-wheelers, side-by-sides or mountain bikes. You’ve got to walk beyond this buffer zone to find undisturbed bulls in huntable numbers.

Changing conditions can make finding elk consistently a chore. Extreme situations might force you to move many miles to completely new hunting terrain. At other times, elk concentrations might be close to where you have had success before, but far enough away to make you scout new ground.

For example, September of 2012 promised to be a great year of hunting for me. I drew a primo elk permit in Montana in an area I had bowhunted before. Then massive wildfires in August scorched every place I had ever hunted.

My heart sank as I drove familiar roads through a suddenly unfamiliar landscape. Formerly beautiful evergreens stood like giant black toothpicks above a solid field of gray. Not one sprig of green could be seen. To make matters worse, every spring and stream I checked was flowing black with soot. No self-respecting elk would drink such sludge.

There was only one thing to do. I contacted the Forest Service and received a fire-fighter’s map with burned areas clearly marked. Then I began driving roads, glassing and hiking, to locate isolated pockets and strips the racing inferno had missed. Elk had to be somewhere with clean water, good grass and remote escape cover. If I could find those three magic ingredients, I knew I would enjoy decent bowhunting.

As the days went by, I realized that elk in the area had been shocked by the fires. They were wandering in confusion, their tracks lining out across desolate places where they had once thrived. But herds stopped at least briefly in the few shady canyons that were left with grass to eat and water to drink.

It was in one such pocket that I stalked and shot my 2012 Montana elk. The bull was not one of my best, but he was a respectable bull, bugling and chasing cows like a champ. Given what I had to work with, I thanked my lucky stars that I had killed an elk at all.

The following year, I drew another excellent elk tag in Wyoming. I had hunted this unit once before and had seen upwards of 100 elk per day. But this was going to be a completely different story. The same wonderfully wet, heavily treed and grass-choked draws were devoid of elk tracks, but there were plenty of wolf tracks to take their place. A state biologist told me that an 11-wolf pack had moved into the area several months before—spillover wolves from Yellowstone National Park. I was fit to be tied.

The management unit I was hunting was relatively small, but I moved to the extreme western edge several miles from the epicenter of wolf activity. I finally found a few rutting bulls in small, heavily treed pockets near timberline.

The hiking was severe, and I never saw an elk I wanted to shoot. But I had a lot of fun passing up raghorns and smallish 6×6 bulls. Even in the heart of wolf country, I was able to consistently find legal elk to chase.

Adverse conditions like drought, wildfires, a spike in predators or the loss of habitat security due to new roads can concentrate elk more than normal in small areas with favorable habitat. Once you find a hotspot, the bowhunting can be fantastic.

On the flip side, unusually good elk conditions can also present a problem. A few years ago, spring and summer rainfall was abnormally heavy in one of my favorite elk areas. Grass and water were everywhere, and elk were spread thinly across many miles of habitat.

My solution was simple. I drove roads after dark (without my bow, of course) and bugled from high points to locate bulls. I did not get much sleep, but I did shoot a record-book elk after hearing him in a canyon the night before.

Night-locating bulls is also a great way to ensure consistent bowhunting action in places where elk are call-shy and hard to locate during daylight hours. Even the spookiest bull will answer your calls under cover of darkness, because he knows he is safe. He is likely to be within a few hundred yards of the same spot the following morning. Even if he does not bugle or grunt after sunrise, you might lay eyes on him by still-hunting or glassing terrain.

Be sure to check local laws before you do any elk calling after-hours. No matter what the state, doing this with shooting gear in your vehicle is strictly illegal.

Elk conditions often change. Bulls might be in one canyon today and long gone tomorrow. Last year’s “elk convention” might be this year’s dud. A consistently successful bowhunter on public land stays on the balls of his feet and pays close attention to deteriorating habitat, escalating hunting pressure and other adverse factors that push elk away.

If you start in a general area known to harbor elk, use maps to locate remote pockets of cover at least two miles from easy access, and then scout on foot for water, grass and tree cover, you will probably find tracks, antler rubs, wallows and other signs of recent elk activity. You might even see and hear elk before you ever uncase your bow.

Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting—including Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game.