For elk hunters, few things can compare to the excitement and satisfaction of harvesting an animal after an intense DIY public land hunt. However, filling your tag requires extensive pre-season scouting to understand the terrain, locate elk, and prepare mentally and physically. From leveraging technology to reading sign on the ground, let’s explore some essential tips to help you scout smarter.
- Use aerial imagery and GPS mapping apps to identify promising habitat
- Look for tracks, droppings, wallows and rubs which indicate elk presence
- Scout during early morning and evening when elk are most active
- Practice stealth techniques like walking into the wind and using terrain
- Consult wildlife biologists for insights on local elk habits and movements
- Have reasonable expectations based on your abilities and fitness level
- Reflect after the season on what worked well and what you can improve
Thorough preparation and planning is crucial for an effective DIY elk hunt. Ideally begin scouting a month before season by obtaining aerial imagery maps and quality optics like binoculars and spotting scopes. Apps like OnX and Gaia GPS allow you to overlay property boundaries, roads, trails and markers onto satellite maps. Identify likely elk habitat like meadows, saddle points, riparian areas and benches. Look for patterns in the landscape suggesting established game trails.
Use the off-season to research the local herd by speaking with wildlife biologists. Attend pre-season meetings to gather intel on population numbers, expected rut timing, weather impacts, and more. Connect with local hunters to potentially gain shared knowledge, but beware dubious “tips.” Clearly define expectations around terrain difficulty and fitness required to pack meat long distances.
During scouting trips, zero in on habitat features that attract elk:
Water Sources – rivers, streams, seeps, springs, ponds. Elk seek water daily and rarely roam far from it. Wallows around water indicate areas of frequent use.
Meadows – open grassy areas provide abundant forage opportunities. Look for nearby forested patches for bedding and thermal cover.
Ridges & Saddles – travel corridors connecting drainages and meadows. Saddles also funnel wind, allowing elk to catch scent.
Timbered Ridges – shade and protection from predators. North facing slopes holding moisture and forage longer into fall.
Riparian Areas – lush vegetation and forage growth along creeks and streams. Prime real estate during the rut.
Benches – provide quick access to multiple elevations for feeding/bedding. Ideal for bulls surveying their domain.
Focus scouting on where these habitat features converge, increasing odds of elk encounters. Be willing to hike deep into remote country away from roads and trails. Locating out-of-the-way wallows and meadows is key to evading pressured areas.
As the season progresses, elk patterns change dramatically due to rut influences, hunting pressure, and shifting food sources. Early season scouting provides baseline information, but continue trips into October to observe changes.
Bugling – Bulls signal rut readiness through bugling. Scout during September to learn peak activity times and assess bull potential.
Herd Movement – Track migration corridors from summer to winter range. Be aware of how weather impacts migration timing.
Feeding Habits – Early season finds elk feeding on grasses in meadows. As winter nears, focus shifts to shrubs.
Bedding Areas – Thermal cover like dense timber becomes increasingly important as temperatures drop.
The Rut – Prime scouting to understand how bulls shift between harems seeking receptive cows.
Pay attention to daily and seasonal patterns and be flexible during hunting season as elk alter habits due to pressure.
Look For Sign – Tracks, droppings, trails in vegetation and mud indicate areas elk frequent. Check wallows for body imprints. Look for antler scrapes on trees and upturned earth from antler thrashing.
Use Optics – Scout open meadows and park fringes at dawn and dusk with binoculars and spotting scopes. Sit patiently and glass for extended periods.
Scent Control – Approach known elk areas from downwind. Cover scent with sprays and play the wind using terrain features.
Use Stealth – Move slowly in shadows and avoid unnecessary noise like clanking gear. Use terrain like ridges to break up silhouette.
Think Like Elk – Consider how you would use the land if you were an elk, seeking food, water, shelter from weather and hiding from danger. Put yourself in their hooves.
Check Water Sources – Sit near watering holes at peak times, early morning and late evening when elk are thirsty. Be ready for close encounters.
network with landowners – Ask permission to access private land adjacent to public areas to maximize scouting visibility. Most will oblige if asked respectfully.
Modern mapping apps and GPS make scouting vastly more productive than past decades.
Google Earth – Download highest resolution satellite imagery available. Look for meadows, saddles and benching patterns.
OnX – Overlay property boundaries, trails, etc on mobile apps. Easily navigate and mark waypoints during hikes. Saves huge amounts of time.
Gaia GPS – Customizable map layers like slope gradient help anticipate elk movement. Share layers with partners.
Smartphones – Download maps offline for field use where no service exists. Functions as GPS with navigation apps. Lightweight.
Social Media – Connect on hunting forums to find guided trip reports, hunter sightings and shared waypoints in promising areas.
Trail Cameras – Place on game trails, water sources and mineral licks to pattern animal presence when you can’t be there. Choose models with cellular upload capability to monitor remotely.
Weather Apps – Monitor forecasts closely for opening day and during season. Be flexible as changing conditions affect elk movement and hunter access.
Once high probability areas are identified via digital scouting, get boots on the ground to verify. Look for evidence of elk presence:
Tracks – Fresh prints indicate elk recently passed through. Analyze size, composition and direction of travel.
Droppings – Fresh scat means elk are near. Older piles confirm established habitat use. Note composition for diet insights.
Wallows – Check for body imprints and downed vegetation around water sources and seeps where elk roll and cool off. Prime areas that attract herds.
Rubs – Look for bark fraying on trees 6-10 feet off ground where antlers scrape off velvet. Indicates bull presence.
Bugling – Listen for rutting bulls sounding off to advertise fitness and intimidate rivals. Indicates areas to target.
Beds – Flattened vegetation shows elk bedding areas. Provides intel on where elk feel most secure.
Trails – Follow well-worn paths through meadows and timber to food and water sources. Sets up good stand locations.
In addition to elk sign, understanding how terrain and habitat features influence elk movement is key.
Water Flow – Elk follow riparian corridors and drainages as they connect vital resources. Note location of tributaries feeding into main streams.
Funnels – Saddles, natural passes and trail pinch points where elk are channeled into concentrated areas. Allows predicting travel routes.
Visibility – Meadows, ridge tops and clear cuts provide good visibility for elk to watch for danger and attract mates. Allows hunters to also see elk approaching.
Cover – Timber stands, brushy draws and ridge fingers provide security for bedding and thermal regulation. North facing slopes hold cover longer into fall.
Elevation – Determine typical elevations for summer and winter range. Scout trails linking them. Understand how weather affects seasonal elevation shifts.
Edge Effect – Productive habitat occurs where two distinct vegetation types meet and diversify food sources, like meadows bordering timber stands.
Connectivity – Scout for linkages between feeding areas, bedding cover, water sources. Connectivity allows elk to safely access essentials.
Use scouting intel to develop hunting strategies:
- Identify bull staging areas to target calling during the rut
- Note meadows elk move through at certain times to set up ambushes
- Find beds with shooting lanes within range to catch them unaware
- Locate water sources elk frequent to hunt during peak use times
- Post-rut, intercept them along trails between feeding and bedding areas
- During migrations, set up along corridors or in saddles to ambush them
- Identify escape routes elk will use once pressured and where to potentially intercept them
- Have backup areas in mind if you bump elk from original spots
After the hunt, write down what worked well and where you can improve to guide future scouting:
- catalog successful stands and travel corridors for next season
- note new wallows or meadows discovered to revisit
- reflect on property access issues and relationships to strengthen
- identify prime bedding cover that should be left undisturbed till the season
- consider ways to better prepare physically for the hunt
- look back on weather events and how elk responded
- brainstorm strategies you’d employ next time around
Thorough record-keeping makes every year’s scouting efforts more efficient. Strive to continually improve your skills and knowledge with each hunt.
With extensive pre-season scouting, following trails to confirm digital intel, observing elk behaviors, and patterning the landscape, you’ll be prepared for an epic DIY elk hunt this season. Leverage the latest mapping technology, but also put in those trail miles to learn the terrain. If you earnestly do the work, your chances of filling your tag are excellent. Stay motivated, hunt hard and scout smart. Here’s to your best elk season yet!
Captain Hunter is a seasoned hunting mentor with over 20 years of experience in the field. His passion began as a young man on trips with his father and grandfather in the Colorado mountains. Today, he shares his unmatched skills in survival, tracking, and marksmanship through his website CaptainHunter.com. When he's not volunteering with youth hunting programs, you can find Captain Hunter providing expert hunting tips, gear reviews, and answers to your most pressing questions. His decades of experience make him the trusted guide to help any outdoorsman master the sport.