Outdoor Life Online Editor

Even when elk are easy to find, the biggest bulls usually aren’t. At the first hint of human activity in any area, the big boys retreat to their local bed-and-breakfast to wait out the season. I’m referring to those secret hideaways in rough country that offer all the comfort and privacy big bulls need.

My first visit to one of these havens was an accident. I was working my way through a tangled mess of fallen timber and brush on the side of a steep Montana ridge utterly devoid of elk sign when I stumbled into a small clearing where the hillside slid down to form a little flat spot. A tiny spring was kicking up enough water to keep the surrounding grass green. The seep was so small, the only place the water was pooling was in the elk tracks that dug into the soft soil. Elk tracks! I must have said it out loud, because about that time a bull stood up on the edge of the clearing and looked at me, just as surprised as I was.

That was the first of several bulls taken in that tiny park. By identifying the key features that made that little clearing an ideal hideout, I was able to locate other places withsimilar features and, very frequently, similar bulls.

1.) Water. Elk don’t seem to mind traveling a mile or two for water if human activity is low, but if people start showing up en masse they’ll retreat to the most secluded water source they can find. A quiet sip from a secluded seep is preferable to a long drink from a noisy stream when hiding is a priority.

2.) **** Seclusion. The farther the hideout is from human activity, and the rougher the terrain is leading up to it, the more appealing it is to a big bull. Fallen logs, heavy timber, thick brush and rugged country all earn bonus points here. The less you enjoy hiking into the place, the better the hunting is likely to be.

3 .) A Shelf. Elk will bed down in steep terrain if they have to, but they prefer a place that is flat or has a gradual slope to it. It doesn’t have to be a sprawling area to win approval-a shelf about the size of a twin bed will do in a pinch. If the terrain allows, a semi-flat bench about half an acre or larger seems to be preferred.

4.) Food. Most forests have enough grass in them to sustain several elk in any small area for the duration of a hunting season. Seeps usually provide enough water to produce lush, green grass well into the fall, and elk prefer to eat their greens fresh.

If you’ve got a problem with packing your game out in small pieces, forget what you’ve just read. This type of terrain isn’t for the timid or weak-hearted, but it’s a bed-and-breakfast retreat for big bulls. They have all the comforts of home, and they rarely get any visitors.