Outdoor Life Online Editor

One of the biggest mistakes elk hunters make is not scouting. Granted, most people have time constraints, and for those out of state the problem is even tougher. Still, many hunters are simply unaware of the importance of scouting-or don’t know how to scout-even if they are lucky enough to have the time.

To many, scouting means tearing around on an ATV sometime before the season looking for elk. To others, it means driving roads in pickups and glassing distant slopes. But real, productive scouting is much more than a cursory look at a bunch of mountains.

Early Checkout
If you live close to the area you’ll be hunting, you have the advantage of being able to look it over long before the season starts. Most nonresidents don’t have this luxury, but I know a few enterprising individuals who take vacation time months before the season to check out a new area.

A major reason to scout early is to identify the boundaries of the zone you’ll be hunting. Even federal lands should be checked out thoroughly, since private property is often intermingled with publicly owned areas. Access may be blocked by small strips of private land that border public land. With a bit of investigation you can often find a perfectly legal route to access such public areas.

You also need to learn the country. Even if you’ve hunted an area before, the more familiar you are with it, the better your odds for success. Look for the access points that other hunters will use. Learn where the saddles on ridges are located, since this is where elk tend to cross. Map out a rough sketch of the vegetative mosaic, drawing in feeding areas, escape cover, sagebrush expanses and likely travel routes. Locate water sources. In arid country, elk will use water holes, sharing them with livestock. If you’re hunting early, look for wallows. Talk with cowboys, sheepherders and government field personnel who can help you in your search.

Studies show that when elk are pressured, they head for the nastiest cover they can find; the farther from roads and trails the better. I’ve personally found that elk will use very steep slopes and prefer spruce-fir blowdowns and lodgepole pine thickets to hide in. With a good, updated map, you can seek out these areas and note them long before the season opens.

While elk will almost always choose evergreen forests for escape cover, in my experience thickets of scrub oak attract animals during the night, because they can feed extensively in tiny grassy openings. As it gets light, however, elk often move out of these dense thickets and head for Douglas fir forests, traveling several miles to get there if necessary.

The same tendency holds true for elk feeding in aspen forests, which are more common throughout the central and southern Rockies. Though elk may roam over exceedingly wide areas, narrowing food and escape-cover choices within your hunting area can really help. By finding trails that animals use, you can determine a strategy when the season opens.

To Pattern or Not?
Savvy whitetail hunters know their quarry long before the hunting season, from trails to feeding, bedding and escape areas. Whereas a buck deer might live most of his life in an area of 100 acres or so, elk might inhabit a home range of 100 square miles or more, depending on weather, hunting pressure, forage and other factors.

So, unlike whitetails, elk might move a considerable distance from your hunting area between the time you scout and hunt, making it impractical for rifle hunters to look for animals or even to try to determine feeding and bedding patterns in a specific area before the season opens. Such scouting is even less practical if you’ll be hunting late in the season when migrations have caused elk to relocate in lower elevations.

But for bowhunters or blackpowder hunters, preseason scouting for herds can really pay off beecause these hunts typically are timed to take place long before elk have moved out of their summer range and may well extend into the breeding season, which usually ends in early October or a bit later.

Where Elk Feed
Although elk eat a wide assortment of plants, their chief diet consists of grasses. They prefer meadows, also known as “parks,” because grass grows best in sunlit areas. Hunters tend to focus on large meadows, but elk will use tiny areas that are tucked away and hard to see. Under heavy hunting pressure, elk may never leave the timber, feeding in forests and scrub patches that contain grass.

When you scout, look for signs of feeding elk. Freshly cropped grass and an unusual number of fresh droppings are strong clues. Remember that elk commonly leave feeding areas long before shooting light and drift into their timbered hideouts-another important reason to check out escape cover before the season opens.

A Bitter Lesson
Not scouting properly has cost me elk in the past. One memorable instance occurred 30 years ago as I tracked a pair of bulls in a snowy Colorado forest. I was unfamiliar with the area and didn’t realize that the two animals were headed for a large sagebrush flat adjacent to the forest. The huge tracks were steaming hot and twice I saw black elk legs slipping along in the timber ahead of me. I eased along, following as quietly as possible and hoping for a shot. It never happened. The bulls left the timber and entered open country. By the time I emerged from the forest on their trail, they were 800 yards away, half-trotting through the sage. Had I done my homework and known about the vast opening, I could have circled with the wind in my favor and am-bushed the elk as they left the timber.