A Backwards Elk Hunt: Why You Should Switch Up Your Public-Land Strategy This Fall

The easiest route to your elk this fall means getting to the high country long before they do

Montana bull elk

bull elk

A giant Montana bull trolls the high country in midmorning.Mark Raycroft

Unless you hunt private land, chances are your Western elk hunt will involve a pre-dawn race to the top of a mountain. Public-land elk follow a typical pattern throughout their range. At dusk, they drop into lush meadows, valleys, and flattops to graze on the abundant grasses found there. At dawn, they begin a scramble back into lofty, elevated hideouts characterized by dark, north faces and steep, vertical terrain.

Elk hunters traditionally start out with the herds, following bugles in the morning darkness and then subjecting themselves to punishment by following the herds to Sherpa-required refuges. But what if you reversed the process? What if you started at the top and waited for the elk to come to you? Consider this strategy on your next elk adventure.

To pull off this time-saving scheme, first review your past hunts and take note of where elk retired for daytime safety. North-facing slopes rank high for escape cover, but elk will also bed high on timber-covered benches and mountaintops. Use satellite images and topographic maps to pinpoint these locations. Then see if there is a realistic way to beat elk to these locations.

Access may be possible by jumping off a National Forest Service trail and hiking a couple of miles into high country. Or you may have to pack in a camp to a location that gives you hiking options to several high retreats. Either access option gives you entrée to possible routes elk may take on their way to higher ground. Watch and listen for hints on the herd’s line of travel.

Beyond Location
In addition to the complications of elevated access, you'll be battling Mother Nature's problematic thermals. Morning thermals plunge downward as cold air sinks. This phenomenon doesn't reverse until midmorning or later, as the day warms. With this in mind, you'll need to keep to one side or the other of a herd to avoid having your scent reach the elk below.

As the herd progresses upward, the energy you saved by waiting rather than following will give you the endurance needed for a side-slope ambush. Keep a puffer bottle handy at all times to monitor the ever-changing wind directions on warm mornings.

Even with the high-ground advantage, you’ll need to be prepared to act quickly. Elk herds often shift to a new location on a whim, especially with constant hunting pressure. You will also likely be challenged with the sounds of silence. It’s not uncommon for herds to go quiet as they amble on the last portion of their morning journey. Follow your hunch and hope you picked the right safe haven. If you end up in a bedroom with no guests, move to a location where you can monitor the most country. Elk routinely bugle from their midday beds, and in the afternoon they’ll raise a ruckus, giving you a short window for another interception before they head back down the mountain.