How to Hunt Elk in the Narrows

Photo by Bill Buckley.

Elk country is immense, and finding elk can be more daunting than finding your car in a, multi-level parking structure. What’s the secret? If you don’t hire an outfitter or have a relative living smack-dab in the middle of elk country, then you’ll have to focus your search for the right locations. Start by hunting the narrows—those strips of land that border public and private properties.

For most hunters, frustration rises through the season as elk flee from public-land hunting pressure to private-land refuges. Often the private land is leased or simply off-limits to the average hunter. That doesn’t mean you have to walk away. It just means you have to hunt smart and scout for tracts of public land that might hold animals that utilize terrain on both sides of the fence.

Elk, like many game species, quickly discover that private land provides safe harbors. But despite the relief, they still may not realize exact boundaries. Or they may cross back onto public for breeding, food, water, or even for refuge if the private land is mostly wide-open ag land.

Begin your search for these ideal pieces of cover by looking at land held by all public-land agencies, such as the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Corps of Engineers, and state and even county deed holders. A visit to a county courthouse could also reveal easements in place for legal access.

After selecting a hunting location, begin scouting. Pay attention to any public land that borders private. Today’s elk herds no longer summer high in the mountains only to move lower when snow arrives. Some live year-round in foothill properties, while others rush off the mountain at the first hint of hunting pressure.

Your hunt may go as planned deep in public parcels, but if you don’t have any luck, you might need to resort to the narrows for success.

Photo by Donald M. Jones.

Map It Out
A combination of maps is crucial, including public-land, topographical, and portable maps that can be carried via a GPS unit or embedded on a smartphone (see "Mapping Systems" sidebar). Maps, combined with online satellite images, aid you in pinpointing likely hunting locations. When possible, scout them yourself. Look for past rutting sign such as rubs and wallows. Hunt for possible ambush locations, including saddles, constricted canyons, and creek corridors.

Lastly, scrutinize fences. Elk are lazy by nature. Downed fences, sagging wires, and broken posts create low spots that elk seek out for easy crossing. Hunting near these crosswalk locations could increase your exposure to elk traffic from the private side.

Give Yourself Room
Now comes the tricky part: the hunt. You need to be sure to give yourself plenty of space if you do shoot an animal near a private boundary. Bow- or rifle-shot animals can easily travel 100 yards or more, and they almost always escape to areas of past safety. This should be your minimum setup distance from any fence. And it never hurts to stop by to get acquainted with a landowner, just in case your wounded animal does make it over the fence.

Call the Bull
Depending on the time of the year, you could incorporate calls and decoys into your hunt, especially during archery season. Estrous whines combined with youthful bugles have been known to entice a mature bull to step outside the box for a look. Raking and even rattling could inspire a bull to boldly move into the public side.

Of course, if elk are silent, you’ll need to scout for trails exhibiting the highest traffic and put a patient, whitetail-like strategy into play.

Mapping Systems
Elk cover a lot of ground, and if you're hunting in narrow lands between public and private deed holders, you'll need to know your exact location. Protect yourself from a possible trespass arrest by loading your GPS or smartphone with software programs like those offered by OnXMaps or Trimble.

These mapping resources provide detailed information that includes topographical map data and ownership boundaries to help you navigate anywhere. OnXMaps even offers detailed ownership information, including landowner names. Color-coded, detailed information shows exactly where you stand and where you are heading. OnXMaps includes hunting unit boundaries.

In addition to in-the-field map coverage, companies like these also offer the option of printing maps specific to your hunting area.