Scorched Earth Elk

The bull elk turned briefly amid the burned snags to look at me, then trotted off, just out of range of a shot. A few hundred yards farther out, a loping coyote stopped suddenly, melting into its surroundings. Deer and elk tracks carpeted the ground. A few years after the wildfire, life had returned to the burned area.

As devastating as they are, wildfires are a natural occurrence and will always be with us, so hunters might as well learn to take advantage of them. Three of my last four bulls were shot in close proximity to recent blazes.

The benefits of wildfires are evident as early as the spring following a burn. The fire cleans up the forest floor and triggers the release of nutrients into the soil, nourishing fresh grasses, forbs and shrubs. These new-growth sites are like magnets to wildlife. In the long run, wildfires create a healthier forest and more habitat to sustain game.

Most large wildfires leave a mosaic of burned and unburned ground in their wake. The islands of green provide hiding cover for elk and deer, while the open burned areas soon fill in with grass and other food sources.

Still-hunting the edges of burns at first light, I often catch elk and deer returning from feeding. I've also made stands on the perimeters of burns or even in one of the islands. Scout the area to locate trails that lead from feeding sites to bedding areas. Keep an eye out for evidence of rehabilitation. This includes seeding in places where fire burned much of the vegetation. In the more remote areas of burns I look for places that have been seeded by aerial drops from helicopters. Also note the fire lines created by fire crews and bulldozers; these are seeded for rehab purposes. If you find a new-growth area with water nearby, you've hit the mother lode. --Scott Staats