Finding Elk Sign in High Rugged Country

Rampaige

Junior Member
Joined
Jul 11, 2019
Messages
47
I went on my first elk hunt this September in an OTC unit in SW Colorado. I hunted a narrow basin, about 1.5 miles treeline to treeline with very craggy peaks over 12,500'. Treeline was around 11.7-12k feet. I found very little sign in the basin, didn't see any elk, but I'm wondering for next year how to hunt areas like this. I really wasn't sure where to start looking for sign, as far as altitude. I ended up finding old sign around treeline on my last day of hunting (long story why I stayed in the same area for days without moving). Many of the meadows had no elk sign, north-facing slopes were small and not many of them, so I checked off those areas quickly.

The CPW officer I chatted with when I got home advised me of some other areas that he thinks would be productive, but they look similar--long N/S running basins with high peaks on each side.

I'm going back this year, possibly to the same unit (different basin), so in a heavily pressured area my questions are:
1. Where would you start looking? Above treeline? Just below? Valley bottom? In between? N Facing Slopes? Meadows? Creeks?
2. How long would you give before moving on to a new area?
3. Would you still expect to hear real elk bugle/cow calls even in a heavily pressured area?
4. For you Eastern guys that have been around the elk woods, is finding elk sign as easy as finding whitetail sign?
 

Vandy321

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Feb 5, 2019
Messages
2,425
Based on your discription, im 99.9% sure I know what unit you were in, what wildlife manager you spoke to and what basin/creek he suggested.

Next year is going to be even worse there with nearby units going draw.

Hunt lower.
 

Gapmaster

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Dec 22, 2019
Messages
300
Location
Arkansas
When im looking at new areas I zoom out pretty far on GE and just look at the whole area. I prefer the dark stuff. So I let my eyes gravitate to the darker bigger blocks, and then start breaking them down. I like several East-West running ridges in close proximity so I can get on top and cover lots of ground until I find hot sign. Once you start getting into fresh sign, slow way down and work it.

Sometimes you have to cover miles and miles, sometimes you walk into a hot spot 1/4 mile from the road. Learn one unit/area. Takes time to understand what you are seeing and why. It’ll click for you one day and become easier to spot good areas. Never gets “easy” to hunt them, just easier to find them. Elk are contrary almost all the time. Good luck
 

Slugz

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Dec 31, 2020
Messages
354
Its sounds like you are describing a GMU on the other side of the state that we frequent. Elk there go up and over alot and tough to get to em. They bump north south over 11000k crag but the drainages run east west. We developed a plan to go in and get out no more than 3 days and a roughly 10 mile hunt loop. If we dont find em we get out and move to another drainage. Some years they get bumped into the drainage we are in. Other years it may take 8 to 10 days to figure where they are at.

Being mobile and mentally tough enough to give up on a spot and move on is key IMO.
 

Indian Summer

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Feb 17, 2013
Messages
1,569
Just as important as finding elk is not spooking them. What good is finding them if you ran them out of the basin while you were doing it? So I’d say get up at or above tree line where you can see. Find the best vantage points and spend some time perched there glassing and listening.

Deer sign is spread out evenly over their home range which is much much smaller than an elks home range. For that reason yes, elk sign is harder to find. Unless you’re into them… then it’s hard not to see and smell their presence. Smell is a good indicator of whether they are there or have been recently. Running trails on ridge tops or up bottoms won’t help. You’ll need to commit and get on the mid slope benches to find real sign. If I do that during the day and sit at my vantage points in the mornings and evenings and don’t see a single elk or at least smoking hot sign for 3 days I’m outta there.

They probably show up the day after I leave! Lol
 
OP
R

Rampaige

Junior Member
Joined
Jul 11, 2019
Messages
47
My plan last year was to backpack hunt to get far from roads and pressure, but once we got out there we ended up doing a basecamp and not really straying too far from roads, or camp, or our comfort zone. I like the idea of backpacking hunting because, well, I enjoy backpacking. However, I definitely see the advantage to being mobile and being able to pick up and move 1/5/10/50 miles if we wanted. This year I'd like to do more of a combination of the two by spiking out for a few days to get away from pressure, see some country and hopefully sign, but also having the ability to relocate if we want.

Last year I found sign (very old sign, but sign nonetheless) up high around treeline. Based on this and most recommendations, I'm tempted to go high and stay high. My concern is thermals pulling my scent to the elk at night. If you don't know where the elk are, how to I prevent bumping them? If it is just timber and there are no meadows below me can I assume the elk are not there at night?

The thing is it's easy for me to scout for whitetail because I go outside and look for whitetail. I have a year's worth of thoughts and ideas in my head about elk hunting and I have to wait 9 more months to execute them and see what I can confirm, deny, or see what I haven't even considered. I hope one year to convince the wife to let me spend all of September out West to get a better grasp on things and speed up the learning curve. You know, for science. I think that is the hardest part for a flatlander, and also a huge part of the excitement.

Also, there were a lot of cattle in the area. How different do elk smell from cattle? There were times we could smell what I thought was elk, only to find a whole meadow covered in cow plops. There were other times we'd smell it with no sign of cattle, but also didn't find any elk sign.

I don't even know what I don't know yet.
 

Marble

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
May 29, 2019
Messages
2,212
You are on the right track for sure.

Elk and cattle can be similar, but when you question the smell, it's either old or not elk.

Cattle rarely are in thick timber. They may travel an established trail through timber but not usually.

Seems there are 3 options being discussed and I've used all three to kill/locate elk. Glass from afar, make a smaller loop in an area that interests you, go right through timber.

I use all three all the time as opportunity presents itself. I keep traveling in low sign areas until I have significant sign. As soon as I have good sign, I flip a switch.

Elk can travel a thin trail through thick timber to the end of a drainage and never be seen or heard from, only to pop out a mile later to feed . Or they may bed 100 yards from their feed. It just isn't predictable.

What is predictable is they will be where they feel safe, are comfortable and have escape routes. Trails will lead to and from bedding feeding areas.

Learning an area and spooking a herd will sometimes tell you more than seeing nothing.

Sent from my SM-G986U using Tapatalk
 

Gerbdog

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Jun 8, 2020
Messages
535
Location
CO Springs
1. Where would you start looking? Above treeline? Just below? Valley bottom? In between? N Facing Slopes? Meadows? Creeks?

I like to go through the N facing slopes and bedding areas mid summer when im scouting... i would not recommend this during season though, at least not until you get a bit more experience around actual elk and in the deep timber. If i can find bedding areas with rubs in it during the summer i have a good sense they will be around in September for the rut.


2. How long would you give before moving on to a new area?

Quick. Dont count on elk moving into an area while your sitting around. If your not into fresh sign within a day or two as in... bright green shit, a wallow with fresh mud slung up over the nearby grass and trees .... or you cant smell them. Move on, hell, throw a random dart at a board. Theyre not where you are, so dont be there.

3. Would you still expect to hear real elk bugle/cow calls even in a heavily pressured area?

I do. I sleep with 1 ear open and sleep light when im in the elk woods, they will talk deep in the night. If you are a heavy sleeper... you may have to give up some sleep and get out there and do some listening and bugling in the dark.


4. For you Eastern guys that have been around the elk woods, is finding elk sign as easy as finding whitetail sign?

Not an eastern guy. Finding elk is the hard part.
 

Gapmaster

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Dec 22, 2019
Messages
300
Location
Arkansas
4. For you Eastern guys that have been around the elk woods, is finding elk sign as easy as finding whitetail sign?

Not an eastern guy. Finding elk is the hard part.
A few similarities, but no for the most part. Completely different animal. But they both need the same things, food, cover, security, water. But it’s a different ballgame for sure. Too many “eastern” guys try to employ their deer scouting/hunting tactics to the mountains and it just doesn’t work for them. Hence the continuous questions of how to find elk. No replacement for covering country and experience in the high country. Adaptability should be the word of the day everyday.
 

GotDraw?

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Jul 4, 2015
Messages
1,048
Location
Maryland
Food, water, sex, shelter/safety- and having all of that with the least amount of travel/energy expenditure possible is what they prefer. That said, they will travel for any component. They are like deer, but cover 50x as much area so you need to think about expanding your scouting and speed accordingly.

You- cover as much ground as fast as possible with optics or fast hiking, locate fresh sign, quickly abandon areas w/o it. When you find it, work the wind and slow-the-frick-down to hunt it. Work the timber. Many areas you will only be able to hunt in the AM or PM to work up or down slope winds. That's the reality. If they are above you and you cannot get to them, then get out and in positiion way before dawn so you're positioned to work your way up to them very slowly and set up with favorable downslope wind.

Buy ElkNut's material or Elk 101 now and learn from them.

Good luck!

JL
 
Last edited:

Indian Summer

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Feb 17, 2013
Messages
1,569
Something else to think about. Thinking about what I said in the last comment…. In a given area I might only have 3-4 main spots where I get up high and locate elk. I try to make them places where I can see elk near and far and also maybe actually shoot from where I’m sitting. That’s a lot to ask and so it takes some poking around before you finally come to a place where you stop and say wow this is it!

But that takes poking around. Exploring. Exploring isn’t the same as hunting. You are definitely exploring and learning while you hunt. But if you’ve never been there you have no way of knowing where to expect to see elk. That means you don’t know when you can cover more ground or when it’s time to slow down. The result is getting busted. But there’s no way around that. Before you can be confident and no where to sit and how elk are using the area you have to go through the learning phase.

One thing I do is to glass the areas I can but don’t still hunt the places in that area where I think the elk are. Instead head off in a different direction to still hunt. Then in another day when I am glassing elsewhere I might go back and explore the timber back at the first spot.

No matter how long you hunt an area you’ll always be learning. Different weather patterns and dry years versus wet years and other factors change how elk use the area. But there will come a point where you’re doing way more actual hunt than learning. Sometimes I still hunt a little just to get some blood flowing. But I move like the shadows and lop back to my perch several hours before sundown. So think about this and look at the big picture and plan the days of your hunt accordingly. The next time you go back and the next your plans will be different. But you have to commit to the area or you’ll always be starting over. The 10% of guys killing the elk are generally hunting areas they know.
 

Pony Soldier

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Dec 31, 2021
Messages
397
Location
Montana
Once upon a time I picked up a set of tracks high on the ridge and started following them. Six miles later I found where they fed all night. By making bigger and bigger circles I found where they lined out and followed them four mies to where they were bedded on the north side timber among the rocks and outcrops.

Every place has differant patterns and at differant times of the year. The only thing that gets you understanding is mles on the ground. A little snow helps but it is still miles on the ground.

Many places they feed all night in the hay fields and parks but by daylight they are miles away in totally differant habitat.

In the summer I see a cycle of about 2-3 weeks. However that changes with temps and grass moisture. In the winter, weather changes moves them towards the winter range. You have to guess where they are on the path.

What is predictable in deer in a 100 acres is somewhat predictable in elk in 2-3 townships. In a nutshell- suck it up, get into shape and prepare to cover some ground.
 

5MilesBack

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Feb 27, 2012
Messages
13,477
Location
Colorado Springs
My concern is thermals pulling my scent to the elk at night.
I've had elk come through my camps more than a few times in the middle of the night. They've even chased each other around the tent, and ended up pulling stakes out. I'm not sure the scent thing bothers them at night???

Also, you might find no sign at all in one drainage, and grand central station type of sign in the next.
 

rayporter

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Jul 3, 2014
Messages
3,608
Location
arkansas or ohio
i have had them go through camp at night for a week as they fed in the meadow around camp and at 4 am they went back up high, to bed down miles away and 2000 ft higher.
 

HondoArcher

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Jun 23, 2016
Messages
102
Elk develop patterns and have favorite locations where they feel safe. Heavy hunting pressure or hikers push elk out of drainages. Enough pressure can cause permanent change. They will feed in the open above the tree line but often run to bedding areas in the pine after feeding in the morning. Learn to use Google Earth in combination with your scouting. Look for differences between the places you find elk and those that you don't. With enough practice, you will be able to look at a drainage in Google Earth and tell if elk frequent that drainage. This method doesn't work well in heavily forested drainages unless there are open meadows to look at. For my 2020 archery elk hunt, I put together a video series that showed my scouting and hunting. Half of this (The Cliff Hunt) was in an area that I had never been in before that year. Watch the whole series and you will be able to see firsthand how the elk behave above the tree line.

This video shows the first scouting trip into that unknown area. Enjoy.
 
Joined
Apr 5, 2013
Messages
87
Location
Pine, CO
Something else to think about. Thinking about what I said in the last comment…. In a given area I might only have 3-4 main spots where I get up high and locate elk. I try to make them places where I can see elk near and far and also maybe actually shoot from where I’m sitting. That’s a lot to ask and so it takes some poking around before you finally come to a place where you stop and say wow this is it!

But that takes poking around. Exploring. Exploring isn’t the same as hunting. You are definitely exploring and learning while you hunt. But if you’ve never been there you have no way of knowing where to expect to see elk. That means you don’t know when you can cover more ground or when it’s time to slow down. The result is getting busted. But there’s no way around that. Before you can be confident and no where to sit and how elk are using the area you have to go through the learning phase.

One thing I do is to glass the areas I can but don’t still hunt the places in that area where I think the elk are. Instead head off in a different direction to still hunt. Then in another day when I am glassing elsewhere I might go back and explore the timber back at the first spot.

No matter how long you hunt an area you’ll always be learning. Different weather patterns and dry years versus wet years and other factors change how elk use the area. But there will come a point where you’re doing way more actual hunt than learning. Sometimes I still hunt a little just to get some blood flowing. But I move like the shadows and lop back to my perch several hours before sundown. So think about this and look at the big picture and plan the days of your hunt accordingly. The next time you go back and the next your plans will be different. But you have to commit to the area or you’ll always be starting over. The 10% of guys killing the elk are generally hunting areas they know.
This ^. My OTC area is a spot where I spent about 5 years learning where not to hunt. I saw a lot of guys packing elk out, so I knew they were there. I just kept going further and further back, in bigger and bigger arcs until I figured out where they liked to go. In a heavily hunted OTC area, this is often a nasty, steep canyon with meadows or little benches and pockets they can hang out in. One thing I learned along the way is that they like to find places in the real steep canyons (which sound vaguely similar to what you are hunting) that they can quickly bail off into timber and ditch hunters. I learned how they worked these areas, and where they would go when pressured by diving into that nasty timber after I had already bumped them, just to understand their hideouts. Think stuff that's STEEP, like 45%+ that gets even steeper, so they can't be approached from below. Often times with a well traveled trail along the easy/ South side of the ridge. By following these trails you can get an understanding of where they move, then hunt them around the fringes. I rarely dive into this timber anymore, but instead look for the food/ water that surrounds it, that they feel safe in once the season starts. Find the right drainage in an OTC area, and you will find that year after year, they will fill these basins up as the pressure from the guys hunting the easy to walk front country push them out of their summer casual range.

An invaluable tool for doing this is your PAPER 7-1/2 minute map of the area. Buy one, waterproof it and carry a couple of colors of sharpie pens to draw in trails, wallows, feed areas, etc on it. (Also mark the directions of hunter pressure, for example, where do the outfitters camp, and what trails do they ride along on their horses? In my area, it always comes from 3 different directions, and is predictable in how it moves the elk.) Way easier to visualize than pins on a GPS. After a while you will see patterns emerge in multiple drainages and stands of timber that you can extrapolate to general elk behavior in the area. It's often the same elk frequenting the same 5-6 major drainages as they move around, so they will look for similar areas to hide in. I mark things on my GPS I want to find again quickly, but I look at my paper maps when I want to see patterns. Another tool to combine with this is the DOW hunting atlas and Google Earth aerial views, overlaid with topo lines. Print these out in small blocks for your drainages, transfer your notes from your 7-1/2 minute map and they will help immensely when it comes to visualizing how a hillside or canyon is being utilized.
 

caltex

Junior Member
Joined
Feb 1, 2020
Messages
18
This ^. My OTC area is a spot where I spent about 5 years learning where not to hunt. I saw a lot of guys packing elk out, so I knew they were there. I just kept going further and further back, in bigger and bigger arcs until I figured out where they liked to go. In a heavily hunted OTC area, this is often a nasty, steep canyon with meadows or little benches and pockets they can hang out in. One thing I learned along the way is that they like to find places in the real steep canyons (which sound vaguely similar to what you are hunting) that they can quickly bail off into timber and ditch hunters. I learned how they worked these areas, and where they would go when pressured by diving into that nasty timber after I had already bumped them, just to understand their hideouts. Think stuff that's STEEP, like 45%+ that gets even steeper, so they can't be approached from below. Often times with a well traveled trail along the easy/ South side of the ridge. By following these trails you can get an understanding of where they move, then hunt them around the fringes. I rarely dive into this timber anymore, but instead look for the food/ water that surrounds it, that they feel safe in once the season starts. Find the right drainage in an OTC area, and you will find that year after year, they will fill these basins up as the pressure from the guys hunting the easy to walk front country push them out of their summer casual range.

An invaluable tool for doing this is your PAPER 7-1/2 minute map of the area. Buy one, waterproof it and carry a couple of colors of sharpie pens to draw in trails, wallows, feed areas, etc on it. (Also mark the directions of hunter pressure, for example, where do the outfitters camp, and what trails do they ride along on their horses? In my area, it always comes from 3 different directions, and is predictable in how it moves the elk.) Way easier to visualize than pins on a GPS. After a while you will see patterns emerge in multiple drainages and stands of timber that you can extrapolate to general elk behavior in the area. It's often the same elk frequenting the same 5-6 major drainages as they move around, so they will look for similar areas to hide in. I mark things on my GPS I want to find again quickly, but I look at my paper maps when I want to see patterns. Another tool to combine with this is the DOW hunting atlas and Google Earth aerial views, overlaid with topo lines. Print these out in small blocks for your drainages, transfer your notes from your 7-1/2 minute map and they will help immensely when it comes to visualizing how a hillside or canyon is being utilized.
That paper map to look for patterns sounds like a good approach to understand an area. I do the same thing with reefs that I hunt here in SoCal.

That's the kind of map you keep locked away for your sons and no one else...
 
Top