Questions for you seasoned elk hunters out there...

henson270

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Jan 27, 2016
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Hi All,

I'm a Midwestern deer hunter who is finally able to start taking some trips out west to hunt elk. I’ve already taken a trip to Colorado (Gunnison NF) in 2014 that turned up no elk, and am planning a trip to Montana (Gallatin NF) this fall, and am utterly overwhelmed. I have two questions for anyone that will answer:

1. If you were to hunt an area that you couldn't set foot on until the day you arrived for hunting season, what would you look for in your cyber scouting, and once you're there, what would your game plan be? Let's say you have 5 hunting days, post rut.

2. What do know about elk hunting that you wish you'd known when you first started?

Any thoughts are appreciated. Please and thank you!
 

putm2sleep

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I am kinda seasoned - just a care taker here.
1. A: I would not cyber scout. Screw cyber scouting - just hike! Make sure the water tank / pack is full day 1, and go hard all day long with a picked, or circled what looks promising on the map spot = the mountain or range and GO! A map is fine. I have hunted the same places for many years, these spots have big changes all the time.
2. Great question. What boots does a guy wear to go all day long?
 

henson270

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I am kinda seasoned - just a care taker here.
1. A: I would not cyber scout. Screw cyber scouting - just hike! Make sure the water tank / pack is full day 1, and go hard all day long with a picked, or circled what looks promising on the map spot = the mountain or range and GO! A map is fine. I have hunted the same places for many years, these spots have big changes all the time.
2. Great question. What boots does a guy wear to go all day long?
Great advice, putm2sleep! When you look at your map, what are the things you're looking for that look particularly "elky"?
 

MinnesotaHunter

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I am learning just like you, but am maybe a couple of years ahead. Regardless, none of this is my original thought, someone who knew what they were talking about shared it with me, and it worked.

1. Find the spots that are most isolated. Pull out your maps and find the areas where no roads go, or where there are significant obstacles to get to, and that will hopefully reduce the number of people willing to go there. less people = elk.

2. When in doubt, go higher (I am pretty sure a guy on here, who has killed a bunch of big bulls said this). It is very unlikely that if you get to the spot you wanted to check out, and there aren't any elk, that you walked past them. keep going, you probably haven't got there yet.
 

JLS

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Mar 26, 2012
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Hi All,

I'm a Midwestern deer hunter who is finally able to start taking some trips out west to hunt elk. I’ve already taken a trip to Colorado (Gunnison NF) in 2014 that turned up no elk, and am planning a trip to Montana (Gallatin NF) this fall, and am utterly overwhelmed. I have two questions for anyone that will answer:

1. If you were to hunt an area that you couldn't set foot on until the day you arrived for hunting season, what would you look for in your cyber scouting, and once you're there, what would your game plan be? Let's say you have 5 hunting days, post rut.

2. What do know about elk hunting that you wish you'd known when you first started?

Any thoughts are appreciated. Please and thank you!

I would try to find areas with a low road density. Wilderness areas can be a double edged sword, because they tend to attract hunters like fleas on a dog. Sometimes you'll find much less pressure outside of wilderness areas.

If it's a migrational herd, do your homework as to migration routes, staging areas, etc.

Big parky areas are great if you're looking for elk, not so great if you're after a bigger bull.

I don't think my strategy is all that unique. I go in with 3-4 core areas that I want to hunt. If I don't find elk sign in one, or too much hunting pressure I go to the next. Repeat until you find elk.

You didn't specify if you are rifle hunting or archery hunting, that can make a difference. I find that planning for an archery hunt is easier in that the elk are pretty predictable where they'll be. It's more a matter of finding elk that aren't getting hammered by other hunters.

If I'm rifle hunting, I'm looking more for soft spots of refuge in a migrational route, or within a home range of the elk herd. The bulls will typically find these small places of security and not go very far from there. I've killed two really good bulls. Both were between 2-3 miles from a road. Both had an area of very dark timber for security, and both had small basins to feed in that could not be seen from any road.
 

MinnesotaHunter

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both had small basins to feed in that could not be seen from any road.

This is a good nugget, JLS. Most hunters will walk a lot farther if they have seen a bull from the road, but if it is hidden from easy glassing it is a lot less likely to draw someone's attention.
 

hank4elk

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+2
The basin doesn't have to be any more than a pocket........1/4 mi from a road.
Just has to have food,cover & water nearby,maybe a flat spot .
 
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I really like to get familiar with an area via google earth, turn on elevation exaggeration then mark potential glassing spots, figure out how far they can see and how far apart they are. I typically download every map that might be relevant to an area such is USGS topos, Country road maps, Motor vehicle use maps, hiking trail maps, mt bike trail maps. I usually do google earth overlays of the useful ones. I look at the historical imagery of the area on google earth plus USGS topos from 30, 50, 80 years ago to find things like abandoned road beds, areas with reforestation, etc. Find some USGS stream gauges nearby and track the water levels and weather. Especially in the case of an area I have visited a time or 2 referencing water levels I know to current gauge heights can be really useful. I usually check out any google street view in a given unit so I have a relative idea of what I'm dealing with. Geotagged pictures on a lot of mapping software also can be really useful because hikers like to post panoramas of points with good visibility. What all that does is that I helps me create plan A-D and it makes me aware of features that I can key in on if I start seeing a pattern in activity.

None of what I'm mentioning is better than boots on the ground, but when you are 1000 miles away it helps you prioritize and be efficient once you get to an area whether that be to scout or hunt. I'm always amazed how many miles I put on driving in a new area hopping from place to place and doing so in a logical loop really pays off when the next spot might mean an hour of driving gravel to get around.
 

Big Fin

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I end up with a lot of tags in units I’ve never been to. Just part of what I have to do to get enough tags for the TV show. It surely adds a level of challenge that we do not face when hunting units we are familiar with. My perspective might be different than those posts before this.

Last year, half of our hunts were in places we had never hunted. I’ve developed a system I use for those hunts and that will be a big part of our Elk Talk series and my upcoming book. I seldom get to hunt the same season, same unit, same time period, same weapon type, year after year. Being forced to hunt elk in so many different situations in so many different seasons and environments forces me to approach this the way I do. The pre-hunt planning is important and I will give a brief highlight below of how it works for me.

As to heading to a place you have not been, cyber-scouting is huge. I only have five days to get there, get some encounters on film, and hopefully fill a tag. I can’t afford to show up and just walk around. That strategy depends too much on luck and happenstance, at least for me. When I explain my daily process of how I approach it when I get in the field, I hope it shows how pre-scouting from home plays such an important part in my strategy.

Before I get there, I have called people who might be helpful; DNR, Forest Service, any locals I might be able to contact. Hunt Talk is a great resource, if you ask in the proper manner. Most often those calls are not about where to go, rather where not to waste time. Wasted time is the biggest reason guys don’t find elk. Eliminate as much of the unit as possible before you get there and your time in the hills will be far better spent.

From my pre-scouting, I need 10 spots on a map that I think are very likely options. Each will have a different reason for being on the map, though all will have a few features in common, mostly distance or topography that will result in less pressure and higher likelihood of elk. I want 10 spots, as that gives me an average of 2 spots per day on a 5 day hunt. Most often I never get to them all or I can cross some of them off the list based on what I find in my hunting of some of the other spots. By the last two days, I want 1 to 3 spots remaining where I can dial it in with all my effort. With a bit of good luck I will have filled my tag in the first three days.

I try to have at least one day of scouting. I use that day to figure out my plan for the next morning. I then hunt that plan the next morning and assess the results. I never go back to camp for lunch or naps. I use that time to go to the next areas on my maps and plan out my afternoon/evening hunt. That afternoon/evening hunt is intended to find elk, but also help me eliminate more terrain. And by that I don’t just mean eliminating that particular area, but eliminating similar areas I might have on my map.

Depending upon my results from Day 1, on Day 2 I either focus more on one of the morning or evening areas from Day 1, or I go to some of my other spots and repeat the process. By the end of Day 3, I need to have eliminated most the areas on my map and have my focus dialed in on one or two specific spots that are the best potential. I then use my last two days to hunt those spots with the best strategies I can think of.

It is hard to be that disciplined about it when you see your hunt days slowly ticking away. But, having a plan and sticking to it gives you the confidence it will work. Many guys hit the panic button by the end of Day 2, as they do not have a plan. Or, they just do not have the mental mindset to stick with a plan and they panic when the days are dwindling.

One guys manner of how he approaches it.
 

genesis273

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That is great advice Big Fin! Never thought about asking where not to go and start the process of elimination from that point until the last day. Most have an opposite approach.
 

wllm1313

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I have a .kmz land ownership file for MT that you can drag and drop into google earth if you want to PM me your email. I look for habitat on the fringe of private/ where it's not obvious to your average Joe if it's public or not or maybe too small to hold elk. Perfect example I saw 40 hunters opening day about 4 miles back in a walk in only area that looked perfect on a topo map, didn't see an elk. On my way home I swung by a small piece of public that you have to climb straight up over a mountain and drop down the other side into, sure enough there were 5 bulls hanging out in a little meadow.
 

JLS

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That is great advice Big Fin! Never thought about asking where not to go and start the process of elimination from that point until the last day. Most have an opposite approach.

Along those same lines, ask the bio, warden, or ranger two things:

1) Where do you tell other folks to go
2) Where are the most common areas folks ask you about.
 

hank4elk

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Ditto,it is telling what some folks don't tell you....

Randy's method is spot on and pretty simple if you think about it.

I just use werds defferint than he does...........he's smooth.
....and I'm well seasoned,or is it old and crusty now ,I forget.
 
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Big Fin, slightly off topic but given the nature of producing a show while hunting, do you always hunt from a road-accessible base camp or do you ever backpack into an area?
 

Big Fin

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Big Fin, slightly off topic but given the nature of producing a show while hunting, do you always hunt from a road-accessible base camp or do you ever backpack into an area?

We usually have one backpack hunt per season. It is a serious complication for as much gear as we bring.
 

Pagosa

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Montana
Hi All,

I'm a Midwestern deer hunter who is finally able to start taking some trips out west to hunt elk. I’ve already taken a trip to Colorado (Gunnison NF) in 2014 that turned up no elk, and am planning a trip to Montana (Gallatin NF) this fall, and am utterly overwhelmed. I have two questions for anyone that will answer:

1. If you were to hunt an area that you couldn't set foot on until the day you arrived for hunting season, what would you look for in your cyber scouting, and once you're there, what would your game plan be? Let's say you have 5 hunting days, post rut.

2. What do know about elk hunting that you wish you'd known when you first started?

Any thoughts are appreciated. Please and thank you!


Just my two cents, there are probably more elk in the Gunnison Basin than a lot of the good areas in Montana. Also a lot more hunters in Colorado which keeps the elk moving and visable.
But since your plan on hunting in Montana here are a couple suggestions from what I've learned from hunting up here. If you are hunting within an hour of Bozeman, Butte areas look where the other hunters are hunting at. They have already located elk and know the areas better than you. You just need to hike past them before daylight and be setup between the bedding areas and where the hunters are coming from. If you don't see any local trucks at a particular trailhead or area there may not be a lot of elk there.
I'm not talking about ruining a locals hunting spot or birddogging someone out enjoying hunting, but see where people are hunting and try to find remote areas from there. A little pressure keeps the elk moving and helps other hunters too.
You need to cover lots of miles to find fresh elk sign. I will hike 8-10 miles a day looking for sign before I really start hunting and area. Which makes it tough if you only have a few days to hunt, because someone else will locate the herd and kill them before you can hunt it again.
This past season I walked around 40-50 miles in several weekends of hunting region 3. I seen quite a few elk, but only two legal bulls. But it took me almost to the last days to find the elk, and begin hunting them. And I still never got a shot. But from hunting this area for two years now I feel i now have a 50% chance of getting a bull in there in the upcoming season. My first year I probably only had a single digit chance of killing an elk. I'm just saying it will take you several years to figure out a particular area to hunt and be somewhat successful. Good luck on trip and don't set your hopes too high on killing an elk, just enjoy the time spent in the mountains and getting chance to hunt.
 

henson270

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Jan 27, 2016
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Delano, MN
To all:

Thanks for all of the great advice; it's given me a lot to chew on and keep my occupied until October rolls around.

Shoot Straight
 
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Try to have a cow tag as well. If you've never taken an elk, any harvest is a trophy. My philosophy is to have as many tags as possible so I have more options. My number one concern is a full freezer. If it's brown, it's down.
 

quarterhorse

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Nov 3, 2011
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If after opening weekend add isolation to the food, water & cover combination. Pick 2 spots per day of hunting that meet these criteria and go at it. Don't hunt the same place twice unless you have found something and have good reason to go back. Be flexible and mobile.
 

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