As someone that lives in, and has grown up in the Midwest, the idea of hunting an unfamiliar animal in terrain that I am unaccustomed to is a bit overwhelming. You can’t hunt what isn’t there, so unless I want my trip to be nothing more than a hike in the woods, I need to find elk! It is common advice to use maps and satellite imagery to scout for elk hunting, but what exactly should you look for?
We have already talked about mapping resources, and how to identify important topography features on those maps, but having access to quality imagery and data will only take you so far if you don’t know what to look for, and how to interpret the data.
What do these boundaries, trails, access points, imagery and topographical representations really mean? And how can they help me locate and hunt elk?
I interviewed several expert elk hunters and asked them what they look for when they are scouting new areas via maps and satellite imagery. Nearly all of them focused on a few significant topics – understanding the needs of elk, evaluating hunting pressure and how elk respond it, and identifying hunting access.
Understanding the Needs of Elk
The basic needs of an elk are food, water, cover, and space. And since elk, unlike deer, spend the majority of their time living in social herds, these essential elements have to be more than sporadic – they have to be plentiful enough to support a herd of elk. If you are hunting the rut, then bulls will be seeking and controlling herds of cows, and cows will need to spend time in areas that will support the needs of the herd. When we begin using maps to analyze locations for elk hunting, we should start by focusing on areas that have varied terrain and a plentiful supply of food, water, cover, and space.
The next step in assessing essential elk habitat is to determine how areas of food, water, and cover connect to one another. How would an elk move from feed to bed? How will elk find water before they head out to feed?
If possible, just like you and I, elk prefer to take the path of least resistance. This means identifying saddles where elk can easily cross a ridge line, and also identifying long slopes that elk can use as travel corridors. Another key feature to identify on your maps are “pinch points”, which are natural terrain features that will funnel an elk’s travel. For example, a pinch point may be a small strip of timber that connects two larger timber blocks.
Next, zoom-in from the overall picture and identify specific spots, paying special attention to which type of habitat need (food, water, or cover) is in shortest supply, and therefore is in highest demand. After an overall assessment of an area, and considering how the areas of interest may be connected, we want to begin to put a plan of attack together for specific spots that we can target throughout different times of the day. For example, locate a bench on the side of a north-facing, timber covered ridge – chances are you may find elk seeking refuge and bedding here during the day.
Evaluating Hunting Pressure and Elk Behavior
Although elk can never fully neglect their needs for food, water, and cover, hunting pressure will affect how and when an elk will access these resources. When hunting in pressured areas, you can often find success by changing your plan of attack and focusing on escape routes and hideouts that elk will use to avoid pressure. Elk and elk hunters love attractive, open meadows, easy to reach water sources, and spots that are accessible with little resistance – but elk won’t tolerate much human intrusion into these spots.
When hunting pressure picks up you need to think less like an elk hunter, and more like an elk that is being hunted. That is to say, don’t focus solely on the “typical” spots, instead focus on trying to hunt areas that provide food, water, or cover in unconventional places that most other hunters will overlook or fail to reach. For example, instead of hunting on large, lush meadows – move to small natural clearings that are concealed by dense forests, but provide green forage for elk to feed on.
I know I told you to think less like a hunter and more like the hunted, but there is a benefit to thinking like a hunter – that is, find easy to reach and obvious hunting areas, and avoid them. Start by drawing buffer zones around roads, trailheads, and campgrounds. I use Hunting GPS Maps in conjunction with Google Earth to shade areas out that are easy to access and contain overtly recognizable habitat essentials. I draw a two mile radius around established camp sites and trailheads, as well as one mile buffers around roads. By finding the gaps between these areas of pressure you are identifying new funnels and pinch-points that are created by other hunter’s pressure.
Identifying Hunting Access
Alright, now that we have identified essential elk habitat, travel corridors, and zones of hunting pressure, we now have to figure out how to hunt areas that we’ve established an interest in. We have to balance avoiding areas that are too easy to access, while still maintaining realistic expectations of what we can safely access – and just as importantly for elk hunting – how we can pack an elk out of the area.
It has become quite common for hunters to venture “deep” into the wilderness, but these hunters are often using well-worn trails. The key isn’t necessarily how far we travel in general, but how far we travel off of popular routes. It can be better to travel one mile off of a trail, or in an over-looked direction, than it can be to travel several miles on a trail to an obvious target. Additionally, consider crossing into areas that present natural inconveniences; be willing to throw on your waders to get to the other side of a river or large creek and you may have the area to yourself.
Finding success isn’t always about avoiding all forms of pressure, but accessing areas from a strategic route so that hunting pressure funnels the elk towards you as the animals flee from other hunters. Use “backdoor” approaches to get on escape routes towards thick, nasty slopes where elk like to hideout.
Finally, consider using public-private and unit-to-unit boundaries to your advantage. Conventional wisdom says get deep into the wilderness, but it can often pay to hunt the edges that other hunters overlook or simply don’t hunt because of the logistical challenges that such boundaries present. Elk know that they can seek refuge on private land, but they will often cross back and forth across the boundary to access food, water, or other resources. (These areas often have unmarked boundaries and are difficult to hunt without the real-time data that Hunting GPS Maps provide in the field.)
The area that I will be hunting this September is over 2,000 from my house, and I will have never stepped foot on it before opening day. But thanks to quality maps and imagery, in conjunction with the help of local game wardens and biologists, I feel like I have a solid plan for elk hunting success.
But after all, as the saying goes… “Elk are where you find them.”