Once I have a list of potential areas to check out, it is time to get out into the field. I look for places that are hard to get to and are out of the way. I typically look for spots 2-4 miles from any major road system. I’ve hunted a few spots closer to roads if they require a steep climb or river crossing to get to them. Most hunters are not willing to put forth the effort to hunt these tougher-to-reach spots.
Elk don’t travel to sightsee. They have a purpose for where they are going. Usually, they are traveling to feed, water, or to bed. Because of this, elk trails are like highways in the woods. During the summer months, I will walk out well-used trails to see where they lead. The majority of the time, these trails will lead me to a bedding area, which is one piece of the puzzle. If so, I will simply find another trail and follow it out to its end. Sooner or later, one of these trails is going to lead me to a water source. Many trails will lead directly to a water source. However, I have worn out more than one pair of good boots walking elk trails during the summer months.
As I am walking along these trails, I am constantly on the lookout for fresh sign. Fresh tracks and scat along the trail tell me that elk are using the area. I will pay close attention to the direction that these tracks are heading. That way, I know the direction the elk are traveling along any particular trail. I also pay attention to the vegetation along these trails. I cannot identify all the different plant species by name, but I do know the plants that have a tendency to grow near water. If I get into an area that these plants are growing, I will generally spend a little more time looking around.
I also look for any signs of mud on the vegetation as I am walking trails out. Bull elk will completely cover themselves with mud while rolling around in a wallow. When they leave the wallow/spring, this mud will rub off on the vegetation as they walk through it. I have seen bulls brush the mud off on the vegetation as they walk for more than a half-mile away. I have found more than one wallow/spring by following a mud trail back to it.
Once I have found a good wallow/spring, I will look for multiple trails leading into it. If it has multiple trails coming and going to it, there is a good chance that several different herds of elk will be using it. Ideally, I want the area to look like the spokes of a wagon wheel with the wallow/spring being the center of the hub. The more elk that are using the wallow/spring, the better your chances of seeing elk while you are sitting there.
Sometimes, I feel like I am aimlessly wandering around in the woods, and oftentimes, trails will lead you to a dead end. It is often frustrating and discouraging thinking you are going nowhere, but just remember that the elk are in the area for a reason. They are there to either feed, drink water, or bed down for the day. It’s up to you to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. If elk are around, there has to be some sort of water source somewhere in the immediate area, and it is your job to find it. When you do, success will come your way.