In late-season, knowing where elk herds go as the weather shifts is key to punching your tag.
Hunting elk during the late season – when a large portion of rifle seasons are held – has little in common with hunting the bugling bulls of September and early October. When late October arrives, three changes occur in a bull elk’s life that dictates much of its behavior.
First, when the rut’s over, the oldest bulls leave the cows in search of isolation, which allows them to recover and put on the fat needed to survive the upcoming winter. Food becomes king for the entire herd, but especially for older bulls, who can sometimes be found in small bachelor groups.
Second, changing weather patterns will dictate elk movement. When a big snowfall comes – and by that I mean big, as it takes a lot of snow to get elk moving long distances – elk will travel up and down a mountain as the snow level increases and decreases with the coming and going of winter storms.
Third, hunting pressure will shift an elk herd’s movement patterns, sending them into areas where the majority of orange-clad riflemen cannot, or will not, go.
Let’s talk about point three first. In areas where the elk mountains border flatter terrain, it is not uncommon for the timbered mountains to be public land and the flat ground privately held, often with hayfields. The elk will migrate to this private land for obvious reasons in winter – good eats, safety from the majority of hunters behind “No Trespassing” signs, and, in areas where their populations are growing rapidly, wolf packs. Knowing where these migration corridors exist are great places to hunt when hunter pressure is high and storms are brewing. It also takes a lot more snow to move older bulls down the mountain than it does herds of cows and calves.
The smart late-season elk hunter creates a game plan before ever reaching the hunting area based on pre-hunt research. My plan is based in no small part on the fact that I want to punch my tag in an area where retrieving my bull is easiest. That means close to a road system. I’ve often glassed elk on the tops of mountains from main highways and dirt roads accessible by 4×4 trucks. Once located, I plan an assault. Depending on the time of day, I might wait until the next day, climbing in the dark so I can be in position as dawn breaks. It’s great when the road is downhill from the elk, which makes skidding the meat to the truck a snap! Scouting from home is easy with the HuntStand app.
However, I’m not the only hunter who tries to do this. And once other hunters show up and start pressuring the bulls, I know they’ll boogaloo for more remote, rugged areas that offer shelter from the weather, solitude from hunters, and enough food to keep their bellies full for days on end. So much for that easy meat-packing job.
Where to search when the snow piles up? Focus on canyons and pockets that cannot be glassed from the road that have bare south-facing slopes and/or ridgetops blown clear by the wind, and an adjacent north-facing slope with thick bedding cover. Use the HuntStand app to find these terrain features. Glass the south-facing slopes morning and evenings when the elk are up feeding, and glass into the north-facing slopes during the day when the elk are bedded. Don’t just look for elk – look for fresh tracks in the snow, too. The edges where timber meets an open feeding area are places where you might catch elk up on their feet having a midday snack, too.
Remember, too, that you’re losing light every day, so hunt all day. In areas where elk like to bed up in the thick oak brush and aspens, even though the leaves are off it can take a lot of eyestrain to locate elk. On days when the weather turns warm, elk will stay in these thickets most of the day, so have patience and let your eyes cover the area until you’re absolutely sure there are no bulls there. On days when the weather turns bitter cold, you can sometimes find elk bedded on open hillsides trying to soak up some warmth. Again, look for fresh tracks as well as tan bodies and gleaming antlers. I liken this type of hunting to searching for mule deer bucks – lots and lots of time behind the glass once you’ve hiked into position, and then, once a target animal has been located, the planning and rapid execution of a stalk into shooting position.
Late-season elk hunting can be physically grueling. It’s bitter cold, and hiking through deep snow up and down slippery slopes is flat hard. To minimize the pain and improve your odds, use your brain – and available technology. HuntStand’s Base Maps and Monthly Satellite Imagery will help you quickly recognize those isolated pockets most likely to hold elk when the weather goes south and hunter pressure increases, as well as the easiest ways to access those pockets before you ever leave home. During your pre-hunt planning, identify several such spots so you can move from one to the next with minimal downtime until you find the “spot.”
One thing to really like about the Updated Satellite Imagery feature is that it can show you important details not available anyplace else – like the results of previous big fires, for example, and where there is standing timber. Once in the field during the late-season, update the weather forecast regularly, using changing weather as a means of predicting where the elk will be. For example, if a big snowstorm is coming, you can be sure that elk will be moving down the mountain. Using updated satellite imagery and maps, you can more easily see what routes are they likely to take, and where can you set up to best take advantage of this movement.
One year in western Montana, some buddies I glassed a herd of elk from the main highway on the top of a tall ridge at midmorning. Looking at the tracks in the snow, we could see that they moved down out of the timber at night to feed on the open hillside, then worked back up top to bed. So we planned a route, started climbing in the dark the next morning, routing ourselves on the backside of the ridge to stay out of sight and hearing of the herd, and got into position an hour before first light. There were other hunters down below that encouraged the herd our way, and 30 minutes into the morning we had a nice 6×6 bull and a solid 4×4 mule deer buck on the ground.