Preseason Elk Scouting

It’s that exciting time of year for elk lovers. The mature bulls are really looking great by now and giving us a real good indication of how big they will be this fall. I always say that you can tell by July 1st what a bull is going to be. If he’s a big one, you’ll know it! The young bulls still have some substantial growing left to do, but the bulls of our dreams are already showing some impressive racks. These big bulls just have some “tipping out” left to do.

Chappell Scouting Photo

Congratulations to those of you with elk tags for this fall. Here are some tips to help you have more successful and productive scouting trips.

Elk need 3 things to survive. 1. Water 2. Feed and 3. Cover to bed. I’ll also add that they need solitude. Elk do not like being disturbed- especially in their bedding areas. They are a more seclusive animal overall than a deer.

The first thing I focus on while scouting in the summer in Arizona is looking for good water sources. Water is like an elk magnet. Once water is located look for bull sign. If there is a lot of activity around a water source, it is easy to distinguish bull tracks from cow tracks due to their size and their more rounded shape as opposed to a cows smaller “sharper” track. You’ll also notice that a bull will leave his dew claw impressions in the soft mud along with his track. Once you’ve seen quite a few tracks, you’ll become an expert at determining bull tracks from cows. And, more importantly, big bulls from young bulls.

If you have access to a trail camera, consider setting it up at or near good water sources. Look for well used trails or fence crossings leading to the water as possible locations to hang a camera. Beware, hanging a camera on the water can result in it being vandalized or stolen. I had one of my cameras stolen just last year even though it was locked and not directly on a water source!

You can also setup in the evenings and observe the elk using a particular water source. Since you are not hunting at this time, be sure to find a vantage point well away from the water and use your optics (preferably on a tripod) to size up the bulls. Even in the summer it’s not good to get winded by elk. Give them plenty of room and also consider how you will leave the scene at dark to get back to your truck without being detected.

Later in the year (late August) start looking for wallows. Once the bulls shed and start feeling the hormones in their bodies accelerating, they will not only use the water for drinking but also for taking a good, nasty mud bath. A bigger bull will leave impressions in the mud of his rack as he wallows. The further away the rack marks from his body impression- the bigger the bull.

You will also find rubs starting in mid August. It’s not rocket science to size up a rub. Just like tracks, big rubs equal big bulls. Mature bulls take on bigger trees than young bulls and they will literally shred them!

Now back to earlier summer scouting. It almost goes without saying, that if you locate good water in an area you will usually find good feed nearby. In the arid Southwest we are very dependant on Spring and Summer rains to produce good forage. Find the “tanks” that are full of water and there will be good elk feed around.

The last piece of the puzzle is secluded bedding areas. I have found that the elk in Arizona will tolerate using water sources and feeding near roads, but they do not like to bed in areas where human contact is at all likely. It’s not uncommon at all for Arizona elk to travel 2, 3 or more miles from where they water and feed to where they bed- especially during the rut. Typically, during the summer, the bulls are much more relaxed and a little lazy so they aren’t going to travel so much. Probably a mile or even less.

In hill country key in on areas that have North and Northeast facing slopes, or even small draws and drainages. Topo maps or Google Earth are great tools to help you hone in on likely bedding areas. Some units in Arizona are pretty much flat so the bulls will just find some thick cover and bed on the shady side of a tree. As the day progresses they will move to stay shaded.

The main reason to locate bedding areas is so that you can predict the elk’s daily movement pattern from water and feeding at night to bedding during the day. I say that because during season, I try to avoid hunting elk in their bedding areas. They have the advantage there and if you bump them, you have completely changed their pattern.

So, once you’ve located potential bedding areas, check for sign and trails leading from water and feed to them. It is in this “transition zone” between water and bedding that I prefer to have my encounters with them during the fall.

When you are in an area scouting make a strong mental note of the prevailing wind direction during early morning, mid morning (it usually shifts) and also late afternooon/evening. No doubt, an elk’s best defense is it’s nose. Believe me, they use this to their advantage and make their movements with the wind and currents blowing into their face from their water/feeding areas to bed and vice versa.

In a nutshell, remember as you go to scout to focus on water, feed and secluded bedding and you’ll be sure to locate plenty of elk. Observe the water/feeding areas in the evenings with your optics. As you scout, take note of wind directions which will help you on your upcoming hunt.

Most importantly, enjoy your time in the wonderful creation with your family and good friends. Good scouting and successful hunting to you!

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