Locating elk becomes easier once you move a mile, or farther, from areas of high hunting pressure. They spend more time in the open, hang out in more diverse terrain, travel more often in day-light, spook less easily. And bulls are present in both greater numbers and larger sizes. But there’s still a lot of ground to cover, and knowing how elk use the land is critical. This map will show you where you’re most likely to find big bulls in Rocky Mountain elk habitat, from beginning to end of the rifle season.
Roads and Roadless Areas. Roadless areas may harbor twice the number of bulls than roaded terrain holds. Where roads are open, few bulls live to maturity and hardly any past five years. But when roads are closed, 15 percent may live to maturity. Roadless areas are even better, often boasting a population of 30 percent mature bulls. Hunt a mile from open roads; half a mile from closed roads.
Lower to Higher Elevations. At the start of the season, elk are often evenly distributed from lower to higher elevations. Once rifle hunters enter the field, elk move higher in a matter of days. During the first week, plan ambushes or still-hunt for bulls at passes and saddles and near game trails leading to higher, more remote country.
South to North. As the season progresses, elk shift from south to north slopes, which still provide green grass to eat, as well as more trees for hiding and escape cover. Trees also offer shade during sunny, hot weather and shield against radiant heat loss when it’s cold. Hunt north slopes from a stand at sunrise and sunset when elk are entering from or leaving for feeding areas in more open terrain. Still-hunt these slopes during the day.
Closed Timber. When elk remain within easy reach of roads, they use thick timber and “dog hair” stands of young trees for security. Ideal forest cover has an upper canopy of mature trees and an understory of young trees and shrubs. Most bulls bed in forest that has 75 to 100 percent tree-crown cover. Still-hunt such closed timber during the day when you see fresh tracks and scat. Post hunters on the edges.
Up High, Deep Snow. As the season ends, older bulls may remain in small groups in snow 2 to 3 feet deep at higher elevations in open terrain, a mile or two from the rest of the herd. Glass them from treeline bowls and subalpine valleys to see where they move and bed. Still-hunt using terrain and trees as cover. Bulls will go down to the shelter of trees when spooked. Post hunters at the edge of timber.
Ridges and Benches. When cold and snow set in, bulls prefer to bed and rest on side ridges and small benches on the upper half of hillsides. These spots provide them with a good vantage point for visual and scent surveillance of their surroundings and also with diverse avenues of escape. Still-hunt these areas during the middle of the day, moving downhill in a zigzag pattern.
Open Timber. Bulls in roadless country at higher elevations often feed in open timber during moderate weather. Grasses and forbs may still be green and succulent in these spots. Scout them during the day with binoculars. Then still-hunt from above, working downhill.
Moist Environments. Elk may spend as much as half their time in as little as 5 percent of the available land, choosing to graze and rest only in the most moisture-rich terrain. Wet meadows have an abundance of the forbs and sedges that elk favor. And they are closely surrounded by timber, which gives the animals a sense of security. Take a stand in nearby timber from first light to 10 A.M. and from 4 P.M. to dark.