Alpine Scouting for the Early Hunting Seasons
In that last article, I covered some of the things I do when learning the roads and public access points in my area and how I try to get a good feel for where the game is. But this doesn’t really apply very well to summer scouting alpine animals deep within a wilderness area, sometimes more than 10 miles from the nearest road. If one intends to hunt the backcountry, it doesn’t do a lot of good to note the locations and concentrations of deer or elk along the roadsides. The alpine hunter will still want to drive around his unit, figuring out which trailheads and roads will likely be the most popular, and which ones are the most difficult to access. If you want to note the best drainages for game numbers, it’s best to do it in the early to late spring when they are at lower elevations along the roads and there’s too much snow for them to get higher up.
I’m going to focus mainly on summer scouting tips for early season hunting here, as it’s a little more difficult to apply this information to the later rifle seasons. Hopefully some of this will be new to you, and also I’ve tried to illustrate some of what I’m trying to explain.
Scouting the alpine country for deer and elk in the middle of the summer can be a gratifying experience, but if you’re planning on hunting them during 4th season, they obviously won’t be there later in the year. Elk will hit the timber as soon as the first archers begin bugging them and their hormones begin to rage. The deer are much more content to stay put until late October. Two things play a factor in this: one is the dessication of the grasses, and the other is the pressure or lack thereof by people. Grasses, sedges and forbes in the high country will lose their nutritional value (and color and taste and smell-both of which are chemical receptors and elk have evolved to interpret certain chemical signals as good or tasty) after the first frost. So, when you combine the fact that the food is better at the lower elevations and they feel exposed to elk hunters (many more archery elk hunters than deer hunters, and they are noisier), it’s understandable why the elk disappear from the alpine country.
Deer, on the other hand, can stay up above timberline because they are primarily browsers, not grazers. They can be content eating the willows or picking around for whichever forbes are still green and nutritious or producing a mast crop. This is why you commonly see archers, muzzleloaders and early season rifle hunters having success by spotting and stalking bucks at timberline, bedding in the krummholz. They are very conspicuous when glassing from the high ridges, and relatively approachable. It’s rare for elk hunters to kill elk by this method because the elk are not visible and won’t be called out into the open. The elk will still graze out in the high country at night/dusk/dawn, but they can’t stay long. Whatever foods are left will begin to rapidly dwindle and hunter pressure will force them down into more secure environments.
So, if you’re scouting elk in the high country, where can you expect to find them when the season starts? Take a good look at your maps and aerial photos. Where can the elk go to find the three main habitat components they will need (food, water, cover)? Following the drainage will point the way for you. Remember, elk will now have to feed as many as 20 to 50 animals the size of cattle, so there must be a good food source and a good water source for them. I find elk to be more likely to use timberline basins only in extremely lightly disturbed areas. But if you’re hunting a little bit later in the archery or muzzleloader season, expect to find them closer to the larger meadows in the major drainages. Those are some of the few places that can hold elk for a significant period of time (as much as a month). The vegetation along a water course is much more likely to maintain the nutritive (and taste) value for a longer period than those grasses and sedges in the drier meadows.
More than likely, the elk you are seeing now will not completely abandon the drainage they are presently in. They will simply be lower within it, so it should be fairly obvious where to start looking. Converging creeks are an excellent location to look for. Those areas will often be too wet for large spruces and firs (your typical high altitude “dark timber” tree species) to grow, creating a larger meadow complex. Take a look at the Google Earth image here, which is a fairly typical Central Rockies Basin, but forgive my artistic ability.
What I’m trying to illustrate here are two large basins and mountainsides above timberline, in this case the basins are about 11,900 feet above sea level. Just below those basins are some drainages with dense timber stands, but where the two creeks converge, things open up into a larger meadow (about a half mile long and over 150 yards wide in some spots), nearly a mile and a half downstream. That’s far enough that you might not hear the elk bugling if you’re focused only on the timberline basins where you last saw the elk. I skipped over one potential elk meadow in the basin on the right, alongside the large lake. It’s certainly possible that a small herd may be using that meadow, but the feed is quite limited and may not last very long.
Now, are there any obvious signs to look for when scouting these meadows, or is this simply a map and guess operation? I like to look for dead encroaching trees. Young trees growing just inside the meadow and away from the main tree line are often the target of bulls hell-bent on a little destruction. Even if the tree isn’t totally dead, it should look pretty spindly, with old dead branches at its base. Other good signs are heavily browsed or even nonexistent willows along that creek. Willows and other riparian vegetation should grow along every creek in the Rockies, but the pressure of 50 or so cows hanging out in one isolated area for nearly a month can be too much for that vegetation to handle, leaving either bare banks, or stunted and overbrowsed shrubs. I’ve tried to include some obvious examples in these next three pictures below here.
Low elevation resident animals and plateau and mesa country all require different scouting techniques that I’ll try to get into later. Alpine scouting is a lot of fun, but unfortunately the elk will rarely be in the same basins that you saw them in over the summer. Even more difficult is finding an obvious place to find migratory animals during the rifle seasons, but I’ll try to tackle that topic in a later article too. All for now.