Elk Hunting Flexibility

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Sorry about all the delays in getting these articles out, but this is a busy time of year for me. These past few weeks have brought up the reminder of the need to keep your plans as flexible as possible in order to adapt to the varying conditions from year to year. 

This year here in Colorado it is still incredibly green, even in the highest country.  Since there was no dessication of the grasses as of last week, I have to assume that most of the elk are still in the high country, where plenty of good grass is still available.  Also, it seems that the rutting activity has been really slow around here until just these past few days.  So, for you archers who might still get out for the end of the season, but mostly for the rifleman, how flexible are your plans?  Are you counting on elk being in one area only?  Are you able to move as conditions indicate?  What are you going to do if you get 2 feet of snow?

Questions like these are why I usually cringe when I hear of new western hunters wanting to do a backpack hunt for their first ever elk hunt. I get the mystique and the desire to get away from the roads, and look forward to my own backcountry trips every year.  But mobility and flexibility is often the key to success.  Horses will help slightly with your mobility, but basing your hunt from your truck is much better when you don’t know what to expect.  If you look around at the success rates in the various units, the wilderness heavy units often have far lower success rates than the areas with a large number of roads.

In addition to the high country being so green this year, the wallows that we’ve seen a lot of use on in the past were totally unused.  Learning we couldn’t count on wallows, we decided to take a look at some of the larger ponds back in the heavy timber, where we saw a lot more activity, called in a small bull (came in silently), and killed a cow an hour later while still hunting (only had cow tags this year). 

Another problem that showed the need to have good knowledge of your area is that on our ride up to camp last Sunday, it turned out that “our” campsite was taken.  I knew this was a possibility, but Plan B was also taken.  On our way in, we noticed an area that would work for a Plan C, and it’s a good thing we did, or we’d have been really frustrated.  Having hunters back in the area we wanted to hunt also made it difficult to trust whether a bugle was real or not.  The Hoochie Mama cow calls were pretty obvious at times, but some of the bugles left us a little unsure.  After a half day hunting near the other hunters, we instead decided to hunt where our favorite north facing slope had a small east-west ridge come in opposite the other hunter camps, but getting kind of near the outfitter camp.  Thankfully, that outfitter and/or his clients are usually pretty incompetent timber hunters.  But if they were at all comfortable in the timber, the elk we got into back there likely would have been run out earlier.  The best hunters I know of aren’t spot and stalk hunters, they are big timber still hunters.

As I mentioned earlier, with the delayed or minimal rutting activity we’ve seen so far this year, there’s a legitimate chance that 1st season rifle hunters here in Colorado may be able to get in on the tail end of the rut.  If that’s the case, how are you with cow calls?  What about still hunting in the timber after a screaming bull?  Many western rifle hunters are very uncomfortable with the close ranges, blow downs and now-or-never shooting opportunities.  But here’s where the eastern foot hunter may have an advantage.  The guys I’ve hunted with from Maine have never let their butts touch a treestand and would be supremely comfortable in the thick stuff.

With the mild temperatures, light rains, and excellent forage quality and quantity available, if you were planning on hunting mid to low elevations (migration hunt?), are you now prepared to get after the elk up higher.  Many hunters refuse to go after the elk in the high country if they are counting on migrating animals.  Are you set up with chains, shovels, comealongs, and other gear that you might need?  Did you allow for enough time to move camp if conditions in your area dictate it? 

“Hunt where the elk are” is the typical line westerners will give to someone asking what elevation they should be hunting at.  It’s kind of obvious, but underscores the importance that you can’t be so focused on hunting a specific elevation.  In some areas, the highest mountains may only go to 9,000 feet, in others, the conditions and habitat at 11,500 on the south slopes may be similar to those at 9,500 in the heavy timber.

I tend to hunt habitat types, not elevations.  The heavily timbered east and north faces hold more cover (heavy timber) than the south and west faces, but the south and west faces will usually have more forage.  However, those south and west faces might not have better forage.  Since it is usually wetter on the north and east faces, if I can find a rare north facing meadow, or more likely a water hole, I’ll hunt near one of those.  But, on a year like this where there is seemingly waist high forage everywhere you look, and you aren’t seeing much for elk sign in the open, don’t be afraid to sit on a heavily used trail in the heavy timber. 

We all want those beautiful broadside shots on elk grazing in the open, but that isn’t the reality of a lot of public land hunting.  You have to be willing to adapt your tactics to what the sign and conditions are telling you and what the elk are giving you.    And just because there is some snow, that doesn’t mean the elk will begin migrating.  So build some flexibility into your plans to help you roll with the punches.


numbnutz's picture

Great information Mark. Stuff

Great information Mark. Stuff that new and old elk hunter can use. I think with any hunt a hunter need sto be flexible. I go into a hunt with no set game plan and just go with the flow and do what I need to do. If the weather gets bad then I need to adjust what I'm doing to better my odds. One of the reasons I switched to archery hunting is because I have the ablity to pick up and move to a completely different unit if needed. I can now hunt pretty much anywhere in the state that I want to. I'm not limited to one spot like if I drew a rifle tag. I like the freedom of choice. Thanks for all the tips and reminders you provide for us here Mark it is greatly appresiated.

pilotandy's picture

Educate the newbie on big timber still hunters

Nice article, so Mark what do big timber still hunters do exactly? I am going to be in gmu15 which is mostly the same elevation throughout, so should i stick close to the roads along the Sarvis Wilderness or head back into the SWA along one of the trails? Thanks,


Retired2hunt's picture

Learned from Last Year

What Mark has provided here is definitely what I learned from my hunt last year. I was expecting to get a shot at a migrating herd but with the very warm conditions on my 1st rifle season tag I found myself too low at 11,000 feet within the GMU I chose to hunt within. While I was traveling by truck I needed an ATV or a horse to be "flexible" and get higher into the mountain as the roads into it were non-existant. This year will be different. I am at a totally different GMU that compliments me being "flexible". I have the flexibility of hunting some private land for the migrating herd (that I observed while scouting it) as well as being able to get in the truck and travel to the adjacent national forest for the possible higher ground hunting if needed. There are plenty of roads into my planned B area and a low amount of total tags so I won't be crowded with other hunters. I am also leaving 2 days earlier to ensure I secure my first choice of a camp site. I am watching the weather closely as that will drive my first choice of flexibility but if it does change - this year I am ready.





GooseHunter Jr's picture

That is some great advive for

That is some great advive for all seasoned elk hunters new elk hunters.  Last yaer I went up a few days before the season to get a good game plan together and see where th elk were.  While I was up there it was sunny and warm for 3 days.  The day before the season started about 4pm it started to snow...needless to say it did not stop for two days.  The elk completely dissppreared and it took 2 mopre days to find them I just could not connect but a buddy did.  I was ready for the snow, just snowed more than we all thought it would.  Leared alot that year and it will help this should we get the same situation.