Scouting for the early seasons up in the high country is fairly straightforward, even if a little physically demanding. For deer, where you find the game in July or August is pretty close to where you will find them in September. Elk will be just a little bit lower, typically a little below timberline in mountains that have true alpine country. In canyon/mesa/plateau country elk and deer won’t be far from where you found them in the summertime if you’re hunting them anytime through mid or late October. But it’s scouting for those later season hunts that can get a little bit tricky. You’re going to guess at where you expect to find them, but hopefully it will be an educated guess. Most of what I’m going to focus on are November and later deer hunts and December elk hunts here.
Elk and deer are a bit different in their migration patterns. Elk migrate due to decreasing forage availability, but also to some degree due to hunting pressure. Studies have shown that it takes 16 inches of snow to force elk to move into lower country. In hunted populations, it’s usually a combination of snow and hunting pressure that forces elk to move. Elk will have completed their breeding long before they migrate.
Deer are very different in this respect. Deer migrate as part of a reproductive strategy, but also as a strategy to stay ahead of the heavy snowstorms in the high country. Mule deer are not as well adapted as elk are to handle deep snows and severe cold. Studies here in Colorado have shown that the bucks will leave the timberline country just before Halloween, and almost always before any really heavy snows hit. In mesa country below timberline, the deer are at less risk of getting caught in a major snowstorm, but must still migrate in order to join the larger concentrations of does at the middle and lower elevations.
So if you’re planning on a later season hunt, what should you be looking for in your scouting efforts? Ideally, your scouting efforts will begin in the winter when the game is plainly visible on their winter range. Shed hunting in the springtime will give you additional cues. What I’m looking for during the summer scouting will depend on what’s available. If the lower to mid elevation country is primarily brushy or sagey, especially on the south facing slopes, you’re in business. If the country you want to hunt is primarily agricultural or suburban at the lower and mid elevations, you’re going to have a harder time without private land access. Where your winter range is primarily on private lands, most of my efforts are going to go into finding access points through the ranches or subdivisions to take advantage of deer bedding down after feeding in the gardens or the winter wheat and alfalfa fields. Many states also publish some form of crude winter range map to help you focus your efforts in the right areas.
The above research can be done remotely, so when I’ve narrowed down a few areas to focus on, I’m looking for one of several things. I like to find old buck deer rubs. This will tell me I’m in a good place for rutting deer. Elk rubs don’t necessarily mean you are too high, as there could be resident elk in the area in September. Old winterkill is unfortunate to see, but should help verify that you’re in the right area.
A vegetative feature I like to look for is called hedging. On winter ranges, small trees and large shrubs that can grow above deer or elk head height will get hedged if there are heavy concentrations of game in the area browsing on anything within reach during a hard winter. Junipers and scrub oaks can make for perfect examples of the “umbrella-shaped” or hedged tree. An undisturbed shrub will grow in a more or less spherical shape, to take full advantage of the sun. Smaller shrubs will take on a sickly, twisted, mangled appearance when overbrowsed. Heavily browsed shrubs will be uneven, with dead, heavy stems protruding past the healthier leafy stems. Cervids do not have upper incisors, so when they browse a plant stem, they will often leave a “flag”, where the lower incisors bit into the stem, while the deer or elk pulls away with the rest of the head, leaving just the upper bark of the stem, called a flag. Be careful, you don’t want to be looking at livestock grazing evidence, so make sure you know when or if cattle and sheep are in these pastures.
Note hedged appearance of the pines and oaks in this photo. No vegetation below head height.
Fence lines can be a great source of sign, especially if you are considering hunting near an agricultural field that provides some kind of winter forage. Elk and deer can be pretty destructive when they routinely cross a fence line in the same area, so look for signs of crossings such as loose or downed wires, twisted wires, old carcasses caught in the fence, heavy trails and landing spots on both side of the fence. Hair is another good sign. Antlers will frequently fall off when a buck or bull jumps a fence in the spring, so sheds can be good verification too.
Regarding terrain features, refer back to my remote scouting article  for my thoughts on the Long Ridge. Those are always a good bet for migrating game. Most of the mountain ranges that make up the Rocky Mountains are aligned north/south, so all of them should have a long, sloping major face on the south side, and sub ridges running east to west with both a north and a south facing slope. As I touched on earlier, ridges with a southern exposure are ideal for late season hunting. If you didn’t know, south slopes will be drier and warmer, with lesser snow depths. Those dry and warm faces will tend to have better emergency winter forages, such as sagebrush, scrub oaks or mountain mahogany, as opposed to more coniferous timber species at the same elevations with a northern exposure. West faces can also be good, especially for evening hunts. The tops of these south and west facing ridges often have less snow than the lower elevations, so game will congregate there. This is partly due to the winds blowing it off the top, but also because the sun’s rays are often less obstructed and of a more direct angle on the top of a ridge. The travel will be easier for game, and there will be more exposed forage. So look at the tops of these ridges for major game trails.
Note deer feeding at the top of the windblown ridge:
I hope these gave you a few ideas of things to look for when scouting this summer. Like I said, scouting for a late season hunt in mountainous country is more of a guessing game. You should be able to make more of an educated guess as to where you need to be now, but it will still be a guess. Trying to extrapolate where exactly you think the game will be is very difficult if it’s your first time hunting an area, but these are tactics that have worked well for me for late season elk and deer hunts.