One of the great myths perpetuated in books, magazines and TV shows is that elk hunting is primarily a spot and stalk operation. This is just not the case in much of the west. Though you may see lots of elk killed in the open, these will often be in private ranch situations that have as much in common with public land elk hunting as Texas deer hunting has in common with Northwoods deer hunting. Elk are most comfortable in the heavy timber that many guys hate hunting in. It’s difficult for elk to live their entire fall there due to the limited forage availability, but the mountain pine beetle epidemic and older conifer stands with extensive blow downs open the forests up, providing just enough forage for smaller herds. As the seasons progress, the limited forage in the timber loses much of its nutritional value and the elk will be forced to use more open areas to make for the lack of quality with larger quantities of feed. So, the only hunters that can really get away with not being proficient big timber hunters are the later season hunters. Pretty much everyone else needs to be competent in the thick stuff to have a reasonable hope of success if the elk aren’t being cooperative.
I’m not going to say I love the dark timber, as I too would much rather spot and stalk or ambush on trails in more open terrain where I can see game coming. However, by being increasingly comfortable in the thick stuff, I’ve really managed to up my elk encounters over the past 10 or so years. The reality of most elk hunting is that elk are rarely shot at 300-400 yards. They just aren’t comfortable in wide open meadows during daylight hours, and most of the elk whose demises I’ve recently witnessed have been far less than 200 yards. These shots aren’t super quick, fleeting-glimpse-shots, but shots on unaware elk at close-ish range.
So, that’s some of the why, but where is it, what is it, and what tactics can you employ to be a better timber hunter? I can also address how to avoid having to hunt it when you’re looking for a new area.
For the most part, I’m talking about Lodgepole Pines, Douglas Fir, the various true firs (Douglas isn’t if you want to get into the botany of it all), and various spruces are most indicative of what we consider to be dark timber out here. These species tend to be later successional species (older forests), grow well in the shade of other trees, mostly at higher altitudes, in dense stands and in wetter environments. Ponderosa Pines rarely grow in thick enough stands to be considered "dark timber," and are more indicative of lower elevations and drier lands. Aspens, while they can grow quite closely together, usually offer enough visibility to not really be considered dark timber either.
The thickest timber stands in the northern hemisphere will be on the slopes that get and retain the most moisture. Those will be the north facing and east facing slopes. Creek drainages through more open areas will also have thicker spruce and fir stands. Here in Colorado, few environments below 9,000 feet have what I’d consider to be dark timber. However, when you get into the 10,000 foot range and above, you’re generally higher than most aspen stands and pretty much all the timber will grow in thick stands until you reach timberline (11,500ish in Colorado). While the actual elevations and tree species will vary throughout the west, the pattern is still the same in the Rockies. At lower elevations, mountain shrub communities will dominate, then there will be sparser trees on the south and west slopes at mid elevations, with denser stands on north and east faces. As you climb to higher elevations, pretty much every face can have dense timber stands.
The areas with the heaviest timber stands are usually going to be in high elevation wilderness areas because they are never logged. If you’re looking to avoid areas of heavy timber, consider some of the mid elevation canyon, plateau and badland country in far Western Colorado, Eastern and Southern Utah, Southern and Central Wyoming, and Central Montana, or more arid mountains like those in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada. Late season hunts are another way of avoiding the heavy timber, as the snows will drive elk to lower elevations or force them to use more open faces to get enough feed. There’s a reason why more open country has a much higher success rate, and wilderness heavy units tend to have poor success.
The majority of us will have to hunt the thick stuff in order to more reliably get into elk, so what are some tactics we can use to do so?
Think eastern hunting tactics….
I don’t use treestands, but I can’t count how many times I’ve come into a slightly swampy area with some very large trees standing alongside older snags, noticed how many elk trails converge in the area, and thought, “that would be a good place for a treestand.” Instead, I’m more apt to hunt directly on these trails.
Instead of treestands, when I’m on a little elk highway, I’ll just pull up a log somewhere in between where I think they are feeding and bedding. And while we’re stealing Eastern tactics, look for choke points and saddles in the timber to help funnel elk to you while they stay out of the really steep stuff or the open. Since elk will only rarely use open country during daylight hours, I believe you need to set up somewhere close to where they want to be, while they mill about after dawn or before dusk. Let others go back to camp to sleep through the midday hours; this may be your only chance at getting into elk in the daylight.
Log sitting is of course incredibly boring if you’re not seeing anything. For those who simply must get up and move around, still hunting is the name of the game. Whole books have been written on this topic for whitetails, but for elk hunting it is only traditionally given scant mention. This isn’t simply traveling from Point A to Point B. You need to constantly monitor the wind. The slower you go, the stealthier you can be. One of the cues I use to slow down is listening to other animal noises. If things aren’t deathly silent, the birds are calling, and the squirrels aren’t “narcing” on you, you’re probably moving slowly enough. But stop often, and just sit still for a few minutes at a time. When you’re moving, you can’t make out other movement or noises as well. Use binoculars to investigate shapes or colors that catch your eye. I carry a small pair with me, usually just 7x32s, as I don’t need high magnification at these shorter distances and they’re still big enough to ID elk at long distance.
Don’t expect to cover a lot of ground while still hunting. It can take half a day to hunt a mile or two if you’re moving slowly enough. I prefer to stick to game trails while still hunting, as they tend to be quieter and game is used to hearing and seeing movement in the direction of these trails. Coyotes, bears, lions, wolves, and other predators use them. Elk do pay attention to narc squirrels momentarily, simply focusing their gaze in the direction of the alarm, so wait until after they stop chattering before moving on again. When looking for a good trail to use, you’ll rarely find one moving directly up and down a mountain, they usually sidehill the mountain, and typically in the flattest areas on the mountain. Try to identify benches on topo maps, and they should put you on a good game trail. When you crest out on a ridge, there will often be a good trail or two moving directly in line with the ridge, just inside the timber (under the assumption that ridge will form an aspect change to a drier environment). Finger ridges traveling up and down the mountain are great places to find elk trails. Those can often be found just above a small creek. Ideally, following a finger ridge to a bench should put you square in the middle of where the elk want to be and is something you can identify on a topo map.
Blow downs are difficult to identify on topo maps and aerial photos, so you’ll pretty much have to find them by getting your boots dirty. They are a real pain to travel in or through, but in areas with a significant amount of downed timber, you’ll have much better visibility and more forage for the elk to feed in. The most significant concentrations of blowdowns, and therefore the most visibility and forage will usually occur just below the top of a ridge. I wouldn’t dare put up a treestand in the midst of some blow downs, but this is a good place to sit if you don’t think the elk are using larger, more open meadows.
Another focal point in the timber should be in or near water holes. Elk will drink free water, as long as there isn’t snow on the ground. But water holes, are not just for drinking. Elk will wallow on the sides of them, and the grasses are usually quite long and retain their nutritive value long after the drier areas have dessicated. I like to focus a lot of my midday hunting, say from 11:00 am on, in or near standing water. 7.5 minute quads won’t always be detailed enough to find these, but good aerial photos can help a lot.
Still hunting is a hard way to hunt, but in many parts of the west, it is a tool you need to have in your belt. I can't say that I hate doing it anymore, as I know I am better at getting into elk than I used to be, especially outside of the dawn and dusk hours. So keep some of these tactics in mind this season, and if you don't think it's for you, hunt a season or area where you don't have to hunt the thick stuff.