E-Scouting: Preparing for Your September Elk Season
Whether you’re a seasoned elk hunter, or still in the early stages of planning your first western hunt, I’m fairly confident the idea of pre-season scouting has been made known to you as a prerequisite for success in the elk woods, particularly on public land. E-Scouting has quickly become the go-to method of preseason scouting, mostly due to the sheer simplicity of it. Still, even with its simplicity, productive E-Scouting sessions and relevant intel only happen when you know what to look for. I’m going to share some tips I’ve picked up on and learned from others to make your September elk E-Scouting more productive.
Why E-Scouting is important
There are several reasons to dedicate some of your pre-season preparation time to E-Scouting. Perhaps the most significant is factor is that it doesn’t require escaping for a weekend and paying for food and gas. We’d all like to spend more time in the woods, but the reality is we are all limited by time and money. Another benefit of E-scouting is that it turns an expansive chunk of backcountry into manageable sections before you arrive to hunt. If you’ve ever ventured into a new hunting area with no foreknowledge of the terrain, you know how overwhelming it is to narrow down where to go. Having a bird's-eye view of the land via Google Earth or other mapping programs like OnX maps can be invaluable in differentiating good looking elk country from unproductive areas.
What to Look For
For the most part, there are three primary locations or “Destination Spots” to look for when scouting for elk: bedding areas, feeding areas, and water sources. Luckily, all three can be found pretty easily located using satellite imagery.
Bedding areas: Typically, elk are active at night, and bed down to rest during the daytime. Areas with lots of cover and cool shade are the preferred bedding zones during the summer and throughout September. Heavily timbered north-facing slopes are great places to look because they are generally the coolest side of the mountain and provide adequate cover for resting elk. To narrow down possible bedding areas further, use these two tips below.
- Use a topo map to find benches or contour lines on northern slopes farther apart from each other than the other areas on the mountain; all else equal, elk prefer to bed down on flatter ground.
- Key in on parts of the slope about 3/4 of the way to the top. Besides being the coolest part of the slope, by bedding down toward the top of the mountain, upward midday thermals will allow the elk to smell anything below them – giving them a chance to escape predators before the predators even know the elk are there.
Below is a great example of a North-Facing slope with heavy timber - perfect for potential bedding areas.
Here is the same North-Facing slope with contour lines to show the topography. Notice the waypoints marking relatively flat areas roughly ¾ the way to the top.
Feeding Areas: After you’ve found a few possible bedding areas, food sources are the next destination spot to look for. In my opinion, feeding areas are the easiest feature to find with satellite imagery. Look for meadows, south-facing slopes, avalanche shoots and recent burns in close proximity to the previously found bedding areas. Pretty much any opening from the timber that allows sunlight to hit the soil has a good chance to hold the grasses and forbs elk feed on during the summer and fall months.
- Key in on burns adjacent to timbered areas where elk are possibly bedding. Areas that have recently burned provide some of the best vegetation available, and the nearby timber gives elk an easy transition from cover to food.
Water Sources: Once you’ve found possible bedding and feeding areas, water sources are the last on the list to locate and help narrow down a potential hunting area. Elk are big animals that need water every day with very few exceptions. Look for creeks, lakes, ponds or any part of the mountain that looks particularly greener than anywhere else. Those green areas are likely an indicator of a spring that can serve as an adequate water hole.
- Don’t rely solely on satellite imagery to find water sources. In certain cases, topo maps are a better option because they can reveal springs, creeks or other water sources that can’t be seen with regular satellite imagery.
If you find likely bedding, feeding and watering areas, all in close proximity to each other, take note and mark it on your GPS. When heading into the woods, this will be your plan A. Repeat the entire process until you have plans B, C, D...etc. You now have a solid foundation on where to begin once you actually step foot in the elk woods.
Other Features to Keep an eye out for
Travel Corridors: All things equal, elk prefer to take the path of least resistance. This helps pin down likely travel corridors elk will use to go from one spot to another. One of the most easily identifiable corridors are saddles or low depressions in between two higher peaks. These saddles can make great ambush spots or places to hang trail cameras. Use a Topo map to locate saddles between any of the three destination spots - there could be an elk “highway” going through it!
Wallows: During August and early September, wallows can also be great ambush spots, specifically for bulls. In a nutshell, wallows are just mud holes bulls roll in (for various reasons). While these mud holes don’t always guarantee an encounter with an elk, they at least confirm elk have historically used the area. Wallows can usually be found around springs, meadows or in drainages where the slope temporarily flattens out, allowing water to pool. While E-Scouting, if you see brown circular discolorations in otherwise green, grassy areas there’s a possibility you’re looking at wallows. Satellite imagery isn’t always a reliable method of differentiating wallows from water holes or just bare ground, but it’s definitely worth your time to mark waypoints on some of these spots to check out in person.
Below is imagery of a wallow I found on a bench near the top of a ridge in Central Idaho
Get Away From Others
Saving the most important point for last, we need to realize once the hunting season starts, elk will congregate in the least pressured areas possible. To account for this, your plans A, B, C...etc need to be in areas other hunters won’t go to.
At times, you can achieve this by hunting areas miles away from roads or trailheads, which are places the ordinary hunter wouldn’t normally be willing to walk to. The problem is, backcountry hunting has really taken off the last several years, leading to an influx of hunters backpacking several miles into the same vicinity, each thinking they’re “getting away from other hunters”. This isn’t always the case. At times, there can be a point of diminishing returns when it comes to hiking further in, especially when you might be able to find unpressured elk closer than you’d think.
There are instances where you can find unpressured elk under a mile from the truck. Such places generally have one thing in common; major obstacles that deter the Average Joe from venturing into. Examples could be river crossings, giant skree fields, or 2000ft vertical slopes that eventually lead to completely unpressured areas. The point is, don’t be like everyone else and walk miles into the backcountry, thinking that’s your only shot at finding elk. Instead, consider looking at areas closer in proximity, but harder to access. These places are often overlooked by the “hardcore” backcountry hunters but are also left alone by truck hunters due to the difficult access.
All in all, there are no guarantees in elk hunting or finding good hunting areas through E-Scouting. There are no rules that state an elk must bed down on a North-facing slope ¾ to the top, or feed in a recent burn that is full of fresh, succulent grass. At the end of the day, the elk are where you find them, but by putting in some time scanning over your hunting grounds with online mapping programs this summer, your chances of success in the Fall will surely increase.
First Lite Customer Service Rep Marcus Emerson hails from Hagerman, Idaho.