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Sleuthing Stratagem for the Wily Wapiti August 2005
Dave Cooley  

What you don’t want to find while scouting

One of the great things about hunting is that the hunt can be expanded to include scouting trips prior to the actual hunt. Since the archery elk hunt is by far my favorite hunt, I usually get out and do some scouting even before the hunt draw results are out and that’s why I was out camping in unit 5B-S in early July. Unfortunately I did not get drawn ths year but it gave me a good excuse to do some camping anyway.

Several years ago, Arizona Game & Fish published the results of some research they did on the migrating patterns of elk herds on the Mogollon Plateau. It turns out that most herds do not move very far and many do not move at all. This allows us to do some scouting a couple months before the hunt with reasonable assurance that the elk we find will still be there on opening day.

I do several things before I even get out the door. One is to locate places of interest on the map in the unit I expect to hunt. I use my National Geographic TOPO!© software to locate and mark these spots and then save them to a waypoint file. Then I download the waypoint file from the computer into my Magellan GPS so that I can go directly to them when I’m in the field. These include tanks, springs, benches, saddles, natural funnels and potential camp sites. This can also be done using the standard NAD27 topo maps that can be purchased at Wide World of Maps. Simply mark the places on the map, draw the UTM grid across the map with a colored pen (some maps already have it) and then figure out the coordinates using the grid. These can then be entered as waypoints in your handheld GPS. Be sure to set the GPS datum reference to NAD27 if you’re using the actual topo maps as this is a different reference than WGS84 which is more commonly used as the default datum in most GPSs. The difference can be over a hundred feet. Also I prefer the UTM coordinate system instead of LAT LON as you can get better resolution when reading the map and it reads out directly in meters.

The second thing to do is to go to the appropriate Forest Service web site and check on any fire restrictions. I like having a campfire and want to know if it’s ok or not before I get out there.

Another thing I do before going is to fill out my checklist of stuff to bring. When you get to be my age if you don’t use a checklist stuff gets left behind. Here are some things I include in the list for scouting trips:

  • My bow with some blunts, Zwickey points and a couple broadheads. I usually carry it with me unless I’m on a very long hike and it’s good practice to take shots at stumps, pine cones, etc to hone your shooting skills. And you never know when you might come across a nasty coyote that could be dispatched.
  • A laser range finder. One of the skills most necessary for a bowhunter is the ability to judge range. I carry the range finder with me and practice range estimation as I hike.
  • Extra water bottles. When I go hiking to check out those interesting spots I’m usually gone for several hours and sometimes all day. During this time of year it’s important to have at least two liters of water for a half day and four if you’re going to be out for more than 8 hours. It also doesn’t hurt to throw some of those water disinfecting pills in your fanny pack just in case, although I’d have to be dying of thirst before I would drink out of a stock tank even if it was purified.
  • Since I seem to be doing all the scouting by myself I bring along a HiLift jack, air compressor, HAM radio and miscellaneous tools just in case the trusty 4Runner has a problem.

Now it’s time to gas up the beast and head to the cool country. Once camp is set up and wood for the fire is cut, it’s time for the first look. Depending on how much time is available that first day I’ll check out as many of the landmarks I’ve recorded near camp as I can, usually in a circular path looking for tracks, trails, fresh droppings, beds and sheds. I always like to arrive at a tank near camp before dark and sit that tank until after dark to see what comes in. My experience has been that elk will water most frequently after sundown.

Things to look for :
Tanks And Springs – See if they contain water. Are there new prints around? Are the prints coming from one particular trail? If so it is sometimes best to set up a blind along the trail prior to the tank. I’ve seen elk come to 100 yards from the tank and wait there watching the tank before coming in. Are turkeys using it? This could be useful info for your next turkey hunt. Are there tree stands or blinds built at the tank? If they are freshly built, others may intend on hunting there. Are there trails coming in to the tank? Are there salt licks near the tank? Ranchers sometimes put salt near tanks for the cattle and that brings in elk as well. Have ATVs been there? If so you might be wasting your time there. I’m not a big fan of ATVs.

Benches – Benches are relatively flat areas on the sides of hills. These are often used as bedding areas for elk and deer, especially if they are on the north side of the hill. Elk prefer cool places with some visibility to bed down in during the middle of the day and it’s almost always on the north or east side of a hill. They will typically bed facing downhill so it’s best to approach from above.

Saddles – Same as benches but these are also used for corridors from one side of hills connected by the saddle to the other. Look for well used trails and if you find one you might want to set up a blind there. If it is near a tank it may be used in the evening.

Fence crossings – If you come upon a barbed-wire fence don’t cross it immediately but walk along it for a few hundred yards or so to look for places where the top strand is broken, a tree has fallen over it or it is otherwise damaged. Elk will use these spots to cross and they are great places to set up a stand. It will be obvious if they are using it. If you find a fence with numerous broken spots it doesn’t hurt to fix some of them to concentrate the elk crossings to just a few other places. I don’t think there is a law against fixing fences.

Cattle – My experience has been that if you find cattle in an area you won’t find elk there until the cattle have left. A lot like ATVs.

Rubs and Wallows – These are used during the rut but elk often return to use the same places. Rubs are typically small saplings up to 4” in diameter that the bulls use to remove the velvet from their antlers just before the rut in late August and early September. Wallows are shallow depressions in the hard ground that contain mud and water. The bulls like to roll around in these and add their urine to the mix. Both of these are good signs that bulls will be in the area. I have often found wallows in the middle of old forest roads.

Elk – Obviously, the best sign to find is the elk themselves. I have always found elk on scouting trips somewhere. Resist the urge to cow-call or bugle as this will probably only serve to educate the elk. It is fun to practice still-hunting to see how closely you can sneak up to them. Once while scouting alone in 5B-N I saw a large brown mass bedded beneath a juniper and decided to see how closely I could get to the elk without being discovered. I slowly snuck to the side so that I was downwind and then began my “stalk”. When I was only 20 yards away (and carrying only an unloaded bow), the large mass stood up on it’s hind legs, looked at me and “woooofed” and then took off up the mountain. I wasn’t expecting a bear. Be sure to pack clean underwear on the trip as well!

If you are scouting in PJ (pinion/juniper) country it pays to periodically squat down to look beneath the foliage of the trees for bedded elk as you walk. You will be able to see much farther ahead that way and I’ve found them in some of the flattest, driest PJ country imaginable. It’s what we call the Serengeti.

I’m sure anyone with elk hunting experience can add much to this list but hopefully I’ve provided some hints that will help. If you were fortunate enough to have been drawn for a tag I wish you the best of luck!

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