This hunting season, I’ll be trying again to harvest my first archery elk. I traveled to Idaho two different times in the past and wasn’t able to fill my tag. But now, I live here! I feel like I’m in better physical condition to hike up these mountains, have been able to scout more and have more knowledge than I’ve had during past hunts so I can plan better.
Hunting elk on public landing in Idaho is definitely different than the whitetail hunting I was used to in Kentucky. We aren’t using feeders, minerals and supplements or food plots to bring the elk in, and hunting elk typically requires much more physical effort than hunting whitetails where you have long periods of sitting in tree stands or ground blinds.
In preparation for the upcoming season, I’ve put together 5 tips that will help you have a successful elk hunting season:
SCOUTING FOR ELK
Before you can harvest an elk, you have to know where they are. Pre-season scouting can mean the difference between packing out meat or going home to tag soup!
Use maps to get a lay of the land – I use the Hunt App by onXmaps to research my hunting unit. It identifies each hunting unit, private and public land, burn areas, roads and trails and more.
Glassing – A quality pair of binoculars or a spotting scope is a must for glassing. During summer scouting, look for herds of elk in fields in the evening and watch where they’re coming from and where they’re going.
Look for rubs and game trails – If you find an area that has rubs from several years ago to the most recent season, that’s a good indicator that the area consistently has elk. Game trails provide insight on where elk are coming from and going to, and will likely lead to food, water or bedding areas.
LOOK FOR WATER
Animals need water. That’s a fact. Find water, and you’ll find animals. By the time fall arrives in the west, water is limited. There isn’t much rain during the summer months, and many of the small ponds and watering holes in the mountains that form from snow melt are dried up.
Find a watering hole and see what kind of tracks you can identify. The pond pictured below is spring fed, 3 miles back, near the top of a mountain. It holds water year ‘round and always has a lot of tracks. As you can see from the picture, we have elk and moose; we also have pictures of bears in this spot.
Elk will travel from high in the mountains to lakes and reservoirs at lower elevations, so look for game trails along the water to determine where they’re coming from.
Look for beaver ponds, as elk and other game will use these too since they will hold water throughout the summer and fall seasons.
USE GAME CAMERAS
Game cameras are useful when trying to pattern elk and other game. Place cameras in high-traffic areas, around watering holes or in bedding areas. Put cameras out early in the season to watch bulls growing their antlers, cows with new calves and identify if there are predators in the area.
Here are a few things to consider when selecting a game camera:
Battery life – You most likely won’t be checking cameras frequently, so it’s important to select a camera that has a good battery life. I prefer cameras that take AA batteries; Not only are AA batteries usually cheaper, but they seem to last longer.
Picture quality – A camera in the 2-6mp range should be sufficient for most people. Higher mega pixels do not necessarily mean better quality.
Video option - I like to use video with cameras I can check more frequently since the SD cards fill up quicker and it uses more battery. But video will help you identify what direction animals are coming from/going to, and if something has spooked them.
Infrared or flash for night-time pictures – Infrared cameras don’t seem to spook animals and are not noticed by humans. Additionally, an infrared flash seems to help preserve battery life. I recently started using the Browning Trail Cams Dark Ops Pro XD with dual lens--one for night, one for day, and the nighttime picture quality is excellent.
I personally use several different models of Browning Trail Cameras, including the Dark Ops Pro XD, Strike Force, Recon Force Advantage and Command Ops, and recommend all 4 due to excellent battery life, photo and video quality, viewing screen (except for the Command Ops) and concealment. With all, I also use a Browning security box due to bears and because they are placed on public land.
PREPARE YOURSELF PHYSICALLY
As I mentioned already, I learned through my personal experience that elk hunting is more physically demanding than hunting whitetails. Elk hunting is spot-and-stalk hunting, rather than a sit-and-wait hunting (although, I will be sitting at the water hole pictured above on opening day!). Listening for a bull bugle, spotting elk from across a ridge—then going after it. This means you could be hiking up and down steep inclines, stepping over a lot of downed trees, walking through high brush, and hopefully packing out a heavy load of meat. Because of this, it’s important to train yourself and get into shape for the hunt.
If your everyday life doesn’t include much physical activity, start walking, jogging or climbing stairs.
Spend time in the woods prior to hunting season hiking trails of various distances and inclines. This is a great way to scout!
Hike to your cameras instead of riding your 4-wheeler.
Carry a weighted pack to simulate packing meat from the mountains.
GET YOUR GEAR IN ORDER
Prior to season, take inventory of your hunting gear to identify new items you need, what needs to be replaced and what you have that you no longer need.
The gear you’ll need depends on your hunt—whether you’re going on single day hunts, multi-day backcountry hunts or if you’ll be hunting with a guide/outfitter; it also depends on whether you will be bow hunting or rifle hunting. Be sure you have the right clothes for the season and changing weather conditions, comfortable boots that you have worn and broken in and a pack that fits you comfortably. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has a helpful checklist available on their website.
Good luck to everyone elk hunting this fall!
Sarah Honadel is an avid outdoorswoman from Kentucky, now living in Idaho, who enjoys hunting elk, deer and turkey. She is a team member at Huntress View, Pro Staff for Browning Trail Cameras and Brand Ambassador for the GoWild app. Follow her on Instagram @waddysarah and @arrowridgecreations.