Whenever I get a newbie to elk hunting camp I always tell them the same things. First I tell them that an elk is the most amazing and beautiful animal I have ever hunted. Majestic is the word that comes to mind, so respect what they represent and the landscape they inhabit. It is a rare gift to be able to hunt this animal in the most fantastic of settings in the lower 48.
Elk are a herd animal and are always led by an older “lead” cow. Contrary to the myth that the big old bull is lord and master of the woods, it is the lead cow that rules. She picks the routes, grazing, and bedding areas. Even during the rut when you think the bull is in charge it is the cow that really sets the stage. She picks the where and the when and the bull just blindly follows, bugling his rhapsody of love, challenge and frustration. Sound familiar, guys?
Elk are habitual creatures, following the same routes regularly on a daily and seasonal basis. Of course they are migratory and won’t show up at the exact same water hole or meadow every day at the same time. They will use all the waterholes, parks and bedding areas in their territory, migrating from one to the next and back again. How long will they cycle through their territory depends on the quality of browse and how big an area they have picked out for themselves. It could be a square mile or many square miles and they might travel just a 1/2 mile or up to several miles in a single day. It is up to you to dial in to their territory and routine. Under pressure that territory will expand to a much larger area and they may select less than prime browse if the area feels more secure. This usually leads you to thicker cover, steeper terrain or more remote locations.
But one thing is for sure, they have to eat. And they will invariably follow a trail, any trail, and they know them all. So therein lies the guessing game. Which one do you choose to watch over? It stands to reason that undisturbed they will follow the best trails to the choicest browse. Under pressure, which begins about one hour after opening day, they go for the more remote trails near the thicker cover and away from danger. And if danger is everywhere often they will find the thickest nastiest patches of short pines or deadfall to hunker down in. Like those smart old bucks, I have seen them hold so tight; they will flush like a pheasant when you are literally 10’s of feet from them. You’ll be lucky to have one second for a hindquarter shot.