Scouting for Elk Season

When it comes to pre-season scouting for deer and elk, I feel like a kid who counts down the days until Christmas. Shooting my bow, pouring over maps, sorting gear, and it all leads up to the opening day.

This year was no different. Dan and I put in tags for a new area, and we needed to spend some time doing the leg work getting to know the area. We drove up to camp late one Friday afternoon after a half-day at work, pitched the tent, cooked some food, and made a plan for the weekend. I could barely think about sleep. Instead my friend, Dan Harris, and I sit in the dark below an amazing night sky, sipping whiskey, and telling lies about hunting seasons past. Scouting is a pursuit I enjoy almost as much as the actual hunting.

A nice walk on a hot day. Looking for elk can be hard work, but it's not hard to enjoy the lack of an Internet connection or cell reception.

It was late July by the time we could tear ourselves away from life long enough to escape into the wilderness for a few days. With each of us having busy summer schedules, we were not sure we’d even make it. The timing was early for scouting animal patterns, but we mostly wanted to get a feel for a new piece of land. Dan, our buddy Todd, and I skirted the edge of this area last fall during a deer season rifle hunt, but we never had the opportunity to go deep and let the wilderness swallow us whole. Being almost a year ago, I didn’t really remember the area very well. I did remember thick and dark timber, rugged country, lots of dead fall, plenty of water, patches of permanent snowfields, and lots of isolation – sounds “elky,” right?

Being in Colorado in July, the wildflowers are always at their peak this time of year. This particular place did not disappoint, and their beauty was often distracting as to why we were really there. I took many flower photographs during these few days. It never ceases to amaze me how a place so rugged and unforgiving can be so beautiful.

  • Tall Coneflower, maybe? There are so many yellow flowers this time of year.
  • The view from our camp could have been worse.
  • Subalpine Buckwheat (I think)
  • Red Indian Paintbrush

On Saturday we saw lots of wildflowers, a few deer, and lots of week old elk sign. But we did not see any fresh sign or any elk. We covered about 8 miles that day through deadfall, aspen groves, and dark timbered benches. The day left us tired and scratching our heads. Maybe tomorrow would be different.

We woke up on the last morning to the sounds of hooves on bare rock just outside our test. Without even grabbing our clothes we jumped out of the tent and were surprised by two elk standing about 20 yards away. The cow and a small bull, also surprised, crashed down the meadow hillside into the dark. Hmmm, it just might be a good day.

Unable to get back to sleep, we started thinking about coffee and the day ahead. As we emerged from the tent, we heard some cow calls in the distance. We heard what sounded like dozens of cows and calves mewing and chirping, but coffee was our first order of business. After cranking up the stove, boiling some water, and loading the french press, I took my binos over to a large rock and scanned the open meadow and aspen thickets below. Sure enough…one, two, three….four, five….I found the small heard that was vocalizing just moments earlier. This was going to be a really good day. We were into elk and didn’t even leave camp. After some breakfast and coffee, Dan and I sat down and started counting the herd a as the cows, calves, and spikes traveled up from the meadows into the aspen groves and eventually the dark timber. By the time we finished counting, we identified 389 elk in that single herd, and a few more that split off in a different direction.

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Mission accomplished. We found more than a few elk in the area. We knew their patterns would change over the next month as hunting season drew closer, but we felt confident knowing elk were actually in the area. Confident enough to cut the day short and get back to our families. On the way back to the paved road, we ended up seeing about 14 deer and a few really decent bucks in the mix. It  was a fruitful weekend.