Tips on Tracking Elk: Captain’s Column
By angelamontana

Posted: November 21, 2013

If you are an elk hunter and you have not filled your tag yet you know that your days of opportunity are winding down. The elk rifle season in Montana ends December 1st only 11 days away. While deer hunters are now at an advantage because rut is in full swing, elk hunters need some snow and colder weather to be successful.

Experienced elk hunters, the ones that are successful year in and year out, having a certain technique that always gets them into elk. One of those hunters that I spoke with recently was Trevor Johnson from Helena. “I put miles on my legs during hunting season because I know that if I am going to find the class of bull that I want I have to go where the elk are,” added Johnson, “and sometimes that might be 6 or 7 miles back in no-man’s land. Johnson says that he likes to try and hunt areas where he knows that no one else has hunted because of the rough terrain. “There has been times when I have tracked a bull all day and at the end of the day ended up with track soup”, he said.

I asked Johnson if he had any elk hunting tips he would like to pass along that might help an elk hunter like me when tracking an elk.

“GO SLOW…PAINFULLY SLOW!! Stop every couple minutes and glass the timber looking for the slightest ear twitch or horn flash. Elk are like ghosts…they just appear”.

Every successful elk hunter that I have spoken with always says, “Go Slow”. Tracking an elk is always exciting for me especially if I see fresh sign.

“BIGGEST MISTAKE TRACKERS MAKE…FOCUSING ON THE TRACKS THEMSLEVES. You can’t shoot the tracks …well I guess you could but I would save that ammo for the animals. This is a guaranteed way to serve yourself track soup and even I used to be guilty of this crime. Forget that the tracks are even there, and keep your head up…only glance down often enough to be aware that the tracks are there and don’t focus solely on where the tracks are headed. Nine out of ten times elk will double back on you. I have killed way more elk looking up the mountain instead of straight in front of me where the tracks are headed. Elk that know they are being followed will do their best to use wind to their advantage”.

That is good advice. I can’t tell how many times I had my head down following tracks when I kicked the elk out of his bed and he was gone out of rifle range. So when tracking an elk in timber go slow use your binoculars and be ready to shoot. Get ready for a quick shot …this is the timber.

Here are some elk tracking tips by Trevor Johnson:

Key Points:

  • -Always keep the wind in your face.
  • -GO SLOW…PAINFULLY SLOW!! Stop every couple minutes and glass the timber looking for the slightest ear twitch or horn flash. Elk are like ghosts…they just appear. Oh, and did I mention they can crawl down holes also;)
  • -BIGGEST MISTAKE TRACKERS MAKE…FOCUSING ON THE TRACKS THEMSLEVES. You can’t shoot the tracks folks…well I guess you could but I would save that ammo for the animals. This is a guaranteed way to serve yourself track soup and even I used to be guilty of this crime. Forget that the tracks are even there and keep your head up…only glance down often enough to be aware that the tracks are there.
  • -Don’t focus solely on where the tracks are headed. Nine out of ten times elk will double back on you. I have killed way more elk looking up the mountain instead of straight in front of me where the tracks are headed. Elk that know they are being followed will do their best to use wind to their advantage.
  • -Be ready for a quick shot folks…this is the timber. On average in my experiences, if a shot even presents itself, you usually have 1-3 seconds to make it happen. Keep your guard at all times…just pretend you’re getting ready to jump a rooster pheasant the whole time!
  • -Determining sex in deep snow where tracks are hard to see. Check their beds, bulls urinate in the middle of their beds and cows at the ends. Bulls also dribble pee when they are walking. Look for broken limbs or dead pine needles knocked off overhead branches…this means racks baby!!
  • -FUEL, FUEL, FUEL!!! Make sure you have multiple water bottles and high calorie snacks or lunch to withstand the rigors of tracking elk. If there is a lot of water in the area bring a pump and if not I carry two large water bottles and a jug of Gatorade. A heavy pack is a must for winter elk tracking…trust me it’s worth it.
  • -Along with food and water, all the late season essentials. Tracking elk can leave you in some big country. Fire starter, winter hat, gloves, coat ect. And as important as them all…your GPS!!! I have relied on these devices many a time to get back to the ol’ Chevy.
  • -COWS AND SPIKES are much easier to track down and kill than mature bulls. If you have a cow tag or are in a spike area and want to harvest an elk…this is it! I can track cows and spikes down to a kill shot almost every time…they don’t know how lucky they are. Also, makes great practice for the wise old bulls. I have learned a lot tracking cows and spikes.
  • And always watch the weather folks…cold fronts always make for better hunting. As my wildlife biology friend Tim Swearingen (the best tracker I know) always says, “It’s all about Thermoregulation” meaning the elk have to feed heavier in cold weather to keep their core body temperature at the sustainable level.

On average, in my experiences, if a shot even presents itself, you usually have 1-3 seconds to make it happen. Keep your guard at all times…just pretend you’re getting ready to jump a rooster pheasant the whole time”! For more elk hunting tips from Johnson log onto montanaoutdoor.com.

(Written by the Captain; Cover photo: ski-epic.com)