Hunting Elk in Multiple States: Scouting

Last week I scouted a couple units in southern Montana. Though it was a solo trip, I was lucky to have thousands of mosquitoes to keep me company. Three of the five days were successful in finding quality habitat. Two of the days I spent in areas that didn’t seem to warrant another look in the fall. In the past we have covered how we scout; this post will explain why we scout and how scouting varies from state to state.

Why Scout

While hunting a drainage may take an entire day, scouting can take half as long. When scouting I move quickly while worrying less about wind and noise. I try to hunt like a mountain lion and I scout more like a rhino. As I plow through a unit I want to get a general feel for the area as quickly as possible.

Hunters that scout before the season spend the right amount of time in each area, which is important if you have other tags to fill. When hunting new country you may wander around aimlessly seeing no sign of elk, or stumble unknowingly into the perfect meadow and spook the bull of a lifetime. Scouting prior to the season will save headaches and heartaches later.

State to State, Unit to Unit

One state’s hotbed is another state’s wasteland. After hunting Colorado I had written off lower elevation meadows as primarily moose habitat. Then I harvested a Montana bull on the edge of a meadow and started to rethink that assumption.

Elk priorities vary depending on location. In a state like Colorado, hunting pressure may determine where bulls spend their time, while in New Mexico water may have a greater impact.

From climate to topography the subtle differences between states and even units will determine where elk live. Getting boots on the ground prior to the season allows hunters to build an effective game plan.

Scout and Scout Again

In the past I’ve used topo maps to find honey holes, and only used satellite images as a way of double checking. Last week as I marked wallows and bedding areas on my GPS, I realized that while the topography was different, the satellite images looked very similar. I’ll still use topos, but I’ll look for dark green drainages as well.

Most hunters think Step 1: E scout, Step 2: Scout, Step 3: Hunt. But, E scouting will become even more effective after you’ve spent time in the unit. Don’t sink too much time in locating the perfect drainage beforehand. Determine five good spots, scout, then reevaluate the map based on what you have learned.


A few days scouting will save loads of time in the fall and provide hunters with the confidence needed to harvest a bull. Remember that elk are where they are at. Just when you have a strategy nailed down elk will show up in the last place you expect. It’s part of the fun and part of the frustration that keeps us coming back.

Good luck,


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