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Spring Scouting for Elk Hunting Success

River of No Return in the SpringtimeSpring is one of the best times of year to get out in the mountains and scout new areas for the upcoming elk season, which won’t arrive yet for another 5 – 6 months. The air is fresh and invigorating, and as the snow melts it exposes game sign from the previous fall that has been preserved in a deep freeze all winter. Game trails, wallows, rubs, and even some tracks still appear fresh.

Timing is key when it comes to spring scouting though, as vegetation soon sprouts where the receding snow has exposed the wet ground to sunlight for the first time in months, and within weeks fresh growth will completely enshroud all ground sign. Rubs too, quickly loose their shine, making them more difficult to spot. In flat country, such as Northern Minnesota, the snow melts all at once, limiting the opportunity for spring scouting to about 2 weeks before ferns cover all traces of game sign left the previous fall. In mountainous country the timing is a bit more forgiving however, as the snow line recedes slowly in elevation. The trick here is finding the sign in the same elevation zone that elk occupy during hunting season (not where they have wintered).

I’ve found that bull elk tend to rut in the same areas year after year, much like whitetail bucks do; and that here in Central Idaho, elk sign from the previous year’s rut is an accurate indication of where bulls will be during the upcoming archery and rifle seasons. (Take note of that last sentence.) I can’t count how many times I’ve found bull-rut sign in the spring and returned in the October rifle season to find bulls in the same exact spot. So far, I have not been able to do this with mule deer bucks, for the sign they make during the rut does not correlate with where they’ll be during the pre-rut hunting season.

I’ve been scouting for big game sign in the spring now for over 30 years. Rarely have I encountered another hunter in the spring woods or noticed hunters’ vehicles parked at likely access points. How an outdoor activity that can be so beneficial to hunters is practiced by so few leaves me scratching my head. I’m not presenting spring scouting as a new concept either, for I read about it in whitetail magazines in the early 1980s. If you want to improve your hunting success—focus on hunting all year. Leave your fishing pole at home this spring. Instead, get out in the woods and figure out where the elk will be come fall.

Good hunting,
Joe Cavanaugh

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