By Mike Willis
As hard as it may be to believe, bow season is only a month away! It is always difficult to convince yourself that the season is upon us when you are dealing with the sweltering heat. Those hot days keep you focused on the lake and finding some shade. You may be surprised to know that you and the elk have some things in common!
Many new elk hunters will venture off to the large open landscapes during the early season. While these areas may provide glassing opportunities late in the year, you will be hard-pressed to find elk there in September. Just like you, the elk are concentrating on finding cool areas to spend their summer days.
While old rubs can tempt you to hunt an area, be assured that they are not in that same spot during the early season! Elk survive by migrating to meet the needs of the herd. During the early season, it is comfort that they desire. As the season progresses, the ladies control everything. By the end of the season, the elk have concentrated on food, warmth, and safe places to graze.
Check the North-Facing Slopes
While many people spend rifle season glassing the south-facing hillsides, the early season is the opposite. The north-facing hillsides have the least amount of daylight exposure. What does this mean? It means about a 20-degree difference! Those deep, dark drainages that rarely see daylight are the perfect places to look for your early season elk.
After you intentionally seek out an area sheltered from direct sun, you will be amazed to see the difference in the temperature and landscape. While south-facing hills are often bare, the north-facing hills have dense, mature growth. These trees and plants provide the shade needed to shelter elk herds from the heat.
Look for Water
Elk have to drink water. If you are in the middle of a drought, this water becomes even more important. When you find that water hole in a “desert,” you can keep those elk on a shoestring; this is a tremendous advantage to you as a hunter. At times when there is plenty of water available, it can be very difficult to track the daily “patterns” of the elk. There will be a noticeable concentration in elk sign if you have found one of the few water sources in an area.
In addition to drinking the water, the elk also use puddles and mud holes as wallows. Elk will actually lay down in the water to cool their bodies. A nice early September mud bath is the equivalent of heading to the elk spa. You will know when you stumble upon a wallow. It will look as though cattle have been in there as the mud will be inundated with hoof prints. There is also a very distinct, pungent odor that lingers. The bulls shamelessly urinate in the wallows.
Be Ready for Things to Change
These tips for finding elk are great in those early days of the season. However, don’t become too hung up on your new favorite spot. As soon as rain moves in, water becomes available everywhere. As hunters move in, the elk seek refuge in remote areas. The further into September you get, the deeper into the rut the elk go. As the rut sets in, the whole game changes! Therefore, be prepared to change your approach as soon as you identify a change in their conditions, hunting pressure, or behavior.