By Jackie Holbrook
I take a gulp of Montana’s fresh mountain air. The scenery on this June afternoon almost makes me forget I’m out of shape.
Archery elk season is approaching, and I’m trying to accomplish two things: Get fit and find a hunting spot. My soles and shoulders feel the three miles we’ve already put in, and I’m thankful for the glassing break.
“Buff-bow,” my almost-2-year-old daughter shouts as she looks through her dad’s binoculars. That’s toddler-speak for buffalo. No buffalo live here, but I don’t correct her. It’s fun to have her think she’s helping. My body gets a longer break while I test my patience by letting her walk a well-worn game trail. Despite our sub-1-mph pace, she slows us down even more as she points out every elk track with “buff-bow.” She also won’t let us pass “poo poo” piles on the trail without investigating.
We’re scouting an area we’ve never hunted, and the elk sign excites everyone. After identifying tracks and poking poo-poo for three-quarters of a mile, we give our toddler a snack and return her to the pack so we can resume hiking at a grownup pace. We weave through the woods, spotting occasional rubs and twice catching a good whiff of elk. We end the day with sore shoulders, an empty bag of goldfish crackers, and more hope for the season ahead because of what we found.
Scouting is important prep work for bow season, but it’s also fun, and can make for a great family-friendly excursion. My toddler is too little to understand, but every track and scat pile she pointed out told an important story. Here are some tips for summer scouting:
Before looking for a hunting area, know what to look for. Study the species you plan to hunt. Learn its habits and preferred habitats, which helps identify potential locations. For example, elk often travel far during the year. Their winter and summer ranges might be miles from their fall range. If you find sheds and tracks, how do you know it means elk are there during bow season? Bow season for elk overlaps September’s rut, which is when bull elk rub their antlers against trees. Rubs indicate elk use that area during fall.
A white-tailed deer’s home range is much smaller, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to scout. The whitetail’s habits differ by the season, too. If your state’s bow season is open during early autumn, watch for rubs. If the season opens during late fall or winter, bucks are in the rut, which generally makes them more active in daylight. Some bucks also expand their range in their search for does.
Knowledge of your quarry’s seasonal habits helps you identify hunting locations.
Elk, deer and moose rub their antlers against trees and saplings in early fall. These rubs mark territory and intimidate the competition. During summer scouting look for rubs from the previous fall, which look like someone used a wood rasp to remove bark from the trees.
Who can explain why piles of poop so excite youngsters? Whatever the reason, scat tells important stories about wildlife habitat, so learn to identify your quarry’s deposits. Animals often drop scat while drinking, eating and walking trails. If you find lots of it, you’re in an area where animals often hang out.
Deer, elk and moose shed their antlers during winter and into early spring before growing a new set. Hunting for shed antlers is a popular pastime. Sheds make great decorations, but they also provide clues about animals living in the area.
Scrapes relay scent and visual information left by elk, deer and moose in the weeks leading up to the rut. These animals paw away debris to expose soil. They also pee into their scrapes, and then lick, lightly chew and rub their forehead on an overhanging branch.
All animals need basics like food, water and shelter to survive. Look for food sources while scouting. Creek bottoms are excellent places to find sign because they provide water and they’re natural travel corridors. Heavily used game trails often lead to beds and shelter. Prey animals use thick cover to sleep and hide from predators.
Scouting public lands is a fun exploratory mission because you never know what you’ll find. Use topographical maps to look for areas with suitable habitat, and review land-use regulations. For example, some areas aren’t open to ATVs and other motorized vehicles. These regulations also offer clues about hunting pressure you might face. Use the map, GPS unit and/or smartphone app to mark where you spot sign.
Don’t wait until the last minute to ask permission to hunt private lands. Call or make the request in person in early summer. Asking in advance is respectful and gives you more opportunities to get to know the landowner. Introduce yourself and hunting partners, and reassure them you’re ethical and respectful.
Give the landowner your contact information, including a vehicle description. If you receive permission, offer to help the landowner plant trees, fix fences, pick up trash or do other chores. If you’re denied permission, remain courteous and respectful, and don’t let it discourage you from asking someone else.
Even after you’ve worked hard to find the perfect hunting spot, go find another. Your hunting locations could be separated by miles or just a few hundred yards the opposite direction.
Scout several locations before fall because you never know what might happen in the weeks ahead. Hunting pressure, wind and weather conditions, or even wildfires and other factors could rule out your first choice, so it’s always good to have another spot ready. The more scouting and prep work you do now, the more likely you’ll find success this fall.