Tracking can be the best way to find bull elk in the wilderness. But that’s not why I do it. I track elk because it’s primal and addictive. It requires all my woodsmanship, intelligence, and endurance. It’s always possible that after I’ve hiked many miles, I’ll be left staring at the tracks of a spooked elk that’s already in the next county. But what makes me persevere is the feeling that comes with knowing that 1 mile down the trail (or 10) stands an animal worthy of all my efforts. Here is my six-step game plan for tracking elk. Be warned: Once you start, you won’t ever want to stop.
1 START IN THE PARKS. Open parks and other sunny clearings in the timber are great places to find tracks. Elk feed and bed in these exposed areas [FIG 1] only at night, pawing through light snow to search out sedges. The animals will be gone before dawn, but you will have a good chance of finding fresh tracks at first light. To make sense of the mess of prints you will find there, move a few yards back into the timber. Here you’ll find where the trails funnel together, and you’ll be able to isolate specific bands of animals.
2 TEST THE TRACK. In powder snow, during a cold snap, or in deeply shaded areas, a three-day-old track may look fresh to the untrained eye. Also, a hoofprint left in melting snow that quickly refreezes stays cookie-cutter sharp, though the animal that made it is long gone. Conversely, a recently made print drifting in with snow can appear old. Rely on your sense of touch instead. In powder, the edges and midline will set up and feel firm within an hour or two of the animal’s passing. Fresh droppings [FIG 2] are shiny, soft, and emit an organic, sweetish smell. Fresh lances of urine give to the slightest pressure. Crusty urine streaks, or pellets that crumble when squeezed, mean the trail is cold. Don’t forget to use your nose. Elk beds retain a rank, barnyard odor that can fool even an experienced hunter, but a faint, clean scent of elk usually indicates a hot track. I once killed a raghorn in Montana’s Bridger Range by cutting his trail after I detected his smell.
3 SIZE UP YOUR PREY. It’s difficult to predict the sex or size of an elk just by looking at hoofprints. More telling is the story a trail writes in the snow: A large track accompanied by a small one [FIG 3a] invariably means a cow and a calf. A small band of elk, say five to six, will often include a spike but seldom a mature bull. A herd of 10 may indeed have a 6-point bull among it. Big bulls like to travel in pairs, so two sets of good-size tracks are always worth following. A lone track [FIG 3b] can be a bull or a cow, but if it’s a bull of any size, you’ll see where his antlers have made him skirt low-hanging branches. If a lone trail covers a lot of country but switches directions without apparent purpose, it likely has been made by a 2 ½-year-old bull. In my experience, they will often stand from their beds, then hesitate before bolting away, affording the careful tracker a shot.
4 HEAD THEM OFF. Elk rarely give hunters a second chance, and damned few first ones, so you need to follow them without alerting their acute senses. To better the odds, anticipate where they are heading. Often elk heading to bed down for the day will walk along the side of a forested slope, then climb and circle back on a higher contour before lying down–choosing flat spots on side ridges where they hold the high ground on three fronts. They tend to divert from their course and feed before bedding [FIG 4], so look for circular depressions where they have punched their noses into the snow. Don’t be discouraged if you come to a freshly departed bed but the tracks don’t indicate that the elk was spooked. A bull will often lie down awhile, then move off to find a better bed nearby. There’s a good chance he’s within range of your rifle.
5 SNEAK INTO THEIR BEDS. When the track starts to waver and go uphill, slow way down because the elk is most likely preparing to bed. Stay 30 yards or so to the side of the track [FIG 5], cutting into it just often enough to stay on course. If you hunt with a partner, have one man take the track while the other takes a contour at a higher elevation, keeping the tracker just within sight. Try to circle and work down to the bedding elk from above. More often than not you’ll guess wrong, but a direct approach along the trail, no matter how carefully a man places his feet, tilts the odds in the elk’s favor.
6 TAKE THEM WHERE YOU FIND THEM. If you finally catch up to elk, they’re likely to be in heavy cover, revealing themselves only as pieces in a larger puzzle. Your eye may linger on a patch of color that resembles a peeled log, or a branch stub cocking at an odd angle might trigger a second glance. Then, like a trick picture, the animal comes into focus. If you’ve been scanning every inch of forest as it enters your view, the elk will be near the outer limit of your vision, its body striped by a picket of tree trunks. Don’t try to stalk closer. You’ll either lose sight of the elk or the elk will catch sight of you. This is why a powerful rifle with a good scope is a tracker’s best choice [FIG 6]. I handload stout 250-grain spitzers in my .350 Remington Magnum, which has pushed the bullets from shoulder blade to hip on several bulls, and I wouldn’t consider a cartridge that can’t go the distance. A lot of things can go wrong when tracking. The shot that ends the hunt shouldn’t be one of them.