Finding Rocky Mountain Elk

Finding Rocky Mountain Elk
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Liza Sautter, a Montana public land hunter, has loved the outdoors since infancy. Whether she is hunting Rocky Mountain Elk, photographing grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park, or fishing a high mountain lake you’ll find her someplace wild.

Hunting elk, especially the elusive Rocky Mountain Elk, is one of the most thrilling sports on the planet. Pursuing the creature brings with it a long line of heritage and camaraderie.

Just like any other part of this sport, it isn’t the first try, shot, step, or day that results in success – persistence is key

Drawing down the crosshairs, steading a breath after a long chase, and squeezing the trigger is a feeling that never gets old. The lingering ring of the shot overwhelming the ear so used to the noiselessness of the woods, the harsh scent of the gunpowder replacing the unmistakable musk of the herd, and the rush of adrenaline draws the senses to the brink of overload. This often-time once-in-a-lifetime experience is what draws many a huntsman afield.

Getting yourself in front of a herd, especially on public land, is no easy chore. The following are my tips for finding Elk that I have learned from hunting with a seasoned mentor as well as through experience, success and failure.

Finding the Elk, location!

Just like any other part of this sport, it isn’t the first try, shot, step, or day that results in success – persistence is key. Bouncing from location to location doesn’t lend itself to a successful hunt or season. Returning to a location one day after another allows you access to a herd’s pattern.

Elk run on a four- to six-day pattern, moving from water to feed and back. Hitting the hunting ground one day and moving on gives you no true sense of their point in this pattern. If they aren’t here today, they’ll be here tomorrow. Returning for the next couple of days gives you the shot of finding them on their return. Whether you hunt around their water, feeding source, or in between, they need both and will continue in their pattern.

The same goes for pre-season scouting; you can have the elk pattern down to a science if you are in early before season and stay there up to season. So what exactly does this science look like? It begins with standard variables that will help you to put one of these mighty critters in the freezer: Herd Location, Herd Size, Season Depth.


Plains Herds

Plains herds band together in massive numbers, anywhere from 100 to 450+ elk browsing in the sage and hay fields. These huge herds move in a couple of different patterns.

  • They will hit the same spot every day, returning until there is nothing left for them to eat. Often, hunters will bust them up and they’ll be right back the next day; it is worth returning. Some herds who are spooky to begin with or weary later in the season will vanish, off to find a new water, food, bed pattern, someplace safe from hunters. On the plains, it can be a long way from their favorite spot to the next patch of timber or good hiding place. 
  • They will often run a bed, water, and feed pattern that isn’t too much longer than that of a regular herd.
  • The larger the herd, the longer the pattern usually lasts, sometimes taking seven days before they return. 
  • They will sometimes feed a spot for a couple of days, head for water and bed, and return a few days later, extending their pattern past the 4–6 range. This can give you a couple of looks at a herd before they disappear for a week.
  • As the season draws into winter, mountain herds come down for feed unavailable in the deep snow above. Herds are usually slow to move in the snow and will stay near food and water as long as there is low pressure. This is a great time to spot and stalk. Just remember, the larger the herd, the more eyes and the harder they are to get on. Finding smaller satellite herds or picking out stragglers is often your best bet.

Forest Herds

Forest herds are full of variables and unique characteristics. They range from herds of 40 down to little satellite herds of three or four elk.

  • Little herds are the hardest to catch. They can run on that three-day pattern; watering, bedding, and feeding in constant motion. You’ll see them the night before season on a salt lick and think they’ll be right there the next morning, but odds are you are not going to find them unless you get lucky or find their tracks in the snow.
  • The bigger herds will usually run the 4–6 day triangle pattern but can often have more than one source of water and food. This will make their triangle more of a large circle, which might not bring the herd back to your favorite spot for two weeks. 
  • As the season brings about deeper snow, finding elk in the woods becomes harder to do, the animals’ awareness to hunters is heightened and the numbers of elk moving out of the hills for lower country grows. This is often a good time to head for the plains and run the pattern listed above, unless you want to stay high and track the wily bulls.
  • Finding that lone track is usually your best bet. In this case it is about covering as much territory as possible, until you get on a track. When you do find that track, you can usually catch the bull with persistence. You can have hours on a bull if you find a bed, and at a straight walk you will move much faster than he is searching for food.


This is generally what I have observed hunting in the Montana Rockies and the plains they overlook. A great way to narrow down your area’s pattern is the use of trail cameras in the preseason. Placing them near watering holes is usually a good bet. By doing so you can gauge the length of their pattern and know exactly when they come to water. Most animals, no matter the location come to water early in the morning or at dusk, good to know if you plan to set up a tree stand during bow season.

After establishing this pattern in preparation, sight in your gun or bow, pack your gear and the chase begins.

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