Huntin’ Fool’s E-Scouting Tips for Archery Elk

From our friends at Huntin’ Fool:

Every hunt I have been on in the past 10 years started with me behind a computer screen, trying to locate the area to give me the best chance at finding the animals I was hunting. Time is the biggest factor when it comes to finding success when hunting elk. The more time you have to spend in the mountains, the more you increase your chances for success. So, if you don’t have a flexible schedule that allows you to spend time in the mountains before the season, then I would get serious about learning how to e-scout and seeking out boots-on-the-ground experience to complement it!

E-scouting is a very beneficial strategy if used correctly. Most people do not have multiple weeks to hunt each year and are limited to seven to 10 days of actual hunt time. Putting in the time behind a computer screen e-scouting before you head into the hills can save you a lot of time and money, in addition to helping you be more successful in the field. 

The two mapping platforms I use are onX Elite and Huntin’ Fool, which have all the necessary tools I need. I’d also advise purchasing a second computer monitor, which makes it much easier and faster to look at two different layers at once. 

When your time in the field is limited, nothing beats tapping into the experience of those who have successfully hunted your unit before. When I start planning out my hunt, I lean on the 25 years of expertise that Huntin’ Fool offers to better understand state and unit trends through their digital magazine. Using Huntin’ Fool’s Member Draw database, I also reach out for feedback from hunters who have successfully filled their tag in the unit I’m looking to hunt. Ultimately, I rely on both onX Elite and Huntin’ Fool to plan my hunt inside and out, and to help put me in the best position to fill my elk tag.

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Below are some of the key things I look for when planning an archery elk hunt while using onX along with the unique experience and insights of Huntin’ Fool. 

Look for These Key Features:

When it comes time to jump on the computer and start e-scouting, there should be some key features you look for. The time of year and the species you’re hunting should determine the types of areas you want to seek. When I’m planning an archery elk hunt the main things I focus on are water, bedding/feeding areas, and access. For me, all these factors need to work together for me to give it a green light and get boots on the ground. 

Access and Location

I feel like this is always the hardest one to narrow down, whether you want to hunt from the truck or get away in the backcountry. On any hunt, I have plans A, B, and C in place in case something doesn’t work out at my starting destination. My main focus is to always get away from other hunters, but if that isn’t possible, I like to think the homework I put in e-scouting and familiarizing myself with that area will help me succeed in an area with more hunting pressure.  

  • Both onX and Huntin’ Fool maps have several Layers you can look at for road, trails, wilderness areas and more. Looking at both Topo and Aerial Basemaps can help identify both trails and roads. More than once, my map said there was a road, but it was either closed, grown over, or just not there. Oftentimes if I am unsure, I will zoom in to the road using satellite image and follow it to make sure it looks passable. 
  • With backcountry hunting really gaining traction the past few years, I have started to shift my focus to areas in the “mid-range” between the road hunters and backcountry crowd. Again, this is really something you can’t determine until you show up at a trail head. If there are guys with camps set up at the trailhead, then I figure they are hunting nearby. If there is a line of horse trailers, then my gut tells me they have gone the distance. Having several plans in place beforehand will save you time when having to plan around other people in the field. 
  • I will use the Topo Basemap to find “hidden” benches that might be off the main trails or in areas that are steeper and might keep other people from accessing them. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path and climb 1500 feet of vertical to get to an area that looks good to you.   
  • If I’m packing in for my hunt and planning to stay in the mountains, I will often use the Topo Basemap to find a good flat spot for my campsite. I’ll also look for any water source close by my camping area in hopes I can use it to filter water during my hunt.  

Water: 

Water source is a huge factor for me. As my skills have developed over the years, I have come to realize how important it is for an area to have a good water source. From my experience, elk like to water almost every day. In areas that do not receive much rainfall it is important to find creeks, springs, rivers, or ponds close to the area of interest.  

  • Using the onX and Huntin’ Fool mapping platforms, looking at aerial imagery that’s free of snow and showing the clearest picture possible can be a big help when finding water holes, springs, and tanks. Also, switch from Aerial to Topo Basemaps to identify water sources. I do this to identify mainly spring and tanks.  
  • One thing I have learned is to never rely only on your Aerial or Topo Basemaps when locating water sources. Springs and ponds can go dry in drought years, so never be surprised if you show up to a spot where you had water marked, only to find a dirt hole. Though topo imagery can be more accurate than an aerial picture, water is something that fluctuates year-to-year. 

Bedding Areas: 

During September and other warmer months, elk are typically more active at night, early morning, and late evening, and then tend to bed down for the day. I try to key in on areas with heavy timber that provides lots of cover. Though elk can bed anywhere, I prefer north-facing slopes because they are generally the coolest side of the mountain and provide the most cover. 

  • Because you can’t see through the trees, I look at the contour lines on a Topo Basemap and utilize 3D Mode to identify benches that could be used as a good bedding area.
  • Keep in mind that thermals will be going up during the day as the heat rises, so elk prefer to bed closer to the ridgetops where they can smell anything approaching from below.  

Feeding Areas: 

I probably stress over this the least because I feel like if an area has decent water, it will automatically have some good feed. These areas are also some of the easiest to identify using only satellite imagery. Meadows, burns, south-facing slopes, and agricultural fields are the main things I will look for when identifying good feeding areas.  

  • Burns that span from one to 10 years old or are not overgrown provide great vegetation, making them a hot spot for elk to feed. 
     
  • Agriculture fields are also a hot spot. Though most ag fields will be private property, elk will often travel miles to these locations allowing you to intercept them as they travel to or from their feeding area. 

Other Points of Interest:  

  • Games Trails: Locating game trails can also be a significant benefit when it comes time to place boots on the ground. More than once while e-scouting, I have located heavy game trails that then led me to unmarked springs or great bedding areas. I typically like to look for trails using the Satellite Basemap, focusing on pinch points or saddles. Once you can identify those it can be easy to track a trail to see where it leads. 
  • Wallows: During the end of August or first part of September, wallows can be a great spot to set up midday in the hope a bull decides to take a roll in the mud. Bulls will frequent these during the rut to mark their territory. Wallows are typically a smaller muddy area that can be found best while using the Aerial Basemap. If you have a good clear image, you can typically zoom in to identify wallows. I will move slowly across the screen looking in the bottom or draws or close to other springs to identify these

The Final Touches:

Now that I have identified the things I want to take into consideration, I’ll start marking my maps by dropping Waypoints and creating Tracks. This is the fun part, because you get to see the plan come together. If you decide to use the Huntin’ Fool Map to create folders and drop Waypoints, you can easily download all those points and easily transfer them to your onX account. 

Again, make sure you have a couple solid back-up plans developed, as things in the mountains can change quickly. I would also recommend downloading all your maps in Offline Mode in onX; that way you can still access them with no cell service. Remember to have fun and learn as you go, making necessary changes to your Waypoints while in the field. Gather as much information as you can, taking lots of notes and pictures so you can compare your in-the-field experience to your scouting research. With onX Elite’s mapping and Huntin’ Fools insights, you’ll be able to dial in your next hunt even better.

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Jess McGlothlin

Before taking the role of onX Communications Writer, Jess McGlothlin worked as a freelance photographer and writer in the outdoor and fly-fishing industries. While on assignment in the past few years she’s learned how to throw spears at coconuts in French Polynesia, dodge saltwater crocodiles in Cuba, stand-up paddleboard down Peruvian Amazon tributaries and eat all manner of unidentifiable food.