Stepping Up Your Elk Game: By Ryan Carter
Elk hunting is an experience that almost defines western hunting. Big, loud, and stinky, it’s amazing that elk are so elusive and difficult to pursue! The biggest issue with any species out west are the vast areas in which these animals call home; the terrain is often steep, rugged, and unforgiving. Pulling an elk permit is definitely the hardest part of the process, but once that is accomplished… the work begins! Now your have to face the mountain and dig deep to find out where these bulls call home in order to outsmart them on their own turf. The greatest tools of the game are TRAILCAMS!
Trail cameras are the perfect tools for locating big bulls, but they can also be time consuming and frustrating if they are not used correctly. Over the years I have found a few ways to help me dial in my trailcam game. I seem to do ok, so listen up so this can be a fun experience.
Purchasing some cameras is logically your first step, here’s a few things I’ve learned over the years in regards to camera selection. Like most of you, I hunt public land; and unfortunately not all people are on the same team… you may loose a few cameras! Knowing this, I purchase cameras that retail for less than $100 and only models that fit inside a security box. These boxes help keep honest people honest, prevent bears from walking off with your cameras, and stop elk from chewing on or moving them. Trust me, they all happen!
It should go without saying that some cameras perform better than others. Typically the more expensive trail cams, and infrared flash models will reach out a bit further at night when elk seem to be the most active. Theres nothing more frustrating than getting a photo of a possible monster just out of reach at night and not being able to tell what he is! I personally really like Stealthcams. Although I have no affiliation with the company, I believe their cameras give me more of an edge at night with a little better long range capability than other brands. Another plus is that they offer moderately prices security boxes for ALL of their cameras! We all have “preferences”, so I suggest trying a few different models that fit your personal style and applications.
Camera setup is very crucial and will make or break the performance of a particular camera! I am always aware of the following four items when setting up a trail camera to ensure my attention to detail is on point.
1. Mount your camera facing north, the sun will ruin your photos if the camera is facing east or west and will likely shine on your lens during times when elk are moving the most. Also remember the sun relates to earth from the southern hemisphere, so I avoid that direction as well if at all possible.
2. Clear all brush and limbs. It’s frustrating to leave a camera up for a month only to return and find 3000 pictures of a branch swaying back and forth in the wind. I keep a machete in my pack at all times when mounting cameras. They work faster than a pack saw for clearing branches, can cut tall grass away that may cause movement, and can be used to help dig holes in the ground for bait (where legal).
3. Don’t try to camouflage your cameras with twigs or leaves, I’ve learned the hard way! Half the time the branches fall over in front of the lens and the other half they attract bugs and small animals due to sap excretion.
4. Mount cameras about 36-40” off the ground and keep them 10-12 feet from the focus spot where the elk will be. That spot could be salt, water, a wallow, feed, or simply a trail. If the camera is too close you risk only seeing half of the bull or even worse, only a piece of the antlers!
Despite what most people will tell you, elk aren’t that smart; they are just big stinkies with instincts that outrank our own. With that in mind, there are three important aspects of their lives we must pay attention to… they need to eat, sleep, and procreate. When searching for trailcam locations, I look to accommodate those 3 things.
Feeding Areas: Bull elk have to eat like horses through the summer when they are packing on bone. I usually look for acorn patches located next to benches of dark timber because in July and August, elk run to acorns like a fat kid running to cake. Quite a few bulls also relate to aspens, although typically aspen country is more often a good area for cows and calves to hang out; the bulls will seek out secluded meadows in the high basins and cliffs. Although these tiny meadows sometimes take years to locate, they can be a great spot for a trailcam! Where legal, I put out salt, or a salt/molasses mix during the velvet growth period. After stripping their velvet, the bulls are not as interested in salt so I switch to a food bait or sweet lick to keep them coming in.
Bedding areas: Great bedding spots are often found on benches of dark timber with close access to feed. Since benches are used for bedding and feeding, look for flat spots on steep, north-facing mountainsides. There are benches that I have put cameras on for years and they continually produce some of my best photos! Because benches can be found by using topo maps and Google Earth, there is no better time than the present to start finding some likely spots. Get looking!
Wallows: They can be tricky. Elk wallow for two reasons… to keep cool and to get stinky! During the summer months, elk cruise through wallow areas but rarely climb inside: their velvet antlers work like a radiator to keep them cool, so rolling isn’t as active during this time. Once the velvet peels off, the rolling begins. All elk guys look for wallows, so some get covered in cameras just as heavy as the guzzlers on the Strip! It’s not a bad thing, but remember to be respectful of other people’s cameras so the favor is returned. To avoid the camera cluster, I like to look for pinch points or trails that access the wallows. Although bulls don’t touch the wallows during summer months (see above), they still cruise through the area, and more often that not get their picture taken walking into the wallow but not actually using it.
Calving areas: I can’t tell you how many times I hear frustrated elk hunters complain about how their cameras are getting hit by cows and calves and not BULLS. This is NOT a bad thing! Cows and calves just aren’t as migratory as bulls which summer in one place and then can rut 25 miles away. So if you are getting pictures of cows, DON’T pull your camera!! The bulls will get there, just keep in mind that they don’t start working into those areas until mid September. If your hunt is during an archery season that ends early you may want to move, but if your tag is just beginning around mid September stay there…The bulls will come to you.
Trail cameras can be a fun part of the whole elk hunting experience. I love the pre season scouting almost more than the hunt itself, so I look forward to setting cameras every year. Remember this though, I RARELY kill the bulls that I get on camera. Just because he is on film doesn’t mean he is a resident or even a “killable” bull. Trail cameras provide an example of the age class available and give you a bar to set your standards to. Killing the bulls you have on camera can be icing on the cake though! Remember to aim small and don’t be afraid to work for it!!
Ryan is the owner of D.C. Outfitters based out of Spanish Fork, Ut and has been guiding public land elk hunts for 12 years. He is also an avid archer that helps out with “Total Archery Challenge”, a 3D archery course that tours the U.S.
You can find him on his social media platforms IG: Ryan_DCOutfitters, FB Ryan Carter or DCOutfitters; Twitter: Ryan_DCOutfttrs