Is There a Point to Summer Elk Scouting?

You can see plenty of elk and elk sign in the summer months, but that doesn't mean it'll help much when September comes. At least not unless you apply these tips to your strategy.
Is There a Point to Summer Elk Scouting?

On a recent camping trip, as I slipped off to do a little elk scouting, I had a thought I’d never had before: how much good are my summer hands-on scouting trips? After all, the areas I’m glassing and seeing elk are mostly above timber line (11,500 feet). When I return to hunt them in September, I typically chase bugles between 8,700 and 10,000 feet. The bachelor bulls I glass in summer aren’t buddies anymore and seeing 50 to 75 cows, calves and spikes feeding together doesn’t happen once the aspens begin to change.

So, is there a point to summer elk scouting? After much deep thought, here are my conclusions.

Locating Elk Sign

Sure, I’ll glass summer elk, but I realized that seeing these animals during this timeframe is a confidence booster and nothing more. Spending time locating old rubs, wallows, September bull bedding areas and once-pounded trails is really the reason I escape to the elk woods during the dog days of summer.

summer elk scouting

After dropping in elevation and scouting areas that hold September elk, the author and his friend stumbled upon a dead bull elk. It's likely the bull was hit with an arrow the previous fall.

Identifying past rut sign is the key to knowing where your jumping-off point will be come September. Spend the majority of your scouting trip punching areas littered with old rubs and wallows into your Garmin, and you’ll be much better off than simply glassing summer elk.

BONUS TIP: Before going on your scouting trip, checkout the area on Google Earth, ScoutLook, onXmaps — you know the drill. Punch in a few coordinates where you think elk will be in September. Upon arrival, go inspect these (hint, hint) deep drainages, flat benches that give way to steep vertical terrain, and possible wallows/water sources. This will keep you focused and help you ignore, to some degree at least, those boy bands and cow/calf groups feeding well above treeline.

Hanging Trail Cameras

Typically, I hang cameras in areas pounded with current, fresh sign. Why? I want to be sure I get pictures. But the problem with this technique is summer photos of elk haven’t resulted in September success. In fact, I haven’t even seen a single bull in the areas that filled SD cards during July and early August. I realized hanging cameras in this way is the same as sitting and glassing summer elk.

Related: 10 Reasons You'll Never Arrow an Elk

So I made a change. I set my cameras in areas I expect elk to be moving to toward the end of August. I placed one camera on a once-pounded wallow, another along a single trail connecting two major drainages. The trail was littered with rubs and even had a few fresh tracks. I placed the last camera on a pond I happened upon. The pond was located near a for-now-abandoned bull bedding area. The small bench (area of mostly flat, level ground) above the pond was loaded with old beds and rubs. The pond, according to my onXmaps, was the closest water for over one square mile. We will see how my camera strategy holds up when I return to the area in late August.

BONUS TIP: Bears eat game cameras that aren’t placed in a protective hard case, cow elk have a knack for sniffing the cameras and turning them away from where you want them, and unethical bowhunters claim them as their own. I’ve found carrying a single set of climbing sticks (using a safety harness of course) and hanging and angling my cameras downward generally prevents these problems.

Final Thoughts

I’ve often been asked if scouting summer elk is at all purposeful or effective, but I’d never given the question much thought until this trip. So here’s the deal: Yes, hands-on summer elk scouting is very effective if you scout where the elk are going to be, not necessarily where they are upon your arrival.

Let me know your thoughts. Am I crazy? Has your elk success rate shown that putting more focus on where elk are in July and early August leads to more meat in the freezer come September? I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line at


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