Scouting Your Elk Or Deer During Summer Months
The summer months are a great opportunity to find the trophy buck or bull to chase during your hunt. Getting the most out of the scouting season can be the difference between taking home a wall-hanger or struggling to find anything to shoot at.
Here are some of the tips, strategies, and gear that’s worked for me, and what I’ve learned during my summer scouting trips.
Most importantly though, make sure to enjoy being outside and have a good time while you’re at it!
- Observation from afar
- Tracking patterns
- Set up early
- Create honey-holes
- Stay away!
- Watch the weather and moon cycles
Who Should Scout In The Summer?
If you want to increase your chances of success on your hunt, then I strongly recommend using the summer months beforehand to find your trophy. There is so much opportunity to set yourself up for success and actually get the biggest animal on the mountain if you take the time to prepare and put in the work. With that being said, where do you even start?
Where To Start - Getting A Tag
Before you can even start scouting, you need to know what you’re looking for and the area to look in. If you don’t yet have a tag, this is step one. Go here and select your state. This should show you where to purchase a tag and find what is available.
Once you have your tag, and you know where you can hunt, it’s time to explore the area.
Choosing your area & maps
Whether you’re new to an area or you’ve spent time there before, its usually a good idea to study a map and get familiar with known water sources, vantage points, and other key areas that will be useful for your scouting. Personally, I use google maps as a starting point to find these spots and mark them for future use.
Pro tip: Download your hunting area as an offline google map (go here for Andriod phones and go here for Apple phones), and you can use it to see where you are and find your marked areas - even if you don’t have cell service! Plus, it’s totally free.
Below is an example of one of my hunting areas and many of spots I’ve marked to keep track of animals, trail cams, good vantage points, and more.
If you don’t mind paying, you can get an app made for hunting and has a ton of features included. Try ONXMAPS here - 7 days free trial in the top right corner.
Now that you’re more familiar with the area and have some good spots to explore, it’s time to get outside.
What NOT To Do
Before we go in-depth on what to do, let's take a second and go over what NOT to do on these scouting trips. It’s easy to waste a lot of time and energy without making any progress (I learned this the hard way, and still fall victim to it sometimes) and I hope some of these tips can help to make your scouting time as useful as possible.
DON’T: Wander aimlessly and hike for the sake of hiking. It’s unlikely you’ll stumble across an animal. Even if you do, you’ll probably have trouble finding him again and it’s possible to scare them away from your area (there are a lot of opinions about this, but it can’t hurt to not scare them).
DON’T: Go without a plan. This goes with the first “don’t,” and it’s important to make the most of the summer months. They go much quicker than you want them to and it can be frustrating to spend a lot of time scouting and never actually find anything. Or even worse to see a nice animal only once. Take some time to figure out the best approach and strategy for the animals you’re going after - we’ll go into this later in the article.
DON’T: Hike too much during the scouting season. This may not apply to everyone, but I’ve seen a lot of people burn themselves out of hiking before the hunt even starts. Save the hiking and getting really close for when you have a weapon in your hand.
DON’T: Go straight in and get on top of animals too early. This is a great way to get them out and keep them out of areas by the time the hunt starts.
Now let’s get into some good practices, and we’ll start with optics.
Spotting Scopes & Binoculars
Pictured below: Here's us during last season for our first summer scouting trips.
The single most important thing during the scouting season (and arguably during the hunting season, too) is good optics. Having the advantage of seeing everything on the mountain from a few key spots saves hours of hiking and scaring away animals (see above).
The ideal place to glass is on high vantage points above tree lines if you can. The most important thing is to make sure you can see long distances in a lot of directions. Try looking in areas with a lot of clearings and thin trees. Thick trees can be difficult, if not impossible, to see into and find anything.
Once you find your spot(s) to glass, sit and watch the mountain as long as you can. I struggle with getting bored here, but good snacks and company help a lot. Depending on the weather, first light and last light tend to be the best time to actually see activity. This can vary based on many factors but holds true for the most part. Try to stay focused and really look for at least a couple of hours - this is your chance to find the animals to move in on.
Pro tip: Looking through a spotting scope all day sucks. There’s no better way to put it. Your eyes get sore and it can be uncomfortable even using the best scopes. One workaround that really helps is using a phone attachment to look through the scope for you. This way, you don’t have to sit uncomfortably to see well - as you’re looking through the scope with your phone screen - and you record video and take pictures easily as a bonus.
Pictured Below: Two large bull elk in a spotting scope.
If you’re looking carefully, you should be able to find deer or elk in your area, see where they are hanging out, and how many are around. If you’re lucky, you’ll have more than one spot to choose from. Mark the spots on your map and make sure to remember them.
From here, it’s not a bad idea to stay away from these areas for now and just watch from a distance to make sure any animals around are going to stay - they may have just been passing through and don’t plan on returning. If you see them over and over, it’s probably a safe bet.
Now that we know where they are, time to move in.
Getting in close to where we’ve seen animals hanging out can be challenging. It is difficult to spot exact patterns and find a trophy somewhere consistently. Being extra careful here can pay off. I like to always be cautious of my scent and make sure I don’t leave any in areas where I know animals are hanging out (this includes bathroom breaks, we have a unique smell). It doesn’t hurt to use a scent killer and even wearing camo when you’re getting close, no matter what time of year it is.
Pro tip: If you do have to go to the bathroom in the field, be sure to bury it and cover the smell. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than doing nothing.
Once you’re in the area, look for heavy game trails & crossings, water sources, food sources, droppings, and even bones of other hunters previous kills. These are all signs you’re in the right place. I've found that many mature bucks and bulls prefer a fresh water source over still water - so a seep or wallow is a bonus.
Keep track of good areas you find and tread carefully. If winds are good and you’re quiet enough, you may even stumble on animals. I prefer to leave them alone and back out when this happens.
After you have some areas that are worth watching, it’s time to see what’s hanging out consistently.
Pictured below: One of the elk we chased this season that was caught on camera multiple times.
Investing in a high-quality trail camera is well worth it, and can make or break a hunt. For me, trail cams come in just under optics in the level of necessity for scouting. You’ve spent a good amount of time finding prime areas for animals, now it’s time to watch them closely while allowing yourself to stay out most of the time.
Pro tip: Set up the camera so that the date and time are correct - this will be useful later on when trying to figure out what day and what time of day the deer or elk are in the area.
Find a good tree to set up your trail cam and make sure it can capture the spot you want it to. This is worth double checking, as nothing is worse than checking your trail cam that you’re so excited about and having no good pictures because it was aimed too high or too low to see anything.
After it’s in the right position, I like to leave mineral licks (if it’s legal for your state) to bring the deer and elk in. Be sure to put in place so your trail cam can capture whatever comes to visit. Place it far enough away to see the body, close enough you can still see when it’s dark - experiment to find the sweet spot.
Before you leave, make sure the camera isn’t noticeable. It helps to use branches, twigs, leaves, etc.. to naturally camouflage it and make it harder to see. It’s good to hide it not only from animals but other people that may want a free trail cam.
Pro tip: Consider investing in wireless trail cameras, because you don’t have to go back into the spot as often to check your cameras. This helps to maintain a good spot by not spooking animals out too often.
Let the camera do its thing for a week or two, and see what you get back. If there’s a lot of activity, it’s probably a good spot and worth leaving it for a while. If there’s no action consider trying a new spot or making sure the camera is working properly.
Lastly, for trail cams - I recommend getting an SD card reader so you can check your pictures in the field (if you decide to not go wireless), making it much easier to see if it’s set up properly and if there’s action in the area.
Here’s a quick overview of some of the strategies I like to use. These can be used in any combination to help you get the trophy of your dreams!
Observation from afar
Use high-quality optics and vantage points to find and watch the deer and elk in your area. Find popular areas worth getting a closer look at. This is an important step to save you a ton of time later in scouting. Don’t overlook it!
Once you’ve found where the animals are, get in close and see if you find any patterns to catch them off guard. This can be difficult but is powerful if you figure it out. Trail cams are useful here - if you’re seeing the same animal across multiple cameras you can start to see where he goes during the day.
Set up early
Once you’ve found a spot that your deer or elk keep coming back to, set up your tree stand as early as you can. This helps the animals get used to the new object in the area and they won’t be worried about it on opening day.
Pro tip: If you don’t want to purchase a blind or tree stand, try building your own ground blind out of what is already in the area. I like to find groups of trees, deadfall, or sitting under a well-placed pine to hide and make it difficult to see in.
Get set up in the right spots and use minerals and feed to lure animals in. If you keep it stocked, they are likely to keep coming back. If you’re good, you can do this at trail cameras that are close together to get deer and elk moving in a pattern that you set for them.
It’s difficult to stay out of an area completely, but going in too often can cause animals to be wary and not come back. Do whatever you can to visit as little as possible and save it for the hunt.
Pro tip: Use a feeder to keep minerals or feed in an area without having to always restock it.
Watch the weather and moon cycles
Using cold weather and moon cycles can help to increase finding active animals. Deer and elk tend to move more when it’s colder outside and during different times of day depending on the phase of the moon. I’ll make another article on this later, but do check out this article if you want to learn more.
Gear OverviewTo recap on the tools we’ve been through, here is the list.
- Trail Cams
- Spotting scope / Binoculars
- Google maps - offline maps
- Tree stands
- Spotting scope smartphone attachment
There are many different ways to approach your scouting, and it helps to try new things and see what works best for you. Most of my hunting has been in Utah and surrounding states, so that’s what I know and what I’m used to. Your state may be different. Trying new approaches and strategies is a great way to figure out what works for you.
What are your favorite tips? What strategy works best for you?