Understanding Elk Terrain

10 Using terrain to kill elk sm

Understanding Elk Terrain

By Brian Barney

September. The very word should make you elk hunters nearly jump out of your skin. There is no better time of year if you’re an elk hunter! 

Big public land bulls have a knack for humbling even the savviest hunters out there. They seem to always be a step ahead of us, barely slipping between our fingers but if you want to consistently harvest big bulls, you need to be the one that is a step ahead. You need to know and understand what the elk are doing and where they are headed. You need to know how the elk are using the terrain to be able put yourself in front of that big six.

Yellow is ridge lines, green is feeding, orange is bedding, used water is blue, red is vantage points, used trails are lines.

There is more to hunting elk than wandering around chasing distant bugles. There is a rhyme and reason to what the elk are doing in the country they live in. Keying into elk feeding, bedding, watering and travel corridors is tapping into the bigger chess game in the elk hills. Knowing how to read elk country starts to tip the odds into your favor. It allows the elk hunter to make smarter, more calculated plays on these wily old bulls. No matter what your preferred method of hunting elk is, from calling to setting an ambush to spot and stalk hunting, knowing the terrain is the difference-maker.


We all know about watering, feeding, bedding and traveling of elk, but it is also knowing what to do with this information. It is finding a chink in the armor and exposing it.

Take water for instance. We have all found a wallow, stream or pond that the elk are using. It does no good to chase elk all morning and then think you are going to sit on the water you just chased all the elk out of. The key with killing elk at water is to find where the elk are using it and then commit to the sit. If you know the elk are in the area, it is just a matter of time before they come to water. I don’t use blinds much but I know they are super-effective for sitting by water. Blinds hide all your movement and if you have the patience to sit and wait, it will usually produce a slam-dunk 20-yard shot.

Most of my hunting is in the backcountry so packing in a blind is not in the cards. I do however, make sits at water, camouflaged in the brush with a natural blind and a good wind.

I have one spot that comes to mind that I sit at nearly every year. It is a boggy, watery marsh full of wallows that the elk come into nearly every night. If I am packed into this spot, I always make a sit in the evening at this location and it has paid off with multiple bulls coming in.

Another way to use water is to watch elk bed near a watering hole and then set up at the water that evening. It seems if elk bed within a half mile of water, their first thought when they get up that evening is to get a drink. Also, if you see elk headed toward a known water hole, it’s time to do your best 10K and beat them there. Elk water every day, so pay attention and use this information next time you find a bull’s watering hole. 


Elk love to bed in the heavy cover of timber and the shade of the canopy. They love to find a flat bench on the north side of the mountain where they can rest throughout the day. Hunting bedded elk can be tricky but I will try my best to give you some guidelines and rules on what to do. I would say most of the time when I see elk beginning to bed or disappearing into some thick timber to bed, I opt to not go in on them. I will leave them alone, then try to make my best plan for evening when they are up on their feet again. I have found that when I go in on a herd in their beds not knowing their exact positioning, I get busted more times than not. There are so many eyes and the elk are focused on listening and watching for danger. No matter how slowly I move, they always seem to catch me and spook, leaving me back at square one. I do, however, love to know where elk are bedded because then I know they are not spooked and it gives me a really high percentage chance in the evening. I can predict how they will get up and move in the afternoon and get set up with a good plan. 

My 2013 bull was this exact scenario. I chased the herd that morning, catching up to them right as they were getting ready to bed. I followed them into a thick, timbered draw and knew they were down for the day. I backed out knowing it was low percentage to follow them into their bedroom. That evening, I found myself closing in on the draw they spent the day in. The elk were getting up and feeding around which allowed me to keep tabs on them as I closed the distance. With a good wind and patience, eventually the bull gave me a good shot and I capitalized with a well-placed arrow.

Waiting until evening on a bedded herd is usually how I play this scenario out but with any rule there are always exceptions. If it is a solo bull or a small group of elk, I will try to find their exact position. I will then move and get different vantage points on where I think they are bedded. If I can see them bedded, then I feel I have a pretty good chance of taking the bull. I can make a calculated stalk, taking my time, knowing where the elk are.

Elk antlers are a beacon to where your bull is located. With hopefully four to five feet of bone sticking up, you can keep tabs on the bull and also his demeanor. You can tell which way his head is facing and tell if he is getting nervous or on to your position. 

There is a small window of time right before the elk bed that gives you a great chance of killing the bull you are after. When elk first reach their bedroom and before they bed, they begin to slow down and graze. They are still on their feet but not on the move. If you can stay close to the herd and then recognize that they are beginning to stage for bedding, this is the perfect time to move in and try to close the deal. Bulls are checking their cows and are susceptible to calling at this point. Just remember it is a small window and if a high-percentage scenario doesn’t present itself, back out and wait until evening. 


In my mind, feeding elk are a bowhunter‘s best chance of closing the deal. The elk are focused on feeding, not danger. The herd bull is usually focused on rutting hard and checking his cows. The elk graze in open meadow grass and are stationary or at least slowed down enough to where a bowhunter can catch up and close in.

Elk do most of their feeding throughout the night but first thing in the morning or last light in the evening, you can usually find them feeding in some open meadow grass. Use the fringes of the timber to move in with a good wind. Be patient and keep tabs on all the elk. If one cow senses your presence the gig is up. Keep an eye on the elk and if they look up or in your direction, freeze until they go back to feeding.

I killed this bull on the trail I am standing on. He was transitioning from feeding to bedding mid morning.

If you are making a calling setup, get as close to the herd as you can and give some cow calls, chances are that bull will come to give you a look. Work the herd and only take what the terrain and the elk give you. It always seems to me the longer you play the game; the more opportunities will present themselves. If you spook the elk in the first ten minutes trying to force something, you have to start over. If you are patient and wait out of range, you get to watch the herd and more often than not the bull will make a mistake or move your way.


Elk are like a river, always moving.  Elk roll across big mountain country with ease, covering miles between water, feeding and bedding. Elk have a huge home range and a circuit of different basins that offer all they need. Elk can hang out in one basin for a couple days or roll on every day to a different feature miles away. This is where the majority of elk hunting takes place, with elk on the move. How many times have you found yourself trying to keep up to a moving herd? The key is to try to get in front of where they are headed. If you know they are headed to bedding or feeding, you can make an educated guess at where you think they will go.

Elk are creatures of habit; they just have a lot of country they know. Elk will return and take the same trails, the same ridgelines and also the same saddles that lead to different basins. I mark on my topo maps every spot I see elk, every spot I see them feed, every spot they bed, every water source or wallow and every trail or saddle I see them use. I color-code everything and then I can start to see the bigger picture of what the elk are doing.

Summing it Up

Experience in elk country is the best learning tool. After years of hunting an area you will see elk using the same meadow or same bedroom, then you can accurately predict where they will be headed. The best cutoff points for the herd are where the terrain narrows down or funnels the elk. Find a saddle they like to cross, a canyon that narrows down to a few trails, or a ridgeline they use to move somewhere.

Find where trails converge and find well-used watering spots. Knowing where elk are headed is like knowing what they are thinking. Use that knowledge and the terrain to put yourself in front of the herd. I believe that knowing what elk are doing and knowing where elk are headed is the key to consistently harvesting big herd bulls. Tap into the chess match of elk habits and terrain this season and I know it will pay off in inches.

A good Montana bull I chased in the morning, let him bed, then killed him headed to feeding that evening.

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