How to Find a Good Hunting Spot During the Off-Season

Elk Skull
Bones definitely aren’t good sign to find, but if you find them out in the woods away from any roads, you can be fairly sure that here at least were animals in the area at some point. This skull is from a cow elk.

If you’re an experienced hunter, this article probably isn’t for you. But if you’re an experienced hunter and have friends that don’t hunt, you might want to send this article to them so they can keep an eye out for you. It can’t hurt…

For those of you who are interested in hunting or are maybe just getting started, finding good hunting locations can be discouraging and one of the bigger obstacles to get by.

Unless another hunter is willing to share a hunting area with you, think of it as a step-by-step process that will take hiking and process of elimination – you’re probably going to find more spots to eliminate than spots to hunt.

Our scouting usually starts online with ONX and Google Earth – there are other tools for online scouting and this is a whole subject in itself and for another day.

This article will focus on basic game sign to look out for specifically during the non-hunting seasons (winter, spring, and summer).

I am covering this subject now because between now and next fall, chances are that if you are someone who is interested in hunting, you will be in the outdoors hiking, camping, and spending time in places that may in fact be great areas to hunt. Without a knowledge of basic things to look out for, you might be walking right past a great hunting spot. Having a general knowledge of game sign allows you to keep an eye out year-round while you’re doing other stuff in the outdoors.

Keep in mind, though, that animals migrate – where there is sign now may not be where the animals are in the fall. Generally you can think of Rocky Mountain Elk and Mule Deer being more migratory, and think of Rosevelt Elk and Blacktail as not.

We were out a couple of weeks ago on a short hike, and we saw a lot of deer sign. Now we have a new area to check back on when the hunting season approaches.

Deer tracks
This deer trail went up a steep embankment above an old road

Some of the more common and important types of sign to look out for are:

Tracks

Scat

Trails

Rubs

Wallows

Tracks

As you spend more time in the woods, you get better at distinguishing fresh tracks from old tracks, and elk tracks from deer tracks. It sounds silly to someone who has hunted for a long time, but it really does take some time to start figuring it out.

This old logging road had tons of fresh elk tracks. In this muddy area, it’s hard to tell how fresh they are with the recent rain.
I pulled over on a drive recently to let the dogs out, and found that this road was covered in elk tracks.

Here’s the thing about tracks: If you find fresh tracks during the hunting season, that’s great. But if it is a different season, the animals might not be there in the fall.

Keep an eye out for tracks, for sure, and maybe check those areas again in the late summer or early fall, but there are better things to keep an eye out for during the off-seasons.

Scat

Elk and deer scat are similar to tracks – it takes a little learning to figure out the difference between elk and deer scat, and how old it might be. Over time, you get to a point where you can tell if scat is from that day, a day or two old, or much older. This is extremely helpful while you’re out hunting, and helpful if the hunting season is coming up.

If you find fresh scat during the hunting season, you should be alert. If it’s not the hunting season, it’s good information but may not be super useful for Mule Deer or Elk that will likely move.

Fresh scat is shiny and soft.
Old elk scat
Older scat dries out and often hardens, and is not shiny.

In the photos above, you can see the difference between really fresh scat and really old scat. While you’re out scouting you’ll find everything in between, which is where it gets tough to tell how old it is.

Fortunately, there are better things than scat and tracks to look for during the off-season.

Trails

For scouting during the off-season, we like to find trails because they often represent repeated use of an area. You might notice a trail traversing on a steep hillside, which is useful, but the best trails to find are ones around feeding and bedding areas. This photo is from an area near our house that we discovered while we were looking for oyster mushrooms.

The trail in this photo is from elk (and probably some deer, too) entering and leaving a big meadow. This is a really good find because it’s clearly and area that the elk use consistently.

Not far away, there were trampled down trails above this dirt road that made it obvious this is a very well-used area for elk. A lot of times elk trails are so worn that they might look like a human-made trail to someone who isn’t interested or paying attention. We love finding well-used trails, but there are still things we like finding even more.

Rubs

Rubs are created when a male deer or elk rubs its antlers on a tree. Rubs are one of the best things to find while scouting during the off season because they are usually made in the late summer or fall. This means that if you find a rub, this is potentially an area where they will return this hunting season.

Rubs are often along trails or old roads where deer and elk are traveling. Look for small trees where all of the bark is rubbed off. If you’re unsure if something is a rub or not, check for hair. A lot of times there will be a few pieces of hair that get stuck and left behind on the rub. Fresher rubs (like the one in the photo below) will be lighter in color, and the tree won’t have healed much. Really fresh rubs will often smell strongly like fresh sap.

Telling the difference between a deer rub and an elk rub can be tricky at first. You want to look carefully at the height of the rub and the diameter of the tree.

Generally deer will rub small trees or woody-stemmed brush with small diameter stems, about 1-2″ or so or even less than 1″. We’ve seen deer rubs on much larger trees that were 4-5″ in diameter or more, but it’s not as common. Deer rubs are usually lower to the ground, starting almost at the ground and going up a few feet, sometimes higher. Here are a couple more examples of deer rubs in Western Washington.

Deer rub
This is an older rub that was near a fresh one. This means it is probably and area that is used year-to-year.

Elk rubs are even more obvious than deer rubs. They are usually on larger diameter trees, 2″ or much greater, and usually go from about 2-3 feet off of the ground and can extend upwards well above head-height.

Here is an example of a fresh elk rub.

Here’s an older elk rub with a view!

Wallows

Wallows are one of our favorite types of sign to find, though we’ve only ever found them to be made by elk. If you’re planing on elk hunting and you find a wallow in your unit, it’s definitely an area to check out once the season is open.

Wallows are essentially small, muddy pools of water where elk will do a little excavating to make a tub of mud/water to cool off. They become central areas for bull elk to mark their territory and are visited by both cow and bull elk. Once they’re built, we have seen lots of sign from other animals including bears that are also using them to cool off in the late summer and early fall.

We hope this post had some good information for anyone that is excited about this coming hunting season and wanted some tips on what to look for while scouting.

Good luck out there this fall!



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