Elk 101: Reading the Signs

Elk have a special ability to misdirect and frustrate hunters to all ends. After the rut, they tend to go silent and in many cases, dump into dark timber and odd areas. Reading the signs will tell a story about where the elk have been and whether or not you are on the right track.


Droppings are the most obvious sign. Old droppings only indicate that elk were once in that area. They may no longer be present. Fresh droppings mean you are on the right track and may be closer than you think to the animals. When you find fresh droppings, slow down and make a strategy as they may be bedded close to your location. Fresh rain or melting snow will rehydrate old droppings and make them look somewhat fresh. Break them apart to expose the center and see if they are actually fresh or dry on the inside.


Chasing tracks is a great way to locate elk. Fresh tracks are a blessing, especially when snow or rain help determine when they are very recent and present the chance to follow them until you find the herd. Recent tracks and fresh droppings are the best case scenario.


Keep your eyes peeled for rubs as you follow game trails. Your eyes are often drawn to the ground in search of droppings and tracks. Stop and scan the area frequently to locate rubs. Look for small saplings, shredded brush and immature lodge pole that is rubbed down. Rubs don’t always give away a specific timeline but they do show bull activity in the area.


Use your nose while following elk sign. The distinct smell is a dead giveaway when you are close. Breathe deep through your nostrils while working through the woods. Catching that smell before you run into them will save a hunt. The odor is distinctly musty and potent.

Find the Wallows

Wallows are hit and miss depending on the region. Dry, high desert zones are prime for hunters who find wallows. They are few and far between and elk will return to their specific holes regularly. Big timbered country full of springs and seeps is less productive on the wallows. Elk will use them but are less likely to return regularly as many are available. You can check the area around a wallow for fresh sign then move forward with a game plan.

For information on remote, wilderness elk hunting in Montana with Lazy J Bar O Outfitters, please contact us, or give us a call at 406-932-5687. Explore the rest of our website at LazyJBarO.com