Across the West, rifle seasons for elk will be opening soon. For me, that means it is time for some timber sneaking. Timber sneaking, or slowly still hunting through stands of lodgepole pines, is my favorite way to hunt pressured elk during rifle season. In the last dozen years, I’ve killed ten elk in dense stands of dark timber. Every one of them was shot with a rifle at ranges under one hundred yards. I shot one bull at less than twenty yards while he dozed in his bed. Creeping at a snail’s pace through thick cover and seeing elk before they bust you isn’t easy. It takes patience and stealth and the elk always have the advantage. But, I usually find solitude and elk that aren’t being chased around by other hunters. It’s a lost art that many modern rifle hunters simply avoid because timber sneaking is more difficult than posting up at the edge of a meadow or glassing a distant hillside.
After rifle seasons open and the shooting starts, elk are notorious for using steep, dark, timbered areas as bedding cover and sanctuaries to avoid hunters. It is true that archery hunters commonly shoot bulls in the timber during the rut in September. But they have the advantage of locating bulls that are bugling loudly and then using cow calls to lure them into range. That technique rarely works during rifle seasons in October and November. And other than a few old timers who creep around toting iron-sighted, lever action “timber guns”, most rifle hunters don’t want to bump paranoid, pressured elk by chasing them out of their bedding areas. The reasoning is that it’s easier and smarter to locate a group of elk from a distant glassing point as they feed out in the open early in the morning or late in the evening. Then it’s possible to make a plan to intercept the elk later as they travel to or from the timber.
But what happens when elk become completely nocturnal during rifle season, feeding in the open only at night? Or, what if they have simply decided living in the timber full-time is safer, especially if they don’t need to feed out on an open, grassy slope? Where I hunt in Colorado, a large percentage of the lodgepole pines (prime bedding habitat) have been killed off by pine beetles. The result is a mix of live and dead timber, where sunlight now reaches the ground and new grass and shrub growth provides the elk with food while the remaining standing timber provides cover for bedding. The elk here have learned not to risk being out in the open during rifle season so they get good and comfortable in the timber. Even though many hunters know this, a lot of them treat dark timber as if there’s some kind of forcefield around it, protecting an off-limits elk sanctuary that’s not to be disturbed.
But a typical rifle hunter who spends a couple hours in the morning and evening glassing meadows might never see an elk out in the open during legal shooting hours. This is what led me to look for elk where they are, not where I hope they’ll turn up. After regularly failing to find “easy elk” during the prime morning and evening hunting hours, I decided to still hunt for them in the timber. This was completely at odds with spending all day scouring the surrounding terrain with optics, which was, and still is, my primary method of finding big mule deer bucks. Everything I’d read or been told pointed towards still hunting for elk in the timber being a low odds proposition but it seemed like a good way to fend off the boredom of sitting around during the middle of the day when elk movement is at a minimum. And, low and behold, it worked. I killed my first bull elk during a mid-morning timber sneak.
Since killing that first bull, I’ve refined my timber sneaking skills in order to maximize my chances for success. I’ll spend the first hour of the day glassing open aspen groves or meadows adjacent to timber, hoping to find some elk still out feeding. If I manage to locate a group of elk that I think might follow the same feeding pattern in the evening, I’ll leave them alone and get set up for the evening hunt. If not, I’ll formulate a plan for stalking through the timber. But, for a couple of reasons, I never start my timber sneak until mid-morning. First, I want the prevailing thermals and wind direction to stabilize in a consistent direction. You can’t hope to sneak into close range of elk without a consistent wind direction. By mid-morning, warming thermals have usually moved to an uphill direction and the prevailing wind direction has settled in for the day. This allows you to keep the wind in your face or at least quartering at a ninety degree angle to your direction of travel as you still hunt. The second reason to wait until mid-morning before entering the timber is to give the elk a chance to relax after their night time feeding session. You want them to settle into their bedding area for a couple hours. I’m convinced that during rifle season elk simply don’t expect hunters to stumble around in the timber and into their bedding area. I’ve watched groups of elk bedded in the timber for hours and they seem to let their guard down a little. They’ll nod off, get up to stretch, pee, or feed, and seem generally a little less on edge than they are when they’re out in the open. This doesn’t mean you can walk right in and shoot one but but I do feel like they’re not expecting trouble. But the key to finding elk that are loafing in the timber is to know how and where to look for them.
Timber sneaking is just another way to describe still hunting. Think of still hunting as moving so slow you’re staying still. You want to sneak through the woods in a way that allows you to see game before it sees you. Stealth and concentration is crucial on any still hunt but you need to hunt extra slow in the close confines of dark timber. Walk at a snail’s pace. Take a couple steps, stop, and scan the terrain. Look for anything that might be an elk or part of an elk. For instance, an elk’s light tan hide stands out in dark timber. I’ve mistaken a bedded elk’s rump for a light-colored rock more than once. While it’s impossible to glass into thick timber stands from a distance, I constantly use my binoculars in the timber to scrutinize anything that seems out of place. And, don’t assume elk won’t be on their feet. You may catch them feeding or milling around before they bed down. Use your ears too. By the time most rifle season start, the elk rut is over and the bulls have mostly stopped bugling. But sometimes a bull will give away his location with a late-season bugle. Also listen for cows softly mewing to their calves as the group moves towards their bedding area. And use your nose as well. Elk have a strong, unmistakable, horse-stable smell. Many times, that odor has tipped me off that elk are close. You should try to be quiet but don’t worry too much if you snap the occasional twig. It’s a common noise in the timber. What you should worry about is wind direction. If the wind is at your back, the closest you’ll ever get to killing an elk on a timber sneak will be hearing them run off long before you had a chance of seeing them. You should check the wind direction frequently. I’ll even change the direction in which I hunt if the wind changes direction. I constantly use a talcum powder “smoker” to gauge the wind and guide my path through the timber.
But even if you’re able to plot the direction of your hunt based on the wind, some stands of timber are huge, stretching on and on for miles. The prospect of finding elk in this kind of country can be daunting, especially since the majority of it doesn’t hold elk. Fortunately, elk regularly use small areas within large stands of dark timber for very specific reasons. Food is always important, and sometimes green grass will grow in the timber, in nearby aspen groves or in small, hidden meadows long after the grass in large, exposed meadows has been burnt brown by fall frosts. Elk will always choose lush green grass over dessicated brown grass. Water is also important. Timber stands with springs or seeps will attract elk. Elk will travel for food and water but during rifle season, they often minimize their exposure to danger by moving less. So the most important thing I look for is timbered benches in close proximity to both food and water. Benches are flat spots found on otherwise steep, timbered slopes. They are ideal bedding areas because elk are big animals and they avoid lying down on a steep pitch. Bedding benches vary in size from a few acres to the size of a small bedroom. You can find larger benches by studying topo maps. Look for areas where the tight contour lines on a steep slope spread out, indicating a flat area. But I’ve found most of my most productive spots by spending a lot of time in the woods. I look for smaller, hidden benches that elk like to use by hunting or hiking until I find concentrated numbers beds, droppings, and tracks that show elk are using an area frequently. Elk seem to prefer bedding on benches found on the upper half of steep slopes. Benches on finger ridges that fall away from the main ridge are especially attractive bedding areas. From these spots, elk can escape straight downhill or up and over the spine of the ridge very quickly. The good news is that elk seem to have a high degree of fidelity to certain benches year after year. If you kill an elk on a particular bench in late October, there’s a very good chance there will be elk in the same patch of timber, at the same time the following hunting season.
Timber stands vary widely in elk country. My favorite type of timber to still hunt is lodgepole pine. Lodgepole pine offers the timber sneaker the best view because they don’t have low-hanging branches and grow with fairly even spacing between trees. Ponderosa pines and douglas firs can also be good for still hunting. If you encounter a nasty patch of blowdown timber, skirt the edge of it and watch for elk bedded in the blowdown. Elk love hiding in blowdown but you can’t walk quietly or safely through a slippery, tangled mess of downed, twisted trees. Thick stands of spruce and tightly spaced “doghair” pines should also be avoided. The elk might be in there but you can’t see more than a few feet in any direction and you’ll make so much noise walking through doghair pines that the elk will hear you approaching a long ways off.
And how you decide to approach elk is an important consideration. If the thermals are moving uphill, you’ll want to approach the area you suspect is holding elk from above or at the very least at the same elevation. If the thermals are moving downhill, like they do in the evening when air temperatures begin to drop, you’ll need to focus your attention on your uphill side. Because they can survey the downhill landscape easily, it’s a lot more difficult to kill elk from below. But, if you ignore the wind direction, it won’t matter anyway. Speaking of wind, one of my favorite times to go on a timber sneak is on a breezy day. Strong, steady winds cover your noise and scent and elk tend to hold tight in the timber on windy days. This makes slipping in for a shot unnoticed much easier.
When you do find elk in the timber, chances are they’ll already be well within rifle range. For this reason, I always hunt in the timber with my rifle unslung and with the scope set on the lowest power. You need to be ready for a quick off-hand shot on an elk that suddenly appears at fifty yards. If you sneak up on elk that are bedded and unaware of your presence, move very slowly into a shooting position. From a standing position, I like to use the nearest tree trunk for a shooting rest. Shooting bedded animals can be tricky. Make sure you’ve got a clear shot through the vitals. Avoid severe quartering angles and stick with broadside shots on bedded elk. If there’s no shot due to bad angles or the animal is screened by trees, other vegetation, or another elk, you’re going to need to get comfortable and wait for the elk to stand up. Or, you may need to slowly shift your position for a better shot. But be aware that elk are tuned in to movement in the timber. The good news is that even if bedded elk see you but haven’t winded you, the game is not always over. They’ll often stand up and mill around in confusion for as much as thirty seconds before they verify a threat and take off. Be ready to make a quick, accurate shot.
You may not want spoil your favorite meadow on the opening morning of elk season by diving into the timber next to it. But when things get tough, you just might have to hunt the elk where they are. They haven’t disappeared. They’re in the timber. Sneak in there and kill one.
Brody Henderson is a hunter, fly fishing guide, writer, wilderness production assistant for the MeatEater television show and MeatEater‘s editorial contributor