Regardless of the date on a calendar, elk move to and from three core resources during their daily routine: 1) bedding areas, 2) feeding areas and 3) water sources. Additionally, elk tend to take a direct route from one resource to another. When connected, these three core resources and direct travel corridors that elk utilize on a daily basis form a triangular shape. Although, use of these resources and travel corridors may change on a daily basis — and throughout the year during normal migrations — these “elk triangles” can be used by hunters as a means to predict elk movement and increase the chances of a successful harvest.
I was introduced to the concept of elk triangles by a US Forest Service (USFS) wildlife biologist. His ability to identify core resources utilized by a given population of elk was uncanny. As I grew to understand his abilities, I saw the practicality of the theorem as a tool to improve my own scouting techniques. After several years of application, my elk hunting/guiding success rate increased dramatically.
The objective of the theorem is to develop a comprehensive map that depicts a true representation of elk movement in the area you will be hunting. Once completed, your map will have several triangle-like shapes, which define elk hotspots. Resources identified should include, but are not limited to the following:
The ultimate goal of the theorem is to fragment a unit or region into several smaller, more manageable areas to scout.
Paper maps — USFS or preferably topographic — are fine, but if you are used to the computer, then use a good mapping application.
There are several products available online that offer a full line of features that include topography-satellite imagery switching, public-private land ownership overlays, GPS point and route entry, and much more. The maps found in GOHUNT's INSIDER unit profiles are perfect for this first step!
In the West, hunting units can be enormous. In fact, some hunting units comprise several hundred square miles. Trying to scout an entire unit can be overwhelming, if not impossible. Therefore, I suggest breaking a hunting unit into logical subunits. Use major roads, power lines, waterways, and other natural features as your initial boundaries. Once you have a list of potential subunits, try to identify the core resources within those areas.
Once you have a few areas defined, venture into the woods. Concentrate your efforts on one subunit and systematically scout each subunit until you feel you have enough information for the hunt.
For the hunter, water sources are the easiest points of the triangle to identify; most can be spotted simply by looking at a good map. However, do not assume anything. Get out and check possible water sources in person to make sure they still actually hold water. Periodically, recheck water sources to make sure they still hold water. You can gain quality information about elk activity by investigating areas near water sources used by elk. Analyze the sign around the water source by looking for tracks and, hopefully, at least one well-used trail. Trails are usually more defined near water sources. Use these trails as potential sides to define a triangle.
On your map, look for a vantage point that overlooks a potential feeding area. If you have hunted this area before, you probably have a handle on where to look. If not, look for open areas with ample forage and that are located near water sources. Do this for each subunit defined. Prior to the hunt, put your optics to work. Pay close attention to where elk enter and exit feeding areas and try to estimate where they may be going. This will help to give more definition to your triangle sides.
Likewise, while glassing feeding areas you should have noted which direction elk came into or left the feeding area. Examine your map. You should have several almost complete triangles. Interpolate the sides of the triangles to see if they point to a potential bedding area. Note that elk may travel several miles in between any of the three major resources and that elk generally travel by following some topographic feature, whether it is a ridgeline, specific elevation contour or drainage. Try to estimate where elk may be bedding by studying the topographic features near any intersections you have found. Investigate your hypothesis by any means possible until you are a positive that you have closed in on a bedding area. Again, annotate each on your map.
Trail cameras have grown in popularity as a tool for scouting for elk. Most importantly, trail cameras keep on working when you have to go back to work and continue to work on a 24-hour basis. Try hanging a trail camera on a travel corridor to confirm your findings and to compile new information. Trail cameras can provide a wealth of data including:
Most hunters hunt places that are merely a name on a map. These “spots” are just a vague location — not a true indicator of where elk reside and interact in their habitat on a daily basis. Since I started following the elk triangle theorem, I hunt high probability areas based on empirical data collected while scouting. No matter how far you get putting together your triangle, I am confident that the data you collect and compile will help you when your hunt finally rolls around.
Identification of core habitat resources.
Direction of travel to and from core resources.
Times of sightings at each resource and travel corridors.
Number of elk sightings.
Sightings of bulls and antlerless elk.
Date of sighting
Time of sighting
Number of sightings
Sizes of bulls