Hunt Elk to Kill More Whitetails

October 14, 2020 By: Mark Turner

No you didn’t click on the wrong website – this is the Quality Deer Management Association! We’re still talking about deer hunting, so don’t leave this page yet. In hunting, much like other things in life, sometimes having a fresh perspective is beneficial. Whether that entails hunting a new location or completely different species, learning often occurs in situations that you aren’t used to, and it is critical to transfer those lessons learned elsewhere back into your usual hunting strategy.

Elk and whitetails are vastly different animals. Elk are obviously much larger and more vocal than deer, and they have a very different breeding system. However, I can honestly say I learned more about hunting whitetails during my time chasing elk in Colorado than I have in years hunting the Southeast. I’ve been able to apply some of these lessons to my deer hunting, and I believe some of these changes have dramatically increased my hunting success. I want to pass along some of what I learned so you can apply it this fall.

Be Judgemental

The first lesson I took away from Colorado is the ability to judge other hunters is absolutely critical to success on public land. Before you read too much into that, I’m not talking about judging their harvest, equipment or personality. There’s enough of that happening already on social media, and it does no good for the hunting community. What I’m talking about is judging the kind of hunter they are and applying that knowledge to find unpressured areas. Doing this led us to harvesting an elk in Colorado in September 2019, and it has also led me to having several successful public land deer hunts since then.

Within the first day in Colorado, we knew that finding unpressured elk would be the focus of our hunt. We were in an over-the-counter unit that was full of other hunters, but there were still elk to be had, and we simply needed to locate the areas that other hunters were not likely to be and go there. Following several moves early in the trip, we made a long drive to a different spot and found it full of large hunting camps. Despite what you may think about the hardcore nature of elk hunters, there are just as many casual hunters who spend their days riding the roads and hanging out in camp. There’s nothing wrong with this, but these hunters aren’t venturing far into the mountains. This new spot was covered in these hunters, but we saw little sign of guys packing in for miles to camp like we were. Knowing these hunters would have all of the elk pushed farther away from roads, we located a spot a few miles in that was only accessible by crossing a large boulder field. This move made all the difference, and one of our group members harvested a bull that night.

Mark used new knowledge he learned while elk hunting last September to take this mature public-land buck in Alabama after he returned home.

It would’ve been easy to see hunters everywhere and keep driving, but we knew that lots of hunters likely meant the area had elk.

Learning to evaluate other hunters is easily applied in the public land deer woods. For example, a WMA that I regularly hunt is covered in campers, 4-wheelers and hunters during firearms hunts that occur around the rut. Seeing all of the other hunters made me shy away from these firearms hunts at first, but I quickly realized that many of these hunters are mostly there to share deer camp. Only about half of them are in the woods at any particular time, and a good number of those stay close to the roads. Recognizing this, I have had great success during these hunts by getting far from roads and hunting in thick cover. That is the usual prescription for dealing with public land pressure, but it might not apply everywhere. If other hunters are typically going deep, it might be best to hunt right next to the road! Simply evaluating the way that others are hunting and doing the opposite is an easy path to consistent success, especially when hunting pressure influences natural deer movement.

Use thermals to your advantage

If you are like me, the following is a familiar scenario: you arrive at your treestand before sunrise with high hopes of catching a buck using the area. The wind is forecasted to be perfect, and you have been saving this stand for the exact conditions you’re hunting in. However, you take out a piece of milkweed to check the wind, and your jaw drops as the milkweed drifts the exact opposite direction it should go! Your irritation grows for the first hour of the hunt as your scent is carried directly toward the area you expect deer to appear. Just as the sunlight creeps into the timber, the wind direction suddenly shifts and is perfect for the rest of the hunt. More often than not, discrepancies between the forecasted and actual wind are due to thermals, and they can play a massive role in success and failure when deer hunting.

I thought that I understood thermals fairly well when we first arrived in Colorado. From what I knew, they rise in the morning and fall in the evening. This translates into hunters attempting to hunt high in the mornings and drop lower at nightfall. While this is a good rule of thumb, chasing elk taught me that thermals are a lot more complex than that. There were many times we would attempt to make a move on an elk only to find thermals were doing the opposite of what they were “supposed to do” in a particular location. This led to busted elk and was the source of more than a few frustrating moments on the mountain – until we figured out how to hunt around thermals.

Thermals are caused by uneven heating, which causes air currents to rise and fall throughout the day. The air generally rises as the ground warms, but it is critical to remember this doesn’t happen until the sun hits the ground in a particular location. If you happen to hunt in steep terrain, the sun may not hit the ground for several hours after sunrise on some slopes depending on their aspect. This was the case in Colorado, as we would consistently notice falling thermals as soon as we hit a location where the sun was blocked from a slope – regardless of the time.

Thermals may not follow the rules in the evenings either, as some slopes are exposed to the sun right up to sunset. In these locations, thermals will be rising until just before dark, when they begin to fall. It’s absolutely critical to understand times that thermals don’t follow the simple rules we make, as deer are most active right around the times that thermals typically switch in the morning and evening.

So how exactly do you translate all of this into whitetail hunting success?

I knew thermals rise in the morning and fall in the evening. While this is a good rule of thumb, chasing elk taught me that thermals are a lot more complex than that.

The first step is recognizing that while thermals vary quite a bit based on aspect and slope, these things are fixed for a particular stand location. With this in mind, I have begun tracking when the sun reaches the ground from each stand in the morning, and when the area becomes shaded in the evenings. This gives me a rough idea of when thermal switches should occur, and whether I can depend on thermals to carry my scent up or down at a particular time. Once I figure that out, I can come up with a plan for hunting that stand around thermals with a particular wind direction.

For example, I often hunt a particular rut funnel on our property during the morning and have always accessed it before daylight. However, falling thermals at that time may take my scent right toward the deer. With this in mind, I have started hunting a different location until the sun breaks the trees, then I move a few hundred yards to the funnel stand when thermals begin rising.

Recognizing that you don’t have to get to the stand at a particular time is key, as it does no good to be in the stand hours before deer will be moving if thermals are taking your scent right to deer at the time.

Thermals can make or break some hunting locations, such as the spot where I harvested the public-land buck shown on page 18. After being winded on several previous hunts, I moved my stand to take advantage of thermals pulling air down a creek drainage in the afternoon. The move paid off with this mature buck coming through an hour before dark.

Make it fresh

The final major lesson I learned in Colorado dealt with sign. Whether that sign comes in the form of scat, tracks, scrapes or rubs, sign is the only way to know a deer has been through a spot when you weren’t there. In-season scouting can be one of the more powerful tools that hunters can apply to increase their success, yet many fall short in fully using deer sign to their advantage because they fail to consider the age of sign they’re seeing.

When hunting highly pressured public land, sometimes it pays to go farther! How far depends on the kinds of other hunters using the area, but this doe was harvested over a mile from the parking lot. Photo: Andrew Maxwell.

The lyrics of a Tesla song come to mind when I think about this topic: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.” Deer constantly leave sign as they move through the woods, and this is even truer when talking about elk. Elk typically travel in larger groups than deer, they must eat more, and they move more each day. The elk woods are literally covered in elk rubs, tracks and scat! However, not all of that sign is meaningful. In fact, I would argue that most of it should simply be ignored. We struggled to locate elk at the start of our trip, and I believe misinterpreting elk sign had a lot to do with it. Sign that was laid down less than a day or two ago turned out to be nearly meaningless, and we did not consistently start seeing elk until we located hot, fresh sign.

Realizing we weren’t in the game until we saw scat that was almost steaming was a large key for our elk hunting success, and I decided that I needed to apply this lesson in the whitetail woods.

We arrived back from elk hunting at the start of October, which proved to be the perfect time to hunt for fresh deer sign. October is a month of constant change for whitetails, as crops are coming and going, bachelor groups have broken up, and the pre-rut may be starting in some states. For the majority of the month, my strategy typically revolves around acorns, as deer will focus their feeding efforts almost entirely on acorns if they’re available.

In the past, I have always struggled to hunt when acorns are falling. Oaks are fairly common on many areas I hunt, and a tree that is dropping and getting hit hard by deer one week will be cold the next. This year, I mapped out multiple locations that I knew had oaks near heavy cover, then I set out with my stand on my back. Unlike past years when I might have had a plan for an exact tree to sit, I now only had a general area that would work for the wind on a particular day. Once I found myself in a good-looking area, I would listen for acorns falling and check under the trees that sounded like they were dropping the most. If none of the trees had sign from the past few days, I would move on to the next area until I found a good tree. Forcing myself to only set up on hot, fresh sign proved to be a great strategy for hunting deer that were feeding on acorns, as I had relatively few hunts on public land that I didn’t see deer when I employed this strategy.

Little else will inspire confidence to hunt an area like fresh scat under an oak or a set of rubs that seem to be made yesterday, and I would encourage anyone to spend a few hunts with the mindset that they will only set up on fresh sign. I’m sure you’ll be glad you did!

Hunt Elk, Kill more whitetails

Whitetails will always be the focus of my hunting, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t already looking forward to heading west again soon. If you haven’t gotten the chance to hunt elk, there are far too many affordable, over-the-counter hunts available to miss out on. Waking up to the sound of screaming bulls and gorgeous mountain sunrises is an experience that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. And who knows, you might just become a better whitetail hunter as you chase bugling bulls!

About Mark Turner:

Mark Turner is an NDA member and Level 2 Deer Steward who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee working under the direction of Dr. Craig Harper. His research is investigating how nutritional carrying capacity and land use influence deer body and antler size across the eastern United States. Instagram: @markturner442