Water sources in elk country largely fall into four categories: ponds/lakes, streams, seeps/springs, and wallows.
Larger ponds and lakes can be difficult to hunt due to their size, unless steady travel patterns can be recognized. On the mountain I hunt there is a group of guys who utilize permanent ground blinds to hunt elk coming into a large pond and they harvest elk every year. They are able to do this because they have identified specific trails that are highly used in that basin. Smaller, isolated ponds can lead to elk feeling more secure and be great options to set up on.
Streams are the most difficult water source to hunt. This is simply due to the availability of water for miles. The elk do not have to return to the same spot every time. Unless you have found a highly traveled trail on a stream crossing, trying to catch passing elk on a stream can be very difficult. I have never found a stream spot that is so highly traveled that I have repeatedly set up on it. I have however, had numerous elk encounters along streams simply because stream bottoms are cooler during midday and offer security to elk.
Springs and small mountainside seeps are used by both elk and deer in the western mountains. In an area with sparse water sources these are highly utilized. Where water availability is not an issue, they are hit infrequently by elk and present a difficult ambush site.
The last water source, and the most exciting to find, is a wallow. I can’t help but get excited when I come upon a torn up wallow with fresh mud flung everywhere. Even better is sneaking up on a big bull tearing one up. It is an unmistakable sound that will make your heart rate soar! Some wallows are used infrequently and utilized more as a water source than for cooling or rutting purposes. Some wallows are very active each year while others are intermittent. This is where knowledge of hunting an area becomes invaluable.
Two years ago I filmed elk actively using a wallow. Last year I hung a tree stand on that wallow and ended up having very few elk encounters. Localized pressure caused the elk to avoid that area more than previous years. Again, these can be excellent locations for tree stands or to sit on during the day. Wallows can be just as effective pre-rut when elk use them to cool down as during the full rut when bulls use them to display dominance and mark scent.
Where you hunt and how you choose to hunt will dictate whether a water source is a good position for you. Often it is a trial and error system of learning. If you are able to place a game camera on a site prior to your hunt, that can help answer many questions regarding frequency of use and patterns. So think about these basic guidelines when you are out on your next adventure chasing elk and begin your own catalog of elk patterns and hot spots.
Hunt hard, hunt often and be out in it.Adam Oberheu