SCOUTING REPORT Wallow Your Way to an Elk
by Mark Kayser
Mature bulls are suckers for a good wallow. Find one of these watering holes and you can shift the odds in your favor come hunting season.
It could be the best advertising campaign in North America. The message is bold and unmistakable, as it piques your olfactory senses, the product of a mud bath that posh spas charge premium rates to enjoy. But here the similarities screech to a halt: spa mud baths feature volcanic ash and natural minerals. The mud bath I’m talking about involves cold, mountain pools blended with elk urine and mixed via hooves and antlers. Yes, it’s a wallow, an odorous creation that allows bull elk to build a mobile billboard that aromatically goes where they go. And when the pungent appeal of the message begins to fade, bulls return again and again to refresh themselves with another plastering of urine-soaked mud. It’s a month-long campaign.
Elk wallow whether they live north or south, east or west. Evolutionary habits are hard to kick, although elk wallows vary depending on the environment. In the mountains, springs, streams, wetlands and ponds attract bulls for a refreshing roll in the mud. In arid environments, elk seek out seeps, reservoirs and even invade livestock water tanks for a splash. On several occasions I’ve witnessed bulls that jumped into galvanized steel tanks, including one overly exuberant New Mexico bull that nearly emptied such a tank. After the water-park fun, he jumped back out and proceeded to make a wallow from the mess surrounding the tank. I’m quite sure the rancher wasn’t as impressed as the bull was with its newfound wallow.
Wallows also have big benefits for hunters. If you find a wallow you can learn about elk density, discover travel routes and use the muddy mess as a place for an ambush. Don’t overlook the advantage of wallows.
Bulls use wallows to advertise before and during the rut. Wallowing activity decreases as the rut winds down for the fall. But during the weeks leading up to the rut and during the breeding bedlam you may find a bull at a wallow anytime, 24/7.
Research reveals bulls begin this advertising campaign a couple weeks before cows come into estrus. Young bulls may begin wallowing and bugling earlier, but most mature bulls hold off to conserve precious energy they will need later to fight off other bulls and keep their harem together. For timing, the first three weeks of September are excellent for meeting a bull in a wallow in the northern Rockies and a week later in the Southwest.
Wallowing and the act of publicizing via a repugnant odor work in concert with bugling. This duo allows a bull to lure cows into the harem instead of forcing a bull to go on the hunt for willing females, which is the strategy used by many deer species. Consider whitetails. They roam their territory and create scrapes as a means to hook up with willing females. Wallows act as a vehicle for bulls to carry a scrape with them. A pheromone-soaked coat combined with vocalizations help bulls to conserve energy, gather females and propagate the species.
Water isn’t always a prerequisite for an elk to wallow, but soft, moist soil sure helps. In arid conditions or where water is scarce, elk may urinate on themselves and in loose earth. After the dousing, they drop and attempt to saturate their hides with the fragrant concoction.
Fortunately most elk hunters will be able to use traditional water sources as beginning points to locate wallows. Kick off your search with map or satellite imagery resources. A map’s legend points you in the direction of springs, wetlands, streams and ponds elk may target for wallows. Once you have a list of possible locations, take a peek from above via popular satellite programs like Google Earth or ScoutLook. You likely won’t be able to see a wallow, but the heavenly view helps you trace a water source and the likely locations for wallow whereabouts.
Rocky streambeds won’t attract an elk for wallowing, but overflow into a meadow or the edges of a beaver dam could be the foundation for a wallow hotspot. Hidden seeps and springs deep in timber have ample attraction for cagey mature bulls, allowing for a midday plunge while keeping their eye on a napping harem of cows.
Although elk may wallow at a moment’s notice, they still have traditional favorite locations. Any testosterone-charged bull may wallow at any mud-filled hollow. Nevertheless, like lush parks visited over and over again, some wallows receive a higher volume of traffic. These wallows are characterized by dished-out cavities void of thick vegetation. Even in the height of summer you can distinguish annually exploited wallows by their eroded appearance. If you look beyond the wallow, you may find other clues that differentiate them from the flash-in-the-pan variety.
Elk, like other deer species, use saplings and small trees as a way to strip velvet from antlers, but more importantly, as a way to relieve tension from rut-induced stress. Scarred trees, or rubs, abound in areas where deer and elk spend considerable time. The pathways leading to favored wallow locations are lined with rubs. And areas surrounding often-visited wallows also abound in debarked trees. By backtracking on trails you may see patterns that reveal bedding preferences and feeding locations, in addition to a likely ambush spot.
Although not as reliable as death or taxes, active wallows can increase your success of meeting a bull elk face to face. Obviously, the drier the elk country, the easier it is to pinpoint prime wallows. But even in moist environments, elk have favorite wallows. Moist drainages with pools scattered along them have good potential for still-hunting opportunities as elk travel up and down during the bustle of the rut. After you circle a few rutting options on your map consider your options to waylay a wallow-bound bull.
The most obvious strategy is ambush. Scout for a wallow glistening with activity and then wait until a wandering bull visits. Choosing the right wallow is critical so you don’t waste time. Employ a partner. In states where legal, use a trail camera. Cameras give you a set of eyes in the woods when you can’t be there. They capture time, date and the wallow culprit for you to review later. Pre-rut and during the hunt, trail cameras can direct you to wallows that have sprung to life and reveal those that have fizzled.
Once you place a wallow bet you’ll have to decide how to hide. Elk have sharp eyesight, but a well-camouflaged hunter generally goes unnoticed in a woodland environment. Scent, on the other hand, sets alarms off with just a puff of mountain wind. For this reason you may want to try the following options. First, consider a ground blind. Elk rarely take a second glance at a ground blind, especially one brushed in to blend with the backdrop. The walled concealment allows you to move and shoot without being noticed. Just as important, ground blinds, when set and sealed properly, contain your scent, even during the erratic midday period.
The second option is another whitetail mainstay: a treestand. This portable platform places you 20 feet or more above the sharp eyes of elk, and aids in carrying your scent above and beyond the sharp noses of a herd. With either option you still should set up downwind of the wallow, veil it with natural vegetation and try to avoid leaving scent on the main path leading to the wallow.
Of course both of these options have one obvious shortcoming. They require packing in bulky objects to pull off a wallow wait. If you’re in the market for a new blind or stand, give serious consideration to lightweight options. You may also be able to use natural vegetation to construct a ground blind or even incorporate a ledge as an impromptu treestand. Think like a mountain lion if you can’t pack in the required hardware.
Wallows give you a location to check daily as you slink through the woods in search of a vocal bull. I use this tactic routinely, particularly if I find myself in wallow-rich country. After noting the location of several mud-splattered wallows, I move slowly from wallow to wallow listening for sounds of incoming visitors or those departing after a Turkish bath the bull way.
If you hear the sounds of splashing, whining, grunting or glunking, move fast and try to close the distance while the bull is preoccupied with the muddy pleasure. Last fall my son Cole and I were hiking above an active wallow site when we heard a bull bugle from the poolside below. We didn’t hesitate and ran through the woods to get to the wallow before the bull left. When we reached the edge of the opening, we could see the bull lying on its side throwing mud-splattered vegetation with its antlers. I motioned for Cole to creep forward for the shot. He closed the distance to 60 yards, when without warning the bull wrapped up the visit, stood, shook and trotted on its way in the hunt for a harem. A week later, using the same strategy Cole had another opportunity for a wallow-visiting bull, but that’s another story for another issue.
Wyoming-based writer Mark Kayser lives at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains with his wife Sharon and children, Cole and Katelyn. He is a frequent contributor to Bugle.