Elk Hunting 101 [Ultimate Guide]
This elk hunting 101 guide will show you some basic information, such as:
Let dive into it:
Chapter 1: What is Elk Hunting?
Elk hunting is the act of pursuing elk in an attempt to harvest them, for the substantial amount of meat they provide.
Elk are large mammals that are one of the most sizable species found in the deer family, known as Cervidae.
Chapter 2: Where To Hunt Elk?
The following are our
The state of Colorado is often regarded as one of the best spots in the world to elk hunt.
This is because permits are easy to obtain in the form of over the counter tags, and the elk population is estimated at 280,000.
The state also offers plentiful public land for hunters to visit.
Wyoming ranks highly among elk hunting destinations due primarily to its availability of tags.
Although the state no longer offers over the counter tags, many of the states hunting units have high draw success rates.
There have also been a number of trophy elk over 350” come from Wyoming in recent years.
Idaho is an elk hunting destination that is kind to non-resident hunters.
With an elk population of over 100,000, and plentiful over the counter tags, many elk hunters flock to Idaho every fall.
There is also great trophy potential found in Idaho, with numerous bulls over 350” killed every season.
The state of Montana offers hunters a wonderful chance at taking the bull they are after, with much of the state boasting a high success rate of up to 40%.
Montana also is home to the second highest elk population in the nation, with a total count of 160,000.
Perhaps the only downside to hunting Montana is its pricey $850.00 permit fee.
There are a number of reasons that Oregon is worthy of a spot on this list.
But the biggest of which is its high total elk population count, numbering over 100,000 in total.
The state also produces multiple trophy class bulls every season.
However, one major drawback with this destination is the tags for the better units are very difficult to draw, and even if successful, permit fees are rather expensive.
If you want to take a trophy bull, Arizona is the place to be.
The state turns out trophy bulls every year like clockwork, and overall success rates tend to be quite a bit higher than the national average.
The problem with Arizona is that drawing a tag can seem borderline impossible.
But, with all the potential that this state carries, the reward can be well worth the wait.
7. New Mexico
New Mexico is another state that seems to be a factory of big bulls.
The state is always on any list related to where the next world record elk might come from.
However, it might be easier to win the lottery than to draw a tag for a notable unit in Arizona.
The state of Utah is another destination very similar to Arizona and New Mexico in its trophy potential.
Big bulls come from this state each and every year.
In fact, a record book bull was taken in Utah in 2008 on public land, proving that those from out of state that get a tag have just as good of a shot at a trophy as residents.
The Bluegrass State of Kentucky is a wonderful success story of elk restoration.
It has only been approximately 25 years since elk were reintroduced to the state.
However, today Kentucky boasts the largest elk population east of the Mississippi river, and has been home to a number of trophy class bulls.
The state of Pennsylvania is yet another elk restoration success story.
The state’s elk population has begun to flourish, and grows with every passing year.
Although very few tags are awarded annually in Pennsylvania, those that do receive the opportunity to hunt, stand as good of a chance as anywhere for killing trophy bull elk.
Chapter 3: When Is Elk Hunting Season?
Exact elk season dates vary from state to state.
However, the earliest elk seasons across the nation typically begin in the month of August, in a number of western states.
Late elk seasons generally conclude in the month of December, with seasons east of the Mississippi River typically being among the last to close.
Overall, expansive opportunities can be found coast to coast, with seasons open in one location or another from mid-August through late-December.
Hunting during the earliest portion of season is a wonderful time to pursue elk. As they are still holding tight to their daily feeding and bedding routines prior to the rut.
Mid-season hunts present hunters with the opportunity to chase elk during their breeding season, known as the rut.
This period usually spans from mid-September through mid-October, and allows hunters the chance to hear a substantial amount of bugling, for which bull elk are known.
During the late-season (November-December), elk can usually be found in large groups consisting of both cows and bulls.
This offers hunters a great chance to see many elk at once.
What Is The Best Time Of Day To Hunt Elk?
What works the best during the early season, is not necessarily reflective of the best style of hunting in November or December.
During the earliest portion of season, elk base their movements off of what is required for survival.
These factors include:
Warm weather is typically still experienced during the early season, so the bulk of elk movement takes place during the first three, and last three hours of daylight.
Mid-Season (Mid-September - Mid October):
During the mid-stretch of season, the rut is in full swing.
Bull elk are doing everything in their power to gather cow elk, and will often travel significant distances to do so.
Because of this, elk during the rut seldom rest during the midday hour, and great hunting can be experienced all day long.
Late Season (Late-October - December):
As the season draws toward a conclusion, elk are spending much of their time consuming any food that is available to them.
This means, for the most part, that they are on their feet throughout the day.
By hunting all day yourself, you will be maximizing your opportunity at success.
Chapter 4: How To Elk Hunt
A hunter should first consider:
The biggest concern that must be addressed outside of basic planning, is the matter of scouting.
Without proper scouting, even the best planned elk hunt often sees little success. But first...
Elk Hunting Options:
From camp arrangements, to locating a suitable elk to pursue, all fall under a guide’s list of responsibilities.
A hunt of this type is often the most comfortable to experience, due to the amenities provided.
You typically stay at a base camp in the evenings, and fine meals are commonly served to all guests.
Guides also supply all transportation to and from the field, making this a great option for those that are less physically fit, and lack the stamina to hike for miles.
Additionally, guides already have elk scouted before your arrival, making this a wise choice for those with little time to scout.
Another byproduct of this is that guided hunts are known to have the highest success rate of all elk hunt types.
Some guides boast success rates in excess of 70%.
Most guided hunts also include cleaning and processing services to assist in quartering your elk, and extracting it from the field.
This comes as a great advantage to those that have never taken part in a similar process before.
However, the many advantages that a guided elk hunt offers does not come without a significant fee.
Guided hunts vary substantially in price, but most cost much more than semi-guided or DIY elk hunting options.
b. Semi-Guided Hunt:
A semi guided elk hunt can vary quite extensively on the exact package that a particular guide offers.
Different outfitters define semi-guided hunts in different ways.
Semi - 1
Some guides offer semi-guided hunts that are very similar to fully guided options, with the only exception being that they are not physically with you during every moment of the hunt.
This form of semi-guided hunt offers a number of amenities, including a camp for lodging, and all meals served daily.
When it comes time to hunt, you are dropped in a specific area that is known for having high elk numbers.
From there, you are responsible for finding an elk to take.
Semi - 2
Other semi-guided elk hunts offer far less in the way of amenities. During these hunts, a guide typically takes a hunter to a predetermined camp, where they are shown the area that they will be hunting.
From this point, you strike out on your own on daily hunts, returning back in the evenings to a warm meal supplied by the camp house cook.
In either case, a semi-guided hunt is often best suited for those with intermediate woodsmanship skills, as well as a moderate amount of physical stamina.
It is also helpful to have at least a little prior elk hunting experience, though some hunters without experience do find success on semi-guided hunts.
c. Self guided (DIY) hunts:
A self guided elk hunt is not for the faint of heart.
When hunting under these circumstances, you serve as your own guide, cook, and camp hostess.
When choosing a DIY hunt, you must carefully study locations when choosing where to base your efforts.
You will also be required to purchase your own license and permits, as well as to know all game laws in the state you are hunting.
You must additionally find a suitable property to hunt.
Many times this will consist of public hunting land. Luckily, many western states offer expansive tracts of public land to hunt.
However when you arrive, you will know little about where the elk in the area are holding.
This is where scouting can be very beneficial when conducting a DIY elk hunt.
Unless you live nearby to the location in which you will be hunting to allow additional time to scout, it is a good idea to plan a couple days on the front end of your trip for scouting.
You must also be in peak physical shape in order to DIY elk hunt.
Elk hunting can be a rugged endeavor, and it can be quite physically taxing when being forced to climb mountains in search of an elk to target.
There are three main types of camping that apply to elk hunting
A basecamp is a camp that is permanent, or semi-permanent in nature.
These camps are typically placed at trailheads, or other locations that are just a hike or drive away from quality elk hunting.
A base camp can be something as complex as a cabin, in the case of an outfitter, or something as simple as your vehicle on a DIY hunt.
No matter what your basecamp consists of, it will typically house a greater number of creature comforts than the other camp options on this list.
b. Spike Camp:
A spike camp, also known as an outpost camp, is simply a campsite that is placed in the backcountry, some distance from your basecamp.
These structures can either be semi-permanent in nature, or as simple as a tent and basic camping materials.
Staying in a spike camp can be quite rugged camping.
And is not advised for anyone who has not backcountry camped before, or is not in the company of someone who has.
Hunters return to a spike camp every night, leaving out again the next morning for the hunt ahead.
On the final day of the hunt, hunters will load up their supplies and journey out of the bush to basecamp.
A bivy camp can most accurately be described as a camp that a hunter packs with them during their day’s hunt.
The camp is meant to be broken down, and reassembled in the next location.
Hunting out of a bivy camp includes:
Bivy camping requires an elk hunter to be well versed in backcountry camping, and very physically fit.
A mistake when bivy camping can be extremely dangerous, and potentially lead to injury or death.
The most expensive hunts are always those that are fully guided and provide a wide range of accommodations.
On the other hand, DIY backcountry hunts are often the most inexpensive route to take when going elk hunting, with little more required than your tags and permits.
The following are some average high/low number costs for the various types of elk hunts.
It is very difficult to hunt blindly without any prior knowledge of where elk in the area you are hunting are located.
Scouting can be conducted in a number of ways, all of which will better your odds of taking an elk on your next hunt.
How To Read A Topo Map For Elk Hunting?
Purchasing or looking at a topographical map prior to an elk hunt can often be the single most beneficial task that a hunter can complete to better their odds.
These maps reveal a number of terrain and habitat features that will assist you in knowing exactly where to hunt.
Topographic maps show elevation changes across a specific area, and can be used to identify where elk are likely to be found during much of the day.
While elk are easily observed feeding in low-ground fields during the early morning and evening, this is simply not the case during the other ¾ of daylight hours.
During these non-feeding times, elk often retreat to bedding areas where they take cover in relative safety.
Elk choose the location of their beds based upon particular terrain features that allow them to take advantage of the prevailing wind.
The following are key topographical features worthy of further investigation when attempting to locate elk.
Any time the presence of a bowl is indicated on a topographic map, the location warrants further attention.
Elk prefer to bed on slopes, and a bowl shaped depression allows access to multiple potential bedding sites in one area based upon the prevailing wind.
Bowls are indicated by the presence of contour in a sizable semicircle.
A ridge on the face of a slope is another wonderful location to focus your efforts when elk hunting.
Elk bed on ridges due to the multiple escape routes that they offer.
A ridge is easily identified by on a topographic map as a bowed outward section within a steeply sloped set of contour lines.
This bowing indicates the leveling off of elevation.
It is also valuable to identify any probable wallow locations.
Elk use these wallows during the rut to deposit their scent and mark the territory as their own.
When looking on a map, search for level spots free of frequent contour changes.
An area is even more likely to be used if a creek is present, which is indicated by a blue line.
Each of these elements can be found in multiple forms in an elk’s habitat.
Elk need a substantial amount of food for survival, not just for themselves, but for the entire herd.
Food is often found in the form of
Just like humans, without water, elk face the risk of dehydration.
For this reason, they seldom venture very far away from a quality water source.
In an elk’s eyes, shelter is anywhere that they can escape from the elements, and dangerous predators.
This often includes
d. Ample space
Additionally, elk need ample space to sustain themselves.
Therefore, you are not likely to regularly find elk within an area of limited acreage, even if all other elements for survival are present.
Instead, focus on large expanses of land that feature food, water, and shelter.
Where these habitat features are all found, elk likely will be as well.
5. Elk Hunting Techniques:
a. Spot and Stalk:
Spot and stalk hunting is heavily reliant upon a hunter’s use of quality optics.
A hunter glasses from a distance until they find an elk that they want to pursue.
Once an elk of the right size is spotted, a hunter makes up distance and moves into place for a shot opportunity.
This method of hunting requires a hunter to be quite stealthy, as elk can be highly skittish and will retreat quickly if disturbed.
It is also essential to be in prime physical shape, as elk are often spotted from a significant distance and require extensive travel to be reached.
b. Stand Hunting:
Stand hunting is a method that requires a hunter to have a fair share of patience.
A spot along a frequently traveled trail is chosen, and a hunter waits for an elk to travel this pathway.
This is essentially an ambush approach to elk hunting.
Stand hunting is best employed when a substantial amount of scouting has taken place prior to your hunt.
c. Still Hunting:
Still hunting provides the ultimate challenge for elk hunters.
A still hunter must be mindful of the wind direction at all times.
You must also be able to silently and steadily draw your bow and execute a shot, even after hours of exhausting travel.
Chapter 5: Where To Shoot An Elk With A Bow?
Your goal is to shoot through the vitals, producing a quick, clean, and ethical kill.
The vitals can be found in the chest cavity that runs from the front of the chest, to the mid-way point along the length of an elk’s body.
The vital cavity can be penetrated with an arrow at a number of shot angles.
However, broadside and quartering-away shots are best.
This gives direct access to both lungs, the heart, and the liver.
A well placed shot at this angle typically results in death in a matter of seconds.
Quartering-away shots can be highly effective when executed with precision.
This shot requires a hunter to aim slightly back from where an arrow would be placed when shooting broadside.
This allows diagonal penetration of an arrow into the body cavity.
After the Shot:
Chapter 6: What To Pack When Elk Hunting?
Chapter 7: Elk Hunting Tips for Beginners
However, there are a number of tactics that you can use to better your odds of success.
While some of these
Elk Calling Tips:
How To Make Calling Work For You:
Elk are social creatures, and communication is a part of their daily life. However, calling as a strategy is at the peak of its effectiveness during the rut.
To understand how to call elk, you must first familiarize yourself with the vocalizations of an elk, and what each of the particular sounds mean.
Chirps are a social sound that elk make when feeding and mingling in the presence of one another.
This sound does not have much specific meaning other than conveying contentment.
However, this call can be used to give other elk the impression that a larger herd is nearby.
Chips can also be used to coax a bull into range.
Mews can be used to convey a number of scenarios in an elk’s world
They can signal simple communication, danger, or submission.
Care should be taken when using this call, as an elk can interpret this sound in many ways based upon the situation.
A bark is a sharp note made by elk to signal imminent danger.
A call of this nature typically sends elk scattering for the nearest cover.
As a hunter, the bark is a vocalization that you never want to make.
A bugle is the first vocalization that most hunters think of when they think of elk.
This call is unmistakable, and can be heard from remarkable distances.
Bull elk bugle for a number of reasons, but the most common are to stake their claim to a territory, and to call cow elk to their location.
A chuckle is a series of grunts.
This series of grunts is almost always followed by a robust bugle. This is often a sign of one bull attempting to state his dominance to another.
Elk Call Types:
There are several types of elk calls for purchase that a hunter can use, each of which perform a specific function, and have the potential to bring elk from a distance.
Three of the most prominent types of calls are
a. Bugle Call
A bugle call does exactly like its name would lead you to believe.
It replicates the high pitch, shrill bugles of a bull elk.
This call works wonders for bringing dominant bulls into range during the rut.
It also works well as a locator call, causing other bulls within an area to respond.
b. Open Reed Call
An open reed call is used primarily to mimic the sounds of a cow or calf elk.
This call can be the perfect tool for coaxing a love struck bull into range during the rut.
You can also use an open reed call in combination with a bugle call to paint a more realistic picture, causing an enraged response from a rutting bull.
This leads a bull to believe that his territory is being encroached upon by a sub-dominant bull.
c. Closed Reed/Bite Call
A closed reed/bite call is another call that is used primarily to recreate the sounds of a cow elk.
These calls generally give off a more nasally tone than that of an open reed call.
This is a great change up to throw at a bull that is closing the distance.
Oftentimes, the closed reed/bite call can be used to much success when attempting to finish a bull.
These vocalizations can also be replicated in combination with one another.
When attempting to locate a bull, a bugle from a bugle call will typically do the trick.
Bulls, especially dominant bulls, instinctively respond to these sounds with a bugle of their own.
This will typically give a hunter a good idea of where to start on a given morning.
a. Bugle call
A bugle can also be used to entice a dominant bull into range.
During the rut, the dominant bull in an area will attempt to gather all cows into a group, known as a harem.
He spends much of his time breeding the cow elk within the harem, and protecting them against intrusions from other bulls.
Because of this, a bull elk will often come to check out a bugle that he hears, in an attempt to run off his competitor.
If you are calling a bull elk and his bugles seem to be getting closer, get your bow ready, as he will likely make an appearance in a matter of minutes.
b. Cow elk call
A cow elk call can also be used to entice a bull elk.
When using a cow elk call, a bull is given the impression that a cow has drifted away from his harem, or a new cow has come into the area.
He attempts to seek out this cow to round her up into his harem.
Using a cow call is also a great way to get a bull to commit that is hung up just outside of bow range.
When bull elk have been called in to a bugle, they will sometimes pause to assess the situation and attempt to lay eyes on the bull they hear.
By sounding a cow call, you are reassuring the bull’s worst fears, and a frenzied response often results.
2. Using Decoys:
Using a decoy is also another wonderful way of bringing elk into bow range.
This works for a number of reasons, and can actually help you, as the hunter, remain hidden.
A decoy adds another level of realism to your calling efforts.
As previously mentioned, bulls will often hang up just outside of bow range, because they do not see the bull or cow that they hear.
Although elk are naturally curious, they are also equally skittish.
When a bull lays eyes on a decoy, they naturally feel as if everything adds up in the situation, as they both see and hear another elk.
This leads to less reluctance when coming to a call.
Another benefit of using a decoy is that it takes the attention off of your efforts to draw your bow when attempting to shoot.
Elk tend to be wary of any unnatural movement, and will spook at the slightest sense that something is not as it should be.
By placing a decoy 20-30 yards in front of you, and off to a slight angle, a bull’s attention will be fixed on the decoy, instead of the location where you are situated.
This will make drawing, anchoring, and shooting your bow substantially easier.
When using a decoy, special care must be taken in regards to placement.
If your decoy is not placed strategically, you can, at times, make it difficult on yourself to get a clean shot.
It is best to place a decoy where a bull can see it from some distance to maximize effectiveness.
This is best accomplished by placing the decoy in an opening, clear-cut, field edge, or logging road.
You will then ideally be tucked away into nearby brush, allowing maximum concealment.
Placing a decoy in the open also assists you in being presented with a clean shot, free of arrow deflecting brush, as a bull approaches.
How To Call When Using A Decoy:
When using a decoy, you should ideally be set up in a location that prior scouting has told you is home to frequent elk movement.
This makes luring an elk much easier, as they are likely to naturally be within eye sight of your decoy in their daily travels.
After reaching this location in the predawn darkness, stake out your decoy, and wait for the sun to begin to break.
As an added option, you can let out a bugle with a bugle call, in order to see where the nearest bull is in relation to your setup.
You will then begin sounding some light cow elk vocalizations to stage the scene, and raise the attention of bulls within close proximity of your setup.
If no bull is seen, or no bugle is heard after a short period of time, you may begin increasing the volume of your calling.
This presents the opportunity of even distant bulls to be sparked into checking on your location.
Controlling Your Scent:
Elk, like other members of the deer family, have a highly sensitive sense of smell.
It takes very little human odor to send an elk scrambling to the next hillside, and you must exercise caution to keep your human odor to an absolute minimum.
This is best accomplished in a multi-step process.
Every step in this process plays a specific role in keeping you scent free, and increases your chance of taking an elk.
a. Wash all clothes in correct detergent
One of the most vital considerations when attempting to keep your scent to a minimum is how you wash your clothes prior to a hunt.
You must ensure that your clothes never come into contact with any form of scented detergent.
Instead, wash your clothes in hunting specific, scent-free laundry detergent.
This ensures that all sweat and body odors are eliminated from your clothing, while also ensuring that no new odor is imparted.
b. Store your clothes properly
Once your clothes are properly washed, they must be stored in a location free of human odor.
This can be accomplished in a number of ways. This includes
All of these methods work well to minimize the chance of foreign odor contamination, and keep your clothing in optimum condition for the hunt to come.
You must also consider how your clothing will be transported to the location of your hunt.
You never want to remove your washed clothing from its scent free receptacle until you are ready to wear it on the morning of your hunt.
Although an ozone closet is unable to be transported in a vehicle, ozone bags also exist for this exact purpose.
c. Wash in scent free body wash
With your clothing washed as it should be, you will now need to ensure that your odor is eliminated at its base level.
This includes washing in:
A number of these products are available on the market. They typically do a good job of keeping your human odor to a bare minimum.
When you get out of the shower, be sure to use scent free deodorant as well, and steer clear of all perfumes, colognes, and aftershaves.
Whenever you wash your hunting clothes in unscented detergent, throw a towel in the load as well.
Then you will have no worries as to your scent when drying off after a shower.
d. Spray down with scent eliminator
When you go afield the morning of your hunt, spray yourself down liberally with scent eliminator spray.
This assists in ridding yourself of any remaining odor, and also keeps new odor from forming.
As you spray down, also consider your gear.
Removing scent from everything that you pack with
Do not forget to spray items such as your bow, quiver, release, pack, calls, and decoy.
All of these items can harbor potential hunt ending odor if not properly treated.
e. Do not forget the wind
Even after taking part in a strict scent elimination regimen, there is no guarantee that every trace of human odor will be eliminated.
For this reason alway keep the wind in your favor when elk hunting.
If the wind suddenly shifts, placing incoming elk downwind of you, reposition accordingly to get the wind back in your favor.
Chapter 8: Training For Elk Hunt and Get Ready
This forces a hunter to test their physical agility and stamina against nature in the ultimate test of fitness.
The best scouting and gear selection in the world does little good if you cannot physically reach where the elk are at.
Because of this, it is always advisable to take part in pre-elk hunt physical fitness training.
The following exercises will ensure that you are ready to handle anything that the elk, or the terrain that they inhabit, can throw at you.
There are few exercises that get your heart and lungs into elk hunting shape quite as quickly as running.
Running 3-4 days a week can often be enough to build your endurance level to where it should be.
If you are not already physically active, start slow.
Walking With Pack:
When elk hunting, you will also be forced to carry a hefty pack for lengthy distances.
This is a task that few hunters are accustomed to, and is often the deal breaker for many that are ill-prepared.
The best way to overcome this difficulty is to take regular hikes in the months leading up to your hunt, with the same fully loaded pack that you will be hunting with.
Attempt to hike through the most rugged areas that you can find nearby to your home.
The more you walk, the more you will be accustomed to the weight of your pack.
You will also strengthen the groups of muscles in your back and shoulders that are responsible for maintaining the distribution of your pack load.
3. Wall Sits:
When elk hunting, you will be forced to stoop, bend, and squat.
Doing so uses muscle groups that we are often not used to working to this extent in normal day to day life.
A great way to overcome this is to do wall sits.
4. Stair Climbs:
It is only natural to anticipate climbing mountains and topping hills when elk hunting.
This comes with the territory, and must be prepared for.
One great way of adjusting yourself to this reality is stair climbing.
This is easily accomplished if you live in an urban area where high-rises and multi-story apartment complexes are the norm.
However, any location that features a flight of stairs will work.
The groups of muscles that make up your core are used for nearly every activity in life that you do, and elk hunting is no exception.
These muscles assist in influencing the way you balance and brace yourself, all of which is important when maneuvering through steep terrain.
One classic core exercise that will assist you when preparing for an elk hunt is sit ups.
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