21+ First Time Elk Hunting Tips for Hunters
If you're getting started on an elk hunting trip, you might look for someone who can point you in the right direction.
So I decided to ask 21+ experts the same question: "For first-time elk hunters, what should we prepare to increase the chance of success?"
Hopefully, these first time elk hunting tips below can help you fill your tags. Here they are:
First Time Elk Hunting Tips
Be proficient at calling them and spot and stalking them
When bowhunting elk strive to be proficient at calling them and spot and stalking them.
This mindset will increase your chances of success dramatically no matter if you hunt thick country or wide open terrain.
Go on as many bowhunts as you possibly can, because each stalk and harvest no matter what animal you are hunting will give you the muscle memory and confidence you need to be a proficient hunter.
Especially when you are just just a few yards from the bull of your dreams.
Have a backup for your backup plan
When hunting a new area, many times your initial hunting strategy will not be the one that leads to success.
Having plans that involve identifying various hunting terrain and tactics will provide you with a multi-day hunting trip.
The benefit of hunting multiple days often leads to success because the true key to being a successful hunter is spending time in the field.
Finding elk is 90% of the battle
Finding elk is 90% of the battle when it comes to a successful elk hunt.
If you can’t find elk, you can’t even begin to hunt them. So, learning to find elk in the field during the season you are hunting is the vital first step to a successful elk hunt.
To find elk, it’s important to understand their needs – and where to look to find what they need – while you are hunting them.
Food, water, and security are the 3 main needs elk have, but all food, water, and security are not created equal.
Learn the priority of elk needs and where to find those needs, and you’ll find the elk.
The allure of elk hunting is much like a moth being drawn to a flame and it’s easy to see why.
Elk are majestic animals that live in some of the most amazing landscapes, and their bugles are such a sweet sound that bring chills to even seasoned elk hunters on cool frosty mornings during the fall.
I get asked by a lot of first-time elk hunters on what they should do to prepare for their first adventure chasing elk and I give them all the same response: knowledge.
Everyone focuses on physical conditioning and proficiency with their weapon but very few choose to work on the aspect between their ears. It doesn’t matter how good of a shot you are, or how well you are prepared physically for the hunt.
If you don’t understand elk or know how they behave, what they need to survive, what type of habitat do they prefer, what do they like to eat, you’re going to have a difficult time finding elk and having a successful hunt.
Sure, there is luck that plays into some hunts, but knowledge is one of those things that can really increase your chance for success on your first elk hunt.
Knowing things like how elk respond to hunting pressure, or where they go when it’s a drier year and water sources aren’t as abundant, or even knowing what type of terrain they look for when weather sets in.
These seem like small items to think about, but they are extremely important to know.
Don’t get me wrong, physical conditioning and efficiency with your weapon of choice are important for sure, but knowledge of elk will certainly give you an advantage that many don’t even think about.
Hunting where elk are is number one
I have devoted much of my life to learning how to take bull elk with a bow and have been fortunate enough to have taken my 48th elk with a bow last October in Montana. Here goes:
So for this question i will assume a few things about this first time elk hunter.
First that they are hunting public land without a guide.
Actually for a first timer if they can afford it book a good elk guide for your first time. It will be a major shortcut and a great learning experience. But for this exercise lets assume we are just going to try it on on our own.
For that a lot of people are going to advise get in top physical condition which is certainly important but maybe even more important than that is understanding the area they are hunting and how elk will likely be moving in that area.
First off a quality map program is essential.
You need one that shows topography, and land ownership as well as water sources roads trails etc.
I like the OnX program but there are several that are great. Install it on your phone as well as a good laptop computer so you can really dig in and exchange information between devices.
In the old days i just used topo maps but today's technology is so much easier so use it if you can.
- The most important things to identity the major food sources like agricultural fields, large meadows or other more open areas that elk will feed in regularly at night.
- Next is to identify the most likely bedding areas.
These are usually from 1 to 5 or 6 miles from the feeding area depending on the terrain. Elk love to bed on north facing cooler slopes. These will often be in thick cover and always secluded away from disturbance.
Once you have identified these areas on the map (or several such for more options as most likely not every one may actually be holding elk) ease quietly in and confirm elk are in the area.
Confirm elk are in the area
You will recognize elk bedding areas by tracks but most importantly by seeing rubs in abundance (many times both old and new rubs if you are in a traditional bedding area).
Bulls rub their antlers more in the bedding areas than anywhere else so if your seeing multiple rubs in a small area you are probably close to the spot.
Also know elk don't always use the same bedding area day after day so there will likely be several areas for a particular heard.
Once you find this do not encroach into that area because if you blow elk out or leave too much scent the elk will find a new bedroom which is what you do not want as it may be 5 to 15 miles away (yes elk can and will change country very quickly if they are not comfortable).
Hunt the elk as they come and go from the bedding area but try never to pressure them near it unless you are ok with possibly blowing elk from the bedding grounds (like maybe on the last day of your hunt).
If you're hunting during the rut you may hear bulls bugling and cows talking which makes figuring what elk are doing much easier. However now days with so many people calling at elk it is getting much more rare to hear them and when you do it will likely be much softer calling than in the past.
The exception is at night in the feeding areas where bulls will be more likely to be vocal (when hunters are not after them). Going out 2 to 3 hours before daylight and listening in likely feeding areas is probably the best way to find public land elk and confirm the feeding areas.
Steady and patient
Above all this is once you find elk be stealthy and patient. If you can find a wallow that is being used regularly setting up there can be incredibly effective especially for big bulls.
Over the years i have taken most of my biggest bulls from wallows. The wind is the key here. If the wind isn't right just don't hunt the wallows because it only take 1 time of a bull winding a person near his wallow to make them find a new place to cool off.
There are of course many other considerations for the new elk hunter but to me hunting where elk are is number one.
A good map program and some idea of what your looking for will give you a good start. From then on its a game of learning as patience and picking you opportunities carefully.
Don't let your ego keep you from booking with an outfitter
3 Tips for a new elk hunter:
Tip 1: Don't let your ego keep you from booking with an outfitter
Yes we all want to DIY our elk hunt both to save money and to do it on our own, however less than 10% of those first time DIY trips end up in a elk harvest.
So don't be afraid to check out outfitters that will drop you off or do a hands off elk hunt.
Yes you will have to pay for this help but that money will be a huge savings compared to what it will cost after you are unsuccessful a few years in a row and you begin to “Tin Cup” your elk hunts.
Every time it doesn't work you plan to go again and again, and before you know it you have spent twice as much as what you would have spent if you would have gone with an outfitter the first time.
Then take that first time knowledge and apply it to your future DIY hunts.
Tip 2: If you insist on a DIY trip right out of the gate then know this
The elk population is healthy across most western states and the amount of land that lends itself to elk hunting is vast and massive.
However the majority of the elk congregate on a small portion of that public land.
What this means is study everything you can before you pull the trigger on where to go.
Some great resources on where to go are publications like “Hunting Fool”. These publications break down hunt areas by state and show draw odds etc...
An even better resource is fellow elk hunters that are willing to share areas and experiences. No they won't give up that coveted honey hole, but many will share what they have seen or experienced on previous hunts.
This sort of knowledge can be worth it's weight in gold.
Tip 3: Don't set your expectations to high
With a less than 10% chance at success, go into your trip knowing that this is gonna be hard, it's going to to test both your mental and physical toughness, but it will be so rewarding that all the challenges won't matter.
Number one factor to remember is have fun and enjoy the trip because we only live once and we will only have one first elk hunt.
If you kill an elk that's a bonus, if you kill a bull, stop and buy a lottery ticket on the way home.
Absolutely relentless in finding elk
Some of the best advice I can give to new hunters is to be absolutely relentless in finding elk then worry about slowing down to kill one.
So many people hunt elk as if there might be one around every tree.
The reality is they are big animals spread out of big terrain you may need to cover a lot of miles to find 2-3 herds of elk.
Then when you find elk be patient in selecting your attack of aggressive in action.
Make sure your broadhead will finish the job
For the first time elk hunter, make sure you choose a broadhead that will be able to penetrate the shoulder blade.
This makes for a much larger target, and minimizes the effect of any small misses.
Iron Will broadheads are engineered for maximum penetration, including through shoulder blades on large game like elk and moose.
After all it takes to get to the shot opportunity, make sure your broadhead will finish the job.
Keep positive (never give up) mindset
My advice wouldn't have anything to do with hunting, you're going to learn that as you go and develop your own style.
I would advise having a positive (never give up) mindset.
You will be doing something very foreign, strenuous, frustrating, and sometimes downright scarry.
Just keep a positive attitude that it only takes one, and things can turn around in the blink of an eye. Just get out there and enjoy every minute.
Practice a lot and be in a good shape
There are 2 things that stand out to me with this question:
- First is, you need to practice shooting, a lot.
- The second is to be in good physical shape.
Practice with your broadheads
For first time Archery Elk Hunters, I would recommend putting in a lot of practice pre-season with your chosen bow setup.
In the heat of the moment, when bulls are screaming and your adrenaline is pumping muscle memory tends to take over.
Knowing you have put in the work with your bow pre-season will up your confidence and odds of success when an opportunity presents itself.
Don't forget to practice with your broadheads as well!!
Know your rifle, load and train to employ it quickly out to 300 yards
So many tips for the first timer, but as a rifle guy I'd have to advise "know your rifle and load and train to employ it quickly out to 300 yards."
Often you get but a fleeting chance at a good shooting opportunity. This is no time to be second-guessing your ability to estimate distance, dial turrets, select ballistic reticle bars, fumble for a safety, or question your most stable shooting position.
Train so that you are confident in range estimation to about 300 yards in varied terrain and habitats.
Zero your scope/rifle for its Maximum Point Blank Range.
Practice shooting at various unmeasured distances with a dead-on hold to thoroughly understand how your bullets will strike a 12-inch target.
This will give you supreme confidence to take and make your shot.
Use a spotting scope more than boot leather
Preparing for an unguided, DIY elk hunt is very different than preparing for a guided elk hunt. I’ll answer as if this is an unguided, DIY hunt.
You must be in great shape. Start gradually.
The older you are, the more time you should allow yourself to get in shape. Start with short hikes. Increase the length, terrain (if possible where you live), and intensity as your conditioning improves.
Get your neck and shoulders in shape by adding a weighted pack later in your conditioning program.
However, in your daily elk hunts, I prefer not carrying a really heavy pack at all times. I tend to lighten up so I can go quicker, returning to a base/spike camp each night, and relocating as needed.
If you’re unfamiliar with how your body handles high altitude, try taking an altitude adjustment supplement about 3 weeks prior to your trip… anything over 7,000’ would be a rule of thumb, and definitely for anything over 10,000’.
Don’t eat junk
Your body needs good, healthy foods to be able to recover from the exertion that elk hunting submits it to.
Use a spotting scope more than boot leather. Find elk before you start hunting them.
Hunters from the midwest often don’t understand the value of glassing because they’re not used to being able to see so far. Look for elk 1-4 miles away, and then move in to hunt them when you’ve found some.
And have a plan B, C, and D for when other hunters screw you up or the elk move or aren’t where you figured.
OnX is a great tool for your phone, but plan accordingly when electricity limits your ability to recharged devices.
Don’t call much… especially if you’re in high pressure areas and are targeting mature bulls.
And these last couple tips are the two tips I’d give guided elk hunters:
- Be very familiar and proficient with your weapon.
- Be in shape
- Bring a positive attitude!
(…leave the rest to your guide)
Use a hunting consultant/booking agent
Well, I might be biased, but I would say, use a hunting consultant/booking agent to help you find the right guided hunt!
A lot of first time elk hunters may have a lot of experience whitetail hunting and think that that’s good enough and that they can go it alone or DYI.
Truth is, elk hunting is a completely different game, and a good guide/outfitter can teach you a lot of things and really help your learning curve.
This will hopefully get you on the right track to a long and successful elk hunting career.
Plus, guided hunts generally have a significantly higher success rate than DIY hunts.
Know your equipment
My advice would be to practice with your favorite crossbow, rifle or bow as much as possible.
Shoot from different positions and distances. Practice going from having your weapon stowed to getting it out and taking the shot.
Practice shooting when you’re breathing heavily.
Know your equipment and get as comfortable and proficient using it as possible.
The quicker you can be at getting into position and then making an accurate shot the better the chance you’ll make good on any opportunity that you have.
Always remember though that if you aren’t comfortable with the shot then don’t take it. It’s better to pass an animal than wound one.
Starts with planning
For the first time elk hunter, the first step to a successful hunt starts with planning.
In today's world of more hunters and less resources, planning your hunt several years in advance will help your chances of success.
Many Outfitters have their best hunts booked several years ahead. You need to make the hard decisions of:
- where you want to hunt
- what type of terrain you want to hunt in
- how physically hard you can hunt
- and the hunting setting that fits your needs.
All western states have elk, but your ability to obtain a tag to hunt varies significantly.
A few states still have elk tags that can be purchased in unlimited amounts by nonresidents but most will have some type of limits on nonresident hunters.
The state wildlife departments and the Outfitters should be able to answer those questions. Choosing where you want to hunt will involve your ability to get a tag for hunting that elk.
The West has an amazing variety of terrain to hunt elk. The desert Southwest provides cactus to pines, the West Coast evergreen rain forests, the Intermountain West the forests of the Great Divide.
The elevations run from sea level to over twelve thousand feet. The visibility can range from twenty feet to miles of open terrain. Consider what your shooting capabilities are, the climate you prefer, the elevation that keeps you comfortable in deciding what and where your favorite terrain will be.
What physical shape are you in?
One of your most important considerations should be what physical shape you are in.
We would all like to think that we can hunt as hard as when we were in our twenties, but alas, it just isn't so. Be realistic with yourself and your outfitter. You both need to know what your limitations are.
Your physical shape should be the highest factor in determining the last decision factor, the setting.
Outfitted hunting takes place across a broad spectrum of setting. It can be as easy as staying in the Lodge and hunting from motorized transportation to packing all your camp on your back and hiking miles uphill.
This setting of elk camp is one of the few things you get to control and enjoy on your hunt. Pick the setting that makes you comfortable and you will remember fondly whether you take an elk or not.
As you work your way through this planning process, you will visit with many people, see their elk hunting experiences through their eyes, learn about the country and it's elk herds.
Enjoy the planning process. It takes much longer than your hunt will take and will increase your odds of a successful hunt, elk or not.
Develop a plan in advance
First off you should know that I am not an outfitter or a guide anymore.
I am a hunt service planning/provider assisting with helping hunters acquire permits for the species and states they are most interested in.
I do that by providing an application service, access to landowner tags and drawing research.
I can also recommend great outfitters once a permit is in hand if the hunter is seeking that type of assistance. That being said, I think that my contribution to your effort can be very helpful and informative.
My advice to a first time elk hunter would be to develop a plan in advance.
Depending on where the hunter wants to go, that could be a one year plan, 5 year or even 10 years and beyond.
There are not many over the counter elk permits available any more (Colorado, Idaho Utah) and they don’t always provide the best opportunity for success anyway.
These hunts often have a 15% success rate or less with a lot of hunter competition. To increase the probability of success you need to be in better areas than the over the counter areas can provide.
Permits for most of these areas will require some sort of drawing and it could take a few years before being able to successfully acquiring the necessary permit.
It is best to begin planning an elk hunt 2-3 years in advance.
This way you can build the preference/bonus points necessary to successfully draw the permit the year you are ready to go.
In the overall picture, these points aren’t all that expensive generally running $50-$100 per year. In a lot of cases, without building some points, an elk hunt will not happen.
I recommend and assist my clients in developing a 2-3 year plan, a 5 year plan and a super trophy/once in a lifetime 10-20 year plan.
The short term plans are not necessarily trophy hunts but you get out there and experience elk hunting with reasonable success opportunities.
The 5-year plan is typically an increase in quality and a better experience with fewer hunters.
The 10-year and beyond plan is for trophy quality animals and a top of the line experience. Now, not everyone needs or even wants this option and for those people we just continuously cycle through the shorter term plans hunting easier to draw areas while we build up enough points to draw a better experience a few years down the road.
Know which way the wind is blowing
I am an archery hunter so my tips may differ from those a rifle hunter.
1. Take time to scout. I hunted in the remote mountains of Colorado. I would spend weeks before season opened, watching elk movement from a high vantage point.
By the time season arrived, I knew generally where they would be feeding in the morning, and the direction they would move as the day progressed.
2. Know which way the wind is blowing. And stay up wind. I learned early, that it is possible for an elk to hear you and not spook.
Occasionally, they can see you and not spook. But if they get wind of you, they’re gone.
3. If you are bugling, it is worth it to wear good camo and find and conceal yourself before you start. Nothing is worse than to be caught in the open and have a bull stare at you from 200 yards before deciding to boogie.
4. When bugling, don’t give up too early.
Mimic the bull you are hearing. Don’t be afraid to switch to a cow call occasionally.
5. If you find yourself up in the vicinity of several elk with a nice bull, don’t try to sneak up on the bull! Cows are notorious tattle tails.
Your chances are greater if you just stand still. 6. Camp high and at a distance from where you will hunt.
7. Stay DOWN WIND!!!!!! Not up wind
8. Take time to stop look and listen.
You’ll sometimes see what you would have missed if you just kept plowing ahead. I have killed as many elk on my way to a destination as I have reaching my destination.
9. Know what elk smell like. If you recognize that smell in the wild, stop! Proceed with caution! A group may be near.
Know the terrain
It's very important to know the terrain you're going into.
So if at all possible scout the area first or go with someone familiar with the area.
Once you know the terrain you'll also know what gear you're to need. And a little bit of luck always comes in handy!
Get in Shape
Get in shape. It is truly a physically demanding hunt.
Using applications to create opportunities to hunt
In short, as you can imagine given what we do for a living here at The Draw, one of the most overlooked angles for new elk hunters is where and when they are going to invest there time, money, and effort.
I think even new hunters have a desire to work hard in the field, and given some good mentoring will try hard to ensure that there effort in one way or the other or lack there of is not the reason for an unsuccessful hunt.
Meaning they will hike harder, farther, and overall try and out work the other hunters, often this is the foundation of there plan as they take to the woods. We believe that using applications to create opportunities to hunt, is the first step in this direction.
If we can secure a tag through one state or the others draw process that limits the number of hunters in the unit while we are hunting, by default we have already put ourselves in a better position, even if the unit doesn’t have the best track record, it’s still better than hunting OTC.
With so many elk hunts available for 3 or less points, it only makes sense to apply.
In Shape and know your equipment
1. Of course be in shape:
And for most hunters especially eastern whitetail hunters or hunters who hunt stands it is better shape that you think you will need to be in. This is a physically demanding hunt and you need to be prepared.
2. Know your equipment, either rifle hunting or archery:
As a first time elk hunter, your opportunities are going to happen at a very fast pace and almost be over before you realize they have started.
You dont need to have your mind on your gear and getting those things ready you need to be focused on the opportunity that you may only have one of.
The most important thing for a first time elk hunter in my mind is physical fitness.
A hunter needs to be mentally tough to work through the ups and downs of hunting elk day after day. Physical fitness training day after day, year around, will allow a hunter to pursue elk and maintain the relentless attitude it takes to be successful.
At least 1 hour a day, 5 days a week, with 10 to 15 minutes of cardio hit at the conclusion of each workout. Do it for yourself. Assess where your at and move forward step by step to a better you.
The results will show up each fall on the mountain. You won't be disappointed!
Be ready to hike
I'd say get in shape, and be ready to hike.
My first season an experienced hunter told me,
"If you walk around in the west long enough, eventually you'll run into an elk." I have taken high school buddies out a few times and their biggest setback isn't gear or strategy as much as fitness.
As a beginner you'll be learning what elk habitat looks like and how to call effectively. The more ground you can cover the better your odds of success.
Understand what those boxes are and figure out how to check them off
The physicality of an elk hunt might surprise you. You could be looking at hundreds and hundreds of elevation changes, mile after mile, day after day, ...with a pack on.
The mental side as well. One must be ready for hunting pressure, hard to find elk, call shy elk, bad weather, hardship, disappointment, etc... How do you prepare for that?
Simply put, it's not easy to prepare for unless you make it a lifestyle.
I think one overlooked step before departing your home to pursue elk is to STOP and establish or define your expectations of a "Successful" hunt.
Make certain you know what classifies the hunt as a success. Is it hide, antlers, meat, opportunity, encounters, gaining experience?
Getting into elk? Hearing Elk? Seeing Elk? Getting away from work or your spouse?
I'm sure it's several things that lead to a successful trip, my advice is to understand what those boxes are and figure out how to check them off.
Have your bow ready
When elk hunting for the first time my best advice is to have your bow ready and your ability to shoot that bow on point.
When you are new all fun and games are over when the elk is standing in front of you bugling.
You have to become stone cold and place your shot. Become a expert at glassing make it a game scan blinking between frames it will reset your eyes and connect to the elk you are looking for.
Use a good fixed blade and have a good checklist of gear.
You will make mistakes be ok with that!
Get out there and have fun! Humble advice from a elk guide!
Physical Shape /Mental Toughness
Hands down physical fitness and mental toughness are the top reasons why people don't punch their tags! They are tied together as well.
Being able to stay in the game mentally even when the hunting is slow is key.
When your body is tired it's even easier to not be mentally tough.
Now Your Turn:
Wow! What a fantastic collection of useful advice.
Now I want to turn it over to you: What are your favorite first-time elk hunting tips?
Do you have an additional tactic you want to contribute?
Let me know by leaving a comment below right now.