Elk hunting is becoming increasingly popular. Prepare properly and this could be your most rewarding hunt ever. This article will guide you through all the steps from applying for a tag, habitat, rutting season, feeding habits, firearms, shot placement and meat benefits.
How to prepare for an elk hunt? When you are preparing for an elk hunt the first thing to do is to apply for hunting tags. Over the counter tags can be obtained in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming. Make sure you understand elk behavior and habitat. Plan your hunting trip well ahead of time. Create a packing checklist to ensure you have all the essentials for your trip.
The very first step is to apply for your permit in advance. Your best bet will be the limited, annual draw hunts awarded by lottery. Each state has different application periods varying from late winter to early spring.
Unfortunately, demand outnumbers the supply and it, therefore, becomes increasingly hard to draw. By applying each year, you might just draw the best elk hunt of your life.
Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada should be on the top of your list when applying for a permit.
It is beneficial to know which states sell over the counter elk tags as this might be your best option to develop your skill and experience in the meantime. Great easy-draw or OTC hunts can be obtained in Utah (spike only hunts), Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming.
Elk behavior determines your preparation and process of hunting. Why should I be fit to hunt elk? Looking at the terrain or habitat where elk are found it could only make sense to be physically prepared.
If your aim is to get to the more mature and large-sized animal then you should get away from roads. According to several studies over the past few decades the more roads, there are, the fewer mature, large-sized animals are found.
In short; the harder an area is to get to, the better your chances to have a successful elk hunt.
An important part of your preparation is to spend some time and do your homework on where are elk most commonly found.
Since Elk needs food, water, cover, and security, scouting for the following will mean success:
- Feeding – look for open south-facing grassy slopes or ridges, hidden deep-timber meadows, and brush-filled woods – especially if the aspen or oak. Elk mostly feed in the evening, night-time or morning.
- Cover & Water – A dark, north-facing timbered slope provides ideal cover to sleep during the day, and if water lies at the base of the slope or in-between bedding and feeding areas you’ve found a honey-hole.
- Security – this means one thing: no people. The farther off the road and secluded the area is, the more successful your hunting trip will be.
Keep in mind though that if there are wolves in the area, elk will avoid it. Doing your homework is important but only when you are out there you will find elk. You have to be on your feet and scout the terrain to know what is there.
So why is rutting season important for elk hunters? During the rutting season, the bulls and cows are so sex-crazed that they’re easier to find. This is because they are not as alert and cautious as they should be.
The elk rutting season is generally at its peak between mid-September to mid-October and is the time when male elk (bulls) compete for the hearts of the females (cows).
Rutting times in each state:
- Colorado – mid-September to mid-October but bugling is often heard into November.
- Arizona – the week prior to any Arizona Elk hunt is very important and even more important before the Arizona elk rut hunts. Big bulls start rubbing off their velvet in mid-August. They will then travel approximately 5-30+miles searching for cows.
- Utah – I have seen Utah’s rut vary by 2 weeks, from the first week of Sept to the middle of Sept. According to the experts, the best time to hunt the older bulls is in August and the pre-rut the first 10 days of Sept. The week of September 22nd and September 23rd is the best, year in and year out. It is easier to hunt the biggest bulls before they gather a strong harem.
- Oregon – This seems to vary a lot. Some bulls here bugle the first weekend of Season but it could be as late as the 3rd week of the season. It is safe to say the peak will be right around the 16th of September or even later. Older bulls seem to peak earlier and younger bulls breed later in the season.
- Nevada – To give a fairly general answer, the peak is between Sept. 25th and October 5th.
To learn more about rutting, check out this article about hunting deer during the rut.
Understanding Elk Movement
Like most animals, Elk is most active during the morning and evening hours. So when is the best time to hunt elk? Middle of the day is a good time during the rutting season but if you are looking for the most activity, your best options are early morning and dusk.
How far do elk travel in a day? Some hunters say it really depends on the elk and/or country you are hunting. In an open area, elk has been spotted to blow out 2-3 miles in a matter of minutes. In a thicker area about 80 miles from where they barely move off 1 mile after a good spoke. But 100 miles from there they travel dozens of miles a day to migrate to a huge game range and then stay put. To be a successful elk hunter takes time, you have to get to know the elk that you are hunting.
Most importantly is to keep wind patterns in mind as well. While the fact is that winds in America generally blow from the west to the east, they could also swirl often during the fall or at high elevations where elk are found.
Elk mostly bed in locations where they have command of the wind, areas with predictable wind patterns instead of a surprise draft every few minutes. For this reason, it is extremely important to learn the area you’re hunting in. Move away from the suspected hideout and be on the lookout for an area a reliable, downwind advantage.
What does elk feed on? Elk are herbivores, so they only eat vegetation. During spring and summer when food is plentiful, elk mainly graze on grasses, sedges and various flowering plants. It is for this reason that they are often found in lush, green mountain meadows — and don’t forget the alfalfa fields of local ranchers.
As the seasons change so does their vegetation habits. Moving into fall and winter elk increasingly become browsers, feeding on sprouts and branches of shrubs and trees, including conifers as a last resort when snow covers other plants. They continue to eat grasses when these are not covered by deep snow.
To learn more about eating habits, check out this article about what deer eat.
You are only ready to hunt if you have your checklist on the table.
Elk Hunting Checklist
- Aluminum cooking pot with lid, plastic cup, and spoon
- 20-inch-square closed-cell-foam pad (for sitting on)
- 20′ of rope or strong nylon twine (useful for tying a leg or two to a tree during field dressing)
- 4 cloth game bags (I use plastic trash-can liners in cold weather)
- Any medication you may need on a daily basis
- Bow/Gun Sling
- Bug Spray/Insect Repellant Device
- Check your batteries before leaving camp
- Emergency blanket/cover
- Field dressing gloves
- Fire-starting materials (windproof matches, cigarette lighter, and magnesium and steel)
- First aid kit
- Game bags
- Game calls
- Game Cameras/Batteries/Memory Cards
- Glass/Lens Cleaner
- GPS unit
- Hand warmers
- Headlamp (with extra bulb and batteries)
- Hearing Protection
- Hunter safety card
- Knife sharpener
- Pillowcase (stuff extra clothes inside to make a pillow)
- Roll of fluorescent orange tape or ribbon (use this for marking a trail back to your elk after you have one down)
- Safety/Shooting Glasses
- Scent Attractant
- Sleeping bag
- Small Allen wrench key (for rifle hunters)
- Sunglasses and Case/Leash
- Toilet paper or scent free wipes
- Two-way radio
- Water bottle
- Water or purifier
- Waterproof matches
- Wind indicator
- Electrolyte tablets for water
- Instant oatmeal packets for breakfast (two per day)
- Trail mix
- Dried fruit
- Freeze-dried dinners (one per night plus one for the unexpected night)
Cooking oil (for the bonus trout or grouse)
- Salt & pepper packets
- Baseball Hat – Camo
- Boots – Waterproof/Snake proof
- Brush Pants/Chaps Pants – Insulated Overalls
- Camo Jacket – Camo Windproof Pullover
- Camo Stocking Hat – Blaze Orange (Check Local Laws)
- Down vest
- Felt hat with brim
- Fleece gloves (mittens for zero-degree weather)
- Fleece jacket
- Gloves – Insulated/Un-Insulated Depending
- Long Underwear – Insulated/Moisture
- on Weather Conditions
- Pac boots
- Polypropylene liner socks (two pair)
- Poncho (doubles as a ground cloth)
- Rain Suit /Poncho (doubles as a ground cloth)
- Safety Vest
- Shell (I like a 3/4-length parka)
- Shirt – Camo Short-Sleeved
- Socks Breathable and Insulated
- Stocking Hat – Camo Facemask /Balaclava
- Thermax bottoms
- Thermax undershirt
- Underwear (two pair)
- Vapor-barrier socks (for zero-degree weather)
- Wool over socks (two pair)
- Wool pants
After the Shot:
- Folding Saw
- Game Cart
- Pelvic Saw
- Freezer Paper and Tape
- Game Shears
- Plastic Bags
- Processing Kit/Knives
- Game Bags
- Gutting Gloves (Wrist/Shoulder Length)
- String for License/Zip-Ties
Using Elk Calls
Elk, by nature are very vocal animals. Reportedly much more vocal than deer, moose etc. In order to call elk it is therefore important to understand every sound that an elk makes and what it means. Everyone’s aim is to call and shoot the bull but sometimes it is wiser to call the cow and the bull will follow.
Important to remember:
- both the bulls and cows vocalize throughout the day.
- Rutting season is usually the peak time for elk vocalization which is one of the main reasons that the rut is one of the best times to hunt.
So what are the different types of elk calls?
Chirps – Chirps are mostly used by cow elk but sometimes by bulls too. The sound of a “chirp” can best be described as a vocalization that is made when elk are around each other. It could be compared to casually mingling around the water cooler. It is almost like making small talk and just being together. Hunters can use “chirps” effectively to mimic a large group of cow elk just casually mingling.
Mew– these are highly variable elk calls and vocalizations. It is used to indicate threats, submission, sparring between bulls, or a simple communication from cow to bull, cow to her calf or locating other elk.
Barks – This is another common vocalization that elk make. “Barks” sound just as would be expected, very abrupt and pointed. Elk use “barks” as an alert call, letting the group know that there is danger present. However please avoid using this sound as a hunter as you would alert them and scare them away.
Bugle – This is by far the most well-known elk call has to be the bugle. The bugle is particular and instinctive. It is a vocalization used by elk bull and for a number of very specific reasons. For instance, they would bugle to indicate dominance. They could also bugle as a means to locate other elk and is a way for a bull to call cows in to him. Mature bulls attempt to locate other bugling bulls in order to chase them out of the area. Hunters can use bugling very effectively not only to locate a bull during the rut, but also be a great way to call in a bull to your location, especially if he is very responsive. For those reasons bugling is one of the most important elk calls that anyone elk hunting should know how to use.
Chuckle – a Chuckle can best be described as a series of grunts following a bugle. Hunters can use the bugle and chuckle in combination to draw out bulls with the indication of dominance.
How often should you use elk call? How much is too much and when is it not enough? Probably not what you expect to hear, but it all depends on the situation. According to some Elk hunters it is possible to set up a ‘close encounter of the herd kind’ by understanding and communicating with elk. Yes, you can understand what elk are saying, as well as pick up on the mood of the herd or lone elk.
One hunter describes how he mainly used cow herd talk, with some louder pleading cow calls along with some estrus sounds. After 35 minutes of one sequence he threw in a quiet chuckle (a bull talking to cows). A nearby bull did a quiet squeal and walked right in.
There is no right or wrong way, there seem to be no fixed guidelines of what and when to call. It takes time and practice to understand Elk and their vocalization.
Essential Elk calls to bring to the hunt:
Bugle Tube – The bugle tube presents a baffle, which dials down the call to mimic a bull moving further. It is a successful strategy to bring bulls closer.
Open Reed – The open reed call’s purpose is to mimic the calf or young elk and can often times call in the cow, which may also bring the bull, especially if that cow is in estrus. This can be a great addition to have as a backup.
Bite Call – The bite call accessory allows you to get the nasally sound that you will not achieve with a diaphragm or open reed call. The nasally sound of the Change-up might be the final trigger a bull needs to come the extra 50 yards.
Popular Firearms for Elk Hunting
One of the first questions asked when you go Elk hunting for the first time, is what rifle is the most popular for elk hunting?
Experts believe that your choice of the rifle should be one of the following:
- Ruger No 1-s Medium Sporter.
- Marlin Model 338 MXLR.
- Winchester M70Super Grade.
- Browning A-bolt Composite Stalker.
- Weatherby Mark V Deluxe. Caliber: 270 Wby.
- Remington Model 673Guide Rifle. Caliber: 308 Win.
- Ruger Compact Magnum. Caliber: 338 RCM.
Best Elk Hunting Locations
You would want to know where the largest amount of elk can be found and most certainly where the largest bulls are to be found. According to most experienced Elk hunters, the top 10 States to hunt Elk is:
- Colorado – Colorado might just be the number one state for elk hunting. Why? Numbers of course. Colorado has the largest elk herd in the country at almost 280,000. Whereas many states only allow harvests in the hundreds, Colorado offers thousands of opportunities for hunters. The opportunity to obtain Over-the-counter licenses also increase Colorado’s popularity tremendously.
- New Mexico
- Arizona – Some of the biggest bulls in the country (some say on the planet) can be found in the state of Arizona.
Elk Shot Placement
Where is the best to place an Elk shot? The best to aim for in any big game hunting is the vital organs and Elk hunting is no different. The ideal shot should be placed in the middle of the lungs or even a little lower. Of course, you can bring any large animal down if you put a bullet through both lungs.
Both bow and rifle hunters could achieve a double-lung hit by following the back of the front leg up about 1/3 or 1/2 of the chest cavity. For more experienced rifle hunters you can add a neck shot.
Where to place the shot if the elk is facing you? Sometimes a shot has to be taken when the Elk is facing you. Although this is not an ideal option, the size of elk makes it easier than with deer hunting.
In the end though, only experience and practice will ensure knowing the best shot placement for elk hunting.
Remember, rear-facing shots, with the elk’s backside facing the hunter, are never ideal and should be avoided.
However, be alert because if you see the animal start to react after the bullet has landed, chances are that you’ve probably missed. If you have wounded the animal on close range, or the elk is watching you as you fire, or if the bullet strikes nearby, you can expect the elk to flee.
Elk Meat Benefits
So, can and should you eat Elk meat? The answer is Yes.
Elk meat tastes similar to beef but does have a little more flavor, just enough to know you’re eating something different and special. The fact that the majority of their diet consists of eating native grasses, brush, and trees instead of grains, creates very lean, healthful meat for elk steaks and elk jerky.
Elk meat can successfully substitute beef in most recipes with only a few minor adjustments. Elk meat is unlikely to taste gamey, especially if you use farm-raised elk.
Elk meat is savory, tender and mouth-watering. It’s much lower in fat than beef, pork, chicken and even some seafood and its rich in key essential nutrients.
Nutritional facts: Elk meat is naturally high in protein, low in fat and free of the growth hormones, antibiotics and steroids that are found in most store-bought meat. It provides 100% of your daily vitamin B-12!
Cooking elk meat is easier than you think. Feel free to use your favorite marinade on elk steaks, and most of your favorite recipes can be adapted to elk meat. Elk is similar to beef and is cooked in much the same way with minor adjustments to your favorite recipes.
Make the following adjustments:
- Preventing moisture loss will keep the meat tender and preserve its delicate flavor.
- Don’t exceed an internal temperature of 140 degrees and if you prefer slightly pinker meat, 130 degrees is the best.
- A golden rule is low and slow cooking. Elk becomes tenderer the longer it cooks. Achieve this by using techniques such as braising – cooking on a low temperature for a longer period of time. The result will be tender and juicy meat.