Plan Your Western Elk Hunt

March 30, 2011

In recent decades elk populations have exploded, even reclaimed historic Eastern habitat, making them more available to the average bowhunter. Despite this, finding and choosing the best place to hunt can prove surprisingly complicated. Prospective elk hunters must weigh desires and expectations against the realities of modern elk hunting.

Easier Access: Colorado and Idaho

Over-the-counter elk licenses have become rare. Colorado and Idaho are the last two states that offer purchasing selected tags without early application deadlines and beating draw odds. In Colorado you simply show up and buy a tag for certain unit areas. You won’t be alone, and you better have done your homework. And though Colorado has the largest elk population in the nation—some 180,000—the trophy quality is normally not the same that is found other elk strongholds. The exceptions are heavily managed units where drawing a limited tag is prerequisite to hunting. Check regulations for guaranteed options at www.wildlife.state.co.us.

Idaho issues limited licenses on a first-come, first-served basis. Better units sometimes fill by April, others have leftover tags well into open season. Certain Idaho areas offer top-notch trophy quality, but most of these require application for limited tags. Find more details at www.state.id.us/fishgame.

Trophy Elk: Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming

western elk huntingThe best trophy-elk areas are no longer secret, so today you’ll to forced to search game and fish department websites and draw odds long and hard to find a quality (read trophy) elk hunt with better than 50 percent draw odds. These aren’t exactly nonexistent, but buyer beware, as some of these hunts occur in vast wilderness where accessing worthwhile hunting requires backpacking or pack animals, or private-land issues complicate access. Drop-camp or self-guided trespass-fee options are often available through an outfitter, a real bargain when wilderness is involved. Top picks would include Montana (www.fwp.state.mt.us/hunting), New Mexico (www.gmfsh.nm.us/), and Wyoming (http://gf.state.wy.us/).

Cow Hunts: Multiple States

If you’re only after meat (elk steaks are fine food) and a good time with friends or family, check out cow-hunt options in nearly any Western state, as must hunters want antlers and these hunts can be extremely high-odds draws, or complete shoe-ins, often going undersubscribed.

Best Antlers: Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Nevada, Utah

If you’re looking for only the very best antlers in the Rocky Mountains and are willing to sit the bench for several years before drawing a quality public-lands tag, the best places aren’t exactly well-kept secrets. Arizona (www.arizona-hunt.com/) automatically goes to the top of the list, with areas such as Unit 9, 10, 1, 3C, and 27 offering the best trophy potential.

New Mexico’s better trophy areas will also get an enthusiastic nod, with hunt units such as 15 and all of the 16s (A through E) the top picks.

Montana’s Missouri Breaks region has emerged as a real hotspot for book bulls, with draw odds steep.

Nevada and certain Utah areas are real sleepers, with record-book bulls common, 400-inch bulls killed nearly every year. Non-resident elk tags in these states are extremely limited and tags expensive. To try your luck check out their websites at www.nevadadivisionofwildlife.org/ and www.wildlife.utah.gov/.