The process of elk hunting and the thrill of crossing paths with these old herbivores after miles of tracking and searching have made this sport a lifetime pursuit for many hunters.
For those looking for big game and a large harvest of meat, elk are the best animals to commit your time, money and lots of energy.
Elk hunters also get to enjoy being out in nature in some of the most amazing landscapes.
Very few experiences compare to an elk hunt in the backcountry.
The primal feeling and sense of accomplishment when harvesting an elk take you back thousands of years to those who hunted long before you.
Of course, such a feeling is only obtained through trials and hardships, which go hand in hand with hunting.
To fully cover a lifetime of hunting lessons would take much more than a simple article.
What we want to provide with this short piece is lay out some basics that include some of the gear needed as well as some basic tips for stalking and harvesting elk. We will also look at some of the common mistakes that hunters often make.
The best lessons for hunting elk occur in the field. Our hope is that this article provides enough information to get you out there. Then you can learn the hard lessons on your own.
While it is going to be difficult, it will all be worth it when those large, ancient animals cross your path.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, where Trek Warrior makes a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Elk Hunting Basics
Some people reading this article are going to nod their heads in agreement. Those looking to get into the sport need to pay attention.
While the thought of harvesting an elk will keep you up at night, it is difficult work. It is more than a simple trek out into the woods.
It's an endeavor. Even the most experienced elk hunters are not successful on every trip. In this section, we are going to cover the surface of elk range and habitat and explain how they are hunted.
Elk range covers most of the western U.S. and continues through Canada. Currently, elk are being reintroduced in areas east of the Mississippi. However, tags for eastern hunts are extremely limited at this moment.
These are large animals. Elk size for adult cows average around 500 pounds and adult bulls average around 700 pounds. Elk are often found in herds throughout the year. This is both a blessing and a curse to the hunter as they can more easily spot elk and elk sign.
However, the herd can also more easily spot a predator, such as you. Elk are very vocal animals with distinct calls. Once you have heard the call you will never forget it!
Elk season varies from state to state. The season usually begins around the end of August and start of September and runs through the end of November and sometimes into mid-December.
Most often the beginning of the season is limited to archery. Gun season begins once the peak of the rut has passed.
The location of elk changes throughout the season especially in mountainous regions.
Elk stick to higher altitudes in the warmer months and as the seasons cool they migrate down to lower elevations. This makes them much more accessible to hunters.
Elk in heavily hunted areas stick to heavier timber and require some excellent woodsmanship and a little luck to take one in these situations.
To hunt elk, you have to be aware of their major needs and how these needs change as the hunting season progresses. Obviously, one of the major needs of elk is food.
Elk, during hunting season, feed heavily on grasses, shrubs, tree bark, small twigs and other woody fodder. These are usually located in open areas such as fields and meadows.
Elk also need cover. This comes in the form of heavy timber. Elk use this and their ability to move great distances quickly to escape predators.
Like deer hunting, elk season can be broken up into several periods—the pre-rut, rut, and post-rut. Hunting strategies vary from period to period. The majority of tips covered in this article pertain to all periods of the season.
During this period, it is all about the food. Elk are preparing to go into rut where a lot of energy is used. Very little effort is used finding more food to replenish its reserves.
Because of this, it is all about finding the grazing areas of these animals. Proper scouting is crucial during this period. Understanding herd movement patterns will be the difference in success and failure.
There will often be some rut like tendencies occurring. Since this will likely be archery season, you are going to have to get up close and personal.
Kick your strategy for pre-rut, post-rut, and late season hunting out the door. This period focuses on mating and taking advantage of the hormones and the one track mind of elk.
During this period calling can be very effective. Bull elk attempt to attract harems of cows to their side and protect them aggressively. Usually, rifle season remains illegal so you have to get in close with the animals.
One of the best ways to locate bull elks is to find the cows. If you locate a herd of cows, then you can be sure that a bull is nearby.
During this period elk shift back to feeding. Mature, dominant bulls have used up a lot of energy breeding and protecting their harem.
Focus on the paths elk travel to feeding areas and the feeding areas themselves. The elk will be there. Elk will group up again with their respective sex.
Remember that there are going to be a lot of extra eyes, ears, and noses watching for predators. If you are in an area with any hunting pressure, elk are going to be elusive and hold to heavy timber for cover except during feeding.
Elk Hunting Gear
This type of hunting requires a lot of walking. You are going to hear us harp on this a lot throughout the article. Many great boot options are available.
We like lighter boots that are not going to weigh you down.
We also like high ankle support for traversing over rough, elevated terrain.
Water-resistant boots are also a wise choice.
As far as thermal properties go, it all depends on where and when you are hunting.
As for the best elk hunting boots, we recommend the Irish Setter 860 Elk Tracker Boots.
While high thermal properties are nice when the weather is near or below freezing, walking several miles in them might get uncomfortable.
More important than the brand of boot you go with is that they are broken in before going out to the field. Hurting, blistered feet can ruin a hunt.
Be sure to break your boots in. Walk several dozen miles in the boots you intend to take out into the field. It might seem trivial, but this is some of the best advice we can give you. Your boots should feel like a part of you.
Here is the problem with late season hunting during rifle season—it is cold. You are sweating. You need to be careful and selective on the type of material you wear. It is also important to layer your clothing appropriately.
In our opinion, smart wool is one of the best materials that you can have when hunting in general. Smart wool is thermal. You can buy different thicknesses of wool, yet it still has excellent wicking properties.
There is an inevitable sprint when hunting elk.
Working up a sweat in cold weather and then having your body temperature cool back down is a sure path to hypothermia.
Having a material that wicks moisture away from your body and dries quickly is extremely important.
We also recommend layering accordingly.
Wool socks are a must to prevent blisters. We recommend Darn Tough Hunter socks.
A good wicking base layer followed by another two mid layers of increasing thermal properties make it easy to regulate your temperature. During snow or rain, having an outer shell keeps you comfortable.
Having a quality hunting/trekking backpack is a critical component to both a successful and a comfortable elk hunt.
While some of you might have access to private land, a lot of elk hunters utilize public lands where you might harvest an elk several miles away from the road.
Often, vehicle access is not possible. In this situation, you have to pack the animal out. A quality backpack is critical for this component of the hunt.
Not only is it important for packing an elk out of the field, but you need plenty of room for carrying water, for packing and storing layers of clothing, and for carrying survival gear in case of emergency.
Your pack may feasibly include shelter, food, flares, fire starting materials, and first aid.
A backpack serves as a seat while glassing and as a shooting stand to help center and stabilize a shot at long range.
For the elk hunting backpack, we recommend the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander & Pack Bag.
Going out into the field without a quality backpack is a poor decision. You should put as much stock in this piece of equipment as you put in your rifle.
We finally come to one of the more heated debates in elk hunting. I believe this is one of the more useless discussions as well—the best elk hunting caliber.
What I think is useless about it is the argument over which one is best, even though several calibers can all kill elk cleanly at 300 yards and below.
If it can take the animals down quickly with a well-placed shot, then that is all you should be concerned with. Now, we will discuss several of those calibers.
You want a caliber that is going to have well over 1,000 foot-pound of stopping power energy when it reaches the animal. In our eyes, it must have this energy even at 300 to 400 yards. It also needs to be a well placed shot.
Anything under this energy has the chance of not taking an elk down cleanly. For this reason, we feel it is safe to use the following calibers when hunting elk. This is by no means a complete list.
Search the web for a few minutes to find dozens of rounds and calibers that have been and are still used to take an elk. For those looking to get into the sport, these are a few tried and tested calibers for the best elk hunting rifle:
- .270 Win 160 and above grain bullets
- 7mm Remington Magnum 160 grain and above
- .30-06 Springfield 160 grain and above
- .300 Magnum 160 grain and above
We are not sure what your hunting experience is at this point. If you have never hunted large game out west, then it is probably a safe assumption that you have never spotted animals at several miles.
While optics are very important for a lot of hunting, it is critical for elk.
The distance shots are taken for elk vary pretty widely.
I would venture to guess that the majority of elk harvested with rifles average somewhere around 200 to 300 yards.
To go along with this, the scope that you use is also important.
Variable powered is a must with shots coming at a variety of ranges. With that being said, I do not think you need any optics on your firearm that is over 9x magnification.
For those with a tight budget, but needing a quality scope, check out the Nikon Prostaff 3-9x40.
If you have the budget and want more quality than what the Nikon Prostaff offers, you can't go wrong with the Leupold VX-2 3-9x40.
For glassing, go with something that gives you high powered magnification.
Besides your firearm optics, having a high powered spotting scope or binoculars is going to be a huge advantage.
During the late season hunts where it is tough to get in close on wary elk, these will be indispensable.
For a spotting scope, we like to have at least 20x magnification and also have a sturdy tripod for stability. The Barska Blackhawk Spotter offers all of these great features.
For any optic, quality craftsmanship is invaluable. You do not want to have to deal with poor light transmission and lenses that fog easily.
Elk Hunting Tips
We have gone over most of the “must have” gear for stalking big bull elk or cows. In this next section, we will look at several tips that will help you put an elk in the crosshair.
Some of these tips might seem like common sense to some readers, but they are still worth mentioning for those with little hunting experience and even less experience stalking elk.
It is more than just a simple hunting trip. On a true elk hunt, you cover some intense distances and elevations.
Elk are smart creatures. If you are going to an area that has seen some hunting pressure, elk tend to maneuver around areas that are difficult to access.
If you want a shot at these animals, you will need to be able to handle walking several miles of rough, often steep terrain.
Also, you must maintain a low profile and keep your mind on the hunt. It is much easier said than done. Until you experience it, you are not going to have a very good idea of what we are talking about.
For several weeks to months in advance of the season, participate in some cardio. While the treadmill is fine, the best cardio is outside with natural gradients like steep hills.
Where to Begin Looking
We covered the types of nutrition that elk need. We briefly covered elk habitat in the first section of this article.
Now, we want to dig a little bit deeper. If you haul out on a thousand acres of public land just hoping to run into some elk, you are most likely going to end up back at the truck with a couple dozen of miles on you and no elk in sight.
Going in with a plan of where you are going and where elk have a higher chance of being located increases your confidence and chances.
This process should begin well before the season begins. You have a lot of tools at your disposal in this modern age.
Specifically, Google maps and other satellite software prove to be very helpful.
Many state wildlife services provide a generous amount of information about the land, including access points.
Elk feed in open meadows, burnouts, and other open areas. They also want to be near heavy timber for quick cover. Elk will also be in areas where they can traverse mountain ridges quickly. This usually entails saddles where they can get to the other side fast.
If you are hunting public land, we recommend getting out at least two miles from the nearest road and access point. This is even more important if the area receives heavier hunting pressure and it is getting late in the season.
Once you have an area pinned down that looks like elk country, it is time to get some boots on the ground. Again, looking for elk signs is a step that should be taken before the season even begins.
This gives you an idea of where elk are localizing and moving. If you find some elk signs, you should get out of that area as quickly and quietly as possible to avoid pushing the animals.
Keep an eye out for several key elk signs. These include droppings, tracks, rubs, scrapes, and bedding. Spotting elk is, of course, an obvious sign but also keep your ears open.
Elk are very vocal animals. In the weeks leading up to the rut, animals talk.
Another sign of elk in the area is the smell. Elk have a very distinct smell, almost like a barnyard with a hint of ammonia. If the smell is really strong, it is possible there are a several elk in the area.
If you run into this area while hunting, check the wind and move slowly and purposefully. If you have not spooked them, there is a good chance they are close by.
Also, remember when scouting that these are wary. If you bump them too often, you will find yourself in an area with very few elk. Woodsmanship is critical. It takes time to be able to spot these signs quickly.
If you have mapped out areas that look like elk territory, pair this with elk signs and you have increased your chances of success.
Strategies for the Season
We covered the various periods of the hunting season earlier in the article, but we want to reiterate this important point.
Elk behavior changes as the season goes along. Staying flexible enough to change your hunting strategy is going to give you a much greater chance at harvesting an elk.
When elk season begins, you are usually already in the rut or gearing up for it in the next few weeks. Rut tactics can work in the pre-rut as bulls are most likely beginning to seek out cows and build their harem.
It is still an opportunity to take elk while they are still in feeding patterns. Scouting and seeing elk in the same area for several days feeding lets you know they are still gearing up for the rut.
Again, this period is often archery season. It is important to know when they will be there and be in a shooting position downwind of the elk.
For the rut, it is all about getting in close with your bow and using some strategic calling to bring in a bull. If you can locate a harem and get in within 100 yards, you have a great chance to make a bull think a stray cow is nearby and bring him in.
A bugle can also make him think another male is challenging him. This will bring him in hot. Be ready to take a shot in these situations. The action can happen fast.
When the rut winds down, elk transition back to feeding. If they are in a heavily hunted area, they also move to thicker timber for protection as often as possible.
If they move to open fields, it is often very early in the morning or evening and perhaps even at night. Elk are wary during this time. Being out before daybreak at a high vantage point where you can glass is critical.
Look for meadows or other clearings where elk will be feeding. If you do not think you can make a move on them, do not rush and make a mistake. You know where they will be.
From your vantage point, locate a spot where you can make a shot. Work that spot that afternoon where the elk might return or be there before daybreak the next morning.
Be sure to approach the spot carefully. The elk might already be there. This is normally gun season so you can give yourself a 200 to 300-yard buffer.
One of the most important aspects of hunting elk is locating them. While this seems pretty obvious, it is a skill that takes a lot of practice and experience.
When you are looking across a mile of land on another mountain ridge, it is amazing how everything begins to look like an elk and how difficult it is to spot one.
Our best advice for glassing is to take your time and work the land in a pattern. If you try to speed things along and look wildly around you, it will be difficult to spot a herd of elk, let alone a lone bull.
When you sit down, do so knowing that you will spend a certain amount of time at that spot looking.
It is easy to glass over an opposing ridge and slope for five minutes and say it is time to move on.
There is a good chance that you missed an elk.
Also, find an area downwind of the area you want to glass.
Set up at a higher altitude or the same as the area you want to glass. Looking at a slight downward angle is much easier than looking up.
Where you setup, be sure to have a little cover around you. This might be a boulder or just a little brush.
While sitting out in the open might not blow a hunt, we like to be safe and having cover gives you more confidence that you are not making a mistake and being seen.
We just talked glassing. We think working outward is an important concept that goes along with glassing.
When hunting, we often envision glassing over long distances. We must spot the elk at a mile off and come up with a game plan to put us in rifle range.
While this happens a lot and is extremely satisfying when it comes to fruition, hunter’s often bump closer and easier targets at a closer range without realizing what is happening.
Start looking close to you and slowly work your way out. This goes hand in hand with having a pattern when glassing but is important enough to have its own section.
Have a Hunting Buddy
There are few experiences more exhilarating than chasing after elk in the backcountry on your own.
Before undertaking such a trip, we recommend that you have some experience under your belt. While hunting solo is beyond thrilling, hunting with a friend is equally rewarding.
While bonds will be strengthened, it is also nice to have an extra pair of eyes while glassing and another source of strategy when trying to put the moves on elk.
It is also great for safety reasons in case of emergency.
Even more important is when you do harvest an elk and have to pack it out, that extra muscle is going to save you several miles and hundreds of pounds worth of effort.
We believe that hunting is a communal effort. Seriously, take someone hunting with you. You will form memories with that person and a strong, lasting friendship.
Wind Direction Awareness
We just finished talking about the physical fitness needed to stalk elk successfully. Being in the best shape of your life and be able to hike 20 miles a day in rough terrain, are not the only requirements for a successful hunt.
You must keep an eye on wind direction and potential elk direction. You can walk as much as you like, but you are not going to have a shot at an elk.
Elk, like other hooved prey, have a very keen sense of smell. These animals have been hunted by humans and other predators for thousands of years. They are going to pick up your scent well before you have a chance of getting a shot off if you are upwind
You can try out scent maskers, but we are not sure how useful these products are. Your best bet is remaining undetected by these animals.
It is tough and takes years of experience to get really good at making a move and keeping downwind on the elk. Even veterans of the hunt find themselves in the wrong direction of the herd or a lone bull during the rut.
You are going to run some off, it is inevitable. However, most of them you will not even realize what you have done. Just always have the wind direction and elk direction in mind.
Limit the Calling
A less experienced hunter is tempted, especially during the peak of the rut, to overcall bulls. I am sure your Saturday morning research has consisted of watching the pros call in bull after bull.
While calling has its advantages, I am in the camp of too much calling will cause animals to become wary.
The most effective time for bugling—the males warning other bulls and a call to attract cows—is during the heat of the rut. This time varies.
However, it usually begins in late September. While bugling can bring in a bull within 100 yards, you still need to have a plan. Do not call unless you know you are ready to take a shot.
If you are going to call, do so with a purpose. Bugling in areas where there is fresh sign of elk is a great locator strategy. It can let you know where a bull is as well as how far away.
Using a cow call, in our opinion, is a much better option for bringing a bull to you. While a call can be a valuable tool, use it with a concrete plan in mind.
Just calling for the heck of it is a good way to push elk away from you or put you in a poor position with a bull coming in quickly.
Hunting elk is an endeavor. It requires careful planning, physical fitness, and a lot of skill to be successful.
In this guide, we have outlined the essential gear that is needed as well as covered a few tips that will help alleviate some common mistakes and misconceptions that come with hunting.
There are very few hunts as demanding and equally rewarding as harvesting an elk. We hope this article will make that chance and feeling more attainable.
Huston has spent over 18 years chasing trout, deer, turkey, and game birds across the Southeast and Midwest United States.
As the founder of Discovery & Learning Writing Service, he enjoys helping businesses generate trustworthy and quality material in the outdoor, science, and education fields.
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