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Elk Hunting

Learn how to elk hunt and about popular spots for elk hunting.

Always put safety first when elk hunting. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Always put safety first when elk hunting.

Hunters across the United States enjoy elk hunting each fall. According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, elk belong to the deer family of animals and to the genus "artiodactyls" which means, like moose and white tail deer, that they have an even number of toes. Elk are a gentle breed of herbivores that roam in herds across the mountainous regions of the United States. A trophy for any hunter, the elk offers an abundant amount of lean meat, a great set of antlers for mounting, a tough pelt and, of course, a great hunting story. Read on for more information on elk hunting, including equipment, fees and preparing elk meat.

U.S. Elk Hunting Regions

Elk hunting is usually confined to the mountainous terrain in which elk spend most of their lives. As snow comes to the higher elevations, elk migrate down to the lower elevations in search of food. Many states offer elk hunting tags or seasons on their hunting calendar. As of 2008, legal elk hunting seasons are held in the following states:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wyoming

It is always a good idea to contact the state game and fish departments to find out how many licenses are offered in a given year, as well as legal hunting areas and length of state seasons.

Elk Hunting Basics

Elk hunting, regardless of state, usually takes place in late fall when temperatures begin to cool and herds are more accessible on the lower elevations. Unless a hunter has permission to hunt on private land, most hunting tags are issued for public and state lands. This means there may be a number of hunters in the area, giving reason for caution. For the sake of safety, hunters should make their presence known to other hunters in the area.

Big game hunting is not for the beginner, and first-time elk hunters should consider hiring a professional guide (especially when hunting out of state) or an experienced elk hunter, at least for the first year.

Whether it is the first hunt or the 10th hunt, every elk hunter should take a friend along. In addition to offering a second set of eyes when looking for the herd, a hunting partner adds a higher level of safety to the hunt; a friend can call for help in an emergency and offers much needed physical assistance in retrieving the elk carcass.

Be sure to scout the area and get to know the terrain in advance. Preseason reconnoitering allows the hunter to anticipate any possible hurdles and add any additional hunting equipment to the list.

Elk Hunting Equipment and Necessities

Every elk hunt requires a certain amount of necessary equipment. Elk country is often difficult and isolated terrain. Having the essentials on-hand could not only ensure a great hunt but, in the case of adverse conditions, save a life. Prepared elk hunters should always pack:

  • Communication and logistical equipment (maps of the area, GPS devices, compass, cellular phones, CB radios)
  • Batteries and chargers for all electrical equipment
  • Gun or bow, as well as all necessary ammunition (bullets and/or arrows)
  • Camouflage clothing suitable to the terrain and climate of the chosen hunting spot (be sure to include orange vest and hats in areas where such items are mandatory)
  • Optical equipment and other hunting accessories (binoculars, range finders, scopes, game calls)
  • Extra socks and boots
  • Appropriate weather gear, including (depending on location) rainwear, tent, sleeping bag and blankets
  • Cooking equipment and food and beverages, ranging from a camp stove and fishing rod to chopped firewood and a cooler of food and water
  • Toiletries and personal care items (sunscreen, toothbrush, towels, non-camouflage clothing and other items deemed necessary for comfort)
  • Hunting license and game tags
  • Gutting knife and game bag for field preparation

Although digital cameras and camcorders are not considered essential hunting equipment, they can help capture every memorable moment of the hunt. Consider waterproof cameras for extra assurance.

State Fees and Population Variations

Non-resident hunting fees can vary greatly from state to state and are usually much higher than similar licenses and tags for other game animals. The cheapest non-resident licenses available as of 2008 are for Arkansas and Pennsylvania at $100 to $300 and $250, respectively. The most expensive is Nevada at $1,200, although Utah's premium elk tag is $1,500. Most tags and licenses fall into the $300 to $500 range.

The National Hunting and Fishing Day Web site explains that elk hunting has grown in popularity over the last few decades, and the number of available elk to hunt has increased rapidly. Some states have much higher elk populations than others, thus offering the best chance of getting the money out of a high-priced elk tag. As of 2008, Colorado has an estimated population of 292, 000 elk. Montana has 150,000, Oregon 120,000 and Wyoming 95,000, making the Rocky Mountain region the best place to hunt.

License Legalities

Although a number of states offer elk hunting seasons and licenses, it is important to note that California offers only one non-resident tag per season and Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota do not offer elk licenses to non-residents.

Some states offer tag lotteries for elk as part of the application for a general hunting license. Often, preference for a limited number of tags is given to state residents who have submitted tag applications in the preceding year. Again, it is important to contact the state game and fish commission and get a copy of their elk hunting and general hunting regulations for the appropriate season. In many states, online applications are accepted.

Elk Preparation and Processing

Collecting and preparing elk meat is the final step in the elk hunting process. As elk is heavy to carry out of the mountains and can spoil quickly, field preparation is the first place to start processing an elk carcass.

The hunter should remove the entrails using a sharp hunting knife and take off the pelt to allow the carcass to cool. Hanging an elk to drain the blood is the option for the long hunt, whereas roughly cutting up the elk and placing it as soon as possible in clean plastic resealable bags is best for day trips. Meat should be kept as cool as possible (consider a cooler filled with ice) before being dropped off at the butcher or processor.

Antlers, trophy heads and hides can be dropped off at the local taxidermist on the way home or, if out of town, packaged and shipped to the taxidermist. Hunters should check with airlines and freight carriers for requirements and restrictions on shipping animal parts.

The right preparation and equipment ensures a safe and enjoyable elk hunting trip. For more information on elk hunting, contact the local state game and fish commission.

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