How to locate and hunt more elk


Elk camp in the backcountry
Photo credit: Jason Phelps

I got my start hunting the Roosevelt elk that call the coast of Washington home, but as time and finances have allowed over the past 5 years I have found myself wanting to extend my elk hunting in September. The only problem is that I have never hunted anywhere but in my own backyard. Here are the steps I use to increase the odds of figuring out a productive elk hunting spot.

Hunt where the elk are

Punching an Idaho elk tag

I can GUARANTEE hunters that are successful year in and year out have one thing in common…they are all hunting in good areas with elk (feel free to call me Captain Obvious). It may sound simple enough but every year I hear stories of guys going on out-of-state trips and not seeing any elk or very little sign.
The first thing you must decide is where you want to hunt elk. My personal strategy involves over-the-counter (OTC) elk hunting that I can rely on every year. I find that I am often more successful if I am able to hunt the same area year after year and know everything about it, instead of bouncing around to new hunting areas every year. If enough time is invested you can create your own honey hole. I also have points in many western states but OTC tags provide me the most opportunity for hunting.

State by state elk population numbers


Elk population

New Mexico85,000


Source: 2010 RMEF Data

Colorado, Idaho, Montana (under prescribed on licenses the past few years), Oregon and Washington all offer OTC hunting opportunities. As a Washington resident I count on hunting my home state every year. I also try and plan an out-of-state trip every year. Based on my location, I usually pick either Idaho or Montana.

Starting your research

goHUNT INSIDER unit profile filtering

The first place I start when researching a “specific” unit to hunt used to be the state’s fish and game website, but now I can easily use goHUNT's INSIDER program to filter through each unit and see a breakdown of the information.

Tag quota and harvest success

After researching and sorting through the available information I can figure out the number of tags issued in a unit and the hunter’s success percentage. Then, I make a short list of two or three units that look good on paper.

Google Earth image of scouting elk country

Next, I turn to Google Earth. I want to get an idea of the topography, cover and access of the units so I can evaluate the ones that looked good on paper. While on the computer, I also use my chip to confirm that there will not be any issues with private property or other potential access issues.
The next step in my research is obtaining personal feedback on the units. I always take these reviews with a grain of salt; hunters may be the best at altering the truth. I may actually shy away from a unit if it is receiving too much press. I also search the hunting forums and review search engines as well as look at pictures from hikers and tourists. I usually call the local big game biologists to see what they have to say about the area (once again remembering that whatever information they give me has also been shared with everyone else that has called). Finally, I check in with the outfitters that operate in those units. Basically, I want to gather as much information as I can about the potential areas that I want to hunt.
Once I have settled on a specific state and specific unit, I make sure that I understand the state’s process to obtaining a tag and make note of any important dates. For instance, if you wanted to hunt Oregon your tag must be bought before opening day, Montana’s applications must be in by a certain date and other states like Idaho and Washington allow you to buy your tags from the local gas station or license vendor.

Devising a plan of attack

Elk camp with bull elk

Back to using a combination of Google Earth and the unit boundaries, I work on devising a plan on how I want to attack the area. Ideally, I look for areas that will put me in unpressured sections two to three miles from roads or ATV trails. Then, I make sure the area has the three things that elk need to survive: food, water and cover/bedding areas.

Jason Phelps' 2014 Idaho elk

Jason Phelps with his 2014 Idaho bull elk.

I try to locate four or five areas like this because I never know when I show up what the pressure will actually be or if the area happens to be void of elk. While nothing beats "boots to the ground" scouting — and I highly recommend it — the lack of vacation and a busy schedule makes this system work well for the busy hunter.

When to schedule your hunt?

Great archery bull elk
Charlie was able to notch a tag on his first day hunting a new area.

The last step is to decide when I want to hunt. In my opinion any time between September 10 and September 30 has the possibility of being very good, but I have also killed a lot of elk before September 10 (I can thank Washington for always having their season early in September). My goal is to spend a minimum of a week plus the weekends on both ends as a minimum length of time for a hunt. Ideally, I try to hunt two consecutive weeks with the weekends on both ends included. After all, the expenses for the travel and tags have already been paid for.

Full draw on a bull elk 
This was my view 6 hours into my 2014 elk hunt in an area I had never laid eyes on. Using the research tools above paid off.

Finding elk may seem simple enough, but I am shocked at how many conversations I have with fellow elk hunters that put themselves in areas that do not produce. By doing a little research upfront, you can increase your odds of having a quality elk hunt come this fall.    



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