Practical scouting strategies for elk: Part 1


Scout now to help fill more elk tags this fall
What all elk dreams are made of. All photos credits: Dave Barnett

This time of the year is an excellent time to be an elk hunter: the season is just a few short months away and the high country should be mostly clear of snow and now accessible. The elk will not yet be in their primary rutting areas, which means that you can roam these prime spots in search of sign without possibly spooking elk, discovering a gold mine of information. Largely undisturbed elk can commonly be found feeding in open parks during the early hours of morning and in the fading light rays of evening, giving hunters a glimpse into the potential of bulls for their area.

The biggest question for most hunters is “Where do I even start?” In this three-part series, we will cover everything from selecting prospective units, to scouting the areas from home, and finally to practical strategies for physical boots-on-the-ground scouting.

Nothing beats boot leather!

If you’ve spent any time researching elk scouting strategies you’ve undoubtedly come across the old proverbial saying of “Still, nothing beats boot leather.” While this is still almost entirely true, there are other strategies hunters can utilize to save some of that boot leather for the pack out. Formulating a plan will ensure our time and effort is spent on areas that likely hold elk.

This is the bottom line: whether you’re a resident or nonresident hunter, wandering aimlessly through the woods and scouting for elk will be about as effective as doing the same during the hunting season. Your goal should be to find and establish spots that will hold elk come season and focus your time there. Life often times gets in the way and every precious day of hunting needs to be a focused on punching a tag and not just picking a spot and hoping to bump into elk.

“Go west, young man”

Bear grass blooming in elk country

In recent years, elk populations in the Midwest and East Coast have expanded greatly, offering some phenomenal trophy qualities but with low tag quantities are low and dismal draw odds. Because of this, it’s recommended that most hunters focus on the West. At this point, hunters will need to research each state's elk population regulations as well as figure out what will meet their plan the best. Below you will find a basic breakdown of some of the most popular elk states and their hunting opportunities. You can find out more information on goHUNT’s State and Species Profiles located on INSIDER.


It’s no doubt that Arizona holds some of the country's biggest bulls. Premium tags can be difficult to come by. This would be a great long term goal state for someone to begin building points in hopes of drawing a premium tag.


This is a very good state for anyone to consider with the highest elk population of all of the western states and tons of opportunity. There are great amounts of public land, OTC tags available, and lots and lots of elk! Hunters will generally experience more opportunities on elk in Colorado than in any other state. Yet, be aware that hunter numbers will be higher and trophy potentials will be lower. You can check out a great article that breaks down Colorado OTC hunts here.


Idaho is a phenomenal state for someone looking to cut their teeth on elk. This state has an incredible amount of public land, tons of OTC units, and a great season structure. Not only does Idaho allow archery for the entire month of September, but they also offer rifle tags beginning in early October when bugling bulls can often be found. Populations are suffering in some areas due to predators but a strong management plan and extended predator seasons have shown improvement in elk herd numbers overall.


This is the opportunity state! With longer seasons than most of the surrounding states, tons of public land, and lots and lots of OTC opportunities, Montana is a great place to hunt elk. Populations are suffering in regional areas due to heavy predator activity and over harvest in recent years, but elk numbers are growing incredibly strong in the north central and north eastern parts of the state. There is good trophy potential in nearly every hunting district. Nonresident hunters do have to apply for their general deer and elk tags though they are a basically guaranteed draw.


This state has very good trophy potential but opportunities for tags will be difficult to come by. There are no OTC units offered. Nevada is great state for someone to begin building points in hope of drawing a coveted tag in future years.

New Mexico

New Mexico is another state that does not offer any OTC opportunities for the elk hunter yet it does have high draw odds and is a perfect state to put in for yearly tag. It has good elk populations and excellent trophy potential. Some units do offer September rifle tags, which will undoubtedly lead to an exciting hunt.


There are great access options and the ability to hunt either Rocky Mountain elk or Roosevelts. OTC tags available for archery, muzzleloader, and any weapon seasons. There is good trophy potential and good elk numbers.


Utah offers some great OTC opportunities for hunters yet competition can be stiff. A lot of units feature heavy amounts of private land or fairly extreme terrain.  Careful planning should be taken as some units have very low populations of elk and are merely used as a means to control numbers in areas the fish and game commission does not want to see an elk presence.


Washington is also a great state for anyone to consider. There is great access, cheap tags, and great populations of elk. Some amazing bulls get taken on OTC tags every year. 


Wyoming is another great state with good opportunity. Many OTC options are available for residents, but nonresidents must apply for their general tags though quite a few units can be drawn with 100% odds. Hunters can also opt to simply buy points and hope to draw a premium tag down the road. Great elk populations and good trophy potentials are found throughout the state. There is great public land access but nonresident hunters are not allowed to hunt designated wilderness areas unless accompanied by a guide or sponsored by a resident hunter.

Elk populations by state

Continued below.

Find the hunts you want with goHUNT INSIDER promo code gear

How do I narrow down my area?

Scouting strategies for elk hunting

With nearly every western state holding great elk opportunities, it can be difficult to narrow down an area to hunt, let alone the unit or even which state. So, where does someone even start in this process? First, you need to ask yourself a few questions: Am I going for trophy bulls? Limited entry tags or OTC options? Either-sex or bull only?

Getting your core expectations and goals established early on will make finding your unit that  much easier. Do yourself a favor and list out exactly what you’re after and keep this list handy while doing your online research. Keep tabs on every prospective unit that meets your criteria and then dive into every detail until you land on your final decision. My personal list would read something like this:

  • Access: I want a lot of public land opportunities. 
  • OTC: If possible, I’m going to prefer a unit I can hunt yearly.
  • Terrain: I tend to gravitate towards rougher terrain as this generally lends itself to less hunting pressure and more solitude.
  • Ground coverage: While this may seem somewhat arbitrary it's something that should be considered. Some guys will prefer a prairie type landscape while others will want thick northern slopes. I like the thick and nasty.
  • Hunter numbers: I tend to stay away from units with high hunter numbers. I will take lower elk densities and low pressure over high densities and high hunter numbers.

This is where reading online forums, state harvest statistics, and fish and game surveys will come in handy. Much of this information can also be found by scouring the depths of the internet. Fortunately, goHUNT INSIDERs now have all of this included into one resource with the Filtering 2.0 interactive set of tools.

With Filtering 2.0, users can pick the state and species they wish to hunt and then begin narrowing down choices based on trophy size, weapons, harvest success draw odds and more.

Using goHUNT Filtering 2.0 for finding elk hunting areas

Once the user has the area narrowed down to a few prospective units they can then begin reading through detailed Unit Profiles that offer information into everything a hunter would need to know before setting foot in the area. A very detailed breakdown on this process can be found in a recent article written by Brady Miller.

Using the internet to search for hunting information

Additionally, using online search engines can be extremely beneficial in finding past and current information on specific units from other hunters. For this, I like to be as descriptive as possible and may try several different wordings for the same topic in an effort to exhaust all avenues. For instance, let's say I’m looking for information on hypothetical Hunt District 317 in Montana. I’d likely start my search with any of the following:

  • “Montana elk unit 317”
  • “Montana elk HD317”
  • “Archery elk Montana unit 317”
  • “Late season elk unit 317 Montana”

Additionally, adding a specific forum name to any of these searches can produce even more results (e.g., “Montana elk unit 317 Rokslide” or “Archery elk Montana unit 317 Hunt Talk”). Once I’ve found a good forum post, I’ll look for users who seem to have a good grasp on the unit and send them a private message seeking more detailed information. As we all know, most guys won’t give up their secrets so I’ll usually approach the situation with some subdued questions looking for information on access, hunter numbers, or their own personal success. Be sure to avoid the “Where were you hunting?” questions. By asking these nonchalant questions you are setting yourself up for more honest answers and all the information you’ll need to decide whether this hunting district is worth your time or not.

Parting thoughts

Refer to the list you made at the beginning of this article and ask yourself “What do I want out of my hunt?” By using some of the above strategies, you should be able to formulate a decent plan of attack for which state you’d like to hunt and, more specifically, which units. From this point, you can then start dissecting each district and begin building a solid plan for your hunt. 

In the next segment, we'll cover what tools to utilize in our e-scouting strategies and how to appropriately apply them to scouting or hunting ventures.


Free Trial
INSIDER Free Trial
Free Sample Unit Profile