So, You Want to be an Elk Hunter! | Great Days Outdoors

Start Planning Now for that Trip of a Lifetime

By Alan Carter

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Alan Carter graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in resource conservation and has spent the last 25 years hunting elk throughout the Rocky Mountains. He is a licensed big game guide and owner of Two Bear Outfitters and BVA Pacbags in Hamilton, Montana)

Every autumn, sportsmen head to the western states, carrying suits of camouflage and their favorite guns and bows to test their skills against one of the most magnificent big game animals in North America, the Rocky Mountain elk.

As they travel, their minds fill with visions of a mighty royal bull taking a morning stroll across a high meadow framed by towering snow-capped mountains in the background. Some of these hunters will return home with wonderful stories from the slopes, but for others, the pain of wasted time and money sits hard in their gut.


In this 3-part series on western elk hunting, I will lend my experience as an elk outfitter on what it takes to have a successful and enjoyable hunt in the West. This first article will focus on what the out-of-state hunter needs to do to get started with a good plan.

Start With a Good Plan

Almost all hunters at some point in their hunting careers find elk maneuvering to the top of their bucket lists. However, for most hunters, the only chance to go on an elk hunt means heading west, but the elk-hunting journey really begins right at the kitchen table.

Almost all hunters at some point in their hunting careers find elk maneuvering to the top of their bucket lists.”

The first order of business once you decide to do an elk hunt is to ask yourself “Am I really committed?” I can’t tell you how many hunters I have talked to over the years that had a partner bail out before hitting the road to head west. Many say they are going to do an elk hunt, but when it comes down to getting busy on it, the allure begins to pale. If you are committed to getting it done, make a backup plan to go solo if your designated hunting partners decide not to go.

Once you have made the commitment and decided come heck or high water you are going to do an elk hunt, the real work is just getting started. The next thing you need to ask is “Am I able to do an elk hunt?” Do you realistically have the time, money, resources, psychological and physical ability to make it all work? If not, are you really willing to get in a position so you can make the trip?

Elk hunting is tough. To put it in perspective, Alabama has a deer herd of approximately 1.5 million animals spanning 52,419 square miles. Montana for example has 160,000 elk scattered over 147,164 square miles, most of which is wilderness mountain terrain. The deer density of Alabama is 29 times the elk density of Montana! This makes for some difficult physical and psychological burdens when chasing elk.

At this point, if you’re still on board, made the commitment, have the resources, and understand that elk hunting is difficult, it is time to get in shape. Sportsmen need at least a year in advance to plan for an elk hunt for a variety of reasons, but getting in shape should top the list. The number one reason I have seen hunters fail to capitalize on their elk hunts is not being physically fit enough to make the ridge, get in front of the herd or even simply hike where they need to go in order to get to a bull. Elk country is big, tall and steep. Even a few miles through blowdowns and burns can wear a hunter down and have him heading back to camp by lunch. The altitude coupled with the vastness of elk country is a serious and real issue to overcome and takes proper preparedness to mitigate.


Bagging a bull elk like this one is often the culmination of a long planning and preparation process that begins right at home. Photo by Alan Carter

Focus On the Total Experience

Once you commit to the aforementioned things, it is time to ask yourself “What am I really looking for in an elk hunt?” Essentially, two types of people go on elk hunts –those focused entirely on bagging a bull and those who consider harvesting an elk the icing on the cake.

Success rates on elk hunts are reasonably low all across the western states. A hunter more focused on a quality experience in some beautiful country will almost always have a better total experience. It is wise to consider your hunt an adventure and plan in your mind to take in and lavish the entire elk hunting experience.

A hunter more focused on a quality experience in some beautiful country will almost always have a better total experience.”

No matter which type of hunter you are, elk should remain your top priority, even when thinking about adding deer, bear and other pursuits to your adventure. Whether you want to do it yourself or hire an outfitter, elk hunting days are precious and can be quickly eaten up chasing a deer into the next canyon and packing him out if you get him.

A better approach is to review the state regulations and review what other tags you can buy. If you get your elk on the first day, you can buy a tag and continue your hunt for another species having already achieved your primary goal.

Decide Where to Go

Another point to address in the planning stage is to isolate where you want to hunt. The West boasts many great elk venues. Decide early which state you want to hunt and plan accordingly. Many states have a limited entry or draw system. Others sell tags over the counter. Some states have great elk herds and others not so much.

If your hunt plan includes a hunt next fall, you are going to need a guaranteed draw state or over the counter tag. Colorado and Idaho have OTC tags; Montana has a guaranteed draw for example. Colorado has high elk numbers, but heavy hunting pressure and the top units for big bulls are limited entry by draw. At this stage, a comprehensive research of each state, in conjunction with your anticipated timeframe and the type of hunt you desire to make, is imperative.

You have made it this far. You have committed to hunt elk and know what you want. You know which state you plan to hunt. You’ve been saving your pennies and getting in shape with a target date in mind. It’s time to decide if you want to go the DIY route or hire an outfitter.

For some people, just spending a few days in a remote hunting camp in a scenic mountain wilderness makes a western hunt well worth the effort. Photo by Alan Carter.

DIY or Outfitter?

Many hunt consultants can recommend outfitters. Some can help plan your DIY elk hunt. I do not necessarily recommend them as I feel it is a big advantage to the prospective elk hunter to be an active participant in his or her own hunt. I think it is good to talk with several outfits and get a feel for their operations.

Additionally, I think it is advantageous for the DIY hunter to investigate areas with internet imagery, order maps and speak with local biologists for the chosen area. The planning stage of a DIY elk hunt is half the fun, especially if you have a group. It keeps you focused throughout the year on the prize and can save a good bit of money over a consultants hunt plan.

The advantages of going with an outfitter are obvious. In most cases, the hunter pays for the lodging, food, knowledge and area all in one package. It is safe to say that the chances of getting on a bull with a quality outfitter greatly exceed that of a DIY hunt. Outfitters also have the capacity to retrieve and remove game from the backcountry, a big consideration when you have to haul 250 to 300 pounds of meat several miles back to the truck or camp. This also allows you flexibility to hunt where the elk are without consideration on how you are going to get the meat out.

Another advantage to hiring an outfitter is gaining valuable knowledge about elk and how to hunt them. A fully guided hunt with an experienced outfitter can take many years off the learning curve for novice elk hunters, particularly for archery hunters. This is a valuable consideration if you are planning to make elk a regular pursuit each year. Outfitters also have the equipment and plan in place to make your hunt as safe as possible along with trained staff to handle emergencies if they come up.

The disadvantage of an outfitted hunt is, of course, the cost. A one-on-one guided public land hunt with an outfitter will typically cost more than $5,000. This does not include transportation, tags, taxidermy or processing. The good news is there are a variety of hunt options and ways to save money with an outfitter, which we will explore in the next article.

The other route is a DIY hunt where you plan and control all the elements of your hunt. The advantage here is money saved, typically, a lot of it. It is important to insure you have the right equipment on hand to make it work. If you have to purchase tents, coolers, lanterns, cots and a host of other gear for a one-time hunt, it may not be worth it. However, if you have or will use the gear in the future, it is simply a smart investment in your hunting plan.

Even if you are staying at a lodge or hotel in town, things like chains for your truck for getting up the mountain roads, backpacks, quality binoculars and such are necessary. The big consideration in elk hunting is getting your animal off the mountain. A DIYer should have the proper equipment and stamina to bring all the meat out. Finally, if a DIYer is an archery hunter, that person will need to be well versed in calling techniques, setups, methods and tactics to have any realistic chance of getting on a bull unless you plan a stand hunt.

The majority of quality outfits book hunts nearly a year out. Prospective hunters may need to obtain points for the draw, save money and allocate vacation time and, of course, get in shape. It is important to remember that draw state deadlines for elk applicants occurs in the early part of the year. The Wyoming deadline is in January for example, followed by several states in March and April. Lastly, the long preparation time gives you a year to convince your spouse that you really need to do an elk hunt or that the spouse needs to do one with you!

Through proper planning and thorough research, you can greatly enhance your elk hunting adventure while avoiding the pitfalls of a poorly designed western elk hunt. Remember, it all starts right at the kitchen table with an honest assessment of your personal situation and goals. Properly planned, folks of all ages and hunting styles can have a quality adventure chasing elk across the mountains under the great western skies.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The second part of this 3-part series on planning an elk hunt will focus on how to book a hunt with an outfitter, what to look for, what to avoid and important considerations before sending a deposit. The third article will focus on how to plan and take a do-it-yourself hunt for those who wish to go it alone.)

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