Elk are one of the largest game animals in North America, weighing in at over 700 pounds and sometimes sporting antlers scoring over 400 inches. These giant, mountain dwelling ungulates can often be found alone as “satellite bulls,” or in large social groups made up of both bulls and cows in the forest-edge style habitat they live in. Their elevation on the mountain is season dependent, as they drop low in the winter to escape the cold and find food, and return to higher elevation as temperatures warm. Throughout this time, elk can be found feeding on a variety of grasses and other small plants, using their four-chambered stomach to break it all down. Much like a whitetail, bulls will also mark their territory and remove summer velvet by rubbing their antlers on trees at the beginning of the breeding season.
Where To Hunt Elk
The top elk hunting states in the country are Colorado, Arizona, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. Colorado has the largest elk population in the world and offers high success rates. Utah and Arizona are both known for having true giants, but drawing a tag is difficult in both states. Montana has a very large population with some very nice animals and tags are easier to draw for non-residents. If you are looking for monsters, the largest elk in the world come from Afognak Island in Alaska, and can grow to up to 1,300 pounds. This hunt is no “gimme” though, as the conditions are often tough and grizzlies of monster proportions roam the island. However, if you draw a tag and are looking for an adventure, this place is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
Elk Hunting Techniques
Archery Elk Hunting
Elk are hunted differently depending on the season. The early archery season takes place around late September and October and is during the heat of the rut. Hunters typically use both cow calls and bugles to locate and then call in lone “satellite” bulls during this time period. Because it is usually very warm this time of year, many hunters find areas with water that contain wallows, (places elk have rolled in the mud and water to cool off and get rid of bugs) and attempt to ambush a bull when he comes in for a drink. This technique can prove very effective due to the lack of water around. However, if bulls are with a herd, calling is much less effective as they already have plenty of cows to choose from and have no need to go find a mystery caller. These herd bulls must be hunted carefully, as you are not only hunting one elk, you are hunting the whole herd, with every individual looking and smelling for danger. Here, hunters must wait for a bull to break away from the herd and then sneak in quickly for a shot.
Rifle Elk Hunting
Later season, hunters often try to spot-and-stalk elk with their rifles. Utilizing high points in the terrain, hunters will look through binoculars and spotting scopes to pick apart large expanses of land. In the morning, elk will be on the move, and hunters can watch them until they bed down. Once bedded, it is much easier to sneak in close for an opportunity as the animal is not moving. In the evening, elk will again be on their feet and become easier to spot. However, there is no bedding period to wait for and hunters must beat the sunset and act before it is too dark. Finally, when hunting elk, the most important variable is the wind. Elk have an extremely good sense of smell and know how to use thermal currents to stay safe from predators. However, skilled hunters can also use these thermals to their advantage, and, if played correctly, can sneak in very close to unsuspecting bulls.
Elk are extremely tough, and animals of this caliber require good shot placement with big rifles to make ethical kills. There is a great deal of debate on what caliber is best for elk, but some favorites include the 300 Winchester Magnum and the 7mm Remington Magnum. Due to the nature of western hunts and the terrain the game occupies, it is also important that you are comfortable shooting at a good distance. Those accustomed to hunting whitetails back east rarely make shots farther than 150 or 200 yards as the environment simply does not allow it. However, elk country is big country, with shots frequently stretching out to 400 yards. Because of this, it is important that you practice shooting your rifle before heading into the woods.
Elk Food Quality
Elk are frequently classified as having the best game meat around. Looking at cattle, “grass fed” beef is considered superior to corn or grain fed beef. Being that an elk’s diet is almost exclusively grass and other small shrubs, the meat, much like a grass fed cow, is extremely high quality. On top of this, even the largest bull elk are rarely considered “gamey”. This is unusual, considering that many game animals can begin to develop an off taste when they reach old age. Finally, a large bull elk may yield more than three times the amount of meat than even the largest deer, keeping your freezer full until the following season.