Updated: Sep 15
Elk hunting is hard work. It didn't take long into my first elk hunt to figure that out. A "flatlander" from Kentucky, trying to hike up the mountains in Idaho, following a few guys who were born and raised there. Ha! I could barely breathe. My legs were on the verge of giving out. And at one point (ok, a few times), I was nearly in tears.
I quickly learned that whether you're a first-timer or seasoned elk hunter, it takes a commitment that starts long before the actual hunt—from scouting and learning how to call, to getting in shape for the hunt and having the right gear. As we're gearing up to get to the mountains, the following are some keywords and tips to help you on your hunt.
If you're hunting in the west, the altitude can have a significant impact on success. Most elk hunting is at elevations of 5,000-10,000 feet, meaning the oxygen is thinner, and it's harder to breathe. If you aren't used to this altitude, it will likely take a few days to get acclimated to the change.
A bugle is a sound made by a bull elk. Elk bugle primarily as a sign of dominance, but also as a means to locate another elk. Bugling can be a great way to find bull elk during the rut and call bulls into your location. Be careful not to bugle too much or too often, and make sure you practice how to call.
There are two primary types of elk calls: bugle tubes and open-reed calls. The bugle tube is used to mimic a bull elk's bugle (see above). Open reed calls are cow calls and can be used to mimic both the cow and calf.
Using decoys for elk hunting is like using decoys for any hunting—they provide a visual to go with the call. No matter the conditions or set up, if an elk hears, sees, or smells something that isn't right… it's likely to go the other way. Using a cow elk decoy, such as the Montana Cow Decoy, can be beneficial for archery hunting by allowing you to get closer to the animals.
Again, elk hunting is hard. It typically requires long days of hiking, lots of uphill, different types of terrain, and if successful, carrying a heavy pack. Prep for the hunt by hiking or trail running, treadmill running on an incline, and hiking with a weighted backpack to mimic carrying elk meat.
FOOD AND WATER SOURCES
Elk need food and water to survive. Find these areas, and find the elk. In most elk habitat, feeding areas are highly visible fields or pastures, and the elk are usually near these areas in the early morning or late afternoons. These provide an excellent opportunity for glassing—pay attention to where the elk enter the area. Water sources can be large reservoirs, ponds, and rivers, or small natural springs. Find water and look for tracks in and around it.
The gear you need depends on your specific hunt—the time of the season, day trips or multi-day backcountry hunts, weapons, etc. A list of basics includes proper clothing, camo, and boots, items for processing such as a knife, knife sharpener, and game bags, food and water, gun and ammo or bow and extra arrows and tips, optics such as binoculars and rangefinder, frame pack, first aid kit, and toilet paper, flashlight and maps. The RMEF offers a great downloadable checklist here.
HERDS AND HAREMS
Elk are social animals and live in herds that can be quite large, with 200 or more members. Harems of elk are common during mating season and consist of a dominant bull with around six cows with calves. After mating season, the cows go back to herds, and the bulls will form bachelor groups.
The two canine teeth on the lower jaw of elk are called ivories. Ivories are hollow down to the roots until elk are about three years old, then they begin to fill in. As elk age, the ivories get worn down from grinding, so the ivories can be used to estimate age: the shorter the ivory, the older the elk.
JOIN HUNTING FORUMS
Hunting forums, such as "Hunt Talk" by Randy Newberg, can be beneficial to both beginner and experienced hunters because you can interact with other hunters, ask questions, get advice, and share stories and experiences.
KNOW YOUR WEAPON
Whether you're hunting with a gun or bow, it's essential to know your weapon. Practice shooting at different angles and distances, in various positions (standing, sitting, kneeling) and in other conditions or times of the day. For rifle hunting, make sure your scope is sighted in correctly for the distance you'll be shooting, practice, and hunt with the same bullets and understand how wind and elevation may impact your shot. For archery, be sure your bow and arrows meet the state's requirements (for example, Idaho doesn't allow mechanical broadheads or any electronics such as lighted nocks) and understand how your arrows fly at further distances.
Weather conditions can quickly change during a hunt, and having the proper clothing can mean staying comfortable and safe. Chose a base layer that wicks moisture, mid-layers that provide insulation, and an outer layer that protects from the elements.
BaseMap is a great map tool for hunting. It includes features like land boundaries, aerial imagery, topography, offline mapping capabilities, tracking distance, path marking points, and identifying game units. But even in today's technology-focused world, paper maps are still useful since many backcountry areas don't have cell service, and phone/GPS batteries die. Knowing how to read a map is as important as having one!
Hunting burns a lot of calories, so packing food is a must. While hunting, snacks such as jerky, nuts, peanut butter, and granola are packable, lightweight, and offer the protein and calories needed to keep you going.
Elk hunting is a spot-and-stalk type of hunting, so the ability to see far and clear can help determine if the elk you see are worth the hike. Optics—binoculars, spotting scopes, and rifle scopes—range in price depending on brand, glass, power, features, and warranties; what you buy should be determined by your specific needs and budget. But before you spend the money, ask fellow hunters what they use (and borrow them if possible) and read customer reviews.
Hunting in the west means you'll most likely be hunting on public lands such as national forests or BLM land. This also means you may run into other hunters. Do you research to ensure you know the rules and regulations for specific areas, know land boundaries, and tell someone where you'll be and when you expect to return.
When you butcher an elk, you'll quarter it into two fronts and two hinds. Meat should be placed in game bags for hanging to cool and/or carrying. When you quarter the elk, though, there's more meat than just the quarters, including the neck, back straps, and tenderloins.
The rut is the time of year (fall) when elk breed. Bulls gather cows and calves into their harems, wallow in mud to coat themselves with urine to attract cows, bugle and rub trees, shrubs, and bushes to attract cows and intimidate other bulls. They also use their antlers to fight other bulls to show dominance.
Before you can harvest an elk, you have to know where they are. Elk move around depending on the weather, time of year, to find food and water supplies, and because of human and predator pressure. Pre-season scouting is a must, and you'll need to continue scouting during the season. Glassing is an excellent way to find elk from a distance—look for herds of elk in fields and find out where they are coming from and going to. Use aerial maps to locate potential food, water, and bedding areas. Once you've found potential spots, head to those areas on foot and look for rubs, trails, tracks, scat, and other signs.
The terrain will vary depending on where you hunt. Use topography maps and Google Earth to familiarize yourself with the terrain of the area you'll be hunting. Be prepared for hiking up and down steep inclines, through thick brush and across wide-open flats.
Elk hunting is unpredictable. The elk may not be where you thought—they may have moved out of an area where you regularly glassed them due to changes in water or food availability. So you might have to change plans on where you're hunting, do more scouting and glassing and locate different herds. The weather can change quickly in the mountains—cold mornings give way to warm afternoons, rain can set in, the wind swirls, and later season hunts can include snow—so you need to dress in layers and have clothing for a variety of temperatures and conditions. Basically, you need to be prepared for pretty much anything.
Be sure to understand the placement of the vital organs on an elk before taking a shot. The most vital organs of elk (and all game animals) are the heart and lungs. A proper shot through the heart or lungs will provide the quickest kill. Elk are large animals, and the lungs provide the largest target.
Learning to play the wind can give you an advantage over other hunters, but even if you've researched the prevailing winds and thermals and think you know their patterns…weather can be unpredictable. Elk hunting requires a lot of movement, so controlling your scent is more challenging than when sitting for hours in a tree stand or blind. The best thing to do is continuously check the wind; use a simple wind checker such as Dead Down Wind "Checkmate Wind Checker" for a quick and easy way to determine which direction the wind is going.
Stretching here for an "X" word! Xerochilia is the medical name for having dry lips. And dry, chapped lips are par for the course in Idaho and other western climates because of the dry climate and wind. So, be sure to pack some extra Chapstick in your hunting pack.
A yearling is an elk is between 1 and 2 years old; a yearling bull is called a Spike.
States are divided into zones or units for hunting; the number of zones varies by state. Typically, tags, dates, rules, and regulations vary by state. Be sure to look for information on your specific zone, know the boundaries, hunt dates, etc. Using a tool like the BaseMap app will identify the zone boundaries.
Sarah Honadel is an avid outdoorswoman from Kentucky, now living in Idaho, who enjoys hunting elk, deer, turkey, pronghorn, and waterfowl. She is a team member at Huntress View, Pro Staff for Browning Trail Cameras, and Brand Ambassador for the GoWild app and BaseMap app. Follow her on Instagram @waddysarah and @arrowridgecreations.