If bowhunting elk is on your bucket list, here are some tips and tricks to make it happen. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Top Places and Tips to Bowhunt Elk

  Jackie Holbrook   FeaturedBowhunting   April 7, 2022

There’s frost on the dirt path. Sunlight is barely peeking through the leaves that recently turned shades of red, gold and orange. There’s a crispness in the air, but the shivers you feel are from the bugles in the distance. This is fall in the elk woods.

White-tailed deer are the most popular big-game species to bowhunt. That’s because there’s a population of approximately 30 million of them, and they can be found in nearly every state. Hunting elk is a little trickier. According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, there’s a population of about 1 million elk across North America. Most opportunities are in the West, but there are a few in the East. If you’re interested in chasing the gray ghost, it’s possible with planning.


Are You a Resident?


The easiest and most affordable way to obtain a general elk tag is by being a resident of a state with an open elk-hunting season. States traditionally offer more hunting opportunities to residents than nonresidents. For example, if you’re a resident of a state like Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon or Washington, it’s possible to get a general elk tag without applying for a special permit. That doesn’t mean you can hunt anywhere. Most states also have special units that require hunters to put in for draw tags.


Nonresident Options



Securing an elk license is becoming tougher to do as a nonresident, but it’s not impossible. It just takes planning. There are a limited number of over-the-counter options. That means you’ll need to do some research and apply by the deadline. Sometimes this is first come, first served; other times it’s through a drawing that isn’t a guarantee.

Colorado is home to the largest elk population in the U.S., and it also has some of the best over-the-counter options for nonresident bowhunters. These licenses go on sale on Aug. 2, 2022.

Idaho offers general elk season tags to nonresidents without an application period; however, it’s on a first-come, first-served basis. These tags went on sale on Dec. 1, 2021, and sold out quickly.

Montana offers general elk tags to nonresidents, but not everybody gets one. You need to apply for a limited number. The state offers 17,000 big-game combo tags (elk and deer) and 17,000 elk tags. The deadline to apply was April 1, 2022.

Wyoming also requires nonresidents to apply for elk tags. The deadline is May 31, 2022.


Play the Odds



As it becomes more common for states to require nonresidents to apply for elk tags, it’s important to create a strategy. This maximizes your odds and can keep you within a budget. You don’t want to get into a situation where you draw tags in multiple states and can’t afford or lack the time to take advantage of them. If you want to hunt elk, make sure you’re applying for the right states and areas. For example, there are elk in Alaska but very few, and with a limited number of randomly drawn tag options.

Every state is different, and regulations and odds can change annually. Do your research by reading through the latest regulations and calling state wildlife agencies with questions. There are also resources to help. Huntin’ Fool provides application strategy services. Paid members get one-on-one advice from experts about draw odds, hunt units and more. GoHUNT is another comprehensive online resource that provides detailed information about deadlines, access and draw odds.

Educate yourself about bonus points, preference points, modified preference points and random draws. Some states use the luck of the draw, while others are based on points. Some states use both methods. Earning and/or purchasing points can improve your odds of drawing a general tag or special permit. For a detailed look at creating a strategy, read “How to Master Western Tag Draws.”


Consider a Cow


Bowhunters pursue bull elk for good reason. There’s just something majestic about the antlers and bugles. But cow elk are just as much of a trophy, and there are several reasons to consider chasing cows. It’s way easier to come by a cow tag, and many states even offer them over-the-counter to nonresidents. These tags are often much cheaper than a bull tag, too.

A mature cow elk weighs roughly 500 pounds. That’s a lot of delicious dinners. And while you won’t walk away with antlers to hang on your wall, every elk is hiding a trophy. Both male and female elk have ivories. These are the top two canine teeth, which biologists believe used to be saberlike tusks used for combat. They come in all shades of white, ivory and brown. Ivories make beautiful mementos that can be displayed or incorporated into jewelry or accessories.

In a lot of Western states, it’s tough to gain access to private land to hunt bulls. However, many ranchers are welcoming of hunters looking to shoot cows because large herds can cause crop and fence damage. Here are some tips for asking for permission.

With a bow, shooting a cow can be much more challenging than shooting a bull. Bulls are traditionally hunted with archery equipment during the rut. This means some can be tricked into coming to the calls of lonely cows or the sounds of battling bulls. Bulls are also easier to track down when they’re bugling. However, cow elk by nature are much quieter and warier. They typically travel in large herds, so there are many eyes and noses to avoid. If you manage to shoot a cow elk with your bow, congratulations are in order because you’ve worked for it.


Tips for Success



You’ve got an elk tag burning a hole in your pocket, so now what? It’s time to make a hunting plan. Bowhunting elk is a lot of fun, especially because it can be done successfully in many ways.

Play the wind: Elk have incredible noses. It’s important to remain undetected by staying downwind. Pick up a wind indicator at an archery shop.

Call: Calling is the most common tactic for bowhunting elk during the rut. There are several calling techniques. Bugles challenge bulls into thinking there’s another bull elk present that’s looking for a fight or stealing cows. Cow calls can trick satellite bulls into investigating or convince a herd bull that a cow broke loose from the herd.

Decoys: Elk have an amazing ability to pinpoint the exact location of where a call came from. When they come to a call and don’t see an elk, they get nervous. Some hunters use decoys to further convince the elk.

Treestands: Bowhunters hang treestands over popular travel corridors and wallows.

For a more detailed look at how to bowhunt elk, read “Bowhunting Elk 101.”

Bowhunting elk is a ton of fun if you ever get a chance. With a little bit of planning, strategy and sometimes luck, you can spend your fall chasing the wonderful wapiti.




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