Growing up in northwestern Nevada, I never had the chance to go on an elk hunt in my home state due to the difficulty of drawing a tag. It was partly my desire to hunt elk that lead me to move to Montana after high school. The first year that I had an elk tag in my pocket was 2000, and the learning curve on elk hunting was a lot more difficult than I expected. It was not until 2002 that I arrowed my first Montana bull. It was only a 4-point, but it is still one of my most cherished trophies. Since then, I have been on a lucky streak of killing elk.
It really helped that I started applying for out-of-state tags in high school. I drew my first non-resident elk tag in 2003 for Idaho unit 29. I spent most of the summer scouting and was lucky enough to kill a heavy, old 6-point on opening day. On that day, I set a goal to try to kill a bull on public land in each of the western states. In 2016, I killed a bull in Colorado with my muzzleloader, which allowed me to cross off my eighth state. I have taken bulls on public land in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Wyoming.
I enjoy hunting elk with a rifle, muzzleloader, and archery equipment. I have had the most success and killed my biggest bulls during archery hunts. There is something about screaming bulls that makes me schedule at least two archery elk hunts each September. I always apply throughout the West for elk tags that fit my schedule and then I fill in my season with over-the-counter elk hunts. I am lucky enough to usually draw a good elk tag every other year or so. With not being able to count on limited-entry tags, most of my elk hunts are with over-the-counter tags.
For this article, I will be breaking down what I feel are the top four states to apply for limited-entry Rocky Mountain elk tags where hunters are looking for trophy bulls, the four best states for a hunter who is looking to hunt over-thecounter Rocky Mountain elk tags, and Roosevelt and Tule elk opportunities. Arizona is the first state that comes to mind when I think of giant bulls. They have a point system where 20% of the tags are given to the applicants with the most points and the other 80% goes into a random draw. This gives hunters who are just starting out a chance to draw a great tag. You can expect low odds on the early rifle, early muzzleloader, and better archery tags. If you are willing to hunt the best units on the late rifle or late archery hunts, you can expect to draw tags more regularly. Arizona also has a lot of good units that are easier to draw and still provide hunters with good opportunities at 320"+ bulls. Arizona has tons of public land, which makes for a fun hunt. Arizona does not issue any landowner tags. The top Boone and Crockett bulls from Arizona scored 442 5/8" typical and 450 6/8" non-typical.
New Mexico does not produce as many top end bulls as Arizona, but every year, a handful of giants are taken. When I think of elk hunting in New Mexico, I think about the Gila National Forest on the west side of the state. This area has a strong elk population and a lot of available public land. New Mexico sets aside 10% of the tags for non-residents who apply with an outfitter and 6% of the tags for non-residents who apply on their own. There is not a point system in place, so every year you should apply for a hunt that would fit your schedule.
Another way to get a tag is to buy a landowner tag. New Mexico sells private land only tags and unit wide tags. You can find landowner tags from $2,500 to $12,000 for the best units. The top Boone and Crockett bulls from New Mexico scored 402 2/8" typical and 434 3/8" non-typical.
Nevada has a small elk population compared to most of the other states, but what it lacks in number it makes up for in giant bulls. Every unit in Nevada is not equal. Some of the units in northeast Nevada are not producing the big bulls they once did. This is a result of way too many tags being issued. The units around Ely are still producing great bulls. Nevada has a point system in place where they square your points. If you draw a bull tag in Nevada, you have to wait seven years to apply again. Nevada offers landowner tags that are unit wide. Due to the small elk population, there are not a lot of landowner tags available and they are expensive. You can expect to pay between $7,500 and $20,000 for a Nevada landowner tag. The top Boone and Crockett bulls from Nevada scored 425 3/8" typical and 434 6/8" non-typical.
Utah has giant bulls, but they do not give out many non-resident tags. This can be frustrating as there is a pile of guys who are sitting on 10-15 points. However, there is a small chance of drawing a tag and with the size of the bulls, we all cross our fingers and keep applying. Utah offers archery, rifle, and muzzleloader hunts during the rut, which makes for an exciting hunt. They also offer a November rifle hunt where some big bulls get tipped over on their winter range every year. Utah has a point system in place where half of the tags are issued to whomever has the most points and then the other half goes into a random draw with all of the other unsuccessful applicants. Utah has landowner tags and conservation tags available. These tags are expensive and usually sell for $7,500-$25,000, depending on the unit. The top Boone and Crockett bulls from Utah scored 422 5/8" typical and 478 5/8" non-typical.
Colorado has more elk than any other state. With a healthy population of 278,000 elk comes a lot of opportunity with over-the-counter tags. No matter what you are looking for, Colorado most likely has it. There are so many different over-the-counter elk hunting opportunities in Colorado that I suggest you check out pages 69-74 of our July 2017 magazine.
Idaho is my second favorite place to chase bulls on a general tag. They have a number of over-the-counter rifle and archery tags. You can also purchase a second elk tag if you like. I feel the best over-the-counter tags in Idaho are the archery tags in units that do not have over-the-counter rifle bull tags. These units are managed for better bulls and have limited rifle tags. You can expect crowding during the third week of September as most archery hunters are trying to catch the peak of the rut. Idaho has a number of over-the-counter backcountry units where the rifle season opens in September, giving rifle hunters a chance to chase bugling bulls.
I have lived in Montana for the last 18 years, so it is my favorite over-the-counter state to chase elk in. Montana is not really an over-the-counter state as it is a draw, but enough people return their tags that you can usually get a permit as long as you don’t wait until the last minute. Once you get your tag, most of the west side of the state is open to general hunting. Montana gives you six weeks to chase elk with a bow and then another five weeks with a rifle, so you can be chasing bulls September through November. Every year, there are a couple of great bulls taken in Montana on general tags. I recommend hunters look towards region 3 as it has the highest elk populations and the most public land.
The eastern side of Oregon is good for someone who is looking for an archery over-the-counter elk tag. There are a number of good units, and with a little work, you can be chasing rutting bulls. Some of the units to look at are Desolation, Keating, Minam, Snake River, and Starkey. Your archery elk tag is also good for western Oregon if you decide to chase Roosevelt elk.
Roosevelt elk are found in southeast Alaska and on Afognak and Raspberry islands near Kodiak. Most of the tags are issued through the draw and have low draw odds. If you are lucky enough to draw, you will have an adventure between the weather and bears. Afognak and Raspberry islands have each produced one Boone and Crockett Roosevelt elk that scored over 275".
California issues Roosevelt elk tags in the draw, but the odds are horrible. They have landowner tags, which is a great way to chase Roosevelt elk if you are looking for a guided hunt. Most landowner tag guided hunt packages start at $20,000. California has put 125 bulls into the Boone and Crockett record book, with the largest scoring 398 1/8".
Oregon Roosevelt elk are found west of Interstate 5, according to Boone and Crockett. There is one draw archery unit and a handful of draw rifle units for Roosevelt elk. The rest of the state is over-the-counter for Roosevelts. If you want to chase Roosevelts in the jungle of western Oregon, your best bet is during the archery season as bulls are bugling. If you are a rifle hunter, it is going to be tough on public land and glassing clear-cuts is your best bet. Oregon has put 209 bulls into the Boone and Crockett record book, with the largest scoring 404 6/8".
Washington is much like Oregon as the Roosevelt elk are found west of Interstate 5, according to Boone and Crockett. Roosevelt elk are located on the coast, and the same tactics used in Oregon apply here. Washington offers over-the-counter rifle and archery elk tags. Washington has put 98 bulls into the Boone and Crockett record book, with the largest scoring 380 6/8".
Tule elk are only found in California. They prefer the grasslands and marshlands of the central valley to the grassy hills on the coast. They are the smallest of the three subspecies of elk. Mature bulls weigh in at 500 pounds. These bulls rut in August, which is earlier than the Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk. As a non-resident, your odds of drawing the one elk tag in California are way less than 1%. Most hunters who want a Tule elk buy a landowner tag. A landowner elk tag and an outfitted hunt will run anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000. California has put 99 bulls into the Boone and Crockett record book, with the largest scoring 379".
There are tons of opportunities to hunt elk, so you don’t have to wait around trying to draw a tag. If you are looking to go on a good guided elk hunt, give Jeff Warren or Isaiah Joner a call as these guys work directly with some of the best outfitters in the business. If you have any questions about elk hunting, strategy, or developing an application plan, give us a call at the office.