The 2023 Guide to Hunting Elk

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Elk hunting is a dream hunt you’ll find on almost every serious hunter’s bucket list. If you’ve got an elk hunt on the calendar for this fall, we’ve got you covered. Our guide below includes what you need to know for your elk hunt, where to hunt, and how to find success on your hunt this season. 

Best States for Elk Hunting

The beauty of elk hunting is largely the majestic landscape these creatures call home. Elk hunting habitat varies throughout the West. States like Montana offer everything from wide open spaces under the big sky to the haunting confines of a dark timber hunt. But not all elk hunting states are created equal. 

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It’s important for hunters to consider a handful of questions as they narrow down their search for an elk hunting destination. Will it be a bow hunt or gun hunt? Public land or private? Can you buy a tag to hunt every year, or will you have to play the drawing system? How much hunting pressure will the region receive? Do you have the means of making the commute into the backcountry (legs, horse, ATV)? 

Answering these questions will likely help you narrow down your search. And chances are, your search will take you to one of our top 5 elk hunting states. 

What are the 5 best states for elk hunting? In no particular order, here’s a look at some of the best bets for your next elk hunt. 

The 5 best states for hunting elk (Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Arizona) highlighted on a map of the US


Montana has long been known as the premier elk hunting destination for hunters across the country. Seasoned elk hunters in the state will tell you the glory days of elk hunting have come and gone, but there are still plenty of great hunting opportunities across the state. In fact, Montana has been the #1 spot for record typical bulls since 2010. 

With an incredible amount of public land access for residents and non-residents alike, though the non-resident license is now pushing $1,000, Montana continues to be a destination of choice for many hunters. 


Colorado is home to the largest elk herd in the United States with well over 250,000 elk across the state. The state is also the most centrally localized elk state in the country, making it the first stop for the majority of non-resident hunters traveling from the eastern U.S. 

However, keep in mind that Colorado elk hunting is more about quantity in numbers than quality in size. If it’s a trophy bull elk you’re after, you may want to consider one of the other states on our list. 


For the hunter who wants to go big or go home, Utah is the state to explore for your next elk adventure. The state is home to some really big bulls. In fact, according to B&C records, the Beehive State sits just behind Montana for the number of record typical bulls taken over the last decade. Even better, it’s in the top three for both typical and non-typical bulls combined.  

Elk hunting in Utah will require drawing a tag. However, the drawing system allows even first-time applicants the chance to draw an elk tag. The state draws 50% of the available tags from a pool of applicants with the most bonus points, and the remaining 50% of tags drawn from all remaining applicants. 


If a budget-friendly bull is what you’re after, Wyoming just might be the ticket. And despite being one of the few states with an elk tag around $700, they’ve still got plenty of quality, big bull elk hunting opportunities in the state. In fact, Wyoming is ranked just behind Utah when it comes to combined typical and non-typical bull harvests. 

The state is home to roughly 110,000 elk, and with many hunting units across the state having a 100% drawing success rate, Wyoming is a great destination for your first, or next, elk hunt.  

A herd bull elk with his cows in a meadow with a few trees.


When your goals change from simply killing an elk, to wrapping your tag around a trophy bull elk, Arizona will very likely be on the short list of states to consider. The Grand Canyon State is home to some of the largest typical and non-typical bull elk on record. The state holds the combined record for most B&C entries since 2010. 

But don’t think the chance to hunt here will come easy. With non-residents limited to no more than 10% of all eligible hunting tags for any species, drawing an Arizona elk tag is tough. The best bet here may be to up your odds for a chance to hunt by considering a late-season archery or rifle hunt. 

Elk Draw Trends

A hunter with a downed bull elk in the dark.

Thanks to social media influence, as well as popular smartphone tools like onX Hunt, destination hunts are more popular now than ever before. Take a look at resident applicants compared to non-resident applicants, and you’ll discover that non-resident applicants are the fastest-growing segment. 

This increase in hunter numbers is great for the local economy in these elk hunting states, but it can make your odds for a successful draw a bit of a challenge. In fact, many hunters have become increasingly frustrated with their inability to draw their desired elk tag year after year. 

A closer look at the current elk drawing trend gives insight into what hunters can expect when it comes to the competition out there vying for tags. Here’s a look at the applicants over the last few years. 

  • Resident elk applicants are up +9.28% from 2018 to 2021.
  • Non-resident elk applicants are up +22.68% over the past five years.
  • Blended total applicants are up +11.70% from 2018 to 2021.
  • Total limited entry bull tags are down -2.49% from 2018 to 2021.
  • Western elk population is up +4.94% over the past five years.

Resident and non-resident hunters are on the rise. Fortunately, elk numbers across the West are on the rise as well. However, these elk population growth numbers (+4.94%) aren’t enough to sustain the rapid growth of hunters with their sights set on elk in September and October. The result? Reduced elk tags are delved out by the state. 

The need for elk hunters to develop a strategic plan of attack is more important than ever before. Savvy hunters will take advantage of onX Hunt features such as Toprut, the industry’s premier tool for draw odds and application data. By tapping this resource, hunters can get the most accurate and complete source of information as they navigate draw odds to make educated application decisions.

Scouting for Elk 

The big advantage for resident hunters is the ability to put boots on the ground for pre-season elk scouting. While non-resident hunters are limited to e-scouting, the locals can get the edge with time spent in the backcountry in the days, weeks, and months before the opener.

But what should hunters be looking for when it comes to scouting for elk? The list below includes the hot features you’ll want to find and log into your phone, as you build a game plan for opening day.

Waterholes/Wallows –This just might be your greatest scouting discovery of the season, particularly for early-season elk hunting. Find an active waterhole, muster up plenty of patience, and you just might find yourself in the perfect place for an early-season ambush.

Pinch Points – It’s important to drop waypoints and pins on the terrain features that funnel elk. Saddles, drainage connectors, ridge crossings, and heavily used trails are all indicators of where you might encounter a bull this fall. Make sure you locate and log these features into the onX Hunt app on our phone. 

Logging Bugles–Develop the habit of adding a Waypoint when you hear a bugle, and you’ll quickly notice patterns and routines of the local herd. Waypoints can also help you keep tabs on where you are in relation to the bull as you move in and maneuver for the shot. In the past, hunters would use a tree, rock outcropping, or other landmark to keep track of where they were and where they needed to be. These days, onX lets you know where you stand – as well as where you need to be.

E-Scouting for Elk 

One of the single greatest advancements in scouting technology over the last several decades is the ability to e-scout via your smartphone or desktop computer. The onX Hunt app has changed the game on what can now be accomplished in the way of scouting, long before your boots ever hit the ground. The app allows you to virtually familiarize yourself with an area from across the country. 

But what are the key features you should be looking for when it comes to e-scouting? What are the items of interest that’ll help you save time, and energy, and hunt more efficiently? Below you’ll find a short list of the top Waypoints you should have on your map as you plan out your hunt through e-scouting

A female hunter uses onX Hunt to e-scout on her laptop.


Access is the key to opportunity in elk country. You can find the hottest-looking sign and terrain features for elk, but if you don’t have access, you’re moving on to Plan B. Fortunately, confirming access is easier than ever with the onX Hunt app. 

You can easily confirm public and private land opportunities, where you’ll need to park, whether you’ll be camping at the gate or hiking in to set up camp, mapping out your access routes to potential hunt areas, studying road and trail systems in the area, and so much more. There’s a wealth of information to be gained ahead of time when it comes to discovering access details through e-scouting.  


Water is another key element that must be present to hold elk in an area of interest. Your Basemap allows you to easily identify creeks, ponds, and other waterholes that elk are likely to frequent on a daily basis. 

Drop a Waypoint on these water sources as you e-scout an area. Once you actually put boots on the ground you can quickly move from point to point to confirm whether or not elk are using the water source. 

Bedding / Feeding

Focus your e-scouting efforts on potential feeding areas in open parks and meadows, burns, or south-facing slopes. Elk will likely move down into low-lying meadows in the evening to feed throughout the night, before heading back up into cool cover for the day. 

North-facing slopes above a meadow and creek drainage can be an ideal location to find elk bedding throughout the early season. These locations provide cool, dark timber, plenty of bedding cover, and security. 

Elk Calling Tips

The opportunity to communicate with a bugling bull by calling during the early season is easily the greatest aspect of the hunt in September. It’s what elk hunters live for. But there’s more to bringing a bull into bow range than rippin’ off a bunch of random cow calls and bugles. Hunters would be wise to develop an elk calling strategy for success when they go head-to-head with a bull this fall. 

A hunter wearing an onX Hunt hat uses an elk call.

Take Their Temperature

Knowing the attitude of a bull can go a long way when deciding how much, or little, you should be calling. What call is he responding to hot and fast? What sound seems to shut him down, or cause him to go back to his cows? Don’t miss his responding body language and vocalizations here. Pay close attention, and he’ll tell you what he wants to hear. 

Keep It Real

Some of the deadliest calling sounds you can make don’t come from the call in your mouth. Think about the sounds you hear from a herd of elk. There are sticks breaking, rocks popping, hooves stomping, and more. Use these sounds to keep it real this season. Don’t be afraid to crack rocks together and bust brush to mimic the sound of a rutty bull.   

Play Hard To Get 

Like a lot of other creatures in the wild, elk were designed with incredibly keen senses. Their ability to pinpoint your calling location is nothing short of amazing. But that’s also why hunters often struggle with a bull that refuses to close the deal and walk within bow range. In many cases, these hunters set up in the wide open, and any approaching bull should easily be able to see the sound of the cow he just heard. When he doesn’t, it’s usually game over. 

The key is to make him come find you. Make sure your calling setup includes some cover, a roll in the ridgeline, or any other barrier that will require an approaching bull to close the distance as he comes to look for you. Wide open spaces are beautiful, but rarely are they the ideal setup to get a bull in bow range. 

Get In Tight

Elk make a lot of noise. Whether it’s raking trees, bugling, or cow sounds, there’s a lot going on within the herd. For this reason, hunters can often slip and sneak their way to within striking distance of a bull, or at least throw out that final call that the boss bull simply can’t ignore. Bulls won’t tolerate the threat of another bull in tight. Break into his “bubble”, and hit him with a bugle. Just be ready. He’s likely headed your way.

Late Season Calling

Don’t think calling is limited to just the early season. If you’ve still got a tag in your pocket late in the season, don’t hesitate to try calling to bring elk from the timber for a shot. Soft and subtle cow calls can be just what a bull needs to hear to elicit a response. Just remember less is usually more when calling elk in the late season.  

Final Thoughts

Make the most of your elk hunting season with the practical information mentioned above. The tools, planning, preparation, e-scouting, and calling skills are all pieces of the puzzle that ultimately lead to success. 

Shoot your weapon, gather the gear, study your onX Hunt maps, and sharpen your knife. Elk season won’t be long now! 


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Brodie Swisher

Brodie Swisher is an outdoor writer, public speaker, and editor for He is also a world champion game caller, having won the NRA’s Great American Game Calling Challenge World Championship. He lives with his family in West Tennessee.