There is no better hunt than chasing elk in the West. Southwest, Northwest, or California it does not matter, the mountainous terrain and the roar of the bugle during the rut have vibrated through my body causing the hairs on my arms and neck to stand up, all while leaving a lasting impression and causing me to chase these big beautiful animals every year.
I’ve been lucky to have experienced several DIY hunts across the West and Southwest. From tackling the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana to the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona. The miles are not the issue, it’s typically the time and effort necessary to be ready for a hunt that requires a kick in the ass.
Every outdoor adventure, hiking, hunting, fishing, or camping leaves me wanting more. Chasing elk in the backcountry, far from others, is no exception. I know the challenges because I’ve done the hunts, but each year the circumstances can change and that keeps me on my toes.
The North American Elk are, contrary to popular belief, not all of the same species. In fact, there are or were six subspecies of Cervus Elaphus in the United States at one time. Currently, the most popular known elk species is the Rocky Mountain Elk. These animals are found in the west but have been a typical transplanted elk species when other states and territories are looking to reintroduce an elk herd to a region.
The two extinct subspecies of elk are the Merriam’s and Eastern. Both have vanished through hunting or being killed off by predators.
I’ve only hunted the Rocky Mountain Elk hunts in Montana and Arizona. This subspecies has been a part of my hunting life since the mid-to-early 1990s when I moved to Arizona.
While I’m not a guide, I have had the pleasure to hunt elk several times and when I don’t have a tag, I enjoy helping others be successful. The complete enjoyment I have is not the kill, but the process, and experiences I have in the wild.
Growing up in Michigan, I fell in love with the mountains in Arizona in college. The pursuit of the Elk was exciting but having no experience in the mountains required me to hunt with someone more experienced early on.
Those early hunts taught me some of the processes I still use today to be prepared and patient during and before a hunt.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to teach Kyle a few things and he’s even been successful in a late November hunt. Still waiting for his chance at an early-season bull elk will have to wait for now, but it is definitely in his future.
The hunt is just one part of the experience. The pursuit of the animal is the most exhilarating part, but the success of a hunt comes from preparation and knowledge. I guarantee that any hunter that puts the time in for a DIY hunt and is prepared will find that Elk hunting will become a major part of their hunting for years to come.
Being Prepared for a Hunt:
Most Elk Hunts in the United States are 7 Days or less. But the hours necessary to be prepared will triple the time spent in the field.
When you put in for elk in a state for years without being drawn the mental strain can get long and you can lose interest over time.
Some Western States like Colorado have an open over-the-counter season. This allows hunters to hunt elk more often.
The gear to hunt elk and the cost of the hunt can be daunting for many. So, when you do get drawn or make the commitment to venture to an over-the-counter hunting unit, you need to be prepared.
As an Arizona resident, I’ve been putting in for elk hunts here in my home state for 25 years. When you’re working with a draw system you sometimes have to wait 3, 5, 8, 10, or more years to get your chance.
That is especially true in Arizona for archery hunting, where there are few tags issued and the hunt is most difficult.
If you only apply for archery hunts in AZ the draw odds are low and most likely the bonus point will be racking up. Good to know if you consistently put in or buy a bonus point you can get your hands on an extra point for Next Draw Loyalty and another for hunter safety if you have taken the AZ Hunter Safety course. While these two points help, I still find myself waiting several years to get my chance, and I know how important it is once I’m drawn to be prepared.
Talking with Scott and Kyle at Shaggy Outdoors and a few other buddies that I have hunted with or worked with in the past, I wanted to put together The 7 Keys to Early Elk Season Hunting Success.
The goal of this article is to assist a DIY hunter getting ready to hunt in Arizona or any other state and since we’ve had success, our goal is to provide some information that may help others be successful this upcoming season.
Ideally, if you are a DIY hunter you want to do as much of these 7 Keys in person, but a good buddy or friendly local can sometimes help if you’re traveling from out of state and cannot spend a lot of time in the field.
Talking with the guys, I’ve come up with "7 Key" areas that can increase the success of your hunt. While these are only seven that will help you become successful other factors can and will benefit you on your hunt. I’ll cover a few of those later, but let’s get started with these for now.
- Contact Local Game and Fish or DNR
- Find the Cows
- Find the Water
- Be in Shape
- Find Daytime Bedding Areas
- Get Out Hunting Early
Scouting is my favorite season. Yes, I said season. I’ll spend more time scouting elk and deer than I will be hunting typically this season.
The hunt is exciting because I can finally take that shot on a big bull, but my favorite part of my hunts is while scouting. Let’s be real, I spend more time scouting than hunting most years. Therefore, I embrace scouting, I enjoy getting to know a unit and talking with locals, other hunters, and the unit's game and fish officer.
Like many things in my life the better I research, work, and study the more proficient and knowledgeable I become. The result is a more positive hunt and many times success for myself or others.
Depending on the time of year I’m hunting I try to spend 60 percent of my time on the ground hiking, looking for elk signs, glassing, and driving roads getting to know the unit.
The other 40 percent of the time I spend on my computer checking out aerial maps, analyzing physical maps, and contacting local authorities including the forest service, game and fish officers for the unit, and even local sheriff authorities who patrol the areas around the unit.
As a DIY hunter, I rely on my efforts for the most accurate information before opening day. One such effort is a conversation with the local DNR or Game and Fish Officer for the region I’m hunting.
Contact the Local Game and Fish Office:
So what to do when you can’t physically get on the ground and scout ahead of time? Well, several things are possible to reduce the time it takes to find a herd or a good bull.
1st, you can contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department in Arizona or the Game and fish department or wildlife federation in any state you plan to hunt. Ask for a call back from the game manager who manages the unit you have a tag for or are planning on hunting in.
Once you get them on the phone, let them know your situation, when you are coming in, and how many days you have to hunt. Most game wardens or officers will help guide the hunters to the areas with the best odds of seeing elk and being successful. This conversation should be your first call as now you can narrow down your hunt area very quickly based on this call.
The game warden may not put you in with the best bulls for the area, but they will give you a couple of areas that will give you the best odds of seeing animals and potential success, and yes they want you to be successful so you keep coming back.
2nd, check to see if there is a biologist with the state or federal government that works the unit. This person could be with the forestry service or game and fish. These people have also spent time in the unit and may be able to provide some important information. You can ask the Game and Fish Officer who else to speak with. They may provide you with others that may have additional information.
Once you have these conversations, you can pick up some physical maps, in Arizona check out the Arizona Hunt Unit Maps offered at Wide World of Maps & More, or start using your online maps programs like onX or Google Maps.
3rd, get out a map. Today, we have the luxury of using onX maps or other similar platforms that have mapping capabilities on our phones and computer. These apps, with the right paid subscription, can see private and public lands. Private lands can have the name of property owners which can help when you get to the area you plan on hunting.
Any areas of interest that border private property you may want to contact ahead of the hunt. This could be a casual conversation letting them know when you will be hunting and letting them know you want to respect their property and hunting in the area. These conversations can lead to more information and allow you to ask permission to cross into private land.
I’m a physical map guy, but utilize the onX app on my phone. I love spreading out the maps for my area on the table and analyzing what I’m seeing. Having the ability to break down the area using different topo maps and road maps starts to put the area in perspective.
4th, check hunting forums, YouTube, and even the county sheriff's office, and reach out to those who have hunted the area before and ask questions.
Remember when talking to individuals, you will get a lot of misinformation or “I don’t know”. Many elk hunters or locals are wary of hunters or don’t want to give away the best bull elk locations. If you are honest and open with them they are people too and they may offer some good information.
Don’t do or say things to hurt yourself or other hunters by breaking laws or being disrespectful. Remember someone else will want to hunt the area after you.
As a side note, I have had a lot of success getting property owners on my side by providing gifts. Sometimes it’s some elk from a successful hunt and sometimes it’s taking an owner out for a steak and beer before or after my hunt. Yep, showing respect has gotten me more information and insights on where the big bulls are living, and along the way I’ve met a few new friends.
Finding the Cows:
During the Early Season Rut:
In the early season hunt, the cows are key to finding the big bulls. Archery hunters are typically hunting in the rut and where there are cows you will find big bulls.
The early season hunt is about the rut. Excited bulls rounding up cows that are coming into heat during the breeding season. This season is the most exciting in the mountains. In this rut hunt, bulls can sometimes lose their minds chasing down cows in heat and they typically spend less time worried about hunters and more about fighting other bulls and taking over the herd.
After the Rut Hunt:
Once the rut is over you will need to work harder to find the biggest bulls. Smaller satellite bulls will stay with a herd, but the big bulls will move out and be independent.
Finding the cows will give you the greatest odds of finding a bull after the rut.
Bulls are tired from fighting and have now been chased around a bit by other hunters. Bulls can become more patterned after the rut. They will need to eat and drink so figure out sources for each and work to ambush the elk between daytime bedding and water sources.
Immediately after the rut, you will still find good size bulls looking to breed with cows. Younger bulls that were fought off and didn’t have a chance will still be hanging around cows. So don’t give up on larger herds, you can still be successful with your hunt.
Cows can also help find feeding areas, travel patterns, and water in those areas with limited rain. Bulls need to be nourished and knowing where the cows are will help you find bulls.
Late Season Elk Hunt:
This is the hardest season, typically you will find the largest number of tags available. You are hunting after weeks of pressure from hunters in an area that has pushed around the elk during early season archery, middle season rifle, maybe a muzzleloader season, one or more deer seasons, and now your late season bull hunt.
While you should still be excited about this hunt don’t take this hunt lightly as it is the hardest of the season to find big bulls. Here is where you might have a few friends with you to help drive roads, travel mountains, and glass looking for a shooter.
Finding the biggest bulls will be tough but they are still out there. Here you will want to decide what size bull you want to take with your tag. You probably have spent hours preparing for your hunt, so what size is too small for you to shoot?
Take it from me, I spent years waiting for an early archery hunt in Arizona, I believe I had 11 points the year I got drawn. That year the rut started late and the weather was hot delaying the rut.
With only six of the seven days available for me to hunt, I had to decide the night before day 5 what size bull I was willing to shoot. With only one day left to hunt, I did decide a young bull would be worth my efforts. I had a great hunt, enjoyed time with hunting buddies, and saw a few good bulls, but the only bull I was able to sling an arrow at was a spike.
I wasn’t ashamed of that spike, I knew the efforts I put in and was happy coming home with some meat to feed my family.
In this picture, you can see Kyle took a smaller 4 x 4 young bull on his late-season hunt. This hunt was over Thanksgiving weekend and while we had seen other larger bulls leading up to this hunt, the weather changed, and he was willing to take a smaller bull.
After years of putting in for a tag without success and hunting with me or other friends put him in a position to appreciate the opportunity, he's experienced the heartache of other hunters not tagging out, and in his mind, on this hunt, as long as the bull is bigger than a spike he was willing to take his first elk.
The moral of this story is to know what you are willing to harvest. If it is about food for your freezer, then any bull will do. Make sure you know the regulations for your hunting area. Some units require a certain size bull to be shot.
Water is key in the mountains. If you’re hunting an area that has experienced minimal rain you will want to find natural water holes or manufactured water sources. In some units in Arizona, the AZGFD have water tanks and ranchers have water for their livestock. These are good sources, but ones easy for both animals and other hunters to find.
Early season in some units in Arizona you will be hunting in very warm weather. Some of the areas I’ve hunted had no water for weeks and sometimes it poured and there was water everywhere.
The physical maps and online or map apps will help you find water holes. Don’t overlook the wallows where the bulls like to keep cool. Not all water holes or tanks have water, so you will need to verify available water when hiking or driving roads.
It’s likely the early season bulls will be hitting water during the night, but once you have patterned travels you might be able to cut off the bulls in the early morning or late evening before dark.
Animals need water throughout the year. When hunting mid to late-season elk season water holes are only good for areas that have limited water sources. In Arizona, for many years we’ve seen significant rain in hunting units after October and therefore Elk can obtain the water they need through the grass and other vegetation they eat.
But market my words, water sources will help you find bulls.
Being In Good Hunting Shape:
A key to a successful hunt that many hunters overlook is being in shape.
When preparing for your hunt you will spend hours analyzing maps, talking to informed people, and working with buddies who have hunted in the same area before, but will you be physically ready for the rigors of the hunt?
No one can get you ready for the physical demands of a hunt other than yourself.
You may choose that venturing off into the backcountry for days looking for elk is not what excites you, but no matter if you are looking to be close to camp or far off in the wilderness, physical fitness will come into play.
When I was young, I didn’t think about being in shape for my hunt. I was young, worked out, ran a little, and lifted weights. There hasn't been a hunt that I was on that the physical toll of the hunt didn't creep in.
I'm one who spends most of my time at sea level, the mountain elevation and lack of oxygen are always the first to hit me. This is something I can’t prepare for down in the valley, therefore I make sure my conditioning is good and my legs are strong. My physical condition takes over early to get me through the first couple of days of climbing mountains. Once I get acclimated to the elevation, my whole body is ready to go.
Get into the best shape possible for your hunt. It does not matter if you are planning to camp by the side of the road and not travel deep into the wilderness. You will come across a time during your hunt when you will need to be in shape. A good option if you don't have a fitness plan is one produced by the Mtn Ops team. The Elk Fit Program will get you ready for your hunt. The program is 90 days prior to your hunt, but don't worry about that, get started today to be in the best shape possible.
I love hunting in the mountains. Seeing for miles and glassing for hours. You have the chance to see a lot of animals when you get off the road and deep into the forest.
Push yourself to be in the best shape possible. The better your shape the easier the hunt will be. The less you concern yourself with your physical condition the more mental focus you will have on the animal and hunt.
My opinion is that if you have a five-day elk hunt planned and that’s your only hunt for the season, get started on your workout 45-60 days ahead of time. If you can get your boots on the ground, then use that time as part of your workout getting accustomed to the elevation and getting your body in shape. When traveling to a new location without being able to hike, you can work on your conditioning at home with workouts that can get your body ready.
Be prepared to pack out hundreds of pounds of meat, hide, and antlers. This may take several trips to the truck and these multiple trips will take a toll on your body.
Not to mention the daily pack of gear you choose to take with you. Try to limit the daily pack to the essentials to reduce your weight.
Pack essentials can include binoculars, a spotting scope with a tripod, water, food, a knife, and different clothing for the expected weather.
Take advantage of your workouts to be ready for your hunt with good nutrition and supplements. Mtn Ops provides the best supplements for conditioning, weight loss, and muscle growth. Check out Scott's review of the Mtn Ops Weight Loss Program, he had success dropping a few pounds before a hunt.
Daytime Bedding Areas:
Elk will typically be moving late in the day through the night and till the first part of the next day. Finding where they are bedding can be a huge advantage for your hunt as you can cut off the elk on their way from feeding to bedding areas.
Contrary to popular belief, elk will move throughout the day. But if you’re hunting in the early season during the rut and immediately after, elk will often bed during the hottest parts of the day.
No matter if you're hunting the mountains or flat areas you will want to look in the dark underbrush or trees during the day to see if elk are bedding on the hillside.
You will want to glass hillsides in the mornings with the sun on your back. The east-facing hillsides will have the most action as the warmth of the sun comes up.
As the day goes on, my experience has elk bedding on the north, northeast, and east-facing mountainsides. These areas will typically be out of the sun and heat of the day. The breeze on these sides of the mountain also will help cool the animals and give them the ability to be protected from predators and hunters.
Late into the day, the elk will start moving, knowing where they are bedding in the meadows or near the parks on the side of the mountain will give you the advantage. Look into the sun, yes it can be difficult, but the animals will be on the sides of mountains out of the heat.
If you are hunting flat areas, look for crevices that have trees. Given the lack of larger trees for cover, herds will look to get lower and washes and areas with trees are when you want to glass.
Get Hunting Early:
Early Season Rut
Since elk are spending much of the evening hours up on their feet, first light is the key to a successful hunt. When you are out ready to glass at first light or set up ready to cut off a herd going towards a bedding area your odds get better.
Since the early season has bulls chasing cows throughout the day, the early hours can be used to locate elk. The bugle of an elk is for many reasons including alerting other elk to potential danger, but during the rut bulls bugle to find cows and assert their dominance against other bull elk.
Getting to the wood early allows you to find and track bulls using their calling. I’ve spent many a morning before light on a mountainside listening to 4, 5, or even more bull elk bugling all around me.
The bugle gives you direction, but those elk may be moving. They know the sounds of the other bulls, and yes, those young 2-3-year-olds will be most active and vocal. But when you find that mature bull, you will know which direction to travel.
As the season rolls on the bugling will dwindle and eventually end. The bulls will be done with their fighting and courting of the cows. Now is the time to be in the wood early listening for the cows and calf mews.
While listening for the eco of the cows and calves you can also be setting up glassing the hillsides looking for herds.
Elk will be herded up. The biggest bulls will start to be loners again, but there will still be a few good size bulls in the herd.
When you’re on a DIY hunt, the herd is your friend. Get to know the herd movements, bedding areas, food sources, and water.
I’ve shot elk at all hours of the day. First light, mid-day, and late evening. I’m a backcountry hunter. I take my food and decide to not head back to camp for lunch. I never know when a wandering bull will cross my path.
7 More Keys to Elk Hunting Success:
- Target Practice
While the first seven are most important in my opinion to elk hunting success, these five factors also need to be accounted for when preparing and hunting.
Your clothing can play an important role in the success of the hunt. From camo to layering you need to have the right clothes for the right conditions.
Look into the historical weather for the area you plan on hunting. You can also get some information from the game and fish officers when you speak with them. In unit 4B in AZ your weather can vary greatly. The northern portion of this unit is generally flat ground and has higher temps while the southern portion of this unit is part of the forest with higher elevation, mountainous terrain, and cooler temperatures.
Get dressed for success. I’ve seen hunters in jeans and T-shirts with no camo and I’ve seen hunters decked out in the priciest camo available.
Your budget will determine the price you can pay. But, in general, some type of camo similar to your terrain is beneficial.
Part of your camo should be your face and head coverings. I was once hunting late seasons and had on the best camo in my gear. The problem I had was the weather changed and it snowed. That camo didn’t do me any good in the snow, but it did keep me warm.
If you are hunting with a rifle, there is little need for the best camo. If you can shoot 100 yards or further to kill your elk, you will need less camo.
But for archery hunters, I believe camo is imperative to the success of a hunter that needs to be within 40 or so yards. I know, there are some out there shooting 50-100 or more yards at an elk. But for the best adventure hunting elk with a bow, work to get within 50 yards.
Your scent is important as elk have a keen nose and can smell you from a distance, depending on the wind direction.
Rifle hunters still need to be concerned with the burger and fries smell they are projecting into the mountains so pick up some good scent blockers on Amazon.
Archery hunters need to be concerned about their scent. Having the right combination of camouflage and scent will get you closer to the animals for the best shot possible.
An elk decoy for any hunter can be a game changer. Montana Decoys makes several excellent elk decoys for both archery hunters and rifle hunters.
Why might a decoy be important?
Here are a few reasons:
- Distract the Elk and let them know it’s just another elk making noises!
- When you bugle or call for elk, they can see it’s another elk making those sounds.
- Distraction for archers to get set up for a shot!
- To attract a bull elk during the rut. He will want to move that cow into his harem for breeding opportunities.
Who makes the Best Elk Decoys?
Montana Decoy Company makes some of the best decoys for elk hunting. You can pick up several different choices, but you also have the option to purchase an actual cow, antelope, and more. Check out pricing for Montana Decoys on Amazon by Clicking Here!
Practice Your Shots:
Archery Hunters get out and practice. Use typical block or field tip archery targets to get your shots in and use 3D archery targets to hone your stills. To have the best success you should practice your shot daily for several weeks leading up to your hunt.
Consider your best kill distance. Where are you most deadly and what is the max distance, you will shoot?
Be able to make a good kill shot, there is nothing worse than making an animal suffer.
Rifle Shooters need to practice also. I’ve shot elk at 40 yards and 400 yards. Make sure you know your max distance and have your rifle ready.
If you’re traveling in a vehicle or plane to your hunting destination make sure you have the time when you reach elk camp to get a few shots in to make sure your sights are still accurate.
Optics - Binoculars, Spotting Scope, and Range Finder
These are essential optics for every elk hunt.
The binoculars are used to find the elk when glassing. The spotting scope gives you an up-close look to decide if there is a shooter, and the range finder gives you the distance you need to know to make a shot.
When you are a solo backcountry hunter you should have these in your backpack. Having a buddy on the trip gets these off your back and into his bag.
Vortex is our go-to brand for all our optics these days. But I still have a set of binoculars that are nearly 25 years old that I call my old reliable that still make every trip.
When using binoculars and spotting scope pick up a good tripod. One for sure, two if you have both binos and spotting scope. It is easier to use a tripod when glassing for animals. The tripod keeps the optics steady and gives your body the ability to relax and concentrate on glassing.
Calling During Elk Season:
Using an elk call will depend on the time of the year you are hunting. There are three elk calls that are beneficial for every hunter. Knowing when to use them is as important as how to use them. Check out our blog on the 3 Elk Calls Every Hunter Needs on a Hunt.
While not required, using elk calls can enhance your elk hunt by engaging elk. Listen for the best elk sounds and understand their tone and vocalization. Here is our blog What are the Elk Sounds and Vocalizations Mean for Hunters. We go into detail on the sounds you hear when hunting elk and what they may mean.
During the early rut season, you can use an elk bugle or cow call. The bugle will get other bulls interested in you while the cow calls could help pull a herd bull out of a pack to increase his breeding opportunities.
The early season is not the best time to use calf calls. Use bugles and cow calls during the early hunt.
Mid to late-season hunts when the bulls stop bugling is not a good time to use a bull bugle. Here is where you will want to use a cow call and some calf mews.
However, I pulled out the bugle for an October hunt after the rut and got a response. This response led me to a small herd where a young bull responded. I only did it once and that was the only time I received a response.
Final Thoughts on the Seven Keys to Elk Hunting Success
Congratulations, you have an elk tag!
Many hunters don’t get a chance to hunt elk every year. Whether it’s your first hunt or your 10th, be prepared with the right gear for the mountain and weather conditions.
I know we don’t like to plan for the success of the hunt but be prepared also for your success. Have an idea of a processor in your area that can cut up your elk or if you plan on doing that yourself, have the right gear, coolers, and proper packaging. If you want a little DIY help, get in contact with me and I can answer a few questions ahead of time.
In many states now you cannot take a head or hide back that has not been to a taxidermist or cleaned thoroughly. Regulations vary but about every state is now on heightened alert for CWD. You could be fined and get your animal confiscated if you are not following state laws.
Make sure you know the laws of the state you are hunting and your home state. BTW, each state in between your home and your hunting state can fine you for crossing over their state with an animal carcass if you are not following their state guidelines. Know the laws.
I wish you the best on your next or first elk hunt. If you’re in Arizona or hunting Arizona in the future look us up and we’d love to chat.