Elk Hunting in Idaho: What you need to know

Want to hunt elk in Idaho? Good choice, but do you know about the latest changes in General-Season Non-Resident deer and elk tags? Get the latest update, along with other useful information about elk hunting in the Gem State!

Idaho is a popular elk hunting destination. To begin with, according to the latest estimates by Idaho Department of Fish & Game, the elk herds in the state number approximately 120,000 head. In spite of hard winters of the last few years, which hurt the mule deer populations, the elk are stable or growing and expanding their range in most of Idaho. For the six years starting from 2014 hunters harvested over 20,000 elk each season. Over 100,000 hunters take part in the pursuit, thanks to generous allocation of licenses, and availability of over-the-counter tags. In 2019, hunter harvest was 20,532 elk, of which 11,418 were antlered, at an overall success rate of 22%. General hunts accounted for a higher share of harvest (13,799 elk), but controlled hunts sported a significantly higher success rate: 38%. 

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OTC and Limited Draw Elk Tags in Idaho 

One thing that makes Idaho stand apart from most other elk hunting states is the wide availability of over-the-counter tags.  Typically, unlimited OTC elk permits are issued for areas where the elk herds are over population objectives, feature an undesirable bull to cow ratio, or do considerable damage to agriculture. Idaho also issues OTC tags for “backcountry” areas – locations far removed from civilization but for that very reason dream magnets for many hunters – but the quotas for these areas have been reduced in recent years. Idaho still issues over 12,000 non-resident elk hunting tags each year, but their availability and some of the rules have changed in 2020.

General non-resident elk and deer licenses for the 2021 hunting season go on sale December 1, 2020, and if you want to get one of those, you literally don’t have a minute to lose. To begin with, Idaho Department of Fish & Game has a new license vendor, so if you already have a profile in the IDF&G system, you need to have it updated. There is now a cap on non-resident hunters in each elk zone, that varies from no more than 15% to no more than 10% depending on the zone. To address concerns about overcrowding in “hot spot areas”, it was suggested that non-resident elk tags should be distributed by zone, not by unit. This hasn’t been introduced yet, but if you are after both deer and  elk tags, bear in mind that deer tags are issued for a specific unit only. 

If you want to get a non-resident OTC elk tag in Idaho, you better shop early. In 2020, all non-resident elk tags were sold out by June 17. The Fish & Game says the day when they sell the last elk tag happens earlier and earlier every year. For the season of 2021, all general license elk tags, including the most sought-after, are on sale starting December 1. For units where tags are typically sold out in a few minutes after sales start, IDF&G recommends hunters to log in 15 minutes in advance. Those who do will be put in a “waiting room”, from which the system will randomly select hunters to buy tags (making it effectively a random draw tag). Once you’ve put your general season tag in your virtual shopping basket, you only have 5 minutes to buy it. If you don’t, the tag will return to the general pool. 

Here’s a link to an interactive map that shows deer and elk hunting units with the number of tags available for each and other relevant information.

The changes do not apply to controlled hunts, which generally provide the best opportunities for trophy elk hunting. There are 28 elk hunting zones and 2 kinds of tags: “A” and “B”. Variation in season length, legal weapons, sex and age is astonishing and complicated to figure out. For controlled elk hunts, Idaho offers no bonus or preference points. Every hunter has an equal chance to draw an elk tag. 

Where are there elk in Idaho? 

The “Mountain Monarchs” can be found not only in the timbered ridges in the northern part of the state, or in the mountains of the central Idaho, but also in the sagebrush deserts to the southeast and southwest. In fact, it’s hard to find an elk zone in Idaho that would be bad for elk, however, some parts of the state have specific challenges.

The Panhandle region is famous for elk hunting. This is probably the best place in the state to go elk hunting. Units 1 and 4 are believed to be the best. Hunters recently gained access, with the help of the “Large Tracts access program”, 300 thousand acres of private timberland in the Panhandle region, which makes the area even more attractive to elk hunting. Over 500,000 acres of timberland have been open for hunters access in the Clearwater region. Once famous units see a slight reduction in elk harvests, but elsewhere in the region the elk populations are stable or growing and expanding their range. 

The Southwest of Idaho is the place for a hunter who has access to private land in the area, or is focused on a hardcore backcountry hunt. In this part of the state the elk are ‘over objectives’ – that is, overpopulated – and are causing damage to agriculture. However, in spite of generous license and tag allocation, these elk are hard to get. Often, they take refuge on private land that is posted and closed for hunter’s access. And when the elk can be found on public land, they dwell in some of the most steep and broken backcountry ever. Idaho outfitters take advantage of this fact, and either offer hunts on private land, or provide their hunters with horses and mules that will take them comfortably out to spike camps located in the heart of prime elk country that other hunters will have problems getting to. 

The Magic Valley Region also has many elk – so many in fact, that the Fish&Game decided to cull about 200 animals at night. The cull was, according to the department, not only to reduce agricultural damage, but also to study elk depredation patterns, but met with outrage from hunters anyway. The problem is that the elk in agricultural land are not easy to harvest. Agricultural land is private property and most farmers do not allow access, thus, once pressured, the herds either stay on the private land, or become nocturnal, only entering and leaving the property in total darkness. A specific challenge for the region is that it’s one of the driest parts of the state. So, the tip from Idaho Fish & Game is, if you hunt this area, focus on where the animals can drink and escape from sunshine. Warning: some water sources that were there a few years ago could’ve been dried out since. 

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Idaho Elk Hunting Tips

“Get away from the roads” is the tip that you’re most likely to get if you ask an Idaho elk hunting expert, and frequent repetition doesn’t make it any less true. Go to where most hunters are too lazy to go, and you will find elk and other wildlife aplenty. This, however, is a tip that is much easier to give than to follow for an out-of-state hunter, because it requires good knowledge of the terrain. Many DIY hunters reported they did their best to get away from the crowds only to find themselves surrounded by a crowd of other hunters. Local knowledge is invaluable here, and a good outfitter will have tons of it. 

“Get away from the crowds” is another useful tip. Counterintuitively, we would advise you to avoid the “best” elk units and locations. All those other hunters have the Internet, can read and watch YouTube same as you, so the more often a unit is listed as “best”, the more hunters you’re likely to see there. 

Do your homework and get your gear right for the specific landscape of the area you’ll be hunting. As one of our outfitters put it, “Idaho elk hunts can be short-range hunts or long-range hunts”. In some part of the state you’ll see landscape that is fairly open, with some broken areas (such as steep ravines overgrown with trees) that provide cover for the elk. Depending on how you (and your guide) will conduct the hunt, you may need a long-range rifle. 

On the other hand, backcountry hunts usually require a lot of hiking up and down slopes, and necessitate good footwear and good physical conditioning. Pushing deep to get away from other hunters may get you an elk, but you still have to get it packed back out! Another thing about backcountry hunts is that Idaho is within grizzly bear distribution range, and conflicts between grizzly bears and elk hunters are all too well-known. Check the likelihood of a bear encounter in the zone you intend to hunt, and be prepared. All the more reasons to want to have an experienced local guide at your side!

Do not forget about the general hunting rules. When hunting in Idaho, you must possess a hunting license, a tag for the particular species of big game you hunt, and, if born after January 1, 1975, proof of having taken a hunter education class. For more information about hunting in Idaho start with the local Fish&Game website .

Combination hunts

Mule deer in the state begin to rebound after a series of hard winters, and there’s a great white-tailed deer herd in Idaho with generous hunting opportunities. Combination deer and elk hunts are possible, but if successful on one species, meat storage is an issue while you hunt your second species. Besides deer, non-resident elk hunters can take a black bear, mountain lion or grey wolf if the opportunity presents itself; purchase of an additional tag may be necessary. 

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