Elk Hunting Tips from Guides and Outfitters

a bull elk

The elk season is just around the corner! Soon the mountain monarchs’ bugle will thunder over the Rockies, and many hunters will head out into the mountains and hills in pursuit of the iconic North American hunting experience. Over 60 outfitters from the USA and Canada offer their elk hunting trips on BookYourHunt.com. Some assume that if you’re with an outfitter, the guide does all the work and the client has it made… wrong! Success of a guided hunt depends on the hunter as much as on the guide: you must, at the very least, bring the right stuff, get your shot right, but above all adopt the proper attitude. We surveyed our outfitters and here are the tips to do just that:

Get Ready to Work for Your Elk!

Your elk hunt is going to be physically challenging. There is hardly any place in North America where you can find a wild, free-ranging elk, that can be called “easy”. The best you can hope to encounter is “mild”, with rolling hills and moderate elevation. Mostly, however, you should count on either high altitude, or steep terrain, or heavy timber – sometimes all at once. Get fit. 

But even if you’re athletic enough to climb Mount Everest without an oxygen mask, this doesn’t mean your hunt is going to get easy. Many guides we surveyed have a tooth or two against hunting shows and YouTube videos. Most of the shows make it look too easy, as if anyone could go up a hill, blow a call, and get a bull elk within range in a few minutes. Remember that for one minute of action footage the editors cut out at least an hour of hard work. 

some hard terrain in the West
“The terrain’s pretty easy” – said no elk guide in the West ever.

The Optimal Rifle Cartridge for Elk 

Arguments over what’s the best rifle and load for elk can continue forever, and there are two good reasons for that: a) there are hundreds of excellent rifle, cartridge, and bullet designs on the market today, and b) many of them are perfectly adequate for elk hunting. The problem is, you can’t pack them all, you must choose just one. So, which should it be?

The minimum caliber for elk hunting recommended by the guides we surveyed is the .270 Win, with 140 grain bullet weight. The tried-and-true calibers such as the .308 Win and the .30-06 were often mentioned as being “more than enough”, with relatively low recoil and good ammo availability cited as extra advantages. But if you’re serious about elk hunting, you should probably pack a rifle in either the 7 mm Rem Mag, or any of the .300 caliber magnums (.300 Win Mag, .300 Weatherby Magnum, etc.). Most of our guides prefer heavier bullets (162-176 grain for the 7 mm). 

The Right Arrow for Elk

Many hunters are considering an archery elk hunt over a rifle hunt, and there are good reasons for that. Archery tags are often OTC, and archery seasons are typically timed to the rut. Last but not the least, close encounters with the quarry that bowhunters experience are a treat in themselves. A bow is a very individual thing, and getting a new bow specifically for that elk hunt is probably not a very good idea, especially when the hunt is only a couple of weeks ahead. But what arrow should you choose?

The heaviest fixed blade on the lightest shaft that you can find, according to our guides, 100-125 grain arrowhead on 400-450 grain carbon shafts seems to be the most preferred combination, with some guides going as heavy as 150 grain. Most guides surveyed don’t believe that mechanical heads work reliably on elk. In fact, Brian Larsen of the Bow River Guiding Company says “None, unless you are 5 yards away”. And the first thing you should check out is the regulations of the state you intend to hunt: some states, like Idaho for instance, state precisely what can and what can’t be used during archery season. 

Elk Shooting Tips

When you’re are on a guided hunt, it’s the guide’s duty to get you within range of the animal; the moment of truth, where it’s all up to you, comes when it’s time to shoot. One thing about their clients that our guides observed is that they usually practice their shooting under ideal circumstances: level ground, no obstructions, often no wind. When they go out into elk woods and mountains, some hunters find themselves unprepared for real-life elk shooting, where you may have to shoot uphill, downhill, across the valley, at short or long range. You need to know the trajectory of your load and bullet perfectly, something that not every new elk hunter can boast of. 

Our guides say that many first-time elk hunters are used to hunting white-tailed deer sized animals, and estimating the distance to a much bigger bull elk presents a problem for them. Range finders help with that, but create an additional problem. In the heat of the moment, hunters tend to forget that when they are shooting at an angle, with the elk standing high above or way below them, they need to judge the trajectory by the horizontal distance, and not by the straight line between them and the target. As the result, they shoot too high and over the elk’s back. 

There are mistakes that gun and hunting writers have been warning the hunters against for generations, but they still happen every year. 

      Mind that twig! 

Tree branches may deflect bullets and arrows, we all know that, but… “I’ve seen it many times before people are use to shooting on a flat wide open space with maybe a little wind. They get into the trees and don’t know or don’t pay attention to limbs sticking out or a bush in front of the animal,” says Addin Soto, owner of Soto Outfitters, Arizona.

      Check your rifle! 

Be sure to fire a couple of shots to see if your rifle’s sights are still on after travel. 

      Keep your scope low

Another old thing that made lots of hunters blow their chances ever since the first variable power scopes hit the market: don’t forget to keep your riflescope tuned to the minimum magnification! You will have enough time to crank it up for the long shot if you need it; looking for the bull that unexpectedly showed up at 50 yards through the scope set for 16x is another story. 

Prepare your shot well: get into a steady position, measure the distance, adjust for difference in elevation and the wind, check the shooting lane for tree branches and other possible obstructions. But don’t take too much time: dragging your shot may be as disastrous for your accuracy as rushing it.  

Don’t Forget to Pack

      The right kind of boots: lightweight, waterproof, well insulated. 

      Warm clothes. Even when hunting in Arizona, in the elk habitat during the elk season you’re likely to get cold. 

      A pack that is ready for packing meat out in.

      A good binoculars and/or spotting optics.

Meat on a tree
“How are we going to pack all this meat out?” is the question you should ask before the hunt, not after you’ve put your tag on your elk.

Mind the Wind!

When asked “If offered one of three magic potions: a) “Elk can’t see you”; b) “Elk can’t smell you”; c) “Elk can’t hear you”, which would you give your client to drink?”, the absolute majority of the guide we surveyed chose the “can’t smell you” potion. The sense of smell is the primary sense that the elk use to determine whether you’re a danger or not. 

This doesn’t mean you should ignore the other senses of your quarry, though. “Elk hunting is not like hunting deer. Elk stay in herds which means that you are having to beat all those eyes, noses and ears. Elk can smell you, hear you and see you from long distances.” – says one of our guides. Don’t make too much noise, and make sure your clothes are made of quiet material. 

Be Patient

What factors ensure the difference between a successful hunter and a hunter who has to eat tag soup most of the time? The answer is many. There is your shooting ability, knowing how to handle buck fever, and plain old luck. Knowledge of the terrain is also essential: the best and most successful hunters are usually those who spend a lot of time scouting before, during, and after the season. 

Obviously, a hunter from an urban coastal area doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to scout the sweet spot in Idaho where the guide will take him or her. But what you can do and should do is to do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the animal you hunt, and the terrain where you’re going to hunt; practice shooting; keep fit. But there is one factor that anyone has the power to control under any circumstances: your patience. Learn to be patient, and be patient, because patience is often the decisive factor in a success of your hunt. 

Go Hunt Elk! 

“There is nothing like being 30 yards from a screaming bull elk during the rut. The most amazing and heart pounding adventure you can have” – says Ben Yeulet of Yeulet Family Hunting Adventures. Good hunting guides and outfitters closely monitor the conditions of the elk herds and the work of wildlife managers in their territory, and will bring you to the best hunting grounds with a lot of bulls where you can hunt until you find the one that you are satisfied with. You may have heard that the elk herds are on the decline in many areas, but the good news is that many outfitters report a turn for the better, with good calf recruitment rates recently. A backcountry elk hunt is an outstanding experience of pursuing a majestic animal in some of the most breathtaking landscapes on the Earth. You will never regret it. 


With special thanks to Bear Track Outfitters, Bow River Guiding Company, Geneva Park OutfittersGrizzly Peak OutfittersJ&J Guide Service, RB Outfitters and Guide ServicesSoto Outfitters, Trophy Ridge RanchWhiteswan Lake Outfitters, Yeulet Family Hunting Adventures.

elk bow river.jpg

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