Over-The-Counter Elk Hunting Tips
Premium western elk hunts are some of the most coveted tags to draw each year. For that reason, hunters can expect next to impossible draw odds for the best elk permits. The bonus point game is key to drawing a premium elk permit out west. We will discuss that in another blog. For now, you should be honing your elk hunting skills every year with over-the-counter permits. Here are the 5 best elk hunting tips you can use to effectively execute an over-the-counter elk permit this year.
1. Be Prepared to Travel
Quality over-the-counter elk permits are available but they are scattered throughout the west. The chances that you live in one of the few western states who offer a quality over-the-counter permit is slim. Prepare yourself now for a possible all night driving trip or even a flight, if you don’t reside in the west. Along these same lines, set aside plenty of time to be successful. If you are new to elk hunting, 5 total days of vacation is probably not enough to give yourself an honest chance at bringing home a bull elk. I believe 10 days is the sweet spot, if your vacation will allow it, especially if that includes a day of travel before and after.
Side note*: If you are strapped for vacation days, plan to make the hike into your hunting area during the night of the same day you drive. Sleep deprivation can be restored with a nap during the middle of the following day but time lost hiking in miles during the day cannot.
2. Choose Your Weapon
I understand you are “just an archery hunter” or “just a rifle hunter”. If you are weapon specific, that’s fine. Pick up a great archery elk tag that you can hunt during the month of September. But September only has so many days. What are you doing during October or November? Why not pick up an over-the-counter rifle elk tag for a bonus elk hunt to learn the ways? You can hone skills like dealing with the logistics of taking care of the meat or how to call more effectively.
October is still a great time of year to chase bugles. Cow elk do what is referred to as second cycle. If a cow comes into heat September 1st and isn’t bred, she will enter eustress again about 6 weeks later or “second cycle” to ensure she is bred. This puts the second cycle rut around October 15. I’ve personally been out in the hills of Utah and had two bulls bugling looking for cows into November! That being said, if you are a die-hard archery elk hunter and refuse to hunt with a gun, pick up an “any legal weapon” tag but hunt with your bow. Nothing says you can’t use archery equipment in October or November. The point is to put as many hunts, stalks, and successful experiences under your belt as fast as possible. Who knows, you may even enjoy a rifle elk hunt to get a break from you archery hunts once a year.
3. Commit to a State/Unit
The two hardest parts of being successful on most over-the-counter elk hunts are: 1. Getting away from other hunters and 2. Consistently finding elk. There isn’t much you can do about hunting pressure from other hunters. Best advice for that is to simply hike further, longer, deeper, etc. to try and alleviate pressure.
Consistently finding elk can be a bit easier to control. My advice is to pick a good over-the-counter area within the state that you want to hunt and hunt it multiple seasons in a row. As rare as over-the-counter elk may seem, each year you hunt a unit you will begin picking up on the canyons or basins that seem to hold elk. Remember to always take notes, either on paper or on your phone, which you can look back on each year. This will keep you from forgetting each encounter you have with elk and paint a picture of where the elk hang out.
Elk have favorite remote basins or canyons they head to when hunting pressure becomes too heavy. Once you find one of these “honey holes,” you may be in for a premium-elk-unit quality experience since most of the elk in that unit may congregate to one spot. Making notes and hunting the same unit year after year will allow you to pick up on these elk hunting nuances that will make you more successful than the next hunter.
4. Don’t Be Picky
Every hunter wants to kill a 400” bull elk. Be patient. Your day with come when you draw a premium elk permit in your favorite hunting state. Until then, lower your standards and go for quantity over quality.
The math doesn’t exactly add up but the experience learned from killing a few 250” bulls will drastically increase your odds of successfully killing a 360″+ bull when you draw the tag. Of course try to hunt and kill the biggest bull in the unit. I just believe over-the-counter hunts get passed up because the “trophy quality” is low. Look instead for units with high elk numbers and a good bull to cow ratio. The calling sequence to lure in a big 400” bull elk might be different but other than that, most of the tactics will be the same. Learning to keep your nerves calm while a raghorn bull elk works his way toward you is just the experience you need.
5. Play the Round Robin Game
Successfully hunting and killing bull elk, especially during the rut with a bow, is much easier with help from a friend. The advantage from having a “caller” behind the “shooter” 100 yards is a tried and true tactic to bring a rutting bull elk into archery range. That being said, don’t be the friend who is always the shooter and never the caller. As much, if not more, knowledge can be gained by calling for another hunter. I find when I am calling instead of shooting, my nerves are not as high. I can really focus on listening to the elk and making a mental note about their reactions to my calls. This has also helped me tremendously when it’s my turn to be the shooter. I understand where the caller needs me to move at certain times. I understand the where the caller will be relative to the bugle of the bull and the wind.
Learning from joining others on their elk hunt has sped up the learning curve to understanding how to kill a big bull elk. Reciprocate every other hunt with your buddy and you’ll both walk away better elk hunters ready to tackle that premium elk hunt in the coming years.