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Washington State Rocky Mountain Elk Tips

This hunting information is provided as advice only.  It is the duty of the hunter to ensure that he or she is complying with all current laws and regulations.

distribution map

If you can contribute information click here Submit information (tips, area suggestions, etc)

For this species there are a few basics you need to understand in order to hunt them legally with the proper licenses and tags.  The WDFW regulations have a number of exceptions to the information provided below, these are general statements meant to help point the beginning hunter in hunting this particular species.  It is also the duty of the hunter to ensure that he or she is complying with all rules and regulations put in place for that season, species, and area they are hunting.

Rocky Mountain Elk are generally defined as the elk on the east side of Washington (east of the Pacific Crest Trail)  There is a single Elk tag (transport tag) the hunter purchases for general season hunting of Rocky Mountain Elk.  A hunter must pick the Eastern Washington side of the state and cannot hunt any elk on the West side.  A hunter then must then pick a weapon choice of Eastern Modern Firearm (EF) Eastern Muzzleloader (EM) or Eastern Archery (EA).  The WDFW has allotted seasons for each of the EF, EM, or EA choices.  You cannot hunt any other area or season.  Generally speaking, the majority of the seasons are spike or cow only depending on the particular tag you have chosen.  Most branched antler bull hunting is by special permit only.  The hunting is broken out and managed by GMU (game management unit) which has special boundaries and specific hunting rules designed for the management plan in place for that GMU.   Not all of the Eastern Washington GMUs have general hunting seasons or significant populations of elk.   There are quite a few special drawing permits available for Eastern Washington GMUs which allow a draw successful hunter to hunt specific elk GMUs during the rut, in restricted areas, or other more favorable times of the year outside of general seasons.   These special permits are highly coveted.  Some special GMUs can take well over 10 years to successfully get drawn.  The general season limit is one animal per year.

Hunting success requires significant planning and preparation.  Very few hunters can be successful without properly scouting an area or preparing well before the season starts.  The most serious (and successful) hunters "hunt" year-round.  That is to say, they are continually improving their woodmanship, marksmanship, and knowledge of their quarry.  The most successful hunters are in the field every month of the year.  They know their quarry and their hunting areas very well.  Hunting is an activity that is directly affected by the amount of front-end work a person puts into it.

There is no single "right" way to hunt elk... being flexible and paying attention to your surroundings will increase your success.

 

Gear                                                                                

  • Some hunters have been able to effectively use tree stands for Elk.  This will work especially well if you set up on a migration trail and have some patience. HWS staff

  • More and more timber company lands are being gated.  Buy a nice mountain bike and pedal into the area.  You’ll be amazed at how much area you can cover.  If you are handy or go to the local bike shop, you can have the freewheel noise disabled for a really silent bike. HWS staff

  • Be careful when hunting snowy logging roads.  Carry chains (even if you have a 4 x 4) a portable hand winch, survival gear and the like.  It does not take much to get yourself stuck way back, far away from help. HWS staff

  • When bowhunting Elk, keep spare arrows and even a spare bow.  This country is rough and you do not want to possibly ruin your entire hunt because something went wrong with your bow or supply of arrows. HWS staff

  • Bring an inexpensive digital camera with you.  The pictures will prevent your hunting buddies from lying or for them thinking you are a liar. Hint: (You can use photo editing software later to either add or subtract details from your hunting pictures.) HWS staff

  • Don’t skimp on a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope.  The best way to hunt Elk is to find a spot that allows you to see the biggest portions of a drainage and sit down and glass… glass… glass…  The better your optics the better chance of you seeing that Elk. HWS staff

  • You can buy a used external backpack from a thrift store to make an inexpensive pack board for hauling out those hind quarters.  Simply remove the fabric portions of the pack.  Don’t forget to include rope with the pack board to lash the meat on.

  • New LED flashlights are very cheap and last a long time.  Buy them in the bulk packs from Home Depot or Lowes.  Stash the extra flashlights in coat pockets, backpacks, camper, you name it.  Having all these extra lights around helps when you may have forgotten yours at home or back at camp. HWS staff

  • Gather some vegetation from the area you plan to hunt. Store all of your hunting clothes in garbage bags with the vegetation. Even your underwear, pack, etc. This is the best scent mask I have found. (tip: courtesy Jeff D)

  • Packing along a small trail axe may add to the weight of your pack, but, will make field dressing your animals and clearing brush much easier. (Robert L, Sedro Wooley)

  • Make the investment of buying different types of boots for different terrain and weather.  It makes no sense to try to use a perfect lightweight early season boot during the colder winter months.  Likewise, you don’t want to use an insulated boot when it is warm out which may cause excessive sweating and smell. (John L, Redmond)

  • Keep your scoped rifle in the trunk or bed of the truck when in the field (when moving between hunting areas during the day).  Two reasons for this is 1) safety 2) your scope will already be acclimated to the temperature and humidity of the outside air.  You don’t want your scope to be foggy and wait for it to become acclimated. (John L, Redmond)

  • Anonymous tip regarding the above tip.  This would only happen if the outside was warmer than inside your vehicle and it was humid outside.  creating a cold glass entering a humid environment causing condensation.  (for the beginning of the day's hunt) I keep my gun in the cab where it is warm and dry and It does not fog up on me when I get out in the cold air because the glass is already warmer than the outside temp.  not the kind of conditions we deal with in the North West.  (added clarification to the above tip about moving from hunting site to hunting site throughout the day. (anon, and HWS Staff)

  • Also... never ever leave your weapon loaded (either in the chamber or magazine) in a vehicle, it is against the law and it is just plain dangerous.  You can be sited by game officials for simply resting a loaded weapon on or against your vehicle. Empty the weapon well before you get to your vehicle. (HWS Staff)

  • Carry a couple of knives and a wet stone.  Gutting, skinning, and taking apart your animal will require you to keep your tools sharpened many times throughout the field dressing process. (Todd G, Kenmore)

  • Organize all of your pack gear into ziploc baggies.  Washington State is a wet state.  Keeping everything in ziplocs keeps everything dry and odor free. (HWS Staff)

Habitat                                                                             

  • Elk prefer and will be found in areas with a mix of old growth, new clearcuts, reprod (new plantings 5-10 yrs old) and second growth.  Edge environments are crucial to elk.  A lot of the gated areas of the private timber companies are helping increase elk populations.  Elk do not like to be disturbed. HWS Staff

  • Elk tend to herd up and it is not uncommon to see 50 to 60 in a herd and in the winter well over 500.  HWS Staff

  • Buckbrush is the preferred browse for Elk in the late fall and winter.  You will see Elk hanging around buckbrush, especially when there is snow on the ground. HWS staff

  • Gated areas are becoming hot spots with untouched areas available for hunting. HWS staff

  • When hunting in deep snow, pay more attention to the Southern exposure sides of the hills.  The Southern exposure will tend to have significantly less snow and therefore more Elk.  Subsequently, just because an area you have encountered has a huge snow cover, there could be isolated pockets up higher with absolutely no snow on them. HWS staff

  • When hunting Elk in Washington State, it is advantageous to hunt from the highest point down…  Elk will typically spend the day on benches high on the side of hills and will watch for trouble coming from below.  Many Elk can be spotted in these beds and can be stalked up on.  Most of these benches will be difficult to see from below, but will stand out like a sore thumb from above. HWS staff

  • Older and wiser Elk tend to hold in their beds more than a younger bull or cow.  The Bull that gets shot most often is the one that moves.  Go slowly through Elk territory.  Do not assume that the Elk you spooked out of that draw were the only Elk in there. Courtesy Mike D

  • Elk are diurnal, meaning that they are most active at dusk and dawn.  Cloudy days increase the time that an Elk will spend in the open as the lower light levels will be more spread out.  (courtesy Mike D)

  • When observing browse or feeding areas, remember that the lighter the color of the nipped shrub or twig, the fresher the sign.  Older browse browns with age. (courtesy Mike D)

  • Elk are rarely solitary.  If you see one, look for the others.  There will almost always be a sentinel cow watching for danger.

  • Facts about poop: Moist pellets will mean that the animal was there within the last 12 hours.  Dry pellets mean the animal was there days, weeks, or months ago.  Soft and clumpy poop means the animal has been feeding on fruit of wet leafy greens.  Poop size is usually associated with the size of the animal.  The larger the poop, the bigger the animal.  Poop pellets spread out mean that the animal was walking when it pooped.  Poop in a pile means the animal was stationary. HWS staff

  • Elk generally shed their antlers anywhere between late January and late March.

  • Elk tend to hit the tall timber during stormy weather.  During these stormy days, still hunt the timber.

  • When Elk approach a waterhole or a water crossing, they will slow down and scan the area considerably.  Use these areas to ambush an Elk.  (courtesy Mike D)

  • If you hunt the rut, place a stand near active wallows.  These areas are easily recognizable and you can easily see how active they are by the condition of the mud.  If the mud is dried out on the edges and the water is clear, the wallows are probably not being actively used.

  •   Picture of an active Blue Mountains elk wallow

  • Elk crop damage complaints are rising in the areas around Vineyards. Use a wine tour to scout for new areas to hunt. You might find a willing winemaker to allow you access to their land to stop the Elk from munching on their prized vines.

  • Fresh elk rubBlue mountains elk wallow (courtesy J Larsen)Rougher, steeper, furthest away... these are where the elk are (period)

  • In Washington State, any elk is a good elk.  Hunter success in this state is generally low, if in a legal area, a raghorn is not an elk to pass up.

  • In an area with a lot of bulls, competition will be fierce to breed a cow.  When competition is low meaning there are plenty of cows for the number of bulls (low bull to cow ratios) the competition will be low.  It is probably not a good idea to pretend to be a rival bull when there are more than enough cows to go around.  Work the herd as a cow not as an aggressor bull. (courtesy Rick T)

  • Elk are usually considered "grazers" like cows and sheep, not browsers, like deer.  Think like a grazing animal when looking for elk. (courtesy Bill P)

  • Get in the habit of breaking up your walking gait.  A sure sign that a human is walking is the steady pace of his footprints.  Break up your walking pace like a deer or elk would and walk 10 paces, stop, walk 2, stop ...mix it up! (courtesy Ron P, Woodinville)

Techniques                                                                   

  • First rule!  Know what you are shooting at !!!  There is no excuse for accidentally shooting something you did not intend to. HWS staff

  • Hire a guide for one season.  Chances are that guide will teach you more during your hunt than you would learn from years of "trying to figure it out on your own."  Guides are willing to teach and are getting paid to give you all their attention.  Most guides will be flattered if you continually pick their brains for information.

  • Using the squeak of a cow call is a great way to calm disturbed elk. HWS Staff

  • Always! Hunt into the wind.

  • The most popular way to hunt  Elk is by spot and stalk.  Find a prominent area, downwind from the area you believe the elk to be in and glass over the area.  Elk will tend to be in larger groups and even a small herd will easily be spotted in a clearing. HWS staff

  • Wait along the fringes of clear-cuts, just inside the timber. HWS staff

  • It is uncommon to see elk near heavily traveled logging roads.  They are smart and have learned to avoid these areas.  Look for them in areas with difficult access or in areas which butt up against private lands or lands that you cannot hunt in (Park, City boundaries, and the like) HWS Staff

  • Get out of your vehicle and walk away from the road.  Elk are smart, they recognize vehicle sounds and vary their routine accordingly.  You will find Elk by driving logging roads, but, you will see many more quality animals by simply walking along a clear-cut or up a closed logging road. HWS staff

  • Do not forget to put in for special permits.  Some permits have extremely high success rates and your chances of harvesting a Rocky Mountain elk are dramatically increased with a special permit (especially some of the units around Mt. St. Helens.) HWS Staff

  • Use a crowded hunting day to your advantage.  Find a bench or a saddle in the area you are hunting, get there before first light and wait for other hunters to kick the Elk in your direction. HWS staff

  • When the snow flies… go hunting!  There is nothing better than tracking Elk in fresh snow.  The snow starts falling typically during the late hunts (November and December.) HWS staff

  • When hunting open areas for elk, be careful to not silhouette yourself.  Keep just below ridges and just inside the timber.  Elk easily spook at silhouetted hunters.

  • Elk have a tendency to bound away when spooked.  Many times they will stop and look at their back trail to see if you are in pursuit.  This trait could present an opportunity with a lucky enough hunter. HWS staff

  • Conditions during late season hunting will be weather dependent.  Twelve inches of snow will get the Elk moving, depths greater than 18-24" typically move Elk out.  If there is not significant snowcover, Elk will have moved close to winter ranges, but not necessarily onto winter ranges, in that case, I would concentrate my efforts between 2000-3,500' elevation.  If there is significant snow cover, you should be able to see plentiful Elk in open, south-facing areas by glassing between 1,000-2,000'.  If snow is absent, Elk will be in and along forested edges,
    and more difficult to see.  Both scenarios presume fog has not set in, which sometimes happens in Elk areas; should that occur, you would be well-advised to seek areas above or below the fog belt, if at all possible. (courtesy Mike D)

  • On sunny days, hunt from the shadows.  Never stop with the sun beating down on you, this is a great way for Elk to see you.

  • When scouting look at areas where you see tall horse fences around gardens, orchards, and the like.  More than likely, that homeowner has a deer or elk problem.  You may have a pretty good shot at getting on their land to hunt their nuisance Elk.

  • Be aware of how you are hunting Elk... You typically cannot pattern them like you can a whitetail.  The most effective way to hunt Elk is by spot and stalk, period.

  • Scent tips

  • When tracking an Elk, pay attention to its tracks in the dirt or snow.  A meandering path signals an Elk which is feeding or is looking for a place to bed.  A straight path signals that an Elk is on the move and is moving from one point or other.  A path which is straight but shows the Elk stopped and turned around is a sign that an Elk knows it is being stalked. A spooked Elk will leave tracks that show all four hoof prints near each other.  (courtesy Mike D)

  • Get in the habit of erasing Elk tracks you come upon in areas that you will hunt more than 1 day.  By erasing those prints, you will be able to tell with great precision when new tracks were made.

  • When hunting open draws, get above likely brushy bedding areas and throw pebbles into the tangle.  Oftentimes even small brushy areas will hold a bedded bull just waiting for you to walk right by. (courtesy Mike D)

  • Some hunters have been able to successfully rattle Elk.  Elk tend to not be as aggressive before, during or after the rut as deer.  Rattle softly and focus on knocking around saplings and brush which is how real bulls react with other bulls in the area. (courtesy Mike D)

  • When looking over terrain for bulls.  Watch for things other than Elk.  Bulls will rub on saplings which make the tree move.  Also, Elk moving through tall brush will move the brush as they walk.  Look for these signs and you will find a chance at seeing Elk. (courtesy Mike D)

  • If at all possible, try to hunt Elk from the top of a ridge down.  Elk tend to bed on benches which have a good vantage point of the terrain below.  They rarely look above unless that is a common direction where hunters come from in the area.  (courtesy Jeff L)

  • When hunting warm weather, elk will be on the cooler north facing slopes.  They are big animals and actively look for places to keep cool.

  • Never pass up on the first day what you would shoot on the last day of your hunt. (courtesy Smith J)

  • A technique my hunting partner and I have used very successfully is to work parallel along a ridge, mewing as we go. We keep approximately 100-150yds. between us-one high- one low. Knowing each others calling techniques enables us to determine each others location and whether it is us or a real elk. Rockies, being more migratory than rosies, seem to be less discerning as to which type of calls{squeeze-me, bite-me, mouth diaphragms} that you use. Carry two or three types of cow calls so you can sound like a herd or a lone elk looking for company. Although you may hear an elk several hundred yds. away, be ready! We have had them come in like race horses. (courtesy Bob T )

  • Never hunt or pursue big game when the big game is trapped in a fenced paddock, feed lot, or field. This type of hunting is not considered fair chase. Per the Skagit Herald and the WDFW, in late 2009, a number of legal bowhunters went into a fenced field and went after a herd of elk trapped in that field. A few of the severely spooked animals tried to jump the barbed wire fences and inadvertently disemboweled themselves on the top wire. All of this was within site of a major freeway. What the hunters did was 100% legal, but clearly the carnage that followed caused undue stress and death on the trapped animals. Always think of how a herd or an individual animal will react after the shot. Also, be very aware of your surroundings and who may be watching. The general public does not necessarily want to watch hunters in the actual act of shooting an animal or bird, regardless of legality.  (hws staff)

  • Be in position before day light.  As visibility grows and you spot a herd at the edge of a clearing, look 50 - 100 yards in any direction away from the herd.  That is where the herd bull is but you only get a few minutes to find him cause he is in the trees minutes after daylight. (anon)

  • Many hunters think that a bright full moon all night will affect the next day's hunt.  What it will do is is make the animals get up and move in the middle of the day rather than in the early morning or late evening.  Animals won't bed down all day long and still need to eat, drink, and stretch their legs.  (courtesy Smith J.)

  • A really good method for actually spotting animals in the field is to look for tan "spots" on far hillsides.  Glassing these spots may reveal that they are simply stumps, but, can also reveal a bedded herd.  Elk tend to bed on open hillsides. (Todd G, Kenmore)

  • Avoid using a decoy straight out in the open.  If you are using a decoy, place the decoy near something like a small bush or tree which will break up the outline of the fake and distract a wary animal. (Dean T, Walla Walla)

  • Most big game calibers can be used for elk as long as you shoot well!  Try to pick out the heavier loads, however for the calibers less than .30, use the heaviest available load for that caliber. (Dean T, Walla Walla)

  • Only hunt wallows or watering holes during hot weather or rut, elk won’t use these for anything else but cooling off or for rut behavior.  (Dean T, Walla Walla)

  • When packing out your animal during Modern firearm season, tie orange surveyors tape around antlers...Even though you are wearing orange, if all other hunters see is the antlers of your animal, they may wanna take a shot...safety first.. (courtesy S Glenn)

  • Oldtimers in our area used to cut a branch from a tree and walk with it held out in front of them when stalking an animal.  Super easy camo.  (Tom, Puyallup)

  • I never hunt on the weekends.  I only hunt Monday-Friday.  Far fewer hunters in the woods (courtesy Mike D)

  • When tracking or hunting on a game trail, resist the urge to continually look down and watch the animal’s tracks.  Stop and watch where the tracks go to and go to that next point keeping your head up the whole time.  You don’t want to be caught looking at your feet when the animal may be just yards in front of you. (Dean T, Walla Walla)

     

     

Miscellaneous___________________________________

  • Get in shape!  You need to be in shape to trudge through Washington State Elk country. Most elk habitat is steep, tall and unforgiving.  When Washingtonians talk about mountains... we really mean mountains.  It is not uncommon to climb thousands of feet of vertical during a typical day's hunt.  Not to mention if you bag something, you are going to have to haul the animal out.  Your hunt will go significantly smoother if you are physically prepared.  Run, jog, lift weights, bicycle, whatever it takes! HWS staff

  • Keep alcohol back at camp or the hotel.  Guns and booze never mix. HWS staff

  • Be careful when hunting snowy logging roads.  Carry chains (even if you have a 4 x 4) a portable hand winch, survival gear and the like.  It does not take much to get yourself stuck way back in the woods, far away from help. HWS staff

  • When scouting, look at areas where you see tall horse fences around gardens, orchards, and the like.  More than likely, that homeowner has a deer or elk problem.  You may have a pretty good shot at getting on their land to hunt their nuisance Elk.

  • Washington State Dept of Fish and Wildlife Game Wardens are using elk and deer decoys (aka robo deer) to nab poachers and rule violators.  Don't shoot from the road, your vehicle, in closed seasons/hours or any other situation which is not 100% legal.  Youtube is filled with videos taken by game wardens where lazy hunters think they have an easy shot at an animal only to find that they are shooting at a decoy with wardens close by videotaping them.  No buck or bull is worth the fines and sanctions implemented when you are convicted of a game violation.

  • Facts about blood after the shot:  Pay attention to where you shot the animal.   Bright pink, frothy blood means that the shot hit the lungs.  The animal will expire very quickly.  Regular Red blood will mean a heart shot or some other muscle group has been shot.   Wait 30 minutes minimum before going after the animal.  Dark red/Brown blood typically means a paunch shot animal.  Do not go after this animal for at least a couple of hours.  If this animal is not pressured, the animal will bed down and slowly expire.  If you push the animal, it could conceivably travel many miles before dying.

  • Keep the woods clean.. Pack out everything you pack in and even pick up trash from other hunters who have been slobs... Keep the woods cleaner than when you left it!

  • When entering the woods, go prepared. Whether it is to pack out meat or possibly if you are injured be ready to survive the elements. A fanny pack is better than nothing but I would recommend Dwight Schuhs pack. I have had mine for 20 yrs. Not only does it hold all your gear but it will hold a boned out elk hindquarter and backstrap. Super quiet, form fitting, lightweight and very comfortable . Plus when you do harvest your animal it will save you a trip back to camp. You will thank yourself when you are down in " the hole". Also I carry a couple of packs of single edge razor blades. Elk hide dulls knives quickly. Another good trick is get yourself a young pack mule i.e. hunting partner-lol. (courtesy Bob T)

  • Hunting elk is serious business.  When you down an animal, realize that they are usually over twice the size of a nice sized deer.  It is not uncommon to have well over 200+ lbs of meat, head and cape to pack it out.  Avoid shooting an animal in an area or during a time where the recovery of all of the usable parts of the animals cannot be successfully completed. Learn how to quarter and bone out an elk.  This will significantly lessen the amount of meat you can pack out.  Bones and unusable parts of the animal should be left in the field for predators.  (Todd G, Kenmore)

  • When packing out quarters and you have to leave portions in the field overnight, hang your meat in bags from a tree.  Coyotes and ravens will easily find your gut pile and your remaining meat.  A small pack of coyotes will easily make off with your quarters.  (Todd G, Kenmore)

  • Keep a couple small ratcheting straps on your pack board. These work much better then rope for holding meat tight on your pack.

  • Know your gun and your abilities!  Know that most any wound from a firearm will eventually prove fatal to a elk when winter sets in. Be familiar with your firearm, and be sure to sight in your rifle every year to assure it is shooting accurately. Know your rifles and your own shooting limitations and do not take high risk shots. Be a responsible hunter. (anon)

  • Meth manufacturers and marijuana growers frequently use public land.  If you see or stumble into a site, clear out of the area as fast as you can and notify authorities.  These folks are ten times more dangerous than any grizzly you may encounter.

 

  • Special Seasons have been developed to hunt some species.  Special Permits are always required.   There are no general seasons. The Permits "grow in value" the more years you apply for them.  This is excerpted from the WDFW FAQ regarding special permits.

    Q: How do the hunt choices work?
    A: When the drawing occurs, it is as if all of the applications for a species are placed in a barrel. The computer spins the barrel by issuing random numbers to each application. The lowest random number that is issued to each application is the number used to order the applications from the lowest random number to the highest. It is the same as drawing cards from a barrel one by one. The application with the lowest random number is drawn first from the barrel and the hunt choices are checked. As each application comes up for consideration, the first hunt choice is checked to see if there is a permit left to be awarded. If there is none left, the second hunt choice is checked. If there is a permit available for that hunt choice, the application is selected for that hunt. If not, the process continues until all of the hunt choices on the application have been checked. If all of the hunt choices marked on the card have run out of permits, no permits are awarded to that application.

    Q: How do I build up points?
    A: Each person who applies for a special hunt permit for a species receives a point for applying. If that person is not awarded a special hunt permit during that drawing the point is retained. If the person is awarded the permit, that person's point total drops to zero. If the person who was not awarded a permit for that species applies the next year, they then have two points. A single point is built up each year the person applies for a species until the person is awarded a permit.

    Q: What is the value of building up points?
    A: Building up points is very much like putting more application cards into the barrel. Those that have more cards in the barrel have an advantage over those that have less. The more points a person has built up for a species over time, the greater are the chances that his/hers will be selected.

    Q: I heard that the points have multipliers on them. What is that for?
    A: Some permit drawing systems are designed so that one random number is issued for each point built up for the species by the applicant. It is the same as having one card in the barrel for each point (one point - one card, two points - two cards, etc.).

    Washington's system places a multiplier on the points. The number of points is squared and it is this number of random numbers that are issued to the application (or number of cards in the barrel). If a person applies for an elk permit for the first time, they have one card in the barrel. If a person has built up two points, they have four cards in the barrel. If a person has three points built up, nine cards are in the barrel and so on.

    Placing a multiplier on the points more noticeably increases the chances of being selected over someone who is a new applicant or was recently awarded a permit as points are built up.

     

 

 

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