Budget 101: How to hunt elk every year
“How can I hunt elk every year?” As one of the few lucky enough to hunt elk each year, this is a question that I hear all the time. My typical response is to answer with another question, “What does your budget and schedule allow?”
If money and time are not a worry, my system can have you hunting elk every year and in many different states. While most of us are restricted a bit by budgets and “kitchen passes,” it is probably best if I discuss a strategy for elk hunts that are within reach of most hunters.
We all have different financial situations and our elk hunting budgets reflect that household reality. For some, elk hunting is their highest priority and I find myself amazed at the amount of elk hunting some people can find on a very limited income. At a minimum, to reasonably expect to elk hunt every year, you need to budget at least $100 per month. The more you are able to budget, then more elk hunts will be at your disposal and you can add more comforts to your travels.
Many of you are familiar with how western states allocate their elk tags. A few are over-the-counter (OTC) or general tags you can acquire without entering a limited entry draw. Most nonresident tags are limited entry draw — with all the higher demand tags issued through drawings.
We all dream of an early rifle bull tag in Arizona. Yet, that requires gambler’s luck and decades of application. Such unrealistic expectation can result in frustration. A long-term plan requires an investment over many years — sometimes decades — but those plans do not need to be changed even if you hunt elk each October.
Below is a chart that shows the time frame in which you can expect to hunt each of these states. It is coincidental that the cost to hunt these states increases as you go from left to right. The cost is usually the tag plus, in some cases, a non-refundable hunting license. If you have to do that over the course of many years, you have made quite an investment in that elk hunt.
Elk hunting expectations can be broken into three categories:
1) Every year
2) Every five years
The elk hunting plan
Every five years
The every year plan
Every year tags are usually the least expensive investment and allows you to get out in the field chasing elk annually. During our show, Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg on the Sportsman Channel, we do four to six elk hunts each season. There is no way that I could possibly obtain enough elk tags by focusing on the far right columns. This means that we end up filming a lot of hunts in Colorado and Montana — for production reasons and also to show viewers that elk hunting is within the reach of anyone.
Colorado is a hunter’s dream since it is almost a guarantee for the archery and muzzleloader hunter. If you are a rifleman you have the additional bonus of over 90 elk units with OTC tags for the second (111 units) and third (106 units) rifle seasons. At $626, an OTC bull elk tag is within reach for all hunters — even those on the tightest budgets. Even adding in the basic costs of travel, you can hunt elk in Colorado every year for $100 per month.
Montana is next with two options: an elk tag for $851 or a combination elk-deer package for $1,001. It is hard to find a place to hunt deer and elk for that price, especially with a tag that is good for most of the state and allows you to hunt six weeks of archery and then come back later for five weeks of rifle hunting.
The reason Montana is considered an “every year” hunt is that for the last four years Montana has had thousands of leftover general elk tags following the drawing. Yes the higher tag price for Montana may require a bit more budgeting than Colorado, but the longer seasons allow for more scheduling flexibility.
Please note that the best general archery elk tag in the country is the Montana archery elk tag. It allows you to hunt for six weeks spanning the entire rut. Not only that but most of the core elk country of western and southwestern Montana are general units, which means that all you need is this tag to hunt it. Another bonus is that during archery season, the elk are usually up higher, which is mostly public National Forest land. This means that you have access to older bulls that might be forced to the lower elevation private ground when snow and hunting pressure arrive during the November rifle season. Your best chance for a big bull in Montana is during archery season.
Like Montana, Idaho has not sold out its elk tags for many years. Idaho allows nonresidents to purchase an elk tag that is valid for a specific “elk general zone.” This means that you can hunt any of the units in the general zone, with archery season taking place during most of September and rifle season happening in mid to late October for most units.
To hunt elk in Idaho, you must have the $154.75 nonresident hunting license plus the $416.75 elk tag. You can add a deer tag for an additional $301.75. This is very reasonable for the traveling elk hunter. Like Colorado, you should be able to do this by budgeting $100 per month, depending upon how far you travel, how many friends can split the costs with you and, most importantly, if you can travel without fancy hotels and expensive meals.
With those three options, every elk hunter should be hunting each season. I understand the desire some have to only hunt glory tags. That is something all of us would like, too, but by deciding to hunt these general OTC elk units, I feel I have become a much better elk hunter. When Lady Luck pulls my number for one of the hard-to-draw tags, the elk knowledge that I have acquired on these opportunity hunts is invaluable. A part of me feels sorry for the hunter who has waited a decade to draw a coveted tag only to realize that this is his first elk hunt and his lack of elk hunting experience makes him “a babe in the woods.” Do not let that happen to you. Build your elk knowledge by hunting these three states whenever budget and time allow.
The five year plan
Next up are the hunts that are a bit harder to draw. You will notice that I have also placed Colorado, Montana and Idaho in that column in the chart above. That is because these three states all have some good elk hunts that are on a limited entry draw. This means that you might want to try for those limited entry hunts, but if you do not draw one of those coveted tags, the money you paid is not lost because you can use that license and tag for the general/OTC hunts instead.
In Montana, there are some great archery hunts with nonresident draw odds between 10 to 25% and the limited rifle hunts all with odds under 10%. If you are already hunting Montana, you may as well apply for those limited entry tags and build points if unsuccessful in the draw. The cost for the extra points when weighed against the quality of the hunt you might get, is fairly minimal.
Colorado has a preference point system. This means that the prior year’s drawing stats provide some indication of how many points it will take for each limited entry tag. Colorado is known for lots of elk, but with few top end units. I was a fool because I decided to wait out the point creep in Colorado. The reality is that the quality of the hunt that I will get with points upwards of 15 is not much better than many of the hunts a nonresident can get with five preference points. In Colorado, try not to accumulate many elk points. The marginal benefit to each point is very small once you get above five points. Burn those points and go hunt.
Since Idaho does not have a bonus point system, nonresidents new to the western elk game should think seriously about Idaho. Each year, all applicants have the same odds. One deterrent to applying in Idaho is the requirement to purchase a nonresident hunting license. Yet, if you are already planning to hunt there, you can leverage the investment in your nonresident license and apply for a limited entry tag, which is known as a “controlled hunt.”
Like all the western states, the more restrictions you are willing to accept, the better your odds of drawing. Idaho is no exception. Odds for archery and muzzleloader hunts are far better than rifle hunts. In fact, the primitive weapon seasons are usually longer and the dates more favorable. Idaho has many quality elk hunts with draw odds around 20%, which means that I am likely to draw within my “every five years” plan.
The fact that I put Arizona and New Mexico on this list may surprise you. Contrary to popular assumption, there are hunts in these two states where you have a reasonable chance of drawing a tag every five years as long as you stay away from the high-demand units and weapons types.
Arizona and New Mexico
Everyone wants to hunt the glory units of Northern Arizona or the Gila in New Mexico. I have been hunting other states for twenty years and I have hunted both of those famed elk areas. It is obvious why they are popular. Yet both states have other great areas with large amounts of public land where the age class of elk is excellent. While it may not be the age class of these glory units, it is still very good when compared to other states.
Most nonresidents are of the mindset that if they are going to hunt Arizona or New Mexico, they want one of the infamous units — hopefully while elk are bugling! This is fine by me because it means that I can draw the second tier units or hunt the later rifle seasons with more frequency than those guys counting on lucky fortune.
Building points for a mid-tier unit in Arizona can be a bit expensive because of the nonrefundable license requirement; however, New Mexico does not have a point system and their hunting license fee is refundable if you do not draw. This makes New Mexico a “no brainer” for the travelling elk hunter.
Wyoming is the most predictable of the “five year plan” states. Once you accumulate preference points, it is fairly certain that you will be going on a really good elk hunt. In my opinion, Wyoming has the best combination of quality elk, public lands, accessibility to tags and harvest success of any western state. There is a reason Wyoming has so many applicants for their elk hunts. It is a great state.
When applying in Wyoming, make sure you understand that the state provides nonresidents with two different application options. There is the “Regular” fee or you can pay an additional $480 for the “Special” fee that, in most areas, will give you better drawing odds. When the draw is done, the tags acquired in the “Regular” draw are the same as those issued in the “Special” draw, but at a difference in price.
Part of your elk hunting budget should be allocated to building points in Wyoming. Even if you miss the draw, Wyoming allows nonresidents to buy a point for the following year by paying $50. Break that down to a monthly fee and it is only $4 per month. I easily spill $4 of coffee on my lap each month! That $50 is going to help you as you build an elk hunting plan that involves one of the quality areas in Wyoming.
The once-in-a-generation plan
Glory units — or what I like to call once-in-a-generation hunts — are available in every state. These units are the most coveted and the hardest to draw. Because of this, these hunts do not fit into my plan of hunting elk every year. Yet it is possible to carve enough out of your budget that you can build points or rolling the dice each year and not have it compromise the rest of your hunting bank roll.
Before I go into detail of why these “glory tags” are so glorious, I want to caution you about holding all your cards for that hunt only to be disappointed. Even on these hunts, there is not a high number of 350” bulls killed. Sure, there is a higher percentage than other hunts, but do not assume that it is a slam dunk.
Weather, fires, drought and a myriad of other unforeseen events can make one of these tags seem overrated. I drew an Arizona Strip mule deer tag during a very bad drought year. I hunted all ten days of the season and did not find a single buck worthy of the maximum points it took for the tag. That tag, in spite of burning maximum points to acquire it, is still sitting in my desk drawer, unpunched. One of my friends drew an amazing early elk tag in Arizona only to have a huge fire change the landscape for the period of that hunt.
What is the point of these sad little tales? To make sure that you are aware that these hunts might be all you dreamed of or you might draw during an unfortunate year. Proceed with caution.
So what about Utah and Nevada?
You’ll notice that two states are on this list and not on the “yearly” or “every five year” list: Utah and Nevada. Here’s why: draw odds for elk in those states is in such high demand that even high point holders have miniscule odds of drawing. Since both have a bonus points system, rather than a preference point system, every applicant has a statistical probability of drawing — even if it is extremely slim odds for low point holders.
Additionally, both Nevada and Utah have waiting periods once you do draw so you are not going to draw a tag in those states every five years. It is not allowed.
Is the elk hunting good enough in those states to justify the long-shot odds? Yes, it is. I have hunted them both personally and helped others on hunts in those states. Because they manage for a very high age class and most elk are on vast tracts of public lands, the quality of the hunts are excellent. That said, do not plan your fall elk hunting schedule based on any certainty of drawing in one of those states.
Like Nevada and Utah, all the states have some limited entry hunts that justify the huge amount of applicants that create such abysmal drawing odds.
Quick rundown on dream hunt units
• Colorado has some elk hunts in the northwest corner of the state that are as good as any you can find. Even for the primitive weapon seasons in those units, nonresidents are burning 20+ points with the points required creeping each year. If you are not in the top of the point pile in Colorado, do not waste your time on that strategy.
• Idaho has some spectacular elk hunts along the Nevada border. Your odds are usually better at winning in a Vegas casino, but every year up to 10% of those Idaho tags are awarded to nonresidents. Having deer hunted in some of that area, the bulls I saw made it clear why demand for elk tags is so high.
• Montana has some rifle hunts in the eastern and central parts of the state that are excellent, but access can be an issue in some units. Elk quality more than makes up for the access challenges and the long draw odds. These are not hunts you can bank on for your annual hunting plans, though for little additional cost, you can apply for them and build points as you go.
• Now that Arizona has changed its method for drawing tags, everyone has a slight chance to draw a tag. Again, if you are wanting one of those tags, plan on biding your time and making an annual investment toward that goal. Do not make it your first option for an elk hunt.
• New Mexico has become more difficult for the self-guided nonresident since passing recent legislation that caps non-guided nonresidents at 6% of the total tags. Gila units and areas near the Mescalero Reservation were already difficult. Passage of that law only added to the challenge.
• Since New Mexico has no point system, and they allow you three choices, you may as well make your first two choices one of these long-shot glory units. New Mexico looks at all three choices before moving onto the next applicant. You never know when lady luck will shine on you. And when she does, New Mexico will truly be the Land of Enchantment.
• Wyoming has some tremendous elk hunts that rival that of Nevada and Utah. Lots of public land, lots of elk as well as some whoppers. Late migration hunts in northwest Wyoming are the highest demand due to the quality of bulls taken. Some of the central and southwest hunt areas have rifle hunts that start while bugling is still common. Though these hunts take maximum points in Wyoming’s limited entry draw, Wyoming does allocate 25% of their nonresident tags in a separate random draw. This means that while the odds are extremely low, you do have some small chance of drawing. Given how good some of Wyoming’s mid-tier hunts can be, my personal opinion is that nonresidents are far better off to hunt the areas that take four to five points and hunt them many times versus holding all of your points for one big hurrah.
Let’s talk money
Now that I have taken so much of your time explaining the details, I need to talk about elk hunting finances. Most people think western elk hunts are $10,000 to $15,000 opportunities. They can be, but not at my house. Through other hunters and my own experiences, I have learned many ways to cut elk hunting costs while keeping the experience top shelf.
Each of these recommendations is a personal preference. Some will look at the suggestion and determine it’s not worth it to them; they prefer to splurge where I might exercise frugality. Some of these are suggested cost savings for one trip; whereas, other ideas have a multi-year focus where your investment gets you in the elk woods every year.
Tags and licenses are not a variable. Yes, you can save some money by hunting the lower priced states every year. This will likely save only a few dollars. A general statement would be that most elk hunts are priced according to the quality of the hunt — and quality is measured in terms of crowding, access to land and age class of the elk. Not always, but pretty true. In other words, you often get what you pay for — at least in the general and OTC units. You can see a summary of the state-by-state application fees below. For a complete breakdown, you can check out this article.
State by state elk hunt price breakdown
Travel is going to be one of your larger expenditures. Most of you might be traveling more than a thousand miles. That distance precludes flying, renting vehicles, baggage fees, meat shipment (hopefully), etc., for most hunters. Odds are, though, that you are driving. The best way to lower this cost is to split it with a group of other guys. If your truck gets 15 mpg, by splitting it with another guy, it is the equivalent of getting 30 mpg. Share those costs with a third hunter and now your travel costs are the same as if you drove your Prius across the country; a Prius than can hold a lot of gear.
When I travel, motels are not part of the equation. Time on the road is time wasted and money wasted. I realize that not everyone is willing to toss their cot out on an old logging road and spend the night under the stars, but I am. If you have a good crew of guys who can stay awake, some can rest while others drive, getting you there faster and cheaper. This saves more time for hunting and more dollars for other luxuries.
In addition to the benefits of a partner or two splitting travel costs, elk hunting can be more “comforting” with extra strong backs in camp for packing out meat. For some, hunting with others is not a consideration. I would suggest that it adds a level of comfort, splits the workload around camp and, if you drop a bull in a bad location, gives you some extra manpower that can be very helpful.
I really do not include food in my hunting budget. I need to eat, whether I am at home, on the road or in elk camp. I have little use for the empty calories of fast food. When I travel, I eat mostly snacks and meals from home. This not only saves money, but you will feel more nourished when you get to elk camp. Other than backpack hunts that require dehydrated meals, it is mostly all home cooked food at my base camp. Prior to season, my wife cooks up big batches of antelope lasagna, elk chili, venison stew and other healthy meals that can be put in vacuum sealed bags. I take many coolers of these meals to elk camp. Each night, I turn up the heat on the burner pot, put the vacuum sealed bag in the boiling water and in ten minutes I can enjoy a hot meal from home, which is much better for my body and my wallet.
Many of us leverage an elk hunt as justification for new equipment purchases. I get that. There are no bad times to buy a new rifle, but do not do so at the risk of your elk hunting slush fund. Most of you hunt deer. What kills a deer will kill an elk. Spend that money on better bullets, not new rifles. A well-placed bullet from any deer rifle will have you practicing your field dressing skills in short order.
An elk camp can be built over time. Invest in quality gear from the start. Buy right and buy once. View equipment purchases as an investment, not a disposal expense. Each season you can add a bit more to your camp items. If you have the same guys who hunt elk each year, don’t be redundant in your investments toward camp equipment. You don’t need two axes, two wood stoves, etc. Make your investment in necessities the other guys don’t have. Combined, you will have one heck of an elk camp.
I love processing my own meat. Sometimes, travel and schedules require I use a commercial game processor. If not for that, nobody would get the pleasure of converting my elk to table portions, other than yours truly. Most places will charge $300 to 500 for a big bull elk. You and your buddies could do the same thing for much less and with more confidence in the cleanliness of the final product. It is critical that you find a way to keep it cool until you get home, even if it means renting some nearby cooler space while waiting for the rest of the crew to fill their tags.
None of these cost savings tips are anything scientific. In fact, most of them are common sense. Common sense requires you to allocate your budget, however large or small, in a manner that allows you to go elk hunting every year and, hopefully, some years twice.
There is really no reason for any aspiring elk hunter to stay home from the elk woods each year. Maybe that is a personal choice. Yet, for not much more than $100 per month, a public land elk hunt can be had in many western states. As your budget increases, so does your opportunity.