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An in-depth look at Montana's top late season general elk hunts

 

Maddy with a great Montana bull elk taken with Northern Rockies Outfitters
Maddy with a great Montana bull elk taken with Northern Rockies Outfitters — A goHUNT Business Member

Jump to: Cost Finding a hunt Region 1 Region 2 Region 3 Region 4 Region 5 Region 6 Region 7 Top General Hunts

While Montana doesn’t offer the population of elk that Colorado has it does have one feature that puts it ahead of the competition: a five week rifle season. This season, depending on the year, will generally run into the last week of November or first week of December, which means you may be in line for some very good late season hunting. Montana offers over-the-counter (OTC) tags that residents can use for nearly the entire state or pretty much guaranteed draw hunts for nonresidents. Note: This is not a true OTC state for nonresidents. A nonresident must draw a general season elk or Big Game Combination tag. Keep in mind that most years there are leftover tags after the draw that can be picked up in the early summer or through the fall. Additional returned Elk Combination and Big Game Combination licenses will be available first come first served November 6, 2017 at 5 a.m. from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Montana is a great state for anyone to look at if they want to cut their teeth on elk hunting or simply as a fill in state while they build points for premium hunts elsewhere. While most hunt districts fall in the typical 8 to 10% success rate typically found throughout the west, the possibility of running across the bull of a lifetime is always a possibility in nearly every district. Montana has a total of 118 hunt districts that can be hunted with a general elk tag. That means 72% of the state is open for elk hunting once you acquire a general tag.



Montana’s OTC/general tag system

For nonresidents interested in hunting Montana for elk, there are a few rules and regulations that must be followed to ensure you get the tag that you would like. First, Montana requires that all hopeful hunters apply for a license, which must be submitted by March 15 of the current year. The licenses are then awarded through a lottery system though the odds are essentially 100% since surplus tags go on sale every year. You can check out the Montana nonresident mule deer draw odds using the button below.

Nonresident General Elk Draw Odds

Cost of a Montana nonresident elk tag

Type of license or permit Cost
Base hunting license $15
Elk combination license $851
Elk permit
(if hunting special draw districts)
$9
Total $875

 

Like most states, Montana offers special permits for some areas holding trophy elk though the odds can be very steep and take many, many years to draw. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the best OTC districts that can be hunted every year. More information on the Montana hunting seasons can be found here.

Montana offers some of the most generous seasons available with the general archery season lasting six weeks and the any weapons season lasting five weeks, (September season dates include include the rut). Additionally, some areas offer backcountry rifle hunts beginning Sept. 15 every year.

Throughout this article, we will be utilizing our Filtering 2.0 software to select specific parameters on what exactly we would like to see in a late season elk hunt, specifically in Montana. This is the most comprehensive hunting research tool available and a powerful research platform that every western hunter should have. With Filtering 2.0, hunters can simply set the guidelines for their hunt based on the state, species, trophy potential, seasons, draw odds, and harvest success rates in order to quickly narrow down the hunt districts available.



Selection process
 

Kiel Midtlyng with a general season Montana bull elk
Kiel Midtlyng with his 2016 Montana general season rifle elk.

When selecting potential hunt districts in Filtering 2.0 it’s important to pay attention to a few factors that are commonly overlooked by most hunters. Every year, when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) conducts their annual harvest surveys, every hunter is asked for the antler point tally for each antler. This information is transferred into data that separates the bull harvest by “6 point and under” and “6 point and better.” But how does this translate into usable data on our end?

Let’s say you have two districts with a trophy potential of over 320”. In hunt district A, 30% of the bulls taken are classified as “6 point or better” and in hunt district B 16% of the bulls are classified as the same. Out of every 100 bulls, hypothetically, you’ll encounter nearly double the amount of 6 points in district A than you would in B. Now, there are certainly 240” 6 points running around, but this tells us that district A holds more mature animals and will likely yield a higher chance of encountering older and bigger bulls.

Hunter numbers can also be very important to consider. While we always want to target the district with the best odds, biggest bulls and highest elk densities, it’s no secret that everyone else will be doing the same thing. By cross referencing hunter numbers with trophy potentials and mature elk numbers you’ll begin to find sleeper hunt districts that will have lower competition with a more abundant supply of quality bulls.

One of the biggest factors to consider when selecting a late season hunt is the terrain you will be hunting. After a long September of chasing cows, bulls are looking for easily available food sources and security. This can sometimes mean wide open prairies; other times it may include high wind blown ridges and country so thick it will make you cry. Focusing on areas that will allow you to glass over a great distance can allow you to look over elk while leaving them undisturbed and saving your body for the final stalk.

Montana statewide elk 6 point or better harvest

The upward trend in this data the past two years is a great thing to see.

Montana statewide elk harvest


Montana’s private land dilemma

While researching OTC late season hunts in Montana one fact will become increasingly apparent: Some of the best wintering elk habitat will be found on private lands. Here, elk will find obvious seclusion, ample feed and a built-in security force from predators in the form of fed up ranchers. Because of this, Montana has recently faced a downward spiral of available elk due to the battle between hunter access and the home turf of the resident elk becoming increasingly smaller. We are now faced with an entire generation of elk that have been conceived, birthed, and raised on private lands. Essentially, they have become disconnected with what it’s like to be an elk living in elk country.

Recently, MFWP has attempted to curb the continued reprogramming of these new private land elk through shoulder seasons though the program is still in it’s infant stages and yet to be proven successful. Hunters looking for late season opportunities will be faced with the constant frustration of seeing copious amounts of elk on private lands as they strut about and act as if the orange vests on the hillsides are mere decoration for their enjoyment.

Montana State Profile Montana Elk Profile



Region 1

Region 1 is found in the northwest corner of the state and provides some of the most rugged hunting around. Hunters will be greeted with steep slopes, crazy thick ground cover and the possibility of running into a dark antlered giant. Elk densities in this region are lower than most of areas in the state though competition will consequentialy be less as a result. Due to its jungle like terrain, many hunters can go a long time before even encountering elk, which adds to the difficulty. Ultimately, physical and mental exhaustion will force most hunters into submission and cause their minds to start wandering off to other lands.



Region 2

As with Region 1, Region 2 experiences some very low elk densities with much high hunter competition. While some great bulls are taken here every year, most successful hunters will end up with raghorns and immature 6 points. This region is found in a transitional area in regards to the terrain and offers both heavily timbered slopes and open, prairie type lands. Regions 2’s biggest migratory herd will be found in permit only areas with most of the general areas likely experiencing incredible hunting pressure and low quality bulls.



Region 3

Montana’s Region 3 is going to be one of your best bets when it comes to late season OTC hunts. Huge migrations move into its valleys as they escape the deep wilderness and high peaks that surround the region. Beyond that, when hunting the southern end of the area, hunters will also experience the Yellowstone herd migration. While this region has the highest elk population out of any of seven regions found in Montana, it does have the highest hunter numbers, too. The odds of you escaping competition will be slim here, though, with the sheer amount of elk hunters, you will have little trouble locating a bull.

HD 314 

HD 314 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
330"+ 12% 62% 1,490 3.07


HD 314 is located southwest from Livingston, MT, along the Old Yellowstone Trail. This area is largely comprised of private land along the valley floor, which happens to be the best elk winter grounds. Yet, much of the foothills above the valley do contain publicly accessible lands. Once the snow starts setting into the high country many of the elk will begin pouring into to valley, which provides some excellent hunting along the foothills. The country is sparsely timbered in the lower elevations, providing some excellent glassing opportunities and making the elk very easy to spot. Overall, hunters should expect company in this unit, but you will see elk—lots of them.

HD 325

HD 325 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
320"+ 12% 40% 1,794 2.82

 

HD 325, found in southwestern Montana and just south of the town of Dillon, offers a classic prairie type elk hunt. The northern end of the district will be entirely made up of crop fields though the rest of the district will contain large sage flats broken by rocky coulees and periodic patches of ponderosa pine and juniper. On the eastern edge of the district lies the Blacktail Mountains Wilderness Area, which offers darker timber patches and more seclusion. Because of the easier terrain, this area will experience higher hunter numbers though most of them will likely not leave the roads and, if they do, will not cover much distance. Hunters who can distance themselves from these road hunters and get into some hidden valleys in the center of the district should find relative remoteness. Glassing will play a pivotal role to success here and finding a vantage point early on to begin scanning the country will be key.

HD 360

HD 360 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
320"+ 11% 46% 1,867 4.28

 

HD 360, found on the eastern side of the town of Ennis, is another hunting district that will see very high hunter numbers but with the elk numbers to support it. Hunters will find more cover here than in other districts on the list and some great glassing opportunities do exist. The western half of the district will be dominated by flat crop lands and CRP areas that are primarily private though some small sections of state land can be hunted. The entire western side of the district will be comprised of good timber and great glassing opportunities. The central portion of the district with be home to Big Sky Ski Resort which in non-huntable land. The largest portion of the district’s elk herd will migrate to the west, which is where the concentration of hunters will lie, though some of the elk will head to the east. This can be a great area to distance yourself from the crowds.

HD 362

HD 362 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
320"+ 9% 50% 883 2.86

 

HD 362 lies on the north side of famed Hebgen Lake and borders Yellowstone National Park to the east. This area will experience some incredible elk migrations though some very rough country will be encountered in here and access can be very difficult. As with most other areas, focusing your efforts in lower elevations near available feed will put you in the best position to find elk though many other hunters will also be doing the same thing. Look for areas that will give an elevation vantage to glass from to locate elk early on and move on them before competing hunters do. Earlier in the season, grizzlies will be a major concern for anyone in the area though this threat will obviously subside as the snow move in.

HD 393

HD 393 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
320"+ 11% 46% 2,271 3.68

 

HD 393 is located north of the town of Livingston and has the highest number of hunters of any hunting district on our list though it is also one of the biggest districts. The area is comprised largely of private lands with some ranches participating in Montana’s Block Management program. Some sections of state and federal lands can be found scattered about. Land ownership maps will be a lifesaver for anyone hunting here. This area features a great array of terrain features, ranging from timbered and rocky slopes on the western side to wide open sage flats on the eastern half, which makes it appealing to all sorts of hunters. As with many districts, glassing will play an important role in locating and stalking elk. Gaining access to private lands prior to the hunt can greatly increase the odds of success though anyone who only wishes to hunt public lands may want to look into other areas.



Region 4

Region 4 is located in central Montana and features an incredible array of terrain from open prairies to heavily forested slopes. Region 4 is home to the second largest population of elk found in Montana’s seven regions and experiences less competition than the ever popular Region 3. This will be a great region to pick for anyone looking to simply experience elk hunting and have the possibility of running into a true trophy.

HD 416

HD 416 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
320"+ 9% 43% 1,796 4.02

 

HD 416 is found to the north of White Sulphur Springs and includes an incredibly diverse terrain makeup. On the western end of the hunting district, hunters will be greeted with a classic prairie setting complete with sagebrush and the ever dependant antelope and mule deer. As you head east; however, the terrain changes quickly as steep slopes rise from the ground and huge stands of mature timber take over. Hunters will find excellent glassing opportunities here as well as great hidey-holes once the elk begin receiving heavy amounts of pressure. As with most areas that have a higher hunter density, expect most of your competition to do their hunting from the comfort of their pickup or within a mile of any road. Hunters that can find the hidden areas away from this pressure that provide both security and feed will have the best chance at punching a tag.

HD 421

HD 421 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
320"+ 13% 62% 387 1.17

 

At first glance, anyone reading this article may question the decision to include HD 421 on the list. Of our selected districts it has the lowest amount of public lands, which means success could rely heavily on your door knocking skills or you could simply play the odds game and wait for the animals to cross into some state land. So, why is it on here? Because of the access issue, this area experiences very low hunter numbers with a very high percentage of mature bulls. A headache for most hunters, but it could be used to your advantage. If you can obtain permission to hunt some of the district’s private lands, you will likely be in the chips, but don't underestimate the power of the public lands. By gaining a vantage point and utilizing land ownership maps, savvy hunters will begin to find areas where traveling herds of elk can be successfully ambushed. While not the most scenic or exciting hunt, this can provide the opportunity at a great bull.

HD 422

HD 422 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
330"+ 10% 48% 615 1.66

 

HD 422 found just outside of the small town of Augusta can provide an excellent hunt with breaktaking views. Nestled on the edge of the Scapegoat Wilderness, the western half of the district features some incredibly rough country with high jagged peaks and deep forested slopes. As you progress east and off the front, look for the terrain to open up considerably and the elevations to drop. This district has been known to produce some incredible bulls and has one of the lowest hunter numbers of any district on our list. Grizzly bears are present in this area and hunters will need to keep this in mind at all times. As with any other district, glassing will play a pivotal role on this hunt as the elk move from the high country toward the prairie.



Region 5

Generally speaking, most of the districts in Region 5 will have low success odds, small bulls and heavy competition. This is largely to blame on the sheer amount of hunters around the Billings area, which ultimately leads to low age class structures. While most hunters will opt to head further west, there is some good hunting that can be had here.

HD 540

HD 540 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 6pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
Hunters density
(per sq. mile)
320"+ 9% 40% 1,075 1.8

 

HD 540 may very well fly under the radar for most hunters, but it does have ample amounts of public land, lower competition and a decent shot at a great bull. Most of the northern end of the district will be a unique mixture of rocky ridge spines, heavily timbered draws, and great feeding, lending itself to a great place to catch a mature bull escaping the pressures of season. These timbered draws will quickly dissipate into a large expanse of broken prairie and agricultural fields as one heads south. While most hunters will fight for access on the private and small sections of state land in the lower elevations, hunters can find themselves mostly alone if still hunting the foothills.



Region 6

Home of the northern portion of the Missouri River Breaks, Region 6 will be a huge drawing force for most hunters though each district will require a special drawing. Hunters should note that several of these districts can be drawn on minimal points and would be a great option for anyone looking for a great hunt down the road.

Keep in mind that the following hunt districts allow general elk hunting, although elk populations are low and elk will be difficult to find. Those districts are: HD 600, HD 611, HD 640, HD 641, HD 650, HD 651, HD 652 and HD 670.



Region 7

Also housing a large portion of the Missouri River Breaks, Region 7 features nearly all draw districts with most of the OTC districts having dismal odds at success. Building points to hunt the southern end of the breaks country can be a great option to include in your five year plan. The few hunt districts that allow general elk hunting are: HD 701 and HD 703.



The bottom line

The simple fact is that any of the seven regions found in Montana can produce record book bulls. Through careful consideration and planning hunters should be able to find a hunt that suits their needs and expectations. Hunters interested in pursuing top shelf trophies should consider building in points in Montana while utilizing these OTC/general season districts to hone your skills in the west and cut your teeth on the most sought after animal of the west.



Breakdown of Montana's top late season general elk districts
 

Montana bull elk taken with Lazy J Bar O Outfitters
Classic late-season Montana bull taken with Lazy J Bar O Outfitters — A goHUNT Business Member
 

Top OTC/general districts based on trophy potential

Rank Hunt
District
Trophy
Potential
1 HD 314 330"+
2 HD 422 330"+
3 HD 325 320"+
4 HD 360 320"+
5 HD 362 320"+
6 HD 393 320"+
7 HD 416 320"+
8 HD 421 320"+
9 HD 540 320"+

 

Top OTC/general districts based on harvest success

Rank Hunt
District
Harvest
Success
1 HD 421 13%
2 HD 314 12%
3 HD 325 12%
4 HD 360 11%
5 HD 393 11%
6 HD 422 10%
7 HD 362 9%
8 HD 416 9%
9 HD 540 9%

 

Top OTC/general districts based on %6pt or better

Rank Hunt
District
%6pt or
better
1 HD 314 62%
2 HD 421 62%
3 HD 362 50%
4 HD 422 48%
5 HD 360 46%
6 HD 393 46%
7 HD 416 43%
8 HD 325 40%
9 HD 540 40%

 

Top OTC/general districts based on hunter numbers
(low to high)

Rank Hunt
District
Hunter
Numbers
1 HD 421 387
2 HD 422 615
3 HD 362 883
4 HD 540 1,075
5 HD 314 1,490
6 HD 325 1,794
7 HD 416 1,796
8 HD 360 1,867
9 HD 393 2,271

 

Top OTC/general districts based on hunter density per sq. mile
(low to high)

Rank Hunt
District
Hunter Density
(per sq. mile)
1 HD 412 1.17
2 HD 422 1.66
3 HD 540 1.81
4 HD 325 2.82
5 HD 362 2.86
6 HD 315 3.07
7 HD 393 3.68
8 HD 416 4.02
9 HD 360 4.28

 

By cross referencing your personal goals for your hunt with the information presented in this article as well as the table above, you should see a few promising hunt districts begin to jump out at you. Don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone in search of a new honey hole as any of these can be hunted year after year. Hunters interested in building points for a premium district may also be interested in reading our 2017 Montana Application Strategy guide for an in-depth breakdown of the state's best draw hunt districts.

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