5 Unexpected States to Bag a Monster Bull Elk — If You Can Draw a Tag
In many parts of the country, once-decimated elk herds have made impressive recoveries. Here are today's best sleeper elk hunting states
The elk is still the king of the West—but many states that aren’t typically traditional elk hunting grounds, including ones back east, have been producing massive bulls in recent years. In these parts of the country, once-beleaguered elk herds have made impressive recoveries—and state wildlife management agencies have begun offering limited opportunities to hunt impressive bull elk. In many of these places, the tags are still difficult to draw. But it’s not impossible to do so. Here are 5 untraditional elk-hunting states where you can chase giant bulls. Do yourself a favor and start putting in for them now.
When you think of the Badger State, you probably think of hard-gobbling Eastern turkeys, giant bears, and counties like Buffalo, Dane, Richland, and Vernon, where whitetails grow big. However, it’s time to pay attention to Wisconsin’s elk hunting.
Once decimated by overhunting, sound DNR practices, including two restoration efforts — one in 1995 and another in 2019 — have revived Wisconsin’s elk herd. The state’s elk first hunt took place in 2018, and each spring since then, the DNR opens an application period for a once-in-a-lifetime Wisconsin elk permit. The Wisconsin DNR did not design this program for the rich. For each $10 application sold, $7 goes straight to elk management and research in the state. Only Wisconsin residents may apply and winners are typically announced in early June.
If you draw a tag, the hunting can be stellar in the Clam Lake area. Last October, Field & Stream reported on the state’s first bow-killed elk in at least 140 years: Dan Evenson bagged an impressive 6-by-7 bull with a compound bow in the Clam Lake area.
Kentucky’s elk herd and restoration efforts have exploded in recent years. So much so that it’s become a must-hunt elk state. Between 1997 and 2002, the KDFWR partnered with six western states to capture elk and introduce them into an elk restoration zone encompassing 16 counties and over 4.3 million acres.
Elk applications go on sale on January 1 each year, and hunters can apply for three different permit types. Unlike some off-the-radar elk states, Kentucky allows nonresident hunters to apply. In 2021, just over 90,000 residents and nearly 40,000 nonresidents applied for 594 elk tags.
Kentucky has six elk hunting units. Today, the state boasts an estimated herd of 10,000 elk. Thanks to the state’s rich agriculture and grazing land, some monster elk get dropped there each year. Todd Ayers took the state’s biggest archery bull in Pike County in 2021. It scored 392 3/8 inches.
Because of the hard work of wildlife agencies and conservation groups such the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, elk hunting opportunities are becoming possible in states where it was once a pipe dream. That’s the case in Pennsylvania, where elk disappeared 140 years ago. The first group of elk was reintroduced to the Keystone State via express shipping on February 7, 1916, in two separate containers, each holding 100 elk. Now, just over 100 years later, the state celebrates a remarkable success story.
Pennsylvania allows a limited number of archers, general season, and late season hunters to take to the woods for wapiti each year. Residents and nonresidents may apply, and like residents, nonresidents are eligible to apply for all available elk lottery hunts, including rifle, archery, and antlerless.
Success rates throughout the state are high. In 2020, for example, the overall success rate was 83 percent, and in 2019 the kill rate was 81 percent. And hunters that draw have the chance to chase a truly world-class bull. In 2021, a hunter shot a 455-inch trophy bull in Pennsylvania—the state’s biggest on record. That bull is also considered the sixth-largest elk ever killed nationwide.
Not many know it, but the Golden State is rich in elk lore. California is the only locale where hunters can draw an elk tag for three separate species, though not all at once — the Rocky Mountain, Tule, and Roosevelt. Tule elk are endemic to California, and many elk hunters looking to complete a “slam” must eventually come to the state.
The good news for those who pull a limited elk permit is that they will be in for a heck of a hunt. Some monster bulls are lurking in California, and hunt pressure in most areas will be low. The bad news is that there is only one—yes, one—normal elk permit for any species available to non-residents. That said, California has created a SHARE program, which is essentially a lottery that allows nonresident elk nuts another crack at a coveted license. If you’re looking for a tule, Grizzly Island is the best place in the state to kill a whopper bull on public land. However, the odds of drawing this hunt are dismal.
If I didn’t love living in Colorado, I might just have moved to North Dakota. The state has it all: deer, pronghorn, bighorn, turkey, waterfowl, upland birds, and yes, elk. Lots of them. I love the landscape and the fact that if you hit the state’s elk lottery, thanks to North Dakota’s amount of public dirt, you’re going to be in for a heck of an elk hunt in sage-dappled plains.
Pulling a tag is complex, but the lottery system makes it possible. In all seven elk units, you have the chance of finding a true monster. In 2021, Jason Burtness tagged a 440-inch bull on Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. It was the 16th largest non-typical bull ever taken.