Hunt Elk in Idaho with Over-the-Counter Tags in 2018

bull elk on skylineIdaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) manages elk in 28 Elk Management Zones and 96 management units.

Idaho has General Season elk tags that can be bought over the counter (OTC) for both residents and non-residents in all but one of the elk management zones and all but three management units.

Over-the-Counter Elk Tags Available to Non-residents in Idaho

Tags are available for purchase Over-the-Counter (OTC) starting in Dec 1, 2017 and are first come, first serve, so make sure to buy a tag before the sell out.

Last year was the first year all non-resident elk tags sold out (sold out around Nov 1st) since 2008. Idaho has 12,815 nonresident general season elk tags (Idaho has had the same number of non-resident tags since 1972).

There are options for hunting elk with General Season tags in Idaho with archery, rifle (any weapon) and muzzleloader seasons.

Idaho has made a few changes the last few years. New hunts have been added and other hunts have been removed, so make sure to check the regulations, but this information represents the latest available information:

  1. Elk can be hunted with Any Legal Weapon (Rifle Season) in 74 units with 127 different hunts (See Map 1)
  2. Archery – Elk can be hunted in 87 units with 115 different hunts (Map 2)
  3. Muzzleloader – Elk can be hunted in 37 units (Map 3)
  4. Short Range Weapons offer additional hunting opportunities in 6 units

With the three different weapon choices above (plus a few short-range weapon hunts), Idaho offers up to six options to hunt elk by sex or age:

  1. Antlered only (Bull elk)
  2. Any elk hunts
  3. Antlerless only (cow/calf)
  4. Spike Elk only
  5. Spike or antlerless elk hunts
  6. Brow-tined Bull Elk only

Table 1. Idaho OTC Elk Hunting Options – Number of Hunts by Weapon and Sex for 2018

idaho elk otc hunting options 2018

Key to Idaho OTC General Elk Hunt Unit Maps

idaho elk otc rifle units 2018

Map 1. Idaho OTC Elk Any Weapon Unit Map

Maps 1 – 3 show Idaho Elk Units that have OTC tags available for resident and non-resident hunters for any weapon, archery and muzzleloader hunts.

Public Land is shown in yellow and private land or other public land where access is questionable is shown in white.

Hunt Units that do not have OTC tags or no hunting areas are shown in gray.

National Park Service and Department of Defense lands, which usually do not allow hunting are shown in black.

Click on Maps to see or download larger versions


2016 Idaho Elk Harvest

The Latest available harvest data is from 2016. According to IDFG data 13,956 elk were harvested with General (OTC tags) in 2016 by 76,897 hunters.

The harvest was down slightly from the 2015 and from the highest recent year of 2014 (Table 2).

Table 2. Idaho General Elk Harvest 2012 – 2016

Year Bull Elk Total Elk Hunters Success Days per Harvest
2012 7,657 10,241 69,384 14.8% 39.7
2013 7,466 9,853 72,164 13.7% 42.9
2014 9,320 12,886 78,708 16.4% 36.1
2015 10,952 15,048 83,404 18.0% 31.8
2016 10,388 13,956 76,897 18.1% 35.2
Avg 9,157 12,397 76,111 16.3% 36.5

2016 Idaho Elk Hunting Success

idaho elk otc archery units 2018

Map 2. Idaho Archery Elk Over-the-Counter Hunt Units

In 2016, 101,805 total hunters (all elk hunts combined) harvested 21,326 elk for a 20.9% success and with an average of 27.8 hunter days per harvest elk.

For the combined General 2016 Elk season, 76,897 hunters harvested 13,956 elk for 18.1% success and 35.2 hunter days per harvest.

There were 24,908 Total Controlled Elk hunters that harvested 7,370 elk for a 29.6% success and 13.8 hunter days per harvest.

2016 General (OTC) Elk Hunt Success

idaho elk otc muzzleloader units map 2018

Map 3. Idaho Muzzleloader Elk Over-the-Counter Hunt Units

As for just the General Elk Hunts, there were 25,579 Archery hunters that harvested 3,782 elk for 14.8% success and 51.6 hunter days per harvest.

There were 6,066 General Muzzleloader elk hunters that harvested 887 elk for 14.6% success and 28.2 hunter days per harvest.

As for the General Any Weapon (Rifle) elk season, 52,117 hunters harvested 9,280 elk for 17.8% success and 29.2 hunter days per harvest.

Idaho Elk Harvest Data Compared to 6 Other Western States With OTC Tags

Public Land in Idaho

About 66 percent of Idaho is public land.

There is over 20.4 million acres of US Forest Service land, 11.6 million acres of BLM land and over 2.7 million acres of state lands open to hunting for a total of over 34.8 million acres.

I usually advise first time DIY elk hunters to start their hunt in a National Forest. There are 12 National Forests (NFs) in Idaho that range in size from about 6,000 acres to over four million acres of public land that you can hunt.

I hope this information helps you decide where you are going for your next DIY elk hunt.

If you don’t hunt elk every year with General Season tags (AKA OTC tags) in at least one state, you should. You will eventually draw a good Controlled (aka Limited Entry) Tag, but it may take 20 years or more. You will finally have a great hunting opportunity, but you will still be an elk hunting rookie.


Also note that the non-resident elk tags in Idaho are valid to take a black bear, mountain lion or gray wolf instead of an elk as long as your elk tag is valid (season and unit) and there is an open season for the bear, lion or wolf during the same time.

Check out two more posts about elk hunting with OTC tags in Idaho, where I ranked the Top 25 Idaho OTC Rifle Units and the Top 26 Idaho OTC Archery units.


Comments

  1. Hi Dan,
    Just purchased your book and look forward to reading it. I have also read many of the questions and answers you have provided on your website. After reading these I have a few questions of my own.
    First of all, my brother and I are planning a DIY Archery elk hunt in Colorado next year and are trying to narrow down where we want to hunt. We both have 3 preference points so we have a lot of options. We are both in good shape and have no problem going long distances and roughing it.
    We would like a good chance at a decent bull. Does not have to be a monster but would like a good bull. From my research I have narrowed down our search to Units 12, 22, 39, 501, 57, and 60. Basically these are the units we qualify for that have had good % success for bulls since 2013.
    You have mentioned in some of your comments to look for units far away from big cities and you have also mentioned selecting units with over 100 elk harvested. I was wondering if not meeting these last 2 requirements is a deal breaker?
    For example unit 39 is close to Denver and only had 14 elk harvested in 2015 but only 75 archery tags were given. It also had high success rates for bulls in 2013 and 2014 compared to other units. Should we avoid units with such a small number of licenses because we do not know the terrain?

    • Hi Brandon: This should probably be on the Colorado page instead of Idaho, but seems like you’ve been doing your homework. Not knowing the terrain will put you at a disadvantage, but no, it is not a deal breaker. Somebody will harvest good bulls off those units and it might as well be you. I bet you have will have an experience of a lifetime, even if you don’t. And better yet, you will learn the terrain and you will eventually be successful.

      I generally recommend that new hunters to an area pick units that had 100+ elk harvested because that means there are lots of elk and usually lots of country. Obviously the number of tags issued is important, but also the number of total hunters in the unit, so the percent success is really the most important unless the sample sizes (total number of hunters and elk) are too small. Example – 50% success would seem like a good unit, but maybe not if only 1 elk were harvested by 2 hunters (unit 1 in 2015). Average archery success in 2015 statewide in Colorado was 12.3% (5,746 elk/ 46,854 hunters – in 335,894 total hunt days = 58.5 hunt days per elk).
      But remember, some guys never get out of the truck. I ran into an archer one morning years ago while I was out to do a survey. He asked me a zillion questions about where the elk were while I was getting my gear out of the truck. In the end, he said he had to go back home because he forgot his arrow release. I don’t know if he included that as a hunt day or not.

      Keep in mind, areas close to the big cities have lots of campers and day hikers and people out just to look at the fall colors, walk their dogs, burn a burger over the fire or just to take wedding pictures. If you get off the roads, they are generally not a problem, but being farther away from the big cities reduces this kind of disturbance.

      Obviously, the reason not knowing an area puts you a disadvantage is because it takes time to learn what you need to know. Think about the places you hunt now. How long would it take a person of equal ability as yourself to learn what you know about the area? This is why many people hunt with guides (even on public land). The guide should know where to go. They should know where they elk are because they’ve already scouted or they know where they should be because of past experience. Heck, the guide can even tell you when to pull the trigger (or release the arrow in your case).

      As of this minute, if you guys picked a unit, you don’t know where to camp and don’t know the areas to hunt or how to access them. Do all the “Google Earth scouting” you can and look at the topo maps so you know what kind of terrain can be realistically traversed. But you will learn. And you will learn more each year.
      Check out some of the Elk Management plans for some of the units you mentioned to see if it helps make your decision about which unit to hunt. (e-22; includes unit 57), (e-18; includes unit 501) or (e-39; includes unit 39).

  2. Jeff Marlow says:

    Starting to plan our first ever elk hunt and thinking Idaho in 2017. Any help you can give us in picking an area to hunt for bulls of any size and suggestions on rifles to use and time of year for best success.

    I have a 7.62 rifle but not sure it is big enough for elk. We have all been successful with deer hunting and want to take it to the next level. We have 4-wheelers and campers and are thinking maybe a 5 day hunt. Thank you for your advice.

    • By sheer numbers, units 39, 4, 10A and 28 had the most bull elk harvested in the 2015 General Elk hunt (rifle), but success was low in most of those units ranging from 16 – 33% and these units also had between 1,250 to 3,743 hunters.
      Success was highest in units 30, 50, 29, 36A an 37 at 48 – 73% with between 89 – 285 hunters. Most of these units are in the Sawtooth or Salmon-Challis National Forests.

      Spend lots of time looking at maps and google earth so you have an idea of the terrain and habitat and public land before choosing a unit. Also look at forest service travel maps. Some areas will let you ride your 4-wheelers almost everywhere and others are very restrictive. My advice is get off the roads and trails.

      As for your rifle, I would prefer to see a well placed shot with a .270 than a bad shot with a 300 Win Mag. Unless you spend lots of time shooting at long range, all shots above 300 yards are problematic. Either spend lots of time and money dialing in at long range or work hard to get close to elk. Too many people will take a 500 yard shot, but never hunt more than 500 yards away from roads and trails.

      Good luck and let me know how it goes.

  3. Kris Kluver says:

    I love your site! Thank you so much for putting this together.
    Me and three of my friends are planning on going to Idaho to rifle hunt elk in 2017. We have another friend that lives near areas 50 and 51 and has horses!
    Yet, after talking with the Idaho Fish and Game, we got the impression that drawing an elk tag in those areas is close to impossible for rifle.
    When you say “over the counter” are you talking about about a draw? We would like bull tags, but would be okay with cow only. Any thoughts on our chances to be able to hunt in those areas? Thanks, Kris – South Dakota

    • Thanks Kris. By “over-the-counter” tags, I mean tags you can walk in and buy over the counter or over the internet. Look back at the post at Figure 1. The white or orange/yellow areas show units where these tags are available during the rifle season. They are not available in the gray areas. The yellow areas show public land.
      So, there are OTC tags in units 50 and 51.
      Some areas have an unlimited number of tags and other areas are limited and are first come, first serve, so you need to buy tags early.
      In 2015, units 50 and 51, had 500 hunters with General season (OTC) tags, that harvested 214 elk (33 bull elk in unit 51 and 181 cow elk combined). There are not many OTC bull elk tags available in those units, so to hunt bulls there you do need to draw the limited entry tags (or as Idaho calls them; Controlled Hunts).
      Even as a non-resident, you can hunt elk every year in Idaho with OTC tags (as well as Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington).
      Your friend in Idaho (with the horses) should understand how the system works.

  4. Craig Peppe says:

    I am considering a 2017 Idaho Archery Elk hunt and am looking at several factors. I saw a 2014 Idaho reg that allowed non-resident, disabled military veterans (>40%) discounted Elk tags. Has this been changed to Resident disabled vets only?

    • Craig: Yes, non-resident disabled military veterans can get reduced fees in Idaho:
      Nonresident disabled American veterans may be eligible for reduced fees for licenses and tags. The nonresident DAV hunting with 3-day fishing license, $31.75, allows the nonresident disabled veteran to purchase reduced fee nonresident DAV tags for deer $23.75, elk $39.75, bear $23.75, or turkey $19.75. See below for what documentation is required for eligibility.”
      The link at the Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game is here.
      Good Luck and Thank You for your service.

  5. Hey Dan, I am in the information gathering stage of an Elk/Mule Deer hunt in Idaho. It will be DIY with a couple of buddies. I have been pouring over the information posted on the IDFG website, but it’s a little overwhelming.
    The biggest hurdle seems to be finding the best area to maximize opportunities for both species with a rifle.
    The info you’ve provided seems to match what I have found, but I feel I to need more guidance before I pull the trigger on this trip as this is a big decision for us. Would IDFG be of assistance? I called once and they were busy and never returned my call. Does your book provide current information on this subject for Idaho that could provide assistance?

    • Hi Sean: I know what you mean about getting enough information before pulling the trigger on an expensive out of state hunting trip.
      I think the hardest part of a DIY Western Hunt is to get the info you need from the State Wildlife agencies. It’s their ballgame and if you want to hunt in their state, you have to learn their rules and figure most things out on your own. This is were a DIY hunt starts.
      They states want you to come hunt, but they are not generally customer friendly in the sense that they don’t have to be competitive. In reality, the western elk hunting states do compete for non-resident dollars, but they don’t seem to realize that.
      And since we do want to hunt in their states, we find a way to get the information we need even if they make it difficult (we do their jobs for them and then give them money).
      My book (DIY Elk Hunting Guide) shows you where to find all the important information at the State’s websites for Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington & Wyoming and other sites that have useful information. I also keep updated links to that information on my website because the state agencies seem to change links on their websites at the slightest whim.
      To find the “best” place to hunt both mule deer and elk, you will have to do your homework. Sure, you can call Idaho Fish and Game, and they may be helpful, but who do you think you will get to talk too? From my personal experience as a state wildlife biologist, most of the folks that answer the phones are the same people that sell the licenses. They are mostly city folks that work 9-5 in the office. They may live in Idaho, but most of them do not hunt. They know the rules, regulations and the names or numbers of the hunt units and they may know where most of the locals want to buy tags.
      If you can actually get a biologist on the phone (the folks that do the surveys or the habitat work), they can give you good information. But I promise you they get those request all the time and they basically get tired of it. Same as hunter’s forums where non-residents ask for help. Some hunters will help and others will curse you for being lazy.
      The good news is most units have elk and mule deer. I always suggest looking at harvest reports to see which units have lots of animals. Sure you can be one of 20 hunters that harvests an animal in a unit with low populations (and usually low numbers of hunters), but it’s probably best to choose a unit that had hundreds if not thousands of animals harvested.
      Make sure to look at the success rates. That usually tells more about the toughness of the terrain than anything else. (Hunting success is always lower in Oregon and Washington than the other states.) Many people can find animals in easy terrain, so success is high. Few hunters can go deep in tough terrain and bring animals out, so success is low. If the state warns you that success in a particular unit is low, or access is difficult, or the unit is mostly private land, it is best to believe them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hunt there, but you need more information before choosing a hunt unit like that.
      That is one reason I like to know as much about the terrain and habitat as I do about harvest data and why I put that kind of information in my book.
      No question, you will be at a disadvantage on your first hunt, no matter what unit (or units) you hunt. As of now, you don’t even know where to set up camp, but you will learn.
      Another part of the problem of deciding where to hunt is learning the “legal stuff”; Season dates, weapon restrictions, restricted to hunt in one unit vs can hunt many units or statewide, required licenses, tags or stamps and how easy or difficult it is to get a tag (limited entry or an over-the-counter general tag).
      After you do decide where to hunt and apply for or buy a tag, then you can actually start scouting. Start with the basics… where are you going to camp? Where are the trail heads? Where are the water sources?
      In the old days, we looked at maps, now we can look at Google Earth.
      There are plenty of places to camp is some areas and not so much in others. The locals will have dibs because they park their campers and set up tents weeks ahead of time. Still, most areas have lots of room for everyone. I was shocked to see how many people were camped at a new area I hunted, but I actually think it’s a good that many people camp close together and not spread out so much. This would help keep elk in areas that can be hunted instead of pushing them farther back.
      The crowds will get thin as soon as you get 500 yards off the road, but most of your best scouting can only begin after you get on the ground. Get in shape, so you can hunt hard everyday and you will find elk (and mule deer).
      Good luck and let me know what you decide.
      I got elk in my freezer. Now go get yours.

  6. KEVIN WHEATCROFT says:

    This is a great website, thanks for all the info. I am going to be moving to Idaho in about 18 months. I am a bow hunter. From the sounds of things, most of the good elk units are in the southern part of the state? Any decent units (success wise/otc tags, access, etc) in the upper part of the state? What parts of the state have been hit the hardest by wolves? I used to visit Boundary county each summer and remember the big mountains up there, probably tough sledding up near Bonners Ferry I’d imagine. Just wondering about drive times from Boise and maybe Coeur d’ Alene to an OTC archery elk unit? I live in western OR and the drive to our decent elk units in the NE corner of the state gets old….
    Thanks in advance,
    Kevin

    • Hi Kevin: This is the most common types of questions I get. Who doesn’t want to hunt the absolute “best” unit. I am still trying to get people to think differently about choosing and hunting different elk units and thinking about what hunting success means in general.

      What do terms like “good” or “decent” mean when talking about hunting units?

      Does that imply that if you don’t choose the absolute “best” unit, your hunt will suck? Should everyone in all the other units except the best unit just stay home?

      What is the best unit? I have several posts where I ranked units based on raw numbers and by hunter success (See ranked Idaho Rifle units here.) I am working on ranking the archery units and adding data for hunter density.

      But there are units where only a few people hunt and only a few elk are harvested, but some of those few hunters are 100% successful. Those units should probably be left to the local folks, but after you become a local guy, you may want to hunt some of those units.

      This year, I helped a group of vets from Michigan set up for a DIY Archery Elk hunt. Nobody harvested an elk, but they are excited about coming back because they love the country, found some elk and had a great hunt (even though nobody released an arrow).

      You are just starting your search for a hunting unit and your journey to learn about new country and hunting areas in Idaho.

      I like to ask this question: Why would you drive past elk to look for elk? Obviously if you don’t have elk near home, you have to go to where the elk are.

      I hunt near home most of the time because I know where to find elk. I also try to scout hunt in new ares each year, just to see and learn new areas.

      Moving to a new state, you should concentrate on areas close to home. That is where you will have time to scout. You will learn where the trail heads are, the access points, where you can camp and where to find elk.

      Wolves are well established in northern Idaho in the Northern Rockies, Middle Rockies and Idaho Batholith eco-regions. But I wouldn’t choose or reject hunting units based on presence or absence of wolves or bears. Instead concentrate on identifying good elk habitat.

      If you plan to live near Boise, look at the Weiser River and Sawtooth units (quota tags). If you settle near Coeur dā€™ Alene focus on public lands in the Palouse (unlimited tags) or Dwarshak unit (10A – quota tags).

      Good luck on your new adventure.

  7. Doug Neeser says:

    Hi,
    I just found your site and it’s wonderful. I live in Minnesota and have always wanted to hunt elk out west.

    I have a 23 yr old son who is special needs and is a bit clumsy. It doesn’t help that he is 6’3″ and 300 lbs. But he is healthy and actually he is not too out of shape. He hunts deer and pheasant in MN and I’d like to bring him with me on our first time DIY elk hunt.
    He’s a decent shot.

    I see that where you recommend first timers hunt in a national forest. Could you recommend the best state to hunt in that has the best national forests with the best rifle success rates?

    I’m hoping there’s a few national forests where one wouldn’t have to walk too far in to be in good elk habitat, or perhaps one could walk in on an old logging trail or the like.

    I’d also not want to hunt were there are grizzlies, all else being equal. šŸ™‚

    We’d be going for a cow or antlerless license for our first time out as I want to keep the hunt as easy as possible. I was looking at Idaho, perhaps the Payette NF or the Salmon-Challis NF, but what do I know.

    Less crowded is better but I’m guessing everyone wants that. I’m spoiled in MN as I hunt corn fed deer on my uncle’s farm and pheasants on some prime prairie land I own.

    I know it sounds like I’m some type of candy ass hunter but I’m really just trying to give my son a great hunting experience out west. Any advice you can give us would be greatly appreciated!

    Also, I will definitely be buying your ebook, I just don’t know if I’ll be getting it this year for a 2018 hunt or wait for the 2019 version as it might take me that long to plan everything else out. Thanks again!

    • Hi Doug. Who doesn’t want to hunt the West? But everyone doesn’t do it because they don’t have enough information.
      That is why I wrote the DIY Elk Hunting Guide.
      And for your information, everyone that buys the pdf version at the link above will automatically get the the next update for free when it comes out.

      Yes, a DIY public land elk hunt will be different from what you are used too. You obviously need to make a final decision and pick a state. Then you will need to learn their rules and their lingo.

      You mentioned getting cow tags for your first hunt to “keep the hunt as easy as possible“. Are you sure you want to hunt elk on public land?

      Think challenge, think amazing experience, think amazing country, but forget easy. It may be easy. You may have an elk fall in your lap, but I wouldn’t count on that.

      Luck has lots to do with everything in life, but good luck while hunting is more about knowledge, preparation and effort. Unfortunately, most knowledge comes with experience. There are many reasons that hunting success rates are 20% or less in lots of areas, but much of it has to do with knowledge (or lack of knowledge) about the areas (units, terrain and habitats) and about elk.

      Depending on time of year, cows are harder to find and get shots on than bulls are. Plus, some General Tags in some states are either-sex and some are bull Elk only and cow tags have to be drawn. Yes, some draw tags are 100% almost every year, but you have much homework to do (My book should help).

      Your request to know the “best state to hunt in that has the best national forests with the best rifle success rates” is the most common questions I get.

      I have been ranking general elk hunt units by raw numbers and by hunter success and also discuss hunter density and other related factors (see Idaho, Colorado and Utah). I am working on other states, but some do not report separate harvest data for general (OTC) and limited entry (draw) units, so it is proving difficult or may be impossible.

      But “best” in those contexts are just numbers and have little to do with all the other reasons we spend time outdoors or hunt or want to share outdoor activities and hunting with family and friends.

      Your son should have a great experience spending quality time with you in the great outdoors. If you get away from the roads, you should see elk. If you get lucky, you may get a shot at an elk.

      If I could see the future, would I only hunt on days I knew I would kill an elk? What fun would that be?

      That is why we climb the ridges and drop down into the canyons and walk many miles. We hunt to be outside and to look for and watch amazing wild animals in amazing habitats. We want to see things that other people will never see while sitting on their couches. We want to experience things that only people willing to put in a certain amount of effort will ever see. And if we are lucky, we fill our freezers with the best organic, non-GMO, no hormone, natural meat on the planet.

      Not surprised you want to avoid running into grizzer bears. That is also why I wrote this post about “where they are and where the ain’t“.

      Your choices for the Payette and Salmon-Challis NFs should be grizzle bear free (few sightings in Wilderness areas of the Challis).
      Grizzly Bears are primarily in the Middle, Northern and Canadian Rockies eco-regions and not in the Southern Rockies, Uinta-Wasatch or Idaho Batholith eco-regions.

      All eco-regions and all National Forests are different just like the place you hunt corn fed deer is different from where my Southern relatives hunt corn fed deer.

      My advice is pick a state (Why choose Idaho? Do you have any special knowledge about the NFs you mentioned?), learn the rules and get tags. Scout as much as possible (at least on Google earth), learn as much as you can about the area you choose and get in the best shape possible.

      I am guessing you live at about 1,200 feet in Minn. At best you will be elk hunting at 5,000 – 7,000 feet and at worst, you may have to go above 10,000 feet to find elk.

      Get your son involved with all aspects of picking and area and planning for the hunt. This will be something you talk about for the rest of your lives. But I bet you it will not be the only time you hunt the West.

      Once you learn how to get started, you will start learning about the area you hunt and you will learn more about elk. You will do it again and again.

      Good luck on your hunt and let me know where you hunt and how it turned out.

      • Doug Neeser says:

        Thanks for the quick reply. I purchased your DIY Elk Hunting Guide right after I submitted my question to you and immediately realized most of what I asked was answered in the book! What a great resource.
        Just for clarification, when I said I wanted to make the hunt as easy as possible, it was meant in relative terms. I’m quite aware that this hunt will be the toughest hunt I will have ever been on. I was looking for ways to make it less extreme, such as perhaps hunting later in the season when the elk come down to lower elevations.
        Thanks again.

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