How to Choose an Elk Unit for a DIY Public Land Hunt – Part I

elk drinking in yellowstone lake

Elk Drinking from Yellowstone Lake

I wrote the DIY Elk Hunting Guide for anyone who wants to do a DIY fair-chase elk hunt on public land and especially for those who need more information or help about selecting a state and hunt unit and planning for an elk hunt.

I get a lot of questions from DIY elk hunters basically asking for help finding the “best” units. Obviously, everyone wants the absolute “best” unit, but how can I predict the absolute best unit for a person that is unfamiliar with an area.

I don’t blame folks for trying, but in reality, that is an impossible question to answer. It’s also shows when we are first learning about a subject, we can only ask questions we know to ask, not the question we need to ask. That comes later, because we don’t know what we don’t know.

Of course we want to have a successful hunt. Nobody rolls out of bed to go hunt or fish with zero expectations of being successful? And who doesn’t want to harvest the biggest bull elk anyone has seen? But let’s be realistic.

There are no Magic Elk Hunting Units

The first thing to realize is that there is no magic choice for an elk unit. It seems that we get the idea that if we pick the right unit, all we have to do is go out there and that big old bull will climb in the back of the truck, but if we choose the wrong unit, we might as well stay at home. Obviously neither of those cases is true. There are hundreds of thousands of elk on the landscape. If you spend time in elk habitat, you have a chance to run into them.

Impossible to pick Best Hunt Unit for Many Reasons:

  • Even in units with very few elk harvested, a few hunters are 100% successful
  • In units with hundreds or thousands of elk harvested, most hunters are unsuccessful
  • I don’t know enough about your knowledge, expectations, physical abilities or motivation
  • Can’t predict the effects of past and future weather or disturbance will have on elk

And this doesn’t even begin to take other factors into consideration, like the time of year, the archery hunt vs rifle hunt, the total number of elk or hunters, the amount of elk habitat or the amount public land in the unit.

So how should a first time DIY elk hunter choose a hunting unit? Let’s start at the beginning.

First Steps for a DIY Elk Hunt

  1. Choose a State to Hunt
  2. Learn the Rules and the Lingo
  3. Choose a Unit
  4. Scout and Prepare

This and the next two posts will cover the basics of the first three points that lead to choosing a hunt unit.

Must First Choose State for DIY Elk Hunt

Most of the questions come from people that have already chosen a state to hunt (usually Colorado) and are usually asking for my opinion about specific units or general advice about hunt units. My first question back to them is usually (or should be); why did you choose that state?

Most people choose a state because it is closest to them or they have friends or relatives that live there or someone recommended they hunt there. Those are good reasons for choosing a state. If you know people that have local knowledge of an area then you have a head start.

But many DIY elk hunters don’t have any contacts to help get them started, but that is the challenge. The biggest challenge is to choose a state you’ve never been to and decide to go there and hunt.

Since most people want to hunt in Colorado, I will provide some facts about elk hunting in Colorado and in other Western States for you to consider.

Good Reasons to Hunt Elk in Colorado:

  • Colorado is the closest state with OTC elk tags for eastern hunters
  • Colorado has the largest elk population (~280,000 in 2016)
  • Colorado has the largest elk harvest (over 43,000 elk in 2015)
  • Over-the-Counter (OTC) tags are easy to get (most unlimited)
  • Can hunt in all of the OTC units
  • Colorado has over 23 million acres of public land
  • Elk habitat is mostly in two eco-regions; the Southern Rockies & the Colorado Plateaus

Good Reasons to Hunt Elk in Other Western States:

  • Other states have large elk populations (esp. some units)
  • Four other western states also have OTC elk tags
  • Three western states have more public elk habitat
  • Non-Res. elk tags are less expensive in four states than Colorado
  • Every other western state has less elk hunters
  • Every other western state has more public acres per hunter
  • Four states have higher total hunter success
  • Other western states have units with more elk harvested
  • Elk Habitat in 11 other forested eco-regions and four other Desert eco-regions
  • Oregon and Washington also have Roosevelt Elk

Now that is a lot of information to absorb, so do you still want to ask me which specific unit is best? Or do you have another question in mind?

As further evidence of the differences between states and between individual hunt units, Table 1 compares elk units (rifle seasons) between and among five western states. The table shows the number of general elk units, the range in the number of total elk harvested in all units, the range in the numbers of total hunters, the range of hunter success and the range in the sizes of the units (square miles).

Table 1 Comparison of Western General Rifle Elk Units (2015)

comparison of western state elk units

The harvest data in Table 1 came from each state’s 2015 harvest report and the size of the units’ came from other state reports or was estimated by measuring the number of pixels in each unit compared to an image of the entire state map.

The number of general elk units ranges from 47 in Utah to 171 in Montana. Three states had general units with zero elk harvested, but some individual units had more than 1,000 elk harvested (unit 446 in Montana & unit 21 in Wyoming).

The number of hunters varied widely in the units they chose ranging from as low as 2 in Idaho to over 3,700 in two states (units 103 & 151 in Idaho & unit 21 in Wyoming).

All five states had individual units with Hunter success at or near zero, but were greater than 50% in at least some units in all states except Utah. (Most units with very high success are small units with very few hunters).

The size of the hunt area also varies tremendously with a single unit as small as 16 square miles (Unit 284; 10,100 acres) in Montana to over 9,700 square miles (Snake River Elk Zone units, 6,243,000 acres) in Idaho. No hunt unit in Colorado is over 2,000 square miles, but each of the other four states has units or combinations of units that allow hunters to hunt at least 5,139 square miles (over 3 million acres).

I haven’t (yet) taken the time to add Oregon and Washington data to Table 1. Those two states also offer elk hunting with general season (OTC) tags and both states also have Roosevelt Elk in addition to Rocky Mountain Elk.

Hunting elk on public land is a challenge. If you want a real challenge, go somewhere new to hunt. And that is exactly how most first time DIY elk hunters do it.

But no matter which state or unit you choose to hunt, you will increase you chances of success, the more you know about the public land, the terrain, the habitats and the more you know about elk.

Read More – How to Choose an Elk Unit Part II (There are at least 15 things I want to know about an elk unit).



  1. Forgot this on pior question when deciding on guide is it better on private land over general

    • Sorry Wayne. I don’t see a previous question or comment. To answer your question, I need to ask a question. What do you mean by better? Do you mean easier to find elk? More elk? Bigger elk? Easier access? Or do you mean a rewarding outdoor hunting experience?

      Plenty of good elk are on pubic and private lands most places. I have seen some good quality hunts on private lands and I can show you examples where great bulls were harvested by folks in their street shoes. Great bulls, but not the hunt experience I want.

  2. Wayne J Hopfinger says

    If you watch hunting show they pass up 6 point bulls and I hunted 4 times on king mountain in Colorado and watched elk on private. Only 100 yards from the public land fence. Most of the hunting shows hunt deer, birds on private land. Hunting is hunting but I have gone before and never seen a elk on some hunts. So if a guy is going on a out of state guided hunt that cost a lot for a average hunter, that’s why I ask the question if you are going on a guided hunt should you go to private land hunts or special unit to increase your odds?

    • Yes, some areas elk go straight to private as soon as the season starts. Other places they don’t or they may go from high to low, but stay on public (if there is good public land in Wintering areas).

      And many of the shows where they pass on 6 by 6 elk is because it’s like hunting cows in a pasture. He will be there tomorrow if you can’t find better today. They have to do something to make the show exciting.

      A friend of mine’s mom shot a great 6X6 elk on private land. I saw the video on her husband’s phone. A great elk no question, but she didn’t have to do anything but shoot.

      I am happy for her, but not my kind of hunt.

      If you are doing a guided hunt, it probably doesn’t matter if you hunt private or public. You either trust the guide to put you on elk or you don’t. At this point, it’s all just about price and who can convince you they have elk or can find elk.

      Personally, I have no interest in private land hunting. I would harvest a cow off private land if I couldn’t fill my freezer any other way, but the experience would be lacking. I hunted 21 days this year to get my cow elk. That was 21 days (or parts of days) I was loving every minute; even when I was humping up and down hills and going several days in a row without seeing elk (unusual year).

      I like the fact that private land owners can make money on wildlife, otherwise they could turn good wintering habitat into something else that is not good for wildlife.

      I get it though. Who doesn’t want to hunt elk in the west? You can DIY elk hunt public land for $1,000 per year, but that is doing it on the cheap (which some people enjoy and others don’t.

      I advocate for DIY public land hunting because the more people interested, the more likely will will be able to protect the habitats necessary to keep viable wildlife populations.

      I don’t think lack of money keeps most non-residents from hunting elk in the West. I think it is lack of knowledge. That is why I wrote the DIY Elk Hunting Guide and why I write these posts.

      I also don’t think coming home without an elk is the same as coming home with nothing. It is the experience you are after. An elk in the back of the truck is just a bonus.

  3. Wayne J Hopfinger says

    That was a good answer and will use that to determine my decision by just using some of his passed hunter to figure out area anger guide, this year there was even a phoney on RMEF show the hunted just like you said on this answer thanks for fair answers to.?

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