Top 25 Idaho General Elk Rifle Hunt Units

elk herd climbing hillsideI ranked the top 25 elk rifle hunting units in Idaho based on the most recent harvest results, so those planning a DIY public land elk hunt can start the process for picking a hunt unit while Over-the-Counter (OTC) tags may still be available.

There have been a few changes since last year but in Idaho, Elk can be hunted during the General Season Any Legal Weapon (Rifle) tags in 74 different Game Management Units (GMUs) with 127 different hunt unit/season combinations and 42 different elk zone/season combinations.

Idaho offers up to five sex/age options to hunt elk during the General Elk Rifle (Any Weapon) Season, which are broken down by All General Rifle Tags combined, Unlimited Tags and tags with a limited quota in Table 1.

Table 1. 2019 Idaho General (OTC) Rifle Season Elk Hunts

Quota/ Unlimited Hunt Zones GMUs Seasons
All General Rifle Antlered Elk   15    48    66
Antlerless   11    37    34
Spike Elk    3    10    10
Any Elk    2     8     8
Brow-tined Bull    1     1     3
Unlimited Antlered Elk    6    22    25
Antlerless   10    31    31
Spike Elk    3    10    10
Any Elk    2     8     8
Limited Quota Antlered Elk    9    26    41
Antlerless    1     3     6
Brow-tined Bull    1     1     3

The number of licenses issued for 47 hunt units are not limited (74 hunts), but there are quotas in 50 hunts in 27 GMUs.

Limited quota tags go on sale for residents in July before the hunt season. For non-residents, tags go on sale the previous December.

In Idaho Tags go on sale starting December 1 each year for the following hunting season.

2019 Quotas for General Rifle Season Elk Hunts

  1. Antlered Elk – Quota 550 – 4,000
  2. Brow-tined Bull Elk –  Quota 1,551 – 1,636
  3. Antlerless Elk – Quota 1,900

In Idaho, elk are managed in 28 Elk Zones, so unless there is are specific exceptions, the tag is good in all units of the same Elk Zone.

The latest available harvest data is from 2016. The top 25 General Rifle GMUs were ranked by Total Harvest (left side of Table 2) and by Hunter Success (right side) in Table 2.

Table 2 Top 25 Idaho General Elk (OTC) Units (Rifle – Any Legal Weapon) 2016

(currently updating tables to include 3 year avg of latest data)

top 25 Idaho OTC elk rifle units for 2016

By the Numbers – Total Elk Harvested

Note: After I originally published this post (Feb 12), I noticed the 2016 General Season Elk Harvest data at the Idaho Dept of Fish & Game (IFG) website had changed. No notice, no comment, no “Corrected Data” flag, nothing… just very different numbers for harvest, hunters, success and hunter days for most units from what was originally available to download. So I re-analyzed all the 2016 data and updated Table 2 & Table 3).

Should we have any more confidence in the new data? Probably not, but I will still rank the top units with data provided by IFG.

Like all government bureaucracies, we have to play by their rules, but we will take all future Harvest Data from Idaho with a grain of salt, because it is may change again in the future.

I cut off the units at the Top 25, which was all units with at least 122 elk harvested. For comparison, at least 100 elk were harvested in 32 units and at least 50 elk were harvested in 46 units.

I did not separate the Bull Only units from units that allow Any Elk or Antlerless, so “Elk” in the table is the combination of all General Season Any Weapon hunts in that unit.

In Table 2, the data also include both unlimited and limited quota tags.

The total number of elk harvest (“Elk”) ranged from 566 elk in unit 39 down to 0 (zero) elk in 12 units (which had a combined total of 179 hunters and 946 hunting days).

Half of all elk (50.2%) harvested were from the top 13 units and 72.9% of all elk harvested was from the top 25 units (left side Table 2).

The total number of hunter days per harvest in all units ranged from 8.1 to 128.0 days. In the top 25 units ranged from 11.6 hunt days per harvest in unit 50 to 52.5 in unit 24.

By the Numbers – Hunter Success

Before ranking units by Hunter Success (right side Table 2), all units with less than 20 total elk harvested were eliminated (23 units). Usually some of the low harvest units have some of the highest hunter success and one of the eliminated units had harvest success over 40% (Unit 68; 11 hunters harvested 5 elk).

So Hunter success in the top 25 units ranged from 63.4% in Unit 30 to 21.7% in unit 36B and Total Harvest ranged from 339 in unit 63 and 26 elk in unit 37A.

When ranked by Hunter Success, half of all elk (51.7%) harvested were from the top 33 units and 34.0% of all elk harvested was from the top 25 units in Table 2.

Also for the Hunter Success side of the table, the total number of hunter days in the top 25 units ranged from 8.8 hunt days per harvest in unit 30 to 29.2 in unit 36B.

Note that 10 units (hi-lighted) are in the top 25 for both total elk harvested and by hunter success in Table 2.

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Idaho Elk Units Ranking for both Total Harvest & Hunter Success

Let’s take a look at closer look at those 10 units.

Table 3 includes the 10 units that ranked for both total elk harvested and by hunter success and includes additional information about those units during the 2016 General Elk hunt.

Most of these units had either Antlered only (Bull Elk) or Antlerless Only (Cow Elk) hunts, with one Brow-tined Bull elk hunt in unit 27.

Table 3. Selected Idaho Elk Rifle Units from 2016

(currently updating tables to include 3 year avg of latest data)

Unit – Zone Sex/ Age Public Acres Acres/ hunter/day Note/Quota/Tag/Additional Units
8 Palouse Cow Elk  16,104     NA A Tag; Within 1 mile private outside NF
also hunt units 8A & 11A; Aug 1-Sep 15
14 Elk City Bull Elk 219,563   5,641 1,790 B Tag Quota; also hunt units 15 & 16; Oct 10 – Nov 3
21A Salmon Bull Elk 119,109   1,662 A Tag; Aug 1 – Sep 30
2,507 B Tag Quota, Oct 15 – Nov 8
also hunt units 21, 28 & 36B
28 Salmon Bull Elk 754,460   3,989 A Tag; Aug 1 – Sep 30
2,507 B Tag Quota, Oct 15 – Nov 8
also hunt units 21, 21A & 36B
36B Salmon Bull Elk 313,322   2,010 A Tag; Aug 1 – Sep 30
2,507 B Tag Quota, Oct 15 – Nov 8
also hunt units 21, 21A & 28
27 Middle Fork B-t bull 978,390   5,641 1,551 A Tag Quota, Oct 1 – Oct 31
1,636 B Tag Quota; Nov 1 – Nov 18
33 Sawtooth Bull Elk 328,592   2,609 1,526 B Tag Quota, Oct 15 – Nov 8
also hunt units 34, 35 & 36
36 Sawtooth Bull Elk 645,324   6,090 1,526 B Tag Quota, Oct 15 – Nov 8
also hunt units 33, 34 & 35
50 Pioneer Cow Elk 811,346     NA A Tag, Within 1 mile private outside NF
Motorized Hunting Rule
also hunt unit 36A; Aug 1-Sep 30
63 Snake River Cow Elk 347,830   4,721 A Tag, Sep 1 – Dec 31
Short range weapons on WMA

You should also notice that units 8 and 50 have special restrictions. These hunts are open only outside the National Forest System Boundary within 1 mile of private fields on which cultivated crops are currently growing. So these are not public land hunts and not best suited for non-resident hunters.

So this is a good example of where raw numbers are maybe not the best indicators for choosing an elk unit.

Yes, lots of elk were harvested and yes, success was high in those units, but those tags are for locals who know the land owners and call each other when they see elk standing in a potato or wheat field.

I would love to have the elk meat (if I didn’t have meat in the freezer), but that is not hunting.

This is also why these units have “NA” in the column for “Acres/per hunter/per day”.

Calculate Average Acres per Hunter per Day

In addition to elk harvested and hunter success, I want to know how big the unit is and how much hunter pressure the unit has.

First, total acres doesn’t help much because we can only hunt public land. So it takes a fair amount of research to find how much public hunting land is on each unit.

Lucky for you, I have already done that.

Second, not every hunter hunts every day. Each state that reports Recreation Days or Hunter Days provides the data we need.

But first, is should be obvious that all hunt days are not equal. The guy that hiked 10 miles in and 10 miles out and the guy that played “pocket pool” at camp most of the day each count as one hunt day.

As an example of how I calculated the Acres/per hunter/per day value, let’s use unit 36.

Unit 36 has 645,324 acres of public land (USFS, BLM & State). From Table 2 (either side), we see there were 181 elk harvested by 459 hunters (quota was 1,526 tags).

I also got the total hunter days (2,649) from the harvest report. That means the average hunter hunted 5.8 days (2,649/459 =5.8) out of a 25 day hunting season.

If every hunter hunted every single day, that would be (459 X 25 = 11,475 ) hunt days. Obviously that will never happen, plus every time a hunter harvests an elk, they have to stop hunting unless they have another tag.

If the 645,324 public acres in Unit 36 are divided by the total number of hunters (459) we get 1405.9 acres of public land per hunter.

But since few hunters hunt every day, how many acres do we really have to ourselves (on average) to hunt each day?

The answer is the ratio of actual total hunt days to potential total hunt days; 2,649/11,475 = 0.2308 or 23.08%

So instead of only 1,400 acres per hunter per day we actually have 6,091 acres per hunter per day (1405.9/23.08% = 6,091.4)

For units with two seasons, I assume half the hunters hunted in each season (IFG does not provide this data).

Hunters in the field probably had less acres on opening day and on weekends, but they also probably had more land to themselves during the weekdays.

I hope this information helps you to decide where you want to hunt this year. Have questions? Leave a comment.

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Idaho Hunting Maps and Accessories

Also check out Colorado’s Top 20 Elk Rifle Units and Utah’s Top Elk Units


  1. Erik Benson says

    Hi, we are looking at hunting either Idaho or Colorado this year as we didn’t get drawn in WY where we typically hunt. Im leaning heavily towards Idaho but wanted to see if you have any thoughts.


    • Hi Erik: As you probably already know, learning to hunt a new area is exciting and frustrating at the same time. Idaho will be very similar to your first experiences in Wyoming as you learn a new area.

      Most of my thoughts about hunting in Idaho are in the post. I also ranked Colorado OTC units here.

      But in general, if you have no personal information about an area, you have to start looking at resources to help you make a decision (like harvest reports, elk distribution maps or elk habitat maps depending upon what is available).

      Since most elk are on the National Forests during late Summer and early Fall, start looking at National Forests that are in units that rank highly (high is relative to other units) for harvest and hunter success. Try to get a feel for how much hunting pressure is in an area and find access points that will let you get to the kind of country you want to hunt.

      You probably haven’t seen my DIY Elk Hunting Guide. You are not a new elk hunter, but you are going to try to hunt a new area. I devote a considerable amount of the book to resources that help identify elk habitats and areas to hunt.

      You did not mention what areas you hunted in Wyoming in the past, but I am betting you were in (or close to) either the Middle Rockies in the North or the Black Hills or the Southern Rockies in the southern Wyoming.

      Almost all of the National Forests in Colorado are in the Southern Rockies, so that will be more familiar to you if you hunted the Southern Rockies in Wyoming.

      If you hunted the Middle Rockies, North-eastern Idaho will be more familiar (west of Yellowstone). But most of Idaho elk habitat is in the Idaho Batholith and Northern Rockies eco-regions.

      Utah’s Wasatch and Unita Mountain ranges are also different, but most similar in terrain and habitats to the Southern Rockies.

      If you actually hunted some of the prairie habits near the mountains in Wyoming, you will only find similar habitats to those in Montana.

      So elk hunting a new state can be a totally different experience or it can have a familiar feel, depending upon what you are looking for.

      Let me know what you decide and how the hunt goes.

  2. Leland Miller says

    I recently purchased your guide, many thanks for the info. Do you know of any guides that are for hire, that do elk hunt guiding. Just the guiding without bringing in tents, horses etc? My 2 sons and I are avid hunters, but we’ve never elk hunted and don’t mind paying for an expert’s advise, but as backpacking/campers don’t mind getting miles back in on foot. Likely will be in the Unitas or Montana region 3. Maybe the first year will need to be more of a backpacking/scouting excursion before winter hits. Leland

    • Thanks for purchasing my DIY Elk Hunting Guide. I hope the information will be valuable to you and that you have a “successful” elk hunt.

      There are plenty of guides available to guide you. There are also outfitters that can supply tents and horses and most can do both on public or private land. But that has never been my focus since I advocate DIY and public land hunting.

      I would love to hunt some of the private areas open to the public, but I do not apply because they require that you be guided (no charge) on their property. Not my thing, even though I learn something new most of the time I hunt or fish with different people.

      I am not against guiding because I am a fly fishing guide (I do not
      guide for elk, but have helped folks; mainly a veterans group to get started).

      If you choose to hunt in the Uinta Mountains of Utah, I could recommend a guy that also helped the same veterans group.

      I believe that most folks that haven’t hunted elk or mule deer in the west is because they don’t have enough information and don’t know it can be done DIY.

      Most folks that have enough money to hire a guide have already hunted the west.

      As for your other comment, of course the more backpacking/scouting you can do the more you will know about the area and the better prepared you will be for hiking, camping and hunting.

      That is what you would be paying for with a guide; His/her time and knowledge about the area and the elk (or trout).

      I don’t know where you live, but if you sleep at less than 3,000 feet, I recommend you start getting into shape as soon as possible, especially if you don’t want to pay for horses.

      Many (but not all) areas have ridiculously steep terrain but most places you will hunt in Montana region 3 or in the Uintas will be between 7,000 and 10,500 feet in elevation.
      No point in hiring a guide if you can’t get where he needs to take you.

      Nothing wrong with hiring a guide to speed up the learning process, but you would be surprised at how many first time DIY Elk hunters contact me to let me know they harvested an elk on their first trip.

      As an avid hunter, I’m sure you don’t measure success only by meat in the freezer or heads on the wall (but those things do make it even better).

      Good luck on your hunt and let me know what happens.

  3. This was great to stumble upon! We went to get our tags this year, a little late 12/20/19 because I was in the process of buying a house and had to wait for closing. When the time came to purchase the salmon unit was sold out, so in looking the middle fork was open and looked great. Well without further review we just jumped on thie middle fork because how awesome would it be to hunt big bulls with a rifle in the rut!! After some investigation, not much, we discovered we will be hunting in the wilderness. Now this is not a deterrent, however, trying to find access is. We think that we want to hunt the 27…..pretty sure. We have figured out that access is the obstacle lol. Any insight or direction would be great. I was thinking about trying to have a plave drop us in the Little soldier Mountian area, thoughts??

    • I don’t have much personal knowledge of that area. I do know that airplanes and helicopters are not allowed to land in wilderness areas.
      You have a lot to learn about the area to know where to expect to find elk during the rut in that area. The good news is they are not trying to hide when the rut is on. You will hear them miles away.
      Elk hunting requires lots of logistical planning. Access to the area you want to hunt is part of that. And especially packing an elk out if you get one. I say enjoy the journey and just try to learn as much as you can the first year. Finding elk will be a bonus and harvesting one your first year would be a huge accomplishment. Good luck on your hunt.

  4. GREAT ARTICLE! A senior hunter new to Idaho, I’m possibly looking at unit 66 for a late season cow elk hunt. If you have any unit suggestions for senior elk hunters hunting cow elk, it would be greatly appreciated!

  5. Marcus Oliver says

    Well, we did great! tracked down the elk after a few days. We really put the miles on, however I will say that having horses is the way to go! We were not able to put one down, however just getting into them the first year was awesome! I found it interesting that there are a lot of privately owned areas in the frank church wilderness and landing strips too. For anyone else that stumbles accross this as I did, you NEED to be in the best shape! these are real mountains nothing like the “rolling mountains of Central Washington” LOL. We could really chase elk down or make a good cut off plan. Here, its a different story, like 1000 vert gain in 1/8 mile and they use it to their advantage! Hope this helps anyone else that might read and want to hunt Unit 27.

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