A Novice Hunter’s Guide to Montana Elk Hunting

Are you ready to dive into the rugged and exhilarating world of Montana elk hunting? Known for its vast, untamed tracts of land and rich game, the state stands as a beacon for big-game hunters seeking enhanced adventure. 

Big Sky Country offers some of the most pristine elk hunting locations in the U.S., and whether you’re an experienced hunter or this would be your first foray into the big-game territory, the opportunities are as diverse as the landscape itself.

In this extensive guide, we’ll unveil the characteristics of elk found in Montana, the types of licenses needed, and the season dates. We’ll even take a look at some renowned outfitters and some key hunting tips for a successful outing.

So, stay with us, and together we’ll navigate through this wilderness of wonder, offering you a peek into what a Montana elk hunting adventure can truly be. Your stories are already whispering among the pines; all you have to do is step forward and begin.

7 Key Takeaways on Montana Elk Hunting

  1. Elk hunting in Montana offers a heart-pounding experience within a stunning natural habitat.
  2. Elk, being one of the largest land mammals in North America, has become a symbol of big-game hunting and conservation efforts. 
  3. Definitions like an antlered bull, antlerless, and either sex are crucial for a successful and ethical elk hunt.
  4. Understanding elk traits such as antlers, habitat, and food preferences enhances the hunting experience.
  5. Elk hunting license costs vary based on factors like residency, age, and type of tag needed. Non-residents have different license options that align with Montana’s hunting traditions.
  6. The elk hunting season is generally divided into archery, general, and backcountry periods. The specific dates can vary by hunting district, so it’s important to stay informed.
  7. Experienced elk outfitters can guide hunters, provide equipment, and navigate legalities. 

What to Know About Montana Elk

A herd of elk grazing in a snowy field in Montana

The elk is one of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America and an iconic symbol of big-game hunting and conservation. During the 1800s and early 1900s, the wildlife in Montana, including the once plentiful elk herds, faced depletion due to overhunting and habitat loss. This decline inspired the beginning of Montana’s conservation movement during the first half of the 20th Century.

Today, Montana is home to one of the largest elk populations in the country, with an estimated 150,000 elk roaming the state’s diverse landscapes. These majestic animals can be found in various habitats, including dense forests, open plains, and rugged mountains, making Montana a prime destination for elk hunting and wildlife enthusiasts.

The recovery of the elk population in Montana is a testament to the success of conservation efforts and the importance of preserving and protecting natural habitats. The state’s thriving elk herds are a source of pride and a testament to the ongoing commitment to wildlife conservation. 

If you’re envisioning a rugged, adventure-packed hunting excursion, Montana’s game-rich landscape is sure to meet your expectations. But before you set out, a word of advice: though the Elk in Montana are abundant, they are far from predictable.

Montana Elk Terms

An antlered bull elk stands alert to the presence of hunters in a field in Montana.

As you gear up for your elk hunting expedition in Montana, you’ll find districts with unique regulations, especially concerning bull elk. Understanding these elk definitions can be your ticket to a successful hunt:

  • Antlered Bull – Any elk with antlers at least 4 inches long measured from the skull.
  • Antlerless – A female or juvenile male with antlers less than 4 inches long.
  • Antler Point Measurement – Legal antler points must be 4 inches or longer.
  • Brow-tined – Antlers sport a visible point of at least 4 inches on their lower half.
  • Spike Bull – Unbranched antlers or, if branched, are less than 4 inches long.
  • Either-sex – A male or female elk of any age.

Understanding these designations isn’t just for compliance but for the ethical pursuit of your game. So, as you head out into Montana’s magnificent wilds, these definitions will not just be words on paper, but invaluable tools to enhance your hunting skills.

Montana Elk Characteristics

An antlered bull elk issues a challenging call while standing in a bushy area in Montana.

For many hunters, one of the initial lures to elk hunting is the remarkable appearance of these animals, especially mature bull elk. Here’s what you should know about some of the elk’s defining characteristics:

  • Antlers – A mature bull elk typically boasts antlers with 5 tines projecting from a main beam. These antlers can be an enthralling sight and a source of fascination for many hunting enthusiasts.
  • Mane – Ever noticed the “ruff” or mane on a bull elk? It’s usually more prominent and longer than that of a cow elk. This distinction becomes clearer when observers carefully study elk behavior in their natural habitats.
  • Habitat – Elk favor coniferous forests, often mingling with natural or man-made openings, such as mountain meadows, grasslands, burns, and logged areas. This isn’t a fixed rule, as habitat preferences can vary among elk populations based on geographic location and availability of resources.
  • Food Habits – These majestic animals have diverse food habits, feeding on a wide range of plants including grasses, sedges, and deciduous shrubs, among others. In a fascinating twist, their food preferences also shift across seasons. In the spring, grass becomes a primary food source, while in the summer, forbs, or herbaceous flowering plants, take center stage.

Understanding these characteristics not only informs your hunt but also deepens your appreciation for the natural creature you’re tracking. Taking the time to understand the distinctive traits of the Montana elk adds an extra layer of fascination to your outdoor pursuits. 

Montana Elk Hunting Licenses and Fees

Hunting gear and a detached elk antler on a wooden table in Montana.

Ready to chase down a breathtaking bull elk in the heart of Montana? Before your adrenaline peaks, let’s talk about some nitty-gritty that’s vital for your adventure — Montana Elk Hunting Licenses and Fees. 

Types of Montana Elk Hunting Licenses:

  • Elk General – The Elk General License is available over the counter for residents, allowing for the harvest of one elk. Nonresidents typically need to draw a Big Game Combination License or Elk Combination License through a random lottery drawing to obtain a General Elk License.
  • Elk B Drawing – The Elk B Drawing License is for antlerless elk and is valid during a specific period and in a particular hunting district or group of districts. Applicants must pay the full license fee, which includes a $5 nonrefundable application fee.
  • Elk B Over the Counter – This Elk B Over the Counter Antlerless license is valid in the specific district(s) and can be purchased beginning Aug. 12.
  • Elk Permits – Elk Permits accompany a general elk hunting license and extend hunting opportunities within specific districts for the hunter to harvest a bull, antlerless, or either-sex elk. Residents need a valid general elk license to apply for a permit, while nonresidents must also apply for a big game or elk combination license. Various fees apply for each type of license, with nonresidents typically having to enter a lottery drawing for certain licenses.

Montana Elk Hunting License Costs:

Elk License/PermitAvailabilityDeadlineResident 18-61 yearsResident Youth
(12-17) or Senior (62+)
Resident
Disabled
Non-resident
General LicenseOTCN/A$20$10$10N/A
Elk PermitSpecial DrawingApril 1$9$9$9$9
Elk B LicenseDrawingJune 1$25$25$25$275
Elk B LicenseOTCN/A$20$20$20$270

All these figures likely have you planning your budget like a savvy hunter. But don’t just budget for the license; be prepared for additional expenses that may arise. Think about your travel and accommodation costs, hunting gear, and taxidermy if you’re thinking of mounting your prize. 

Non-Resident Elk Hunting Licenses and Fees

If you’re a non-resident in Montana, there are a variety of hunting licenses available to get your track on, each with its unique perks and, of course, price tags.

Here are the various non-resident elk hunting licenses in Montana:

  • Elk Combination General – This license allows for the hunting of elk and upland game birds, while also authorizing fishing. Nonresidents may apply for only one combination license per year. 
  • Nonresident Montana Native Big Game & Elk Combination License – For former residents who were born in Montana and have a current resident relative. 
  • Come Home to Hunt Big Game & Elk Combination – These licenses are also available for non-residents who have previously lived in Montana or possess a Montana hunter education certificate. They require a sponsor from a Montana resident family member with a current-year resident hunting license.

A rundown of the non-resident elk hunting license fees:

Elk Non-Resident LicenseNon-Resident FeeAvailabilityDeadline
Elk Combination — General$1018Special DrawingApril 1
Nonresident Montana Native Big Game Combination License$604OTCN/A
Nonresident Montana Native Elk Combination License$509OTCN/A
Come Home to Hunt — Big Game Combination$604Special DrawingApril 1
Come Home to Hunt — Elk Combination$352Special DrawingApril 1

It’s not just about your wallet; these options also present a chance to reconnect with your Montana roots or help sustain the values and traditions that make Montana what it is. 

So, go on, pick the license that best suits your Montana narrative, dates, and budget, and embark on an elk-hunting adventure that resonates with the very spirit of the Treasure State!

Montana Elk Hunting Season Dates

A majestic bull elk with antlers stands in a grassy field in Montana

So you’ve got your sights set on an elk hunting excursion in Montana, but when exactly is the season? You’re in luck; we’ve got the lowdown right here.

Elk hunting season in Montana is generally divided into 3 main hunting periods: archery, general, and backcountry. Here are the dates you need to circle on your calendar:

Elk SeasonDates
ArcherySept. 7 – Oct. 20
GeneralOct. 26 – Dec. 01
Backcountry Archery (HDs 150, 280)Sept. 7 – Sept. 14
Backcountry General (HDs 150, 280, 316)Sept. 15 – Dec. 01

These dates give you a general idea, but it’s crucial to remember that hunting seasons can vary by district. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, always check the regulations for your specific hunting district.

Montana shoulder season elk hunting is also popular among hunters. So, as you mark those calendars, remember to stay informed and play by the rules for a successful and enjoyable experience.

Montana Outfitters for Elk Hunting

A group of hunters trudge through a wooded area in Montana in search of elk.

Planning an elk hunting expedition in Montana but need a little assistance to make it a thrilling experience? Worry not, because Montana is home to a rich hunting culture and a network of seasoned outfitters who can guide and support you every step of the way.

Remember personnel and services can vary greatly, so it’s essential to do your homework. Whether it’s the vast spans of public land or private ranches, there’s an outfitter that can enrich your hunt in Montana beyond your imagination. 

1. Swan Mountain Outfitters

A group of hunters on horseback while hunting elk in Montana.

Swan Mountain Outfitters is the real deal when it comes to elk hunting in Montana. If you’ve got a thirst for extreme adventure and don’t mind roughing it out a bit, then this outfit is your ticket to elk hunting glory.

Known for their unapologetically rugged approach to hunting, Swan Mountain Outfitters is all about taking you to the most remote, off-the-grid pockets of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the stunning Swan Valley. Seriously, when they say “extreme,” they mean it in the best possible way.

Here’s why Swan Mountain Outfitters stands out in Montana Elk Hunting:

  • Exclusive Horse-Backed Adventures – Unlike some other outfitters, Swan Mountain Outfitters doesn’t just stop at the edge of the Bob Marshall. They take it a step further by traversing the wilderness on horseback. This front-range search on horseback gives archery hunters a rare opportunity for some gnarly (and exclusive) elk encounters. 
  • Spike Camp Strategies – To up your chances of bagging that prized elk, Swan Mountain Outfitters make no apologies for their old-school spike camps. I’ve seen many a hunter swear by these spike camps; the lack of modern comforts is a small price to pay for the front-row seat they offer to nature’s ambrosia.

The allure of Swan Mountain Outfitters lies in the unbeaten paths they traverse, the untethered experiences they enable, and the expert knowledge they provide every step of the way. 

2. Elk Creek Outfitting

Two elk hunters decked in hunting gear pose for a photo in the snow in Montana.

Elk Creek Outfitting should be every elk hunter’s not-so-secret weapon. This place is a dream for avid hunters and first-timers alike. Set on a vast expanse of private land, woven intricately with the Kootenai and Lolo National Forests, this is a hotspot for spotting trophy-class animals.

The guides at Elk Creek Outfitting are seasoned pros. They know these forests like the back of their hands, and they’ve been delivering on the trophy promise year after year. The hunting experience here is not just about bagging an elk; it’s about soaking in the beauty of Montana’s wild outdoors.

When it comes to services, they’ve got all your elk hunting needs covered, no matter your weapon of choice. Here’s a quick rundown of Elk Creek Outfitting’s elk hunting services:

  • Elk Archery Hunts – Embark on a 6-day journey to capture the perfect shot from early September to mid-October with Elk Creek Outfitting. For an added thrill, consider grabbing a bear tag, as hunters have been treated to surprise spectacles with numerous bear sightings during the archery season in recent years.
  • Elk Rifle Hunts – These hunts run for 6 full days (Late October to Late November). This is the best time for a double whammy; bulls are in full rut, and the Trophy Buck could be yours if you’re quick on the draw.

Now that you’ve got a little lowdown on Elk Creek Outfitting, wouldn’t you say it’s time to stop dreaming and start planning your enjoyable hunt?

3. Medicine Lake Outfitters

A group of hunters on horseback in the Montana mountains hunting elk.

On horseback with your experienced guide leading the way through the stunning Montana wilderness – that’s the remarkable experience you can have with Medicine Lake Outfitters. Specializing in hunting and fishing trips using horse and mule transport, they’re your ticket to a truly authentic backcountry elk hunt.

Why Medicine Lake Outfitters is Your Go-To:

  • Established in 1974, they offer a rare blend of experience and expertise.
  • Situated along the Gallatin River, you’re poised to explore the greater Yellowstone region.
  • Both rifle and archery hunts are on the menu, in areas close to the famed Yellowstone Park.

If you’re a fan of the “General Season” and prefer a semi-guided rifle hunt, Medicine Lake Outfitters has you covered. Their 8-day expeditions into the Madison Range, just west of Yellowstone, offer elk hunting opportunities that hit the 70% to 80% range for participating hunters.

For the more seasoned hunter seeking a challenge, their archery elk hunts in the Madison Range of southwest Montana are the stuff of dreams. These 8-day expeditions provide the kind of opportunity that sees better than 80% of clients getting reasonable shots at good bulls.

Consider adding Medicine Lake Outfitters to your hunting bucket list if you aren’t looking for just another elk on your wall but want the memory of an unforgettable experience. Expect personalized attention, the comfort of riding a sure-footed horse, and the excitement of hunting in a pristine, uncrowded wilderness.

4. Montana Big Game Outfitters

A group of hunters from Montana Big Game Outfitters trudge a wooded area on horseback.

With a sprawling elk ranch totaling 10,000 acres, Montana Big Game Outfitters offers an unrivaled hunting experience. Located in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains, central Montana’s rural beauty provides the perfect backdrop for your hunting escapade.

Montana Big Game Outfitters deploy a strategic mix of ground blinds, calling, and spot-and-stalk hunting, providing you with versatile and effective techniques to maximize your chances of a successful hunt.

The trophy potential here is second to none, but it can vary based on factors like the time of year, temperature, and weather patterns. Generally, hunters have a great shot at landing 5×5 and 6×6 bulls.

The elk hunts you can enjoy at Montana Big Game Outfitters include:

  • Archery Hunts – If watching and waiting from the shadows speaks to your hunter’s soul, their archery hunts – which are meticulously limited to 2 hunters per week – offer a shot opportunity on bull elk that hit 82% in 2020.
  • Rifle Hunts – Montana Big Game Outfitters offers rifle hunts from October through late November, boasting an impressive 80% success rate in 2020 for those who prefer long-distance shooting. With a capped number of hunters, the outfitter ensures minimal hunting pressure, increasing the chances of securing that prized trophy.

If you’re picturing yourself amid the vast and panoramic landscape of central Montana, preparing for that next adrenaline-pumping encounter with a majestic elk, you’re not alone.

Montana Big Game Outfitters’ hunting services offer more than just trophies; they provide an enriching and adrenaline-fueled adventure far beyond just hunting. On another note, if you’re full of experience yourself, you may opt for DIY elk hunts in Montana.

5. Stockton Outfitters

A group of hunters from Stockton Outfitters riding horses on a trail in the mountains of Montana.

Stockton Outfitters stands out as your go-to for a thrilling Montana hunting experience. They roll out a red carpet over 187+ square miles (484+ square km) of access, allowing you to explore the Deer Lodge – Beaverhead National Forest to your heart’s desire.

Under their guidance, these are fully guided elk hunts you can book with Stockton Outfitters:

  • Archery Elk Hunting – For those who enjoy the challenge of this ancient skill, head to their base camp in the Pintler Mountains at 7,300 ft. You’ll start by Jeeping it there, but all the hunting? That’s on foot, right from camp, directly into the heart of the forest.
  • Rifle Elk Hunting – Prefer the reliability of a rifle? Situated in the very core of elk’s wintering range, Stockton offers comfortable access by both 4 WD and old-fashioned walking. These hunts usually tread the hills and lower elevations, as heavy snows in the high country draw the elk down.

The range of hunting locations is like an all-you-can-eat buffet of Montana’s rich topography. You can venture into the Big Hole Valley, Anaconda Pintler Wilderness, and Pioneer Mountain Ranges, all brimming with opportunities for game hunting and unforgettable outdoor recreation.

6. Cody Carr’s Hunting Adventures

Hunters in camouflage walking through a field during elk hunting season in Montana.

Situated in the picturesque Northwest Montana, Cody Carr’s Hunting Adventures is a dream come true for dedicated elk hunters looking for a genuinely challenging – not to mention beautiful – experience.

Based in Northwest Montana and dubbed as one of the largest outfitting areas in the state and offering diverse terrains and ecosystems to scout and hunt, their guides hunt in the Lolo, Superior, and Kootani National Forest mountain ranges.

Inclusive Elk Hunting Trips of Cody Carr’s Hunting Adventures:

  • Rifle Elk Hunts – Known for boasting some of the oldest age-class bulls in the state, thanks to terrain, cover, and unique “brow tine restrictions.”
  • Archery Elk Hunting – Described as “action-packed,” particularly during the bugling mating season.

So, if you’re mulling over your elk hunting options in Montana, consider Cody Carr’s Hunting Adventures; they give you not just a hunt, but a symphony of sights and sounds you’ll never forget. And you might just come home with the elk of your dreams.

Montana Elk Hunting Tips

A man scans a wooded area in Montana using binoculars for potential elk prey.

Elk hunting in Montana is not just a sport; it’s a learning experience. Here are some tips to guide your successful elk expedition:

  1. Get In Athletic Shape – Let’s be real for a moment – elk hunting is not a stroll in the park. The mountainous terrain and the long distances you may cover require you to be in tip-top shape. I learned this the hard way and ended up wheezing after a couple of miles. So hit the gym, hike those trails, and pack in those lunges.
  2. Cover Ground, But Don’t Chase – Montana is big, so learn to cover ground efficiently. Elk are renowned for their wandering ways. Here’s a tidbit from me to you: don’t just start dashing around the moment you spot an elk herd. Adopt the spot and stalk method – be patient. Let the elk come to you; it’s like a game of live-action chess.
  3. Use Good Gear – Investing in top-quality hunting gear could make all the difference between a thrilling encounter and a missed opportunity. Opt for lightweight clothing, durable boots, and a weatherproof pack – you never know when a Montana sky might decide to open up.
  4. Master The Diaphragm Call – Understand the ancient art of elk talk. No, you don’t need to become an elk whisperer, but a realistic diaphragm call can make all the difference between an elk running away and walking right into your line of fire.

Aside from these handy tips, several hunting techniques can be used when hunting elk in Montana:

  • Spot and Stalk Hunting – This is the “sneaking up on your dinner” technique. The key here is patience. Don’t rush into the elk herd; practice your ninja skills and wait for the perfect shot.
  • Ambush Hunting – Ambush hunting is equally vital, especially considering the unpredictable habits of elk. It’s like setting a trap, but much more active.
  • Still Hunting – Particularly great for rifle hunters, still hunting requires you to move slowly and cautiously, almost mimicking the elk’s behavior. But for bow hunters, once you spot one, you will likely need to transition quickly to stalking.

Elk hunting isn’t just about the thrill of the chase; it’s also about understanding the habits of these magnificent creatures and learning to blend into their unique environment.

Pursuing elk in Montana, with its diverse terrain and stunning vistas, offers the kind of challenges that can transform you from a hunter to a woodsman. So, plan your trip, get those boots on the ground, and start your wild Montana adventure. The elk are waiting.

Montana Elk Hunting Final Thoughts

A antlered bull elk stands majestically in a snowy field in Montana

If you’re yearning for an adrenaline-pumping and memorable hunting experience, look no further than Montana. The state not only offers the elusive and prized elk but also a rich landscape that caters to varying hunting styles and preferences.

Remember, successful and ethical hunting isn’t just about bagging a trophy; it’s about engaging with nature, understanding wildlife, and respecting local traditions. As you gear up for your Montana elk hunting expedition, incorporate these expert tips, stay updated on local regulations, and consider enlisting the expertise of Montana’s top-notch outfitters like Swan Mountain Outfitters or Elk Creek Outfitting.

By doing so, you’ll not only elevate your hunting game but also create indelible memories in Montana’s vast and beautiful wild. So, whether you’re a veteran hunter or a first-timer, prepare for an adventure that will etch an unforgettable story in the annals of your life. Happy hunting!

Montana Elk Hunting FAQs

1. How Much Does It Cost to Hunt Elk in Montana?

The cost of hunting elk in Montana varies based on factors such as residency, the type of license or tag purchased, and whether it’s a guided or unguided hunt.

Nonresident elk tags typically range from around $700 to $1,000 or more, while guided hunts can cost several thousand dollars, depending on the outfitter, accommodations, and services provided.

2. Can a Non-Resident Hunt Elk in Montana?

Non-residents are allowed to hunt elk in Montana; however, most cannot purchase over the counter. To get a General Elk License, non-residents must enter a random lottery drawing for a Big Game Combination License or Elk Combination License.

3. Is Montana Good for Elk Hunting?

Montana is renowned for being an excellent destination for elk hunting. The state’s diverse landscapes, healthy elk populations, and well-managed hunting areas make it a popular choice among hunters seeking challenging and rewarding elk hunting experiences.

4. How Many Elk Can You Shoot in Montana?

In Montana, an elk license entitles you to harvest one elk. Hunters are generally restricted to holding only one general elk license, emphasizing the importance of complying with regulations regarding the number of elk that can be legally taken in a given hunting season.

5. Where Is the Best Place to Hunt Elk in Montana?

Determining the best place to hunt elk in Montana depends on various factors, but regions such as the southwestern and western parts of the state, including the Bitterroot Valley and the Rocky Mountain Front, are often considered prime elk hunting areas due to their diverse landscapes and robust elk populations.

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Written by:

Elizabeth Hawley
Hey, fellow travelers! I'm Elizabeth Hawley, stepping into the world in the hues of fall. For me, Montana is more than just a state; it's a muse. The golden aspen trees and russet landscapes in the fall have always fueled my creativity. Co-founding PocketMontana.com was a no-brainer, blending my love for art, photography, and Montana's ever-changing palette.

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