Knowing Where to Hunt Elk in Montana
Elk hunting in Montana isn’t the same throughout the entire state. There are districts, or units, in the eastern half that have fewer elk roaming about, but those that are there are easier to spot with the wide-open spaces. Some of the areas in the western half of the state are teeming with elk, with many of them hidden amongst the old-growth evergreen forests.
All of the regions, however, have their pros and their cons. So we’ll look at a few of the best elk hunting units in Montana. We’ll see what makes them amazing, and how you can use that information to maximize your elk hunt to make it safe and productive, as well as memorable and enjoyable.
So, where’s that all begin?
It begins with a great understanding of how to hunt elk in Montana, what to expect, and knowing right where to go to find that big bull that has been on your bucket list for ages.
Elk Hunting in Montana: Know Before You Go
One of the most important things to fully understand before you head out on your hunt is to know what the regulations are in the area you are hunting in.
Regulations vary between hunting units and sometimes within the same unit. It’s the hunter’s responsibility to know where they are at all times, and what the rules are for that area. Some units are brow-tined bull only, meaning you can’t shoot cow elk, spike elk, or forked antler elk. Other areas allow you to shoot either sex, while others allow everything except spikes and forks.
We will get into a few more of those details as we discover the prime elk hunting units in Montana below.
If you have never hunted elk before, it’s important to know just how big these animals actually are. When a healthy bull can tip the scales at over 1,000 pounds, it means your harvest will be a bit more than what you would get from a deer hunt.
Because of their mass, even a well-placed shot that hits vital organs might not know the beast down right away. There have been many hunters, with amazing shooting abilities, that have put 2 or 3 bullets into the vital organs before their bull fell.
That large body also means when it’s time to harvest your animal, and get the meat back to your truck to have it processed, you have to put in a bit of work. The landowner you book from may have horses or ATVs you can use, but sometimes it comes down to quartering the animal and packing meat out in a backpack.
Don’t let that dissuade you, though! The reward you get from dozens of meals made with healthy wild game is only enhanced because every one of those meals sparks pride, joy, and memories of your Montana elk hunt.
Now, it is knowing where to go; which units are the prime for hunting elk?
Prime Elk Hunting Unit 1: Snowy Mountains – District 411
Just about in the middle of the state lies a small mountain range. The Snowy Mountains aren’t quite as impressive as some of the nearby ranges, but they still jut up from the prairie in sharp contrast to the surrounding landscape.
Hunting unit 411 captures the northern part of these mountains and the surrounding foothills. This often-overlooked hunting area keeps the crowds to a minimum, but the elk herds are dazzlingly high in numbers. For quite a few years it has been one of the top producing areas for the sheer quantity of elk harvested; 700 elk were harvested in 2020 (the last year statistics were available). Out of those 700, half of them were bull elk. 2/3 of the bulls harvested were 6-point bulls or larger.
With a general elk tag, you’re limited to hunting antlerless only. Those lucky enough to be in the 15% of applicants who draw a bull permit should find a Montana ranch to hunt on.
A ranch like Elk Creek Adventures. 3,000 acres of foothills, creek bottoms, and heavily wooded ridges and ravines mean that this area is a wildlife paradise. Enough cover to be protected, but open fields in which to graze. The ranch has an insulated cabin that acts as base camp for hunting parties.
The entire ranch is accessible for your elk hunt, but the hunt doesn’t have to stop at the ranch boundaries. Butting up to thousands more acres of state and federal lands, the elk herd that you are after might take you for miles through pristine woods and peaceful meadows.
Prime Elk Hunting Unit 2: East Bridger – District 393
When you’re looking for a unit that’s a little more open – one where you don’t need a special permit to shoot a bull elk – look to number 393. Just north of Bozeman and Livingston, the Bridger Mountains run north and south. The east side of the range is home large herds of elk that contain a significant number of really big bulls.
Back in 2020, there were 345 bull elk harvested from this district; 55% of those bulls were 6-points or larger. Even if you’re not after that trophy bull, you’re likely to find a legal elk since this area allows you to harvest brow-tined bulls or antlerless with your general tag. Just don’t shoot a spike or a forked antler elk, and you’re good.
With the Bridger Mountains just a few miles to your west and the Crazy Mountains a few miles to your east, the Muddy Creek Ranch offers over 2,700 acres of land that is great elk habitat. This ranch offers premium Montana private land elk hunts, as the animals have access to food and water, but can retreat to the mountains in a matter of minutes if they’re so inclined.
With room to spread out, it’s important to know how the elk tend to migrate around through the area. As the season progresses, winter begins high in the mountains a few weeks before it sets in down in the valleys. As snow covers the ground up high, the elk migrate lower to ensure they still have ample feed to continue packing on the pounds for what can end up being a long Montana winter.
Prime Elk Hunting Unit 3: South Little Belt Mountains – District 540
When you’re looking for a Montana elk hunting lease, and you’re more concerned with filling the freezer with some of the best wild game meat you have ever tasted, then opting for a hunting unit that allows you to harvest any animal you happen to see is where it’s at.
Back toward the middle of the state, just south of the Little Belt Mountains, the Little Belt Cattle Company occupies 8,000 acres of prime elk country. This ranch has unique access to incredible hunts, but it’s for the archery hunter out there.
If you’re a Montana resident, your general tag will allow you to hunt either sex elk. As a non-resident, however, your odds (without buying extra points) of drawing a tag land you right around 70%. When you draw a tag, the wildlife is so abundant in this district that you’re very likely to find the perfect animal to satisfy that itch that came when you learned about how incredible elk hunting in Montana really is.
Start Now for Your Montana Elk Hunt of a Lifetime
Non-resident hunters must apply for their general tags before the April 1st deadline. Residents of Montana can purchase general tags at any time, even after the season has started.
Resident or non-resident hunters longing for a special permit, on that allows you to shoot a bull elk in a unit that otherwise is antlerless only, the time to start looking is also before April 1st. After that date, the application period is over and you’re “stuck” with a general tag.
Even if you don’t draw a special permit, it doesn’t mean that you’re out of luck. Many hunting units in Montana allow you to harvest a bull elk with your general tag. Many of them also allow you to harvest a cow; it just depends on what your end goal is with your Montana adventure: meat, trophy, or both.
The first step is to determine where you would like to hunt. Look up how the terrain, the climate, and the land vary around the state. Find which one fits your personality the best. Then, searching LandTrust, discover the private land that allows you to hunt the species of your choice. When you know where you’re going, now look into whether or not you will need a special permit, or if that general tag meets all of your needs.
Finally, start planning out your Montana elk hunt. Because it’s a big state, and there is a lot to see here.