Harvest statistics may help you find your next elk hunting spot

rphillips@idahostatesman.comOctober 17, 2013 

  • Elk hunting Q&A

    Q: Why publish this now when elk season is already underway?

    A: Elk hunters typically make decisions about where to hunt well in advance of hunting season, but they’re certainly thinking about it and talking about it now.

    Fish and Game collects hunter harvest information throughout fall and winter and compiles it the following spring, but publishing an elk hunting story probably isn’t going to get as much attention in spring as in October.

    Q: What’s the difference between a general hunt and a controlled hunt?

    A: Any hunter can buy a general-hunt elk tag, which limits the hunter to a geographic area and possibly a weapon type, say archery or muzzleloader.

    Controlled hunts have a limited number of tags, and hunters apply for them during a lottery in the spring (although there are sometimes unlimited controlled hunts that anyone can buy, but that’s the only hunt in which they can participate.)

    Q: How many controlled elk tags are available?

    A: This year, Fish and Game offered 19,427 controlled hunt tags for elk (not counting unlimited controlled hunts).

    The number of tags offered differs a little every year, but it’s usually fairly consistent unless something major happens with elk herds or rule changes.

    The controlled hunt application period is in May and early June.

    Q: Are controlled hunts better?

    A: Typically, they have higher success rates because there is less competition among hunters, but some also have very stiff competition, with fewer than 10 percent of those who apply getting a tag. The odds of most controlled hunts are significantly better.

    But that doesn’t mean general hunts are bad; there’s just more competition, but also more freedom to choose.

    If you choose archery or muzzleloader hunts, you usually get to hunt before or after the general, any-weapon seasons, commonly known as “rifle hunts,” which is when the woods are most crowded.

    Q: Where can I get more information about elk harvests and controlled-hunt drawing odds and success rates?

    A: Go to fishandgameidaho.gov and look on the hunting page.

    — Roger Phillips

It’s elk season. Tens of thousands of hunters are in the woods or about to hunt those elusive animals.

Let’s face it — even if you take away wolves, wildfires and changing habitat, elk hunting is challenging and often changing. If you want to be a successful elk hunter, you have to adapt.

But Idaho’s elk hunting is better than you might think, and there are some statistics that may surprise you.

Click here for top elk zones.

Idaho’s all-time biggest elk harvest was in 1996. Fish and Game sold 100,527 elk tags to hunters that year. Hunters killed 25,600 elk, which converts to a 25 percent success rate.

The exact success rate was slightly higher because not everyone who bought an elk tag hunted, but for consistent comparison, let’s fast-forward to 2012.

Fish and Game sold 80,577 elk tags, and hunters killed 16,418 elk for a 20 percent success rate.

There are several ways to compare those statistics.

Obviously, 9,182 fewer elk harvested in 2012 than in 1996 is nothing to gloss over. That’s tons of elk meat that didn’t go into freezers and thousands of antlers that didn’t go onto walls.

As to why there were nearly 20,000 fewer hunters in 2012 than in 1996, there’s plenty of room for discussion, but it’s safe to say some hunters have decided Idaho’s elk hunting isn’t worth the effort and have given up or gone to another state.

But those who’ve stuck with it have had respectable success rates.

Remember, 1996 was Idaho’s all-time largest elk harvest and a 25 percent success rate. Last year’s successs rate was 20 percent, and it has hovered around 20 percent or slightly higher for the last five years.

With that in mind, and statistically speaking, elk hunters hitting the woods this year won’t have a significantly lower chance of harvesting an elk than those who hunted during the best year ever.

But things have changed in the elk hunting world.

The classic elk habitats of Central Idaho and the Clearwater area aren’t producing elk like they once did, and that has displaced a lot of hunters. Those aren’t the only places where hunters used to reliably find elk, but don’t anymore.

There are many reasons why, but let’s save that discussion for another time.

If your old favorite elk-hunting honey hole has been dry for several years, it probably won’t magically improve any time soon.

That may be a bitter pill, and one you understandably don’t want to swallow. You may have spent years, and even generations, learning to hunt a certain area.

Chances are good your family and hunting buddies have also contributed to the “institutional knowledge” of the area, and there are probably great memories tied to it. It’s tough to say goodbye — real tough.

But there may be better elk hunting opportunities elsewhere, and if you figured things out in your old spot, there’s no reason you can’t do it someplace else.

There are more opportunities than you might realize.

Here are a couple more statistics that may surprise you. Out of the 16,418 elk taken in 2012, 62 percent were killed during general hunts. To put that another way, 62 percent of the successful elk hunters last year just bought a tag and went hunting.

Among those who drew tags for controlled hunts, an impressive 38 percent harvested elk.

So just where are all these elk?

We asked Idaho Fish and Game statistician Bruce Ackerman to crunch some numbers based on last year’s harvest to show Idaho’s best elk hunting zones.

But that’s tricky question because people have different interpretations of what defines “best.”

It may be a place where you have the best chance to kill a mature bull, even if odds are slim for getting a tag there.

It may be a place you can hunt year after year and take your kids and eventually your grandkids to hunt.

It may be a place where you stand the best chance of filling the freezer regardless of whether the elk is a bull or cow.

We tried to answer the “where’s best” in six different ways. Hopefully, these stats will help you decide your best elk hunting options. But remember, it’s only a start, and you will need to do further research to decide which area works best for you.

Because, ultimately, there are no magic answers. We know hunting takes place in the woods, not on a spreadsheet, and there are many things that factor into a good hunt besides whether you put a tag on an elk.

But if you’re looking for an elk hunting spot, hopefully this information will help.

Click here for a map of all elk zones.

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