For most hunters living on the East Coast, hunting elk usually involves traveling hundreds of miles to the Western wilderness stronghold states of Montana, Wyoming, or Colorado. But, after decades of absence in the East, they’re starting to reclaim their former range. They’re not as abundant as their Western counterparts, but these herds offer a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of legendary hunters like Daniel Boone and chase elk closer to home than ever before.
Historically, American elk had a far wider range than today, encompassing almost all of the US and large parts of Canada, except the driest regions, some coastal areas, and extremely mountainous terrain. As settlers moved westward, market hunters and pioneers quickly reduced 10 million to just around 90,000, extirpating them from at least 23 states in the process. All of these remaining elk were primarily found in western states like Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, and hence their population regrowth to around 1,050,000 animals today is largely centered around these areas.
However, huge efforts by state management agencies and organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) have started to restore their eastern range. Historical elk strongholds like Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, and Arkansas have received millions of dollars of funding over the past 20 years to restore their herds, much to the benefit of Eastern hunters. Though the area’s big-game culture is still absolutely centered around whitetails, elk numbers are on the rise, and hunters should know about opportunities popping up in their home state.
Kentucky is a prime example of Eastern elk restoration and one of the greatest wildlife success stories of the past 30 years. After being absent from the state since 1880, between 1997 and 2002, fish and wildlife officials transported more than 1,500 elk from states such as Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oregon. Today, 13,100 animals roam over 4.1 million acres of habitat, forming the largest modern elk herd east of the Mississippi River.
Due to the size of the herd, there are a significant number of tags available, but drawing them is a highly competitive affair. For the 2022 season, 594 tags were issued (150 rifle bull, 244 rifle cow, 175 either-sex archery, and 25 youth permits)—out of 49,000 applicants. If you’re a Kentucky resident, the odds are in your favor, as Kentucky Fish & Wildlife allocates only 10% of permits to non-resident hunters, though you still have just a 1.21% chance of drawing. Hunt success rates are relatively high—45% for archery tags and 50% for rifle tags—which is about five times higher than states like Montana. Just look at Steve Rinella’s Kentucky elk hunt in 2014—it may be worth the wait.
The hardest part of Kentucky elk hunting is that 95% of the land encompassing the elk units is privately owned land. Many landowners are willing to open their properties up to other hunters, but it usually involves an access fee or going through a professional guide, which can become cost-prohibitive. If you’re a resident and you’ve drawn a tag, putting effort into landowner relations and scouting well ahead of opening day is an essential task.
Elk have had a long and complicated history in Arkansas. After being extirpated in the 1850s, there was an initial reintroduction in 1933 of 11 animals, which grew to over 200 animals, but mysteriously vanished by the early 1950s. The reintroductions that support their current herd occurred in 1981 when 112 elk brought in from Colorado and Nebraska were released in Newton County. That same herd has now grown to 419 animals spread out over 315,000 acres of habitat, one of the largest herds in the southeast region.
Despite the growing herd numbers, elk tags are incredibly scarce and hard to come by. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission splits the harvest quotas into two classes—public land and private land permits. There are only 18 public land permits, drawn through an online permit system with no bonus points. There are also 35 (10 either sex, 25 antlerless) private land tags, allocated through landowner quotas, but getting access to private land to harvest these animals is no easy task, often involving years of scouting and landowner relations, or forking out thousands on a guide. 2021 saw a huge jump in applicants for elk tags, at 5,275 applicants (a 1.5% draw chance) up from 3,812 in 2019, so there’s no shortage of competition for the few tags on offer.
Initially, Michigan lost its elk in 1875, after decades of market hunting and habitat destruction, but has slowly built their herds up over the years to around 1,200 animals, among the largest in the Midwest. They occupy around 105,000 acres of habitat in the Northern Lower Peninsula, one of the last wild places in a state with 10.8 million people and 700,000 hunters.
Elk hunting resumed in the state in 1984, and now Michigan DNR offers 260 tags a year—100 for the early season rut and 160 for late season hunts through a randomly weighted draw system. So even though that might seem like a lot of tags, there are also about 36,000 hunters competing against you. Elk hunting in these dense northern woods can be a real challenge. Even though their total range is growing, they’re unevenly distributed and clustered around small patches of perfect habitat where food and space are ample. Once you find those honey holes, success rates are very high, usually around 70-80% each year.
Pennsylvania extirpated the last of their elk in the 1870s, quickly wiped out by westward-expansion settlers. But in 1912, the newly appointed game commissioner Joseph Kalbfus saw the overpopulated herds of elk in Yellowstone National Park as an opportunity to translocate some animals to his home state. Just one year later, he imported 50 elk (for just $30 each) from Wyoming, and two years later, another 95 arrived. Today, the state holds around 1,400 animals spread across 14 management units in the north-central region of the state.
In the 2022 season, 178 tags (60 antlered tags and 118 antlerless tags) were allocated through a bonus point system, spread out across archery, general rifle, and late-season hunts. The 82% overall success rate is exceptionally high, and hunters aren’t just succeeding, they’re harvesting huge animals, like this 455-inch giant, the sixth-largest wild elk in history. Unfortunately for most hunters, the chance of drawing this hunt is tiny, due to the 104,250 hunters competing against you (a measly 0.17% chance of drawing). This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime hunt, and one where hiring an experienced guide to make the most of the opportunity is a great idea.
Though genetically identical to their Western counterparts, the tactics required to hunt eastern elk can be very different. Here are a few tips from Jim Kauffman, an avid Pennsylvanian hunter, and experienced elk guide.
“Hunting elk in the Eastern hardwoods is a different ballgame to their Western counterparts. Generally speaking, our elk occupy much lower elevations with flatter ground and dense vegetation, so getting up on a ridge to glass for bulls usually isn’t an option,” Kauffman said. “Rather than spotting animals from way off, hunters have to pay closer attention to other cues, such as calls, scatt, trampled vegetation, and browsing sign. When you finally locate the herd, they’ll usually be within very close range, with sub-200-yard shots being the standard range. And despite their size, I’m always impressed by how quickly they disappear into the timber when spooked.”
According to Kauffman your approach for elk has to be different than whitetails because they’re a more nomadic animal that tends to cluster together in herds. So sitting in a treestand waiting for an elk to wander by isn’t the best technique. You have to actively pursue them on foot.
“Once located, you can then position yourself adjacent to an opening in the woods or sneak in close through the undergrowth,” Kauffman said. “Elk are also a grassland-adapted species, so they’re drawn towards large clearings in woodlands where grasses are abundant, such as reclaimed strip mines, gas, powerline right of ways, large ag fields, and food plots. Hiding on the edge of these clearings during early mornings or late evenings can be a great way to find elk during any time of year.”
Chances are, you’ll be waiting a few years for your first eastern elk hunt. Herd numbers are relatively few, and tag allocations are often very conservative. But opportunities are on the rise, and with a bit of patience and consistent tag applications, you might just get to chase after these incredible animals closer to home than ever before.