Elk Hunting in Arizona: What you need to know


Why hunt elk in Arizona? Most outfitters will answer with a number: 400. Arizona is the state that consistently rewards the hunters with elk antlers that are over 300” mark, and some approaching and even over the magical four hundred. But even the hunters who don’t care for the score of their trophy can’t refuse the draw of hunting the majestic mountain monarchs.

The native elk of Arizona, once described as the Merriam subspecies, were driven to extinction by overharvest and overgrazing. A reintroduction program that started in 1913, releasing elk from the Yellowstone National Park, had only a limited success, but by the 1990s elk numbers in Arizona reached huntable proportions. Today elk herds in the state number about 35,000 animals. The Merriam subspecies was described as having a relatively small body with impressive antlers, and apparently its heritage, if not its genetics, lives on as Arizona elk have impressive racks – but you know that already.

Whether a late season spot-and-stalk, or the archery season hunting during the bugle, elk hunting in Arizona is renowned as excellent – if you can get the “elk permit-tag”, that is.

How to get an elk permit in Arizona?

Although theoretically there are options to get a tag over-the-counter, for all practical purposes an elk hunt in Arizona is a limited draw hunt. In 2020, nearly 25,000 elk hunting permits were issued; of those, however, only 10% could go to non-resident hunters. The deadline for the draw for pronghorn and elk in Arizona is the second Tuesday of February. The draw happens in the following manner: each participating hunter, via a randomized computer procedure, gets one or more drawing numbers, one for the application, and then one for each of the bonus points the hunter may have accumulated over the previous years (for not drawing a tag, etc.). The smallest of the drawing numbers is used in the application process.

In the draw, the applications are lined up according to their numbers, from lowest to highest, and the first, second, etc. get the permit, until the general or non-resident quota for a certain unit is reached. There are three rounds of the draw. The first round distributes 20% of permits, with the applications that are first in the list winning. The second round distributes the remainder of the permits between the applicants who weren’t successful in the first round, taking into account the applicants’ first and second choice units. The third round is similar, but for third, fourth, and fifth choice units. Applications are randomized again before each round. For a more detailed description of the procedure, click here.

Bonus points are very important for Arizona limited draw. They are awarded automatically for each unsuccessful application for the relevant species. In addition, you can purchase them. If you drew and purchased a tag, but something happened that prevented you from hunting, you may preserve your bonus point by surrendering the tag (it has to be done before the start of the season). Alternatively, you can transfer it your own minor child or grandchild, a child with a life-threatening condition, military veteran with service-related disability, or a non-profit organization for the benefit of the two previous categories.

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Close to the end of the current year’s season, Arizona Game and Fish usually distributed another limited entry permit-tags for late season hunts. This year the deadline for entries was December 3, 2021, and the hunting season will run from December 20, 2021 to February 15, 2022. Too late to apply for now, but mark it in your calendar for the future.

Can I get an OTC tag for elk in Arizona?

If any of the permits for a unit are left after the third round, they are available over-the-counter on a first-come, first served basis. Visit the Arizona Game and Fish website after the draw results have been announced, and if you’re lucky enough and a tag for a unit you’re interested in is available, mail in your application. Beware: the application deadlines are tight! Some over-the-counter tags, both bulls and any elk, and both all legal weapon and archery only, are issued for areas where elk are not wanted for conservation reasons, but hunting success in such areas is typically low.

Another option to get an Arizona elk tag, if money is no object, are ruffles, auctions, and hunting on tribal land. Tribal land includes some of the best elk habitat in the state, such as San Carlos Apache Reservation. The permits are available from the respective Nations, and are either auctioned or issued on first come, first served basis. For elk hunting in the highly esteemed trophy areas that produce 400” class trophies on a regular basis, you will be required to hire a licensed native guide. Tribal land hunts are not cheap; the tags may cost from $2,500 to $20,000, with a surcharge for bulls that score higher than 375 Boone & Crocket points. By contrast, a regular non-resident elk permit-tag costs $665.

an elk with antlers in velvet

What’s the best time to hunt elk in Arizona ?

Arizona elk seasons begin in mid-September with the early archery season that usually lasts two weeks. This season usually sees the peak of the rut. Another great option, time-wise, is the trophy bull season. Typically it follows the early archery season, but some units alternate them. The trophy bull season can be either muzzleloader or any-weapon, depending on the year and the unit. Late archery and late bull seasons take place in November, after the elk migrate to their winter habitats.

The choice of the season dictates the hunting method, and the other way round. The early season hunts take place during the rut, and the most successful method is calling. By contrast, late season hunts depend on the spot-and-stalk method for both bull and cow hunts.

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The unquestionable advantage of the early archery season is that it takes place in the heat of the rut. The mighty bulls shaking the mountains with their bugle, collecting their harems, and fighting each other for dominance is an experience that will make the hair stand on the back of your neck, and the close encounter with a bull, that archery hunting implies, triples the thrill. Yet, success rates of the rifle hunts, especially early general season, speak for themselves.

How successful are elk hunts in Arizona?

According to Arizona Fish and Game website, in 2020 elk hunters enjoyed overall 42% success rate in their hunts. For the general season bull elk hunts the success rate was 39%. Early seasons appear to be better than late seasons, with 36% versus 21% harvest rate for archery, while early general bull season hunters can boast success rates as high as 82%.

Muzzleloading season is also a great choice – it offers a chance to see some bugling activity, as well as 52% probability of success. Interestingly enough, success rates for antlerless hunts are not significantly higher than for bull hunts, and could actually be as low as 20% for late season archery hunts, proving once again that an educated cow is one of the toughest animals to harvest.

a hunter with an elk trophy in arizona

What are the best units to hunt elk in Arizona?

This is one of the most common questions, but unfortunately one that hardly has a definitive answer. The online hunting value map, created on the basis of hunters’ survey in partnership with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and published on the Arizona Game and Fish website, shows that the preferred elk hunting zones are located in a line that runs along the state’s northeastern border, roughly from the San Francisco Peaks and the Kaibab National Forest to the Apache National Forest. The hot spots seem to be covered by Units 12-13, 8-10, 6, and 21-23.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should drop everything and apply for the units mentioned. To say nothing of the fact that the most famous units also have the lowest draw success rates, your choice should also depend on when you plan to hunt, and whether you want to hunt a trophy bull or a delicious antlerless animal. The elk are far less territorial than deer, and will readily migrate between different habitats. This happens both seasonally and as variations in precipitation and temperature from year to year change the attractiveness of different areas.

The elk habitat in Arizona is mostly found in the ponderosa pine plateaus and mountains in the north and north east of the state, at elevations between 7 and 8 thousand feet, although some herds are found on high deserts below, or conifer forests above. Males and females stick together during the rut, but their winter stations differ. According to some studies, while bull elk are typically found in pinyon-juniper and ponderosa pine areas, cows prefer Douglas fir stands and meadow openings. This, of course, is not set in stone, but different choices of habitat is typical for elk in general.

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If you’re looking for a guided hunt, your best bet would be to first find an outfitter, and then take their advice on the unit. Most outfitters in Arizona offer to help their clients with filing the draw application. The limited draw system in Arizona is complicated, but careful selection of choice units may dramatically improve the chances of success. Usually they collect a fee for this service, which is counted towards the price of your hunt if you draw, but this is money well spent. Local knowledge and familiarity with the nuances of the system are invaluable.

Gear for elk hunting in Arizona.

Elk hunting is elk hunting pretty much wherever you go, and most of the tips covered in this blog post apply. A specific challenge of elk hunting in Arizona, however, exists, and it lies in great variations of the temperatures and weather. Arizona can be one of the hottest states in America, but elk hunts take place on high elevations, where you may, of course, experience the warm hot dry weather most people associate with Arizona deserts, but you should be prepared for rain, and in the late season even snow, too. Warm and rainproof or even snowproof gear could be essential, and top-notch boots invaluable.

To make things even more challenging, the temperature may vary dramatically across the day, and elk hunting typically implies a lot of walking over broken terrain. With the wrong choice of clothing, you may find yourself chilly in the morning, soaking wet (including in your own sweat) in the afternoon, and freezing cold in the evening. Think high quality thermal underwear, and a well-thought-of sequence of layers. Your outfitter should be the best expert on what conditions you are likely to encounter in the specific time and location of your hunt, so if you book an elk hunt in Arizona, be sure to ask them – and heed their advice.

The bottom line

Elk hunting in Arizona requires a lot of preparation. The draw takes place earlier than in most other states, and whether you’re looking for a DIY hunt, or considering a guided hunt, now is the time to start researching the state and the units you want to apply for. This is especially true if you want to secure the help of an outfitter in preparing your application. Even if you’re ready to invest in a tribal land hunt, you should probably contact the relevant nation well before the tags go on sale. Have a look at our selection of elk hunts in Arizona and act quick!