Arizona elk hunting is arguably the best there is. The state was once the home of the Merriam’s elk, a smaller-bodied ungulate with massive antlers. Cattle grazing and overhunting the sub-species led to its demise in the early part of the 20th century. Arizona’s current elk population is courtesy of Yellowstone National Park. From 1912 to 1967, almost 14,000 elk were transplanted from Yellowstone to other regions in the West, Arizona included. In 1913, 80+ elk were transplanted from the park to Cabin Draw near Chevlon Creek in what today is unit 4A.
In the mid-80s, the state’s elk population exploded, growing exponentially. During the 90s, the elk population grew to an estimated 50,000-60,000 animals, putting Arizona elk hunting on the map. However, that number proved to be over the carrying capacity of the elk’s range within the state, and the herd was trimmed. Currently, the state’s elk population hovers around 35,000 animals.
In general, Arizona elk hunting is top-notch! The Grand Canyon state is host to a variety of elk hunts that offer dedicated hunters the chance at harvesting a bull-of-a-lifetime on most hunts. The Arizona Department of Game and Fish issues approximately 25,000 elk tags annually.
It is no secret that Arizona is home to giant bulls. That’s NOT to say that there is a 400-inch bull behind every tree. However, a bull of that caliber likely inhabits every huntable game management unit in the state. The proof: several 400-inch-plus bulls are harvested across the state annually. If a giant bull is a goal, Arizona elk hunting may provide the desired outcome. Below are a few variables to consider before you pack up your gear and head to Arizona to hunt elk.
Before You Go
There are several factors to consider before applying for an Arizona elk tag. To optimize your draw chances, look for suitable game management units that match your hunt type.
- Early Archery Bull
Hunts begin in mid-September and run for two weeks, typically during the rut. In typical years, calling tactics work relatively well. Drought years raise the challenge level of this hunt, and calling tactics are less likely to bring in a rut-sickened bull. Temperatures range from freezing in the morning to near 90s in the afternoon in lower elevation elk units. Most units have an antlerless and bull hunt that coincides.
- Trophy Bull
Most “trophy” hunts begin the day after the early archery hunt, near October, and run for one week. However, a few hunts occur in mid-September, with the archery hunts following — the Arizona Game and Fish Department alternate hunt dates by region. Legal-take methods for these hunts are either muzzleloader or centerfire rifle — some units alternate legal-take methods annually. Typically, elk are still rutting with bulls bugling and maintaining a harem. Glassing, followed by spot-and-stalk hunting, works well on this hunt.
- Late Archery Bull
Hunts begin in early November and run for two weeks. The majority of bulls will have migrated back to summer habitat or to winter habitat, highly dependent on weather and available forage. Typical temperatures range from below freezing to highs in the 60s. There is a good chance of winter storms, which means snow at higher elevations. Rut activity will be minimal, if at all. Glassing, spot-and-stalk, and stand hunting work best.
- Late Rifle Bull
The majority of hunts begin the Friday after Thanksgiving and are one week in duration. Bulls have returned to winter habitat, which may be several miles — 10 or more — from where they resided during the rut. At this time of year, bulls do not travel great distances. Bulls will be visible for extended periods as they feed and bed throughout the day. Glassing, followed by spot-and-stalk hunting, is the preferred method of most hunters. Shots at bull may be extended and require a capable rifle and optics.
Arizona elk hunting includes several opportunities for cow harvest too. These hunts range in date from September to December with a variety of legal-take methods available.
Additional hunts include youth, CHAMP (mobility-impaired), limited-opportunity, HAM (handgun, archery, and muzzleloader), and minimal occurrence. The state also offers a few over-the-counter elk tags in management units with low elk densities.
A limited number of elk tags are available through auctions conducted by hunting conservation organizations and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Monies raised fund local conservation projects. For more information, visit https://arizonabiggamesuperraffle.com/.
Arizona elk hunting habitat is diverse. Elk habitat ranges from high deserts (5,000 feet) to mixed-conifer forests (above 10,000 feet). Core elk habitat occurs within ponderosa pine forests (7,000-8,000 feet) and adjacent transition zones. The majority of Arizona elk hunting occurs within the central region of the state, reaching from east to west.
The topography that elk inhabit can be just as diverse. While many game management units are found on relatively flat plateaus, others are incredibly steep and rugged. As seasons change, elk will migrate to and from habitats.
The majority of Arizona’s elk habitats occur on public land, mainly those managed by the USFS. Huntable areas range from right-off-the-road to deep into primitive or wilderness areas. Elk habitat stretches across four major National Forests: Apache-Sitgreaves NF, Coconino NF, Kaibab NF and Tonto NF. For more information regarding specific locales, and rules and regulations, visit the following.
- Apache-Sitgreaves NF: https://www.fs.usda.gov/asnf/
- Coconino NF: https://www.fs.usda.gov/coconino/
- Kaibab NF: https://www.fs.usda.gov/kaibab/
- Tonto NF: https://www.fs.usda.gov/tonto/
Elk habitat is dynamic for several reasons. Consider these Arizona elk hunting factors while conducting research before selecting units for a draw application.
- Recent precipitation
- Number of tags issued
- Success rates of past hunts
- Terrain and topography type
- And draw odds
The majority — almost all — of Arizona elk tags are acquired through the Arizona Game and Fish’s draw process. Applicants select up to five hunt choices. The application period opens in January and closes in early February. Successful applicants are notified in March or April.
Arizona is a bonus point state. Twenty percent of tags go to the applicants with the highest number of bonus points in the first round of the drawing process, referred to as the bonus pass. Up to five of the 20 percent are awarded to non-resident applicants, the remaining to residents. The remainder of Arizona elk hunting tags are awarded in the Random Draw, the second and third rounds of the drawing process. Non-residents are limited to 10 percent of the total allotted tags.
From the Arizona Game and Fish Department
There are 3 phases to the Big Game Drawing – the Bonus Point Pass, the First-Second Choice Pass, and the Third-Fourth-Fifth Choice Pass. Before each of the three passes in the drawing, each application is processed through a random number generator program. One random number for the application plus an additional random number for each group bonus point (which includes the Hunter Education and Loyalty bonus points) is generated for that application. The lowest random number generated for an application is used in the drawing process. An application receives a new random number for each Pass of the Big Game Draw.
For more information, visit https://www.azgfd.com/hunting/draw/process/.
Arizona Elk Hunting Hunt Types
Arizona elk hunting comes in all shapes and sizes. Offerings for DIY, guided, and high-dollar hunts abound.
Arizona elk hunting lends itself to the DIY-guy. Large tracts of public land and numerous backcountry areas provide the gamut in elk hunting opportunities, available to anyone. No matter the preferred hunting method, Arizona offers it all to both residents and non-residents alike. Dedicated hunters willing to put effort into scouting and hunting will raise their chances of success substantially.
If time is a limitation, lowering the chances for scouting, going guided is a viable option. The state is home to several elk hunting outfitters with capable guides. A guided hunt will lighten your wallet, however. The average fully guided hunt ranges in cost from approximately $4,000-8,000, tip, travel, and other costs NOT included. Other options are available, such as a scouting package, guide-only, and zero guide fees. Due diligence and research is key to selecting a reputable outfitter and guide.
Several native American tribes offer Arizona elk hunting, albeit a high-dollar endeavor.
- Navajo Nation: https://www.nndfw.org/
- San Carlos Apache: https://www.sancarlosrecreationwildlife.com/
- White Mountain Apache: https://wmatoutdoor.org/
Final Thoughts on Arizona Elk Hunting
Arizona elk hunting is some of the best elk hunting in the West. Regardless of the hunt objective in mind, the outcome will likely be a rewarding one, especially for those that commit to a thorough plan. It won’t happen overnight, as draw odd for all of the state’s elk hunt are relatively low. Begin research now, continue that path for each draw cycle, as conditions and hunt change annually. Always apply for a hunt number, NOT a bonus point; you can’t draw if you don’t apply.
Editor’s Choice | Top Research Tools for Arizona Elk Hunting
The following tools are invaluable for researching Arizona elk hunting opportunities before submitting an application and hunting elk in the state.
1. goHUNT INSIDER
goHUNT’s INSIDER product is a must-have for anyone looking to hunt elk in Arizona, or anywhere in the West. The reasonably-priced, $149 annual subscription provides INSIDERS with a wealth of information. Specifically, INSIDERS have access to strategy articles; species and GMU breakdowns; rules and regulations; mapping; draw odds; gear purchase and giveaways; and much more. The filtering feature of INSIDER provides applicants the ability to search for hunts that match their criteria to the tee. If you aren’t an INSIDER now, check it out.
2. onX HUNT
onX Hunt is the leading GPS and mapping software tool and is perfect for the Arizona elk hunter. Annual pricing for one state is $29.99 and $99.99 for all 50 states, both are fairly-priced and worth the money spent. The HUNT product can be accessed online and via an app. E-scouting from a desktop (and larger monitor) is invaluable when searching for likely elk hunting hot-spots. Mark locations, open the app, and all of the saved waypoints appear. The HUNT product features map layers that are crucial for scouting and hunting effectively, such as private and public lands; trails and trail mileage; historic wildfires, topographic and aerial mapping, and a host of others.
Other capable research tools: Top Rut | Hunt Stand | NOAA