Drawing a Kentucky elk tag is like winning the lottery. The cost of entry is incredibly low ($10 in this case), but so are your odds of getting drawn. There is no preference point system, so your chances of “winning” are as good as anyone else; somebody has to get lucky, and that somebody could be you. I was one of those lucky few in 2013, when I drew an archery cow elk tag on my 3rd year of applying.
Anyone can put their name in for 2 of 4 opportunities – bull firearms, bull archery, cow firearms, and cow archery. The cow archery tag is the easiest to draw at roughly 1-in-63 odds, and the bull firearms is the toughest to draw at 1-in-742. (Those odds are from years past, and are sure to change each year.)
In 2014 there were 69,191 applications and 1010 tags awarded – only 101 (10%) of which were awarded to non-resident hunters.
My Experience & My Advice
I couldn’t believe it when I drew a KY elk tag last year. I had already planned and committed to a CO elk hunt, so the KY hunt was a bonus. Unfortunately, two hunts meant that I had less time and money to devote to the KY opportunity.
My plan was to take an initial 3-4 day trip to KY, and then follow-up with another late-season hunt if necessary. That second trip never happened, so I only had 3-4 days to hunt in KY. You can read stories from that trip HERE and HERE.
The 2014 draw results just came out and I have already had several guys contact me for advice. I am sharing this post as a recap of the lessons that I learned from my hunt. This advice is coming from and is in many ways focused on a non-resident perspective, but much of it applies to Kentucky residents that have a tag as well. For general elk hunting advice, tips, and tactics that aren’t necessarily specific to Kentucky, please visit my elk hunting page.
In the end, I didn’t fill my Kentucky cow tag. I had a perfect shot opportunity at a 5×5 bull, which was bitter and amazing at the same time. I know that if I could have had more time, then I could have found success, which leads me to the first lesson that I learned about hunting elk in Kentucky…
Lesson #1 – Commit to the hunt. Devoting such little time to the KY hunt was a huge mistake on my part. If you are lucky enough to draw a KY elk tag, then treat it as the special opportunity that it truly is – especially if you draw a bull tag. I would have dropped everything to devote more time and money if I drew one of the coveted, and truly “once in a lifetime” bull elk tags.
Lesson #2 – Get help. Consider hiring an outfitter…unless you draw a bull tag – in that case, don’t consider it – DO IT! A KY bull tag is a rare opportunity with massive potential. Unless you have several weeks of time to scout and hunt on your own, hire an outfitter! I am “do-it-yourself” hunter to the core, but I would make a rare exception for a KY bull elk tag.
Lesson #3 – Tread lightly. My Kentucky hunt came a month after I had been chasing elk in the Rocky Mountains of CO. Although I was hunting the same animal in both places, the differences in hunting were stark. The terrain that I hunted in KY was thick, dry, and incredibly noisy. You can get away with some noise when hunting elk – after all, they are noisy animals themselves –but you still have to tread lightly. On numerous occasions I was within 40-100 yards of elk, but the terrain was so thick that I couldn’t see them, and the approach was so noisy that they were on full alert and knew that something was approaching. If possible, try to pattern elk movement and setup for an ambush. Stalking will be difficult in most cases.
Lesson #4 – Hunt bulls. Even if you have a cow tag, hunt bulls. If you hunt in September, October, and even into November, you’ll find cows with, or near, bulls. The biggest advantage to hunting bulls is that you can use their vocalizations to your advantage. On our second night in KY there were bulls sounding off from 2am, until 9 or 10am. If you can find vocal bulls, then anticipate where they are going and aggressively try to flank the herd.
Lesson #5 – Act like you’re being hunted. This is especially true if you are hunting public land. To find the elk, you’re going to need to think like an elk, and that means you need to get in the mindset that human activity and interaction need to be avoided. We thought we found some secluded spots, and in some ways we did, but I was still surprised where a local would turn up on a 4-wheeler. We encountered guys that were out squirrel hunting, out driving around for the heck of it, and one that seemed to be out for the single purpose of ruining our hunt.
Lesson #6 – Pick pockets. These elk are very smart and have adapted to the human pressure that we just talked about. You might be hunting a vast expanse of land, but you’re not going to see elk randomly scattered throughout. Pick little pockets that you think elk can find security in, and hunt those areas. We covered well over a dozen miles on our hunt, and 90% of the elk activity ended up being in one little pocket area that was tucked away in a corner between private and public land, and guarded by some serious terrain features. Trails and roads? Avoid them like the plague. Nasty climbs or descents that you don’t want to make? That’s what you need to focus on the most.
Lesson #7 – Do your homework. Kentucky’s Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources has done an excellent job producing resources that will help elk hunters. Be sure to spend a lot of time on their Elk Hunting Homepage, and take advantage of the maps and articles provided.
Lesson #8 – Make a plan, or three. If you’re going on a do-it-yourself hunt, then you better be ready to adapt. Have at least three different areas picked out to hunt, and spend 2-4 days hunting each area. If I didn’t find elk, and/or encounter much human activity in that time, move on. This goes back to time – you have to devote time to this hunt, and you have to spend time preparing for it.
Lesson #9 – Go bull, or stay home. I had a great time in Kentucky, and wish that I would have devoted more time to the hunt. All of that aside, my personal strategy going forward is going to be to only apply for the two bull tags. Part of the reason for this is that Kentucky has increased the cost of their elk permits, and I don’t feel that $540 for a cow tag ($400 tag + $140 license) is a worthwhile investment. I can understand pursuing that opportunity if you live in the east and truly cannot get out west to hunt elk, but if you are going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to hunt elk, I would either do it out West (where the experience is much more majestic, regardless of the end result of the hunt), or I would try to get lucky on an extremely rare, but high quality KY bull tag.
As always, please let me know if you have any specific questions.