elk hunt in california

Elk Hunting In California

Elk hunting in California offers incredible experiences, not unlike those in Colorado or Wyoming. Not only is there an abundance of elk in this state, but there are also many different terrains you can choose between. Many hunters flock to California because of the diverse opportunity and stable numbers of elk in the state.

Elk hunting seasons in CA vary significantly by location. To see a complete list of locations and seasons, click here for more info.

CA Subspecies of Elk

California hosts three species of elk throughout the state. Rocky Mountain Elk and Roosevelt Elk will be found in the northern part of the state and other country areas. Tule Elk are found mainly in the western, central part of the state but are exclusive to California. Although the difference in these three species is subtle, the diversity of the subspecies is essential for a balanced ecosystem.

Roosevelt elk, found in the northwestern part of the state, has the largest body of all subspecies of elk. However, not the same can be said about their antlers.

Rocky Mountain elk are slightly smaller body sizes than Roosevelts but make up for their antler size. With an average body weight of 100 less than the former, these elk are still considerably large.

Tule elk are considerably smaller than Roosevelt or Rocky Mountain elk. Still, they seem to be more prized by passionate elk hunters because of their uniqueness to the area and their skittish demeanor. Tule elk hunting in California can be challenging to tag out. It serves as a good reminder that the size of your bull does not equate to success as a hunter.

While being the only state to offer three different subspecies of elk, out-of-state hunters should highly consider taking a stab at filling their Tule tag. It would be an experience you can’t find in any other state.

elk herd

California Elk Hunting Seasons & Regulations

Drawing an elk tag is extremely difficult in the state of California. There are very few tags given out for each year. In fact, in 2022, only 281 tags will be awarded. Depending on the area and type of hunt, the earliest elk hunting season starts in mid-August, and later hunts go until the end of December.

California elk hunting zones
Elk Hunting California Zones

The following is the cost of applying for the 2022 California elk hunt tag. Elk are considered premium hunts and thus are among the most expensive and hardest to get tags in the state. You can read more about California elk applications, draw statistics, and more in the California Big Game Journal.

Elk Tag$23.50 Resident Junior $512.05 Resident
$1,568.05 Nonresident
Resident and nonresident licensed hunters age 12 or older as of July 1 of the current license year, may enter a drawing for this tag. Each person may submit only one Elk Tag Drawing Application per license year.
Prices Current as of 2022

California Elk Hunting Locations

Picking a location for the best elk hunting in California is primarily determined by what you want your experience to be.

If you are looking for a high-country hunt that produces large Roosevelt bulls, the northwestern part of the state is your destination. Be aware that the coast will be in tons of precipitation, so don’t be surprised if you spend a September weekend pelted with rain.

If you are looking for a Montana or Wyoming grassland-type hunt, the northeastern part of the state offers large antlered Rocky Mountain elk in vast numbers. Hunting in this area is popular for late-season hunts because of the more significant number of cows and smaller bulls. If you simply want to fill a tag, this is the region you should be looking in.

The west-central part of the state is popular among hunters looking to fill their Tule elk tag. This area tends to have warmer weather but an ample number of bulls. In-staters and out of staters alike can enjoy glassing miles of mountainous terrain without bumping into another hunter because of the large landscapes open to the public.

Whichever region you decide to target for your next hunt, make sure to do as much digital scouting as possible. Apps such as onX and Huntstand can save a multitude of time and provide valuable information such as property lines, acreage, and topography. If areas keep their data stored correctly, burns, cuts, and logging roads are also marked. The ability to share locations and field notes with your hunting partner is a new tool experienced hunters use to increase their chances of filling their tag.

bull elk

Before you even step foot into the area, you have decided to hunt, do as much research on the landscape, harvest numbers, and hunting pressure as possible. These things can increase your chances of harvesting an elk by more than you know.

Rifle vs. Bow Hunting

Before striking out to the high ground to find bulls, there are many things to consider, such as location, clothing, and food, but one of your most important decisions will be taking your rifle or bow. This decision will be made when applying for tags, but you should put a lot of thought into it.

While rifle tags are usually pulled from a larger pool of candidates, the success rates are much higher than bow hunters when elk hunting in California. When you decide on a rifle hunt, your tactics will be much different than on a bow hunt. You will spend much of your time glassing and visually looking for elk. Since most rifle seasons are post-rut for elk, there will probably not be much bugling. It is crucial that you find the herd of cows since the bull hierarchy has already been set. If you can locate the pack, you will undoubtedly be close to the herd bull or at least a satellite bull or two roaming around. You will likely have to put down many miles to find the elk, but once you do, the odds are incredibly stacked in your favor.

Bow Tags are much easier to draw in California, but the success rate drops drastically. If you are looking for intense interaction with an elk after chasing him for miles up and down mountains, this is the route you want to take. Most of your time will be spent listening for bugles and getting to them as quickly and quietly as possible. Aside from the fact that you will need to get within a minimum of 50 yards of this freak hearing beast, it would be best to do so without being spotted by the silent cows that are undoubtedly nearby.

man hunting elk

If you want to fill the freezer or tag your first-ever California elk, I suggest opting for the rifle. While some may see this as the “easy” way, they couldn’t be more wrong. While your kill zone is extended, you still must do everything right to get an opportunity for a shot.

Experienced elk hunters or anyone with incredible amounts of the drive should consider applying for a bow tag. While the opportunities to be successful are few and far between, the reward of taking an elk with a bow is something out of this world. So if you can take the failures and learn from them, the bow is your best option.

Whichever you choose to take hunting, make sure that you are confident in taking an animal with that method. 

Cost to Hunt Elk in California

From what you see on social media or tv, you might assume that it costs an arm and a leg to be able to hunt elk, especially in California. Many first-time elk hunters never get past the question, “How much does it cost to hunt elk in California?” After a bit of research, your results might surprise you. While most influencers wear top-notch gear and hunt expensive ranches, this is not the norm.

There are endless ways to budget a hunt, but some unavoidable costs include licenses, permits, and tags. Elk tags for California residents typically cost around $500, while an out-of-state will pay nearly $1,600 for the same tag. If one chooses to hunt on a ranch accompanied by a guide, it will add anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on which outfitter you choose.

You can go as expensive as you’d like on clothing, camping gear, and optics. However, it would be wise not to skimp out on something that could hinder your safety if you chose to hunt in the backcountry. Things like a handheld GPS can save your life, so it is important to ensure that the one you will be using is up to standard.  

For a quickly estimated cost reference, here are the average prices of items you’ll likely care about in your hunt. While this list is tentative and missing a few components, make sure to make your list and double-check your necessities.

  • License/tags – In state $500. Out of state $1,600.
  • Outfitter (if applied) – $5,000
  • Rifle/Bow – $800
  • Clothing – $300
  • Optics – $300
  • Electronics – $150
  • Travel – $100
  • Food – $50
  • Essentials – $25

Of course, those who are already hunters will not have to pay for things like a rifle, optics, or clothing, so a good portion of the total cost is already paid. Broken down, an in-state hunter who already has hunting gear and chooses to hunt public land can spend around $600. For an out-of-state, new hunter, this cost gets steep pretty quick, with a total cost of over $8,000.

Don’t let the price detour you from elk hunting in California. Its immense public land and a long list of outfitters ensure plenty of room for you and your hunting buddies to explore. Offering all types of terrain and three subspecies of elk, California should be on your list of states to elk hunt. After a successful elk hunt in The Golden State, your first thought after hearing the word “California” will be a fired-up bull coming through the timber, while the hippies strolling down Long Beach will be but a faint memory.