By Pennsylvania Game Commission Elk Biologist Jeremy Banfield
For most hunters, we started off chasing small game, trailing our dads, grandpas, or maybe an uncle, through the forests and fields looking for squirrels or grouse. That’s basically my story, and it was those early experiences afield that jump started my affinity for wildlife and hunting. Growing up, that interest eventually developed into a passion for the outdoors, as I graduated to becoming a big game hunter. That path – from small game to eventually taking your first deer – is a common course for many Pennsylvania hunters.
Indeed, in our state, the majority of big game hunters are deer hunters. More than 80 percent of licenses sold are related to pursuing deer in some form, be it archery, rifle or muzzleloader. That’s great, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I want to respectfully call out all the self-proclaimed big game hunters and make an obvious, but notably uncommon observation. Deer are not the largest game species roaming Penn’s Woods. Elk, on average, are roughly three times the size of deer and reign supreme as the Lords of Pennsylvania’s forests.
Since 2001, our elk hunting season has occurred annually in early November, and yet, less than 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s big game hunters apply for an elk license. That has got to change! If you consider yourself a big game hunter and you’ve never applied for an elk license in Pennsylvania, read through the following five points and maybe you’ll reconsider…
1. NEW ELK HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES START THIS YEAR
In April 2019, the Game Commission’s Board of Commissioners approved two new seasons; an early archery season and a late antlerless season. These seasons are in addition to the traditional general season, providing another 20 days, (13 for archery and seven for late), of elk hunting opportunities. Each season is mutually exclusive from the others with its own pool of applicants, specific drawing and bonus points.
Interested hunters can apply for one, two or all three seasons, but you can only be drawn for one of the three, as state law dictates that hunters can only possess one elk tag per license year. My point is this: There has never been a better time to apply for a Pennsylvania elk tag. With three separate seasons tailored to specific weapon/style preferences, offering a combined total of 26 days of hunting, this is the year to start applying.
2. HUNTING PENNSYLVANIA’S ELK IS DIRT CHEAP
$11.90! Let me say that again and I’ll spell it out; eleven dollars and ninety cents. Round it up to $12 dollars and it still sounds like decimal dust. It is no more than $12 to apply for any one of the three elk hunting seasons.
If I pull my couch cushions out, I could probably find $6 in change, and if I add in the change floating around my truck, I’m sure I could find $12. Check the cup holders in your spouse’s car if you’re a little short, they’ll never notice. Seriously, think about it, a case of beer costs more than $12, a made to order meal from Sheetz will often cost more than $12, depending on what you get. It’s a little less than $12 to get your name in the running to hunt Pennsylvania’s elk!
Now I will add, if you wanted to apply for all three seasons, your grand total would be $35.70, but considering the pools that gets you into, it’s truly a small price to pay. If you are successfully drawn, you need to buy a general Pennsylvania hunting license, which costs $25 for residents and $250 for non-residents. I was originally thinking I should list some application fees for some other popular elk hunting states, but I don’t think I need to do that. You can do some Googling on your own if you want, but there is no question, the cost of applying for and hunting Pennsylvania elk is dirt cheap.
3. LOTS OF MONSTER BULLS
Every year, Pennsylvania elk hunters harvest some immaculate bull elk. With a population of roughly 1,100 animals, about one third are branched bulls, (greater than two years old). With an average age of six years (at harvest), most of the bulls taken in Pennsylvania are a good 6×6, with many being 7×7 or larger.
If you’re into antler scores, the record books speak for themselves, with several bulls grossing more than 380 inches. If you’re not familiar with elk antler scoring, most people would see a 330” or above, and instantly say “That’s a shooter,” with 380” being the minimum for Boone and Crockett records, and 400” spilling the banks of the “reality” river! A 400” bull is kind of like a 200” whitetail, except I’ve only met a handful of people that have taken a 200” whitetail. Meanwhile, every year, I generally see at least one or two bulls gross scoring >400” come through Pennsylvania’s elk check station!
Obviously, not everybody cares about antlers and big bulls, as the majority of the applicants select either sex as their preferred tag type, meaning they’d be happy with any elk. However, I’d be remiss to not point out the caliber of our bulls. Pennsylvania elk hunters take some really nice large-antlered bulls every single year.
4. PENNSYLVANIA IS MY HOME
This may seem like an odd reason to apply for an elk license, but I included it for a very specific reason… its true. Last summer, the Game Commission conducted a survey of 2,500 people that had applied for an elk license in the past. One of the questions we asked was what motivated them to apply for an elk license, and of the roughly 2,000 people that responded, just more than 75 percent, said they wanted to hunt elk in their home state of Pennsylvania.
Now, this could be related to the idea that you would not have to travel long distances to hunt elk if you already live in Pennsylvania, but I personally think its deeper than that. Pennsylvania sportsmen and women love wildlife and we have a special sense of pride over the wildlife in our home state. Many hunters see the opportunity to pursue elk in the state where they were born, raised, live and have family, as a unique and special experience. I’m one of them and I get it, there’s something magnetic about hunting elk in the state you know best, your home.
5. THE ODDS AREN’T AS BAD AS YOU MIGHT THINK
The odds of drawing, or more specifically, the misconception that your odds of drawing a license are terrible, is by far the number one reason people choose not to apply. So, let me see if I can put a new perspective on this… Are the odds of drawing an elk license “good?” The answer is no, because when I think of good odds, I think one-in-two, or 50/50, or maybe one-in-three, but anything beyond that I’d consider not-so-good. There are two decisions you’ll need to make that affect your odds of being drawn.
First is the tag type. For the archery and general seasons there are four options: bull-only, cow-only, either-sex and point-only. Point-only is not applicable, as you’re not actually in the drawing, you’re just buying the bonus point for future drawings. Choosing bull-only, has the weakest odds, as you’re only putting yourself in the drawing for bull licenses, and there are fewer bulls compared to cows. Choosing either-sex maximizes your odds as you’re now in the drawing for the greatest number of available licenses (all of them, both bull and cow). You’re probably getting the picture by now and deducing that cow-only has the middle odds, as you’re in the drawing for only the cow licenses, which is more than just the bulls, but less than either-sex. Note that the late antlerless season is obviously cow-only, so there are no either-sex or bull-only options.
The second factor in determining your odds is the number of bonus points you have. Bonus points act as a multiplier, increasing the number of times your name is in the pool and thus increasing your odds of drawing. You earn one bonus point per unsuccessful drawing, or said another way, one point per year that you applied and were not drawn. The bonus point system was started in 2003, so if you had put in every year since then, you’d have accumulated 16 points that would be added to the current years application (16+1), and your name would be in the pool 17 times. A quick note here, the archery and late seasons are new and therefore everyone starts at zero points for those seasons. Check out this video for more information about how bonus points work.
Naturally, applicants with a greater number of points have better odds of drawing than those with fewer, but overall the odds are not that bad. Last year, for example, the very worst you could have done would have been a first-time applicant, choosing bull-only, with odds of 1 in 7665, while an applicant with the maximum number of points choosing either-sex had odds of 1 in 62.
One of the most common things I hear is “You have better odds of winning the lottery,” followed closely by “You have better odds of being struck by lightning.” Well, being a data-focused biologist, I looked both of those things up, and obviously there are a lot of different lottery games out there, but choosing the one with the greatest payout – the Powerball – it has odds of one in 292,200,000! Similarly, but not as bad, the odds of being struck by lightning are one in 750,000! So clearly, the odds of pulling a Pennsylvania elk tag are not as bad as many people think. Are the odds good? No, but remember my second point. It’s only $12 to apply and you can’t win if you don’t try. For the exact breakdown of the 2018 odds by tag type and bonus points click here.
Elk are Pennsylvania’s largest big game species and the preservation of elk hunting depends heavily on the interest and passion of you, Pennsylvania’s sportsmen and women. If you have never applied for an elk license, the additional archery and late seasons, combined with the traditional general season, offer a unique opportunity for big game hunters to pursue elk in their home state at a relatively low cost.
For additional information about elk hunting and how to apply for an elk license check out this video. If you’re generally more interested in elk management, we have plenty of detailed information on our website.
Photos by Hal Korber.