Elk Hunting in Kentucky: A Guide
Kentucky is one of the few states in the eastern U.S. that offers elk hunting opportunities, thanks to a successful restoration program that began in 1997. Today, Kentucky has more than 10,000 elk in its herd, making it the largest elk population east of the Mississippi River¹. Elk hunting in Kentucky is a challenging and rewarding experience that attracts thousands of hunters every year. Here are some things you need to know before you plan your elk hunt in Kentucky.
How to get an elk permit
To hunt elk in Kentucky, you need a valid hunting license and an elk permit. There are two ways to get an elk permit: through a drawing or through a landowner program¹.
The most common way to get an elk permit is through a drawing conducted by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR)¹. The drawing is open to both residents and non-residents of Kentucky, and there is no preference point system, so everyone has an equal chance of being selected. The application period runs from January 1 to April 30 each year, and you can apply online or at any vendor that sells Kentucky hunting and fishing licenses¹. The application fee is $10 per hunt type, and you can apply for up to four hunt types: bull firearm, cow firearm, either-sex archery/crossbow, and youth¹. The results of the drawing are announced in May.
For the 2023 elk hunting season, there are 594 permits available through the drawing: 150 bull firearm, 244 cow firearm, 175 either-sex archery/crossbow, and 25 youth permits¹. The odds of getting drawn vary depending on the hunt type and the number of applicants. For example, in 2022, there were 79,768 applicants for 594 permits, and the overall odds of getting drawn were 0.74%². The odds for each hunt type were:
- Bull firearm: 0.23% (17,696 applicants for 150 permits)
- Cow firearm: 0.46% (29,948 applicants for 244 permits)
- Either-sex archery/crossbow: 0.37% (26,472 applicants for 175 permits)
- Youth: 4.04% (5,652 applicants for 25 permits)
If you are drawn for an elk permit, you must pay a permit fee of $30 for residents or $400 for non-residents by July 31¹. You must also complete an online orientation course before hunting¹. If you fail to pay the permit fee or complete the orientation course by the deadline, your permit will be forfeited.
Another way to get an elk permit is through a landowner program offered by KDFWR. There are three types of landowner programs: landowner-cooperator, voucher-cooperator, and elk restoration¹.
- Landowner-cooperator: This program rewards landowners who allow public hunting on their property by giving them transferrable either-sex elk permits. The landowners must enroll at least 5,000 acres of their property into the program and agree to follow certain rules and regulations. KDFWR issues one permit for every 5,000 acres enrolled. These permits can only be used on the enrolled property or any adjacent private property with written permission¹.
- Voucher-cooperator: This program allows landowners who have at least 100 acres of property to obtain an elk permit by providing hunting access to general quota hunters. The landowners determine the amount and timing of access for elk hunting and are assigned hunters through an online drawing. The landowners receive one point for each elk harvested from their property and are awarded a transferrable either-sex permit after accruing 10 points. These permits can be used on any property owned or leased by the landowner¹.
- Elk restoration: This program allows landowners who do not wish to allow hunting access on their property or who do not meet the acreage requirements of the other programs to obtain an elk permit by cooperating with KDFWR’s elk trapping and relocation efforts. The landowners receive one point for each elk trapped from their property for a restoration project and are awarded a transferrable either-sex permit after accruing 10 points¹.
When and where to hunt
The elk hunting season in Kentucky varies depending on the hunt type and the elk hunting unit. The general season dates for the 2023 elk hunting season are¹:
- Bull (antlered) firearm: Week 1: Sept. 30 – Oct. 4, Week 2: Oct. 7 – 11
- Cow (antlerless) firearm: Week 1: Nov. 25 – 29, Week 2: Dec. 30 – Jan. 3
- Either sex archery/crossbow: Week 1: Sept. 9 – 22, Week 2: Dec. 2 – 8
- Youth: All seasons as noted above
The elk hunting units are six areas within the 16-county elk zone that have different quotas and regulations to prevent overharvest of elk on public lands¹. The six units are:
- Unit A: Breathitt, Knott, Leslie and Perry counties
- Unit B: Floyd, Magoffin and Pike counties
- Unit C: Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox and Leslie counties
- Unit D: Letcher County
- Unit E: Martin and Johnson counties
- Unit F: Knott and Pike counties
You can find more information about each unit, including maps, harvest statistics and public access areas, on KDFWR’s website¹. You can also use their interactive map to find a place to hunt, fish or hike¹.
How to hunt elk
Hunting elk in Kentucky is not easy, but it can be very rewarding if you do your homework and prepare well. Here are some tips to help you have a successful elk hunt in Kentucky:
- Scout the area before the hunt. Use maps, aerial photos, trail cameras and field observations to locate elk sign, food sources, water sources, bedding areas and travel routes. Talk to local landowners, hunters and guides for more information.
- Choose the right equipment for your hunt type and terrain. You can use a modern rifle of .270 caliber or larger, a muzzle-loading rifle of .50 caliber or larger, a shotgun of 20-gauge or larger firing a single projectile, a handgun of .270 caliber or larger with a case length of 1.285 inches or larger, or a crossbow or archery equipment with a broadhead of at least 7/8 inch wide¹. Make sure your weapon is sighted in and you practice shooting from different distances and angles.
- Wear appropriate clothing and gear for the weather and terrain. Dress in layers that can keep you warm, dry and comfortable. Wear hunter orange during firearm seasons as required by law¹. Bring a backpack with essentials such as water, food, first aid kit, knife, flashlight, compass or GPS, binoculars or spotting scope, rangefinder, calls and scents.
- Plan your hunt strategy according to the season and the elk behavior. In early September, bulls may be bugling and looking for cows during the rut. You can use calls and scents to attract them or stalk them carefully. In late September and October, bulls may be more wary and less vocal after the peak of the rut. You may need to glass more and cover more ground to find them. In November and December, elk may be more active during the day as they feed to prepare for winter. You can ambush them near food sources or follow their tracks in fresh snow.
- Be patient and persistent. Elk are elusive animals that can cover long distances quickly. You may need to hunt for several days before you see or hear one. Don’t give up if you don’t find elk right away. Keep looking for fresh sign and moving to different locations until you locate them.
- Be respectful and ethical. Follow all the rules and regulations for elk hunting in Kentucky¹. Respect the landowners’ rights and ask for permission before hunting on private property. Respect other hunters’ rights and don’t interfere with their hunts. Respect the elk’s rights and only take a shot when you are confident of a clean kill. Respect the meat’s rights and field dress it as soon as possible to prevent spoilage.
Current Kentucky Elk Hunting Records
The current Kentucky record elk is a non-typical bull elk that was harvested by David Giles in Knott County on Oct. 3, 2022. The elk had an astounding green score of 408 and 3/8 inches gross and a final score of 377 5/8 inches after a 60-day drying period. Giles beat the previous state record for a non-typical elk, which was 372 6/8 inches taken by Terrell Royalty in 2009. The current Kentucky record for a typical elk is a bull elk that was harvested by John Pflanz in Knott County on Sept. 10, 2022. The elk measured at 350 4/8 inches after a 60-day drying period and is also the new Kentucky archery record for a typical elk.
Why hunt elk in Kentucky
Hunting elk in Kentucky is a unique opportunity that few hunters get to experience in the eastern U.S. Elk are majestic animals that offer a thrilling challenge and a delicious reward. Hunting elk in Kentucky also helps support the conservation and management of this valuable wildlife resource that was once extirpated from the state¹. By hunting elk in Kentucky, you are contributing
Elk Hunting – Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife. https://fw.ky.gov/Hunt/Pages/Elk-Hunting-Regs.aspx.
Season Dates | KDFWR – Kentucky. https://app.fw.ky.gov/seasondates/.
Kentucky announces elk permit drawing and dates for 2022 hunting season …. https://wchstv.com/news/local/kentucky-announces-elk-permit-drawing-and-dates-for-2022-hunting-season.
Elk Hunting In Kentucky – Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife. https://fw.ky.gov/Hunt/Pages/ElkHuntingInKentucky.aspx.
Elk Hunting – Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife. https://fw.ky.gov/Hunt/Pages/Elk-Hunting-Regs.aspx