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Elk Hunting in New Mexico

New Mexico has a reputation for offering some biggest elk trophies in North America, and has the third largest elk herd (about 80,000 animals). Non-resident hunters can get OTC tags through the landowner preference program or the guaranteed outfitters’ tags program. Chances of drawing a non-resident tag for a DIY hunt are low, given that only 6% of all tags are allowed for non-residents, and for the most popular areas such as the Valles Caldera natural reserve, even residents’ chances are slim. An outfitted hunt is therefore the way to go if you want to hunt elk in New Mexico, but the price for a prime time hunt with tag included may rise above $10,000.

The Valles Caldera, National Forests in Northern New Mexico and the highly acclaimed Gila of Southwestern New Mexico offer some good elk habitat for a public land hunter. Unit 34 has a great reputation, yet, even for this unit landowners tags may be available, and units 13, 15, 16a, 16b, 16d, 16e, and 17 are also in high esteem. The best time to hunt is the rut, that usually begins in September, and is mostly covered by the archery season. The first weeks of the rifle season, that begins about October 7, and the muzzleloader season, that falls between the archery and the rifle seasons, are also good, as you may still see some bugling activity.


A typical elk hunt takes place well out in the wilderness, and often implies living in a tent camp and riding horses in the true Western style. Trophy bulls are usually taken during the rut, when dominant bulls gather large harems of cows, and guard them against competing bulls. The best elk guides typically combine stalking with calling, using both bull bugle and cow calls to attract a dominant bulls. Cow hunts are usually a classic stalk. A hunter with archery or other short-range gear may also hunt elk from a ground or tree stand, usually over a waterhole.


The best time to hunt a trophy bull elk is during the rut, when the bulls challenge each other for dominance. The rut takes place in September and October in most areas, and this is usually considered the best time. Cold weather works better for elk hunting, because the bulls bugle more readily and the animals are more active in general, besides, it’s easier to preserve the valuable meat. However, archery seasons may start as early as mid-August, and in many places the season doesn’t end until December.

Tags, Licenses and Rules

Most elk tags are distributed by random draw. However, there are options to buy elk tags over the counter, including landowner’s tags. Many outfitters use these options, and if you haven’t been lucky with the draw, chances are you can still find an outfitted elk hunt with tags included. Some states set minimum limits to the number of points the bull must have before it can be legally harvested.


Depending on location and trip length, most cow elk hunts are in $1,000 – $2,000 range, and a 5-day trophy bull elk hunt will cost $5,000 and up. Note that some elk hunting trips are self-guided, where the outfitter only takes you out in the wilderness, sets camp, etc., while other offers do not include the tag.