Montana Region By Region Hunt Strategy for Deer and Elk
By Dan Pickar
Region 1 comprises the northwest part of the state from the Canadian border south to Missoula and the Flathead Indian Reservation. Elk and deer numbers have been on the decline in most 100 districts largely due to the number of predators. DIY hunting is the most difficult here compared to any other part of the state. Sparse elk populations can be found in all three forks of the Flathead River drainage and headwaters. The Cabinet mountains, Swan Valley and the Bob Marshall Wilderness all hold elk. Perhaps your best bet to harvest an elk in Region 1 is with an outfitter in “the Bob”. These are not trophy hunts as most hunters are looking to just kill a bull but it seems like someone takes a 350 bull every year. Lots of wolves and grizzlies reside in the Bob but the wolves have been hunted hard the past several years so your main foe is the grizzly bear.
The DIY hunting will be a struggle for the first timer on public land in this region. Plan on hiking and more hiking. Find areas above treeline during archery season, glass what you can and chase bugles if possible. This is thick country so glassing isn’t always effective. Be prepared to beat the brush and struggle.
The Flathead River drainages have a lot of alder, mountain maple and other brush that makes navigation difficult. Stick to old logging roads, logging units and ridgelines if you plan on traveling or south and west facing slopes where brush may be a little more sparse. Logging units are often the best feed in really thick country so always check them, especially during rifle season. The Bob Marshall Wilderness portion of the Flathead River system is the best elk habitat.
The Cabinet Mountain area and the far northwest portion of Region 1 is similar to the Flathead River system with plenty of public access and not many animals. Lots of alder, devils club, ferns, and brush that make traveling extremely difficult. Stick to trails and logging roads. Check the burns and alpine during archery season or early in rifle on a year that doesn’t have snow.
The Clark Fork River system offers a little better elk country and there are better numbers in the regions than further north. Logging units are common, as are burned areas, which provide the best elk habitat. There are a high density of predators here as well but the habitat is a little better overall than most of Region 1.
The mule deer in Region 1 are also struggling. High predator numbers and habitat loss are the main factors. Mule deer are browsers so they do best in burns and on south facing slopes where there is decent forage. The Swan Range, Whitefish Range and Mission Range all have mule deer above treeline if you can find suitable habitat. Slides and brushy ridges are the best areas but also concentrate around the burns. Most of Region 1 is general deer except the Mission Range which is by permit only. Finding a 160” type buck is expected but it seems like it’s getting more and more rare to find a mule deer over 180” in Region 1.
Whitetail hunting has also declined tremendously over the last 20 years as well. “The Swan” used to be world famous for the whitetail bucks it would produce but it just doesn’t have the deer it used to. Over-hunting and predators are the suspect here as the best whitetail habitat is down low in logging units. This doesn’t mean you won’t find a buck to shoot on public land but the quality of hunting is just way down.
Region 2 is the west-central part of the state. Idaho to Missoula over to Deer Lodge and nearly all the way to Helena and southerly bordering the Pintler Mountains. This region has many different types of elk habitat. There is a lot of wilderness area, burned area, agricultural and even some alpine in region 2. During my decade of hunting this region in the 2000s I found elk numbers to be spotty on public land. Deeper in the backcountry isn’t necessarily better either.
The elk move a lot in most of the region 2 units based on weather and hunting pressure. Early in the season they are in their summer ranges but once the rut hits the bulls move down and find the cow herds. A lot of times this is mid-elevation country or even low country on private land. The Bitterroot area has a recovering elk population and numbers have declined a fair amount along the Idaho border. This is mostly because of wolves but the good news is populations have stabilized the past five years or so and the elk are doing a bit better on public land. The Bitterroot Valley has always been a sanctuary for elk because of all the private land. You will find bulls on public early in the season but they quickly move down lower to the cows and onto private as soon as the rut hits and hunter pressure kicks up. There is a lot of burned country in the southern portion of the Bitteroots and Sapphires so there will always be elk down there but the majority of hunter pressure is down there too.
Farther east to the John Long Range, Flint Creek Range and the Boulder Mountains you will find spotty elk hunting but where you do find the elk it is usually good and the herds are big. Private property can be an issue here but there is enough public to keep you busy. There’s a little bit of everything here when it comes to habitat. Burns, brush holes and plenty of ground cover. Some of the best elk habitat is down low on private land so once again you’re going to have to play the private land game or stick to the burn areas as a place to start looking for elk.
Trophy quality is lacking here and a solid 6×6 bull would be considered a trophy, most hunters are happy with harvesting any legal bull and a decent 5×5 is something to realistically strive for. Everyone once in a while a bull over 320 pops up on the success harvest boards but I consider that a rarity.
Mule deer are doing okay here. There are a fair amount of permit areas although most of them are easy to acquire except for the permits in the Bitterroot. These are the most coveted areas in the state. Region 2 has better habitat for mule deer than Region 1 as a whole as there is more open country with browse and graze combined. Once again, focus above treeline in the thick high country and everywhere in between the ag fields and mid country as well. Area 270, 261 and 250 are the best areas in Region 2. Drawing area 270 is like drawing a sheep tag and 180” seems to be the magic number that everyone wants. I have heard of 180s being killed off the road in the past but quality has slipped. The quality of deer on public land has declined in the past decade in both 261 and 270 and it seems the best and biggest bucks are now harvested in the fields down low or by town. 250 has good public land hunting and this unit was actually recently reopened about four years ago after being closed for 10. The wolves were so thick in this country that deer and elk numbers fell below management objectives. They are killing nice 4x4s in this area now. The best whitetails are found on the river bottoms and in the logging units. It still isn’t what it used to be but if you’re willing to spend the time out there and get access on private or religiously walk logging roads you’re going to eventually run into a whitetail, cruising for does, during the month of November.
A lot of folks consider Region 3 the heart of elk country in western Montana. There is a ton of country here that stretches from Idaho to Bozeman and north to Helena. The western part of Region 3 isn’t what it used to be for elk hunting but there are enough elk here to keep things interesting and hunters chasing elk. Hunter pressure is high here and there aren’t really any secrets any more. There are burns, brush holes and steep mountains and basins in this portion of the Pioneers and Big Hole but you will still have to rely on rutting elk to hunt them effectively. There is just not enough open country to glass here and be effective early in the season. Later during rifle season, elk will move down lower and hit some of the bigger parks and agriculture depending on snowfall and hunter pressure.
Farther east to Dillon and Ennis and south to Idaho is all classic elk country with burns, wide open parks and plenty of private land where elk reside. There is still plenty of public land with great elk hunting here as this is where most general tag hunters end up hunting for elk. There is plenty of open country to glass so I recommend bringing some good optics and you’re not only going to have to outsmart highly pressured elk but many many other hunters as well. There are plenty of grizzly bears in the eastern portion of Region 3 but plenty of elk too, so hunting elk in the Madison Valley drainages comes with the challenge of dodging grizzly bears. There is seemingly someone attacked every year in this portion of Region 3 while elk hunting.
North to Whitehall and Helena you have the Tobacco Root and Boulder Mountains that both have decent elk numbers on public, this is a little bit thicker country but it’s classic elk habitat with pines and open parks and plenty of sagebrush. The Elkhorn Mountains are still the most coveted tag in the state (380) and for good reason. There are plenty of bulls here as it is very limited but the time to kill a monster is not during the peak of the rut. After some hunter pressure and the rut kicks in, a lot of the biggest bulls end up down lower on private with the cows. They do also have a general spike season during the archery season, which I find very annoying, dealing with all that unnecessary pressure. The bottom line is if you have the time, this tag is still worth it but I know of a lot of folks in recent years that have ended up killing bulls with their rifles later in November.
The Big Belt Mountains are east of Helena and stretch south into the foothills of the Bridger Range and down to Bozeman. This area is classic elk country but gets a lot of pressure so if you do end up wanting to hunt this region I recommend going with an outfitter. There are plenty to choose from.
From Bozeman south to the Gallatin Range and east to the Absaroka Range is some rugged country. Plenty of public and hunting pressure. Hunting has declined here greatly because of hunter pressure and predators over the past decade. The potential for a big bull is out there but any 6×6 is strong work. Elk numbers are spotty in most of this zone on public land and are not consistent because of hunter pressure. Grizzly bears are thick here so be careful but hunter conflict doesn’t seem as bad as the Madison Valley over the years. Better tempered grizzlies here for some reason? I consider Paradise Valley to be a struggle on public land as most of the elk reside on private property and it’s easy to find yourself hunting private borders because of this. There are plenty of outfitters in the valley and success rates are usually pretty darn good. I spent a lot of time in Paradise Valley hunting and guiding and the deeper you go into the backcountry, the fewer elk there are. Elk live closer to the hay fields on private and the cows even calve in the hay fields by the highway. It’s probably safer right next to the road than up in the hills with all the predators. Grizzly bears, wolves, and lions are very thick in the valley and are always something to contend with.
Deer here are marginal. Most of the areas are general in Region 3 minus special draw in area 300 along the Idaho border and area 312 which is the West Bridger Mountains. Both these areas have declined and just don’t produce the bucks that they used to. I know several hunters that have scoured both of these tags and came up with 160” bucks. Not what I would be satisfied with given how hard these tags are to draw. The rest of Region 3 just has bucks. Nothing special here is the norm but every once in a while you’ll find something bigger. You’re going to find better bucks in the ag fields and of course this is going to be mostly all private property. Whitetails are another opportunity here as well that are pretty thick on the river bottoms and private property access is going to be your best option once again. The Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison all hold deer but the public land that is available is overrun with hunters so it is flat out difficult to find anything of size any more.
Region 4 may be the most diverse in the state in terms of topography and land ownership. White Sulfur Springs is along the southern border which runs north into the Little Belt Mountains to the Canadian border. It runs all the way to the east through the Highwood Mountains into the Breaks and south to Lewiston and the Snowy Mountains. Such a giant expanse! There is a lot of great elk hunting habitat in the region from wide open, rolling, sweet grass hills to the south side of the Missouri River Breaks and everything in between. There is a lot of private land in Region 4 but plenty of public as well.
Area 410 is the highlight of region 4 which has ample archery only licenses and a very limited rifle hunt. This is the exact recipe needed for great hunting during archery season. Very limited rifle hunting in a large expanse with an above objective elk population means a lot of bulls are going to make it through to the next year. That is why there is potential to harvest a 350+ bull in this area every year. Master vantage points and a quality spotting scope are the key for hunting the breaks. If you are patient and are handy with maps and glass diligently in the mornings and the evenings, you will have good success here.
Up in the far north along the Canadian border you have the sweet grass hill of area 401. It’s mostly private property up here but there is also a lot of block management and state land that have plenty of opportunity for deer and elk. It is mostly open country besides the mountains themselves so a spotting scope is your best friend.
A lot of Region 4 also makes up the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains. These are very rugged and have access to the wilderness and state land down on the lowlands. There are a lot of predators in this region to deal with but there can be some spotty, quality hunting found in the backcountry. The Sun River Game Preserve is also in this area and holds a good quantity of elk and deer but isn’t huntable. 441 has a great late season deer tag that is pretty coveted, for good reason. On a good snow year this hunt can produce some giant bucks, some that have hit the 200” mark. The Boone and Crockett Ranch lies west of Dupuyer in area 441 and they allow access at certain times of the season. Grizzly bears run rampant here with reports of 17 spotted on one hillside at one time.
The southern portion of Region 4 consists of the Little Belt and Big Snowy Mountains. Both hold plenty of deer and elk but private land is the contender in the Snowys. Most of these deer and elk end up down low on private by the middle of archery season. You can play the border game with onX Hunt during rifle season but it’s all timing on whether or not you catch big game on public or not. The Little Belts provide better access to deer and elk, are more vast and are a better country to hunt. There’s a good mix of open and thick timber country in the Little Belts as well as some burns. Be prepared to cover country and be good with a bugle to get it done here. The largest hurdle may be hunter pressure but hey, it’s public land, go out and enjoy it.
The Highwood Mountains are the last mountain range I want to touch on which lay in area 447. These have the appearance of classic elk country with everything from aspen slopes, open parks, rocky and brushy peaks to thick Douglas Fir covered ridges and river bottoms down low. There is a good amount of elk here but once again, the public land is more mountainous so by the middle of September, most elk are down on private land because of hunter pressure and because that’s where the cow elk live. Timing is everything in this area if you want to catch a good buck or bull on public land. It’s hard to predict and some years are better than others.
Region 4 is good for deer mostly because of the quality habitat and vastness of the region. Concentrate down low on state sections and utilize block management. This all gets plenty of hunting pressure but if you can find some private property that has a big deer herd, focusing on any adjacent public land is going to produce a buck during the rut. Bucks are moving all the time in November and can cover large distances searching for does so this is the general tag holder’s biggest advantage during Montana’s season.
This is one of the smaller regions in the state for deer and elk which consists of the Absaroka Mountains north past the Crazy Mountains and up to the south side of the Big Snowys. Most of the best elk hunting here is on private land, besides some of the smaller state sections that are scattered and can have good hunting at times. The largest portion of good hunting is the Absaroka front which is all National Forest with some large tracts of BLM and state. The rifle hunting in 520 is permit only and pretty limited to boot. The Absarokas aren’t known for giant bulls but tag allocations are pretty low for the size of the area. This goes for cows too. There’s only a couple dozen cow permits for the southeast half of the district. Area 560 is general and has some good deer and elk hunting but I wouldn’t say it stands out compared to the rest of the state. The burn areas are good places to start but it seems like most of the elk end up on private by rifle season.
The same goes for area 580 on the eastern front of the Crazies. By mid-September, the elk are down on private or running the border where the cows are, so if you want to find good hunting here, lining up an outfitter is your best bet. There can be some big bulls here but the deer just don’t grow that big for some reason. To the east are 530 and 590 which are mostly private units with good public pieces to hunt scattered throughout the unit. It’s hard to plan a public land hunt here because the public pieces can have deer and elk one week and be completely void of game the next. There are some block management opportunities here but expect the hunting to be spotty and marginal because these areas get all the pressure. The mule deer here rarely get bigger than 160” and a 140” buck is about what you can expect. The Wilkes Ranch lies in the foothills and flats of 530 which is where the vast majority of the elk live and are completely untouchable as they only allow some youth cow elk hunting. All hunting is done by permit only out here. The deer hunting is the same, it’s permit only but the quality lacks overall, with the best being on private. The public gets plenty of pressure and I would say that a 160” buck is a real nice trophy for the area. 590 is the Bull Mountains and has some big bulls but you better line up some private land or go with an outfitter. Most of the animals live on private land, but if you can line something up with a landowner, you could have a chance to find a monster.
Region 6 is basically all of northeast Montana north of the Missouri River and Fort Peck Lake. From Havre to Glasgow is where the majority of the elk live and it is a permit area. The Bear’s Paw tag is area 690 which has some big bulls around but most of the best hunting is on private. The elk are very nomadic in this area so the hunting can be very inconsistent. This mostly has to do with feed and weather as drought can really make for a late rut. The most vast chunks of public are to the east through area 621, 622, 631 and 632. There is a lot of CMR and BLM here where elk can live and hunting is good if you can walk and have a good spotting scope. It seems the bulls aren’t as big on the north side just based on the fact I rarely see anything over 350 coming out of these units. Solid six points are plentiful and the hunting is by special permit only. The Missouri River and Fort Peck Lake are easily navigable and a boat can be used for a different style of hunting that can be very fun. However, you’re going to want a jet boat. The deer in the breaks are doing well, on both sides of the river for that matter, but big deer are few and far between. Lots of hunters on lots of public land with the season running all of November makes it tough for bucks to get any age on them. It is a deer factory though, so any 4×4 is a shooter and anything over three years old is pretty rare.
Area 652 is the lone deer permit area in the drawing and I’ve heard some mixed reports from hunters here. It’s limited hunting and there are a lot of bucks but it’s hard to find that next level mature deer that pushes 180”. Maybe it’s the “too many fish in the lake and none grow big effect” or it just had a dry year. I do know there is potential to have a fun hunt there but finding a whopper is difficult. But heck, it’s difficult to find a huge buck anywhere, I don’t care what tag you have!
The farther north you go in region 6, the fewer elk you’ll find and more deer you’ll get. There aren’t many, if any elk, east of Fort Peck, or none harvested anyway. There is a lot of public land scattered all the way north to the Canadian border and as the country gets more vast, the hunter pressure lessens and chances of finding a big buck increase. You’ll still have to play the border game here with onX but if you spend a week of solid hunting and have a good spotting scope, you can turn up a 160” mule deer. Not huge but very nice and that’s all you can ask for on a general tag on public land in Montana.
This emcompasses the southeast portion of the state with Miles City being the epicenter. There is a lot of country here, most of it being open, rolly hills and coulees, with pine stands. Lots of sagebrush and gumbo out here too. This is all great country with a lot of private land and a fair amount of public with plenty of block management available as well. The elk here are thriving and it’s really been growing some big bulls the past 10 years. Bulls have the perfect conditions to grow to be giant. Easy winters, plenty of feed, no predators, and lots of private land to find security on. The elk grow big here and their body sizes are incredible. Rumor has it that the elk were let out of a high fence game farm in the Colstrip area 30 years ago when elk farms became highly regulated. The owner opened his gates and let them out. I also heard that those elk were from British Columbia so that’s where the monstrous bodies come from. Once again this is just a rumor, not fact.
To be successful on a giant bull in the Custer National Forest of southeast Montana you’re going to need private access in the best areas or get super lucky and catch a bull on public land. It’s difficult but guys get it done every year. These elk come and go off public and travel great distances from feeding to bedding areas. The deck really gets shuffled during the rut as bulls travel to find cows. Time is necessary here, allow at least seven days to hunt and just be out there glassing and covering as much of the country as possible. There is enough public land here to have a quality hunt but make sure you have onX as well as there are plenty of borders and boundaries to contend with. Later in September is ideal here, as the elk rut a little later here and movement really picks up once the first few cows start coming into estrus.
To the north you have area 700 which runs along the south border of Fort Peck. There are good numbers of elk here and a couple hundred are harvested in this area every year. It’s very open country but still has plenty of topography. Be prepared to cover a ton of ground and glass, glass, glass to find a good bull. Same goes for deer here. It’s general here and a lot of searching can lead to finding a 160” buck. I know a lot of guys hunt this stretch via boat from the lake which makes for a good way to cover country with your glass and really sort through the deer and elk.
The Custer is doing well for deer and has been a mule deer factory the past five years. Fawn survival has been high and there’s enough private property here that it keeps a lot of deer safe and they can grow up to something impressive. The rut is the time to be here as the general season is all of November and the bucks are cruising. There have been some 180” plus bucks killed in this region and covering country, using your glass is your best friend. Better yet, gain some access to private or book with an outfitter who has private hunting. This is where you’re going to find the largest bucks.