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Michigan Elk Hunting: How To Go On a True, Once-in-a-Lifetime Hunt in the Great Lakes State

Michigan Elk Hunting
Getty Images: TracieMichelle

A Michigan elk hunt is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

When it comes to elk hunting states, Michigan is not one that you hear about too often. For good reason. The elk herd is small and isolated to one area of the Lower Peninsula. Tags are extremely limited and your odds in the lottery system are not great for getting a Michigan elk hunting license quickly. The hunt is also open to residents only.

For those of us living the Great Lakes State though, an elk hunt in Northern Michigan is a rare opportunity for one of the cheapest hunts in North America for these majestic animals. And there are some truly giant bull elk waiting to be harvested here.

Today we are covering everything you need to know about the Michigan elk hunt, from license applications to where to go to find the bull of your dreams.

A brief history of Michigan elk.

Many people in the Midwest do not even realize Michigan holds a small yet thriving elk herd of approximately just under 1,000 animals depending on the year. Historically, the animals ranged throughout the state, but overhunting completely wiped them out by the late 1800s. Fortunately, in 1918, seven elk were re-introduced to Wolverine Michigan and by the mid-1960s, there were about a thousand roaming the forests of Northern Michigan.

That was also about the time the Michigan Department of Natural Resources decided a hunting season was needed to keep the elk population in check. Two hunts were held, in 1964 and 1965. Unfortunately, those hunts led to an increase in poaching and just proved to be too much for the herd all at once. The population dropped sharply, causing the DNR to end it after just two seasons. The DNR then came up with a new elk management plan in 1975 and hunts resumed in 1984.

This time, the plan was a success and Michigan has held an elk hunting season every year since with population management goals to keep elk numbers between 500 to 900 animals. However, going after elk is not quite as simple as Michigan's whitetail deer hunting. There are a few extra hoops to jump through, which we will cover in detail.

What are the odds of getting an elk tag in Michigan?

First off, we need to reiterate, the elk hunt in Michigan is open to residents only. With that out of the way, we will not lie. Your odds are not good. Michigan doles out only around 200 elk permits each year to a pool of over 30,000 to 40,000 applicants. Sometimes the number is even less than that. You may wonder: "Why even bother?" Well, an elk tag in Michigan is only $100. Oh, and the success rate in Michigan is around 70 to 80 percent in a typical year. Those are better success rate odds than some western elk havens.

Michigan uses a weighted lottery system to decide who gets an elk tag. Every year you apply for the hunt, you get an additional chance at being drawn. Or as the Michigan DNR's Elk Digest puts it:

"Imagine a chance as a piece of paper with your name written on it that's dropped into a hat with other names. A hand will reach into the hat and draw a name. If you have five chances, then five papers with your name will be added to the hat, increasing your chances of being drawn," the digest states.

Michigan only allows you to apply for one elk chance each year and the cost is $5. The options are to apply for "bull or antlerless" or "bull only." If drawn for bull only you will get an any-elk license valid for an antlered bull or antlerless. If you are drawn for "bull or antlerless," you may be issued either an any-elk license or an antlerless-only license.

Hunters also have the option of purchasing a "chance-only" which allows you to get credit for another year of applying even if you are not ready for an elk hunt just yet. Whatever application you choose, you should expect to have to wait a while before being drawn. Michigan even states on their website that being drawn in your lifetime is not guaranteed. It is not uncommon to hear stories of hunters applying for 15 to 20 years before finally being drawn. While it does happen, do not expect to be drawn the first time you enter.

One other thing we should mention. You should apply every season for chance-only at the very least. Because Michigan completely resets your chances to zero if you do not apply for five consecutive years. It would be a shame to have more than a decade of chances built up and then lose them. The application period is from May 1 to June 1 every year with results available by July 6. Keep in mind, that once you are drawn for an antlerless once, you cannot re-apply for chances or an elk tag for a period of ten years. If you are issued an any-elk license, you cannot apply ever again. Yep, it is a once-in-a-lifetime hunt. Better make it count!

There is another option for prospective elk hunters to win a chance at an elusive license. It involves applying for the "Pure Michigan Hunt." Every year, the DNR selects three winners to receive an elk, bear, antlerless deer, spring and fall turkey licenses, and a chance at a reserved waterfowl hunt. They also give away a prize package. Applications can be made online and are $5 each. There is no limit to the number of times you can apply. The good thing about trying to win this is that it does not affect your chances in the regular elk drawing in any way.

When is Michigan elk season?

Once drawn, the Michigan elk hunt works slightly different than the other seasons you may be used to. For one, each hunter is assigned an elk hunt period and elk management unit, neither of which can be changed. So, make sure you have the vacation time ready when your name is drawn. The two periods are as follows:

Hunt Period 1: August 31 - September 3, September 17-20, and October 1-4

Hunt Period 2: December 11-19

The DNR may also decide to hold a hunt period three in mid-January if the traditional season dates failed to meet the DNR's population management goals. The Michigan DNR sends an information packet with the hunt period you have been chosen for when they send your license. They also send maps of the areas that are open to hunting. These maps highlight all the public lands, which are mostly state forests where elk hunting is open. There is one hunt area that is closed for the September and October hunts because it is used as an elk viewing area for tourists.

The Michigan DNR also requires hunters to carefully review the hunting regulations and go through an mandatory online "elk orientation" video on the basics of elk biology, bovine tuberculosis surveillance, and how to register your harvest after the hunt. They take this herd very seriously, as should you. The elk are an extremely limited resource in the state after all.

Michigan's elk hunt areas span parts of Crawford, Oscoda, Alpena, Montmorency, Otsego, Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, Cheboygan, and Presque Isle counties. Most of the hunting is done in and around the Gaylord, Atlanta, and Vanderbilt areas, which have prime spots for hunters looking for a bull with big antlers.

Should I hire a guide for my elk hunt?

While you can go the DIY route on your elk hunt, most people find success when they hire a guide. Most charge anywhere from $500 to $2,500 to guide during your selected hunt period. The DNR maintains a list of guides and phone numbers on Michigan.gov who specialize in elk. However, we recommend asking around a bit and trying to get reviews from people who have used the guide's services in the past. Some of them are going to be better at scouting, locating, and predicting elk movements than others.

One benefit to hiring a guide is many will usually offer up more hunting opportunities than you would get trying to bag an elk yourself on state land. Some guides may have exclusive access to private grounds. That can make the difference between a stuffed freezer and an unfilled elk tag and a lifetime of regret.

Michigan is one of the most difficult states to draw an elk tag. However, it is also incredibly rewarding to harvest a big bull in state few hunters get the chance to pursue them in. At the very least it is the type of hunt every resident should experience at least once in their lives. 

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Michigan Elk Hunting: How To Go On a True, Once-in-a-Lifetime Hunt in the Great Lakes State