In the state of Colorado, elk season means gearing up to hunt in some of the most pristine environments in the United States. In 2017, over 38,000 elk were harvested  by means of all manner of weapons. One thing they were all focused on was the elk kill zone.
Whether you’re hunting out of Colorado or some other region in the United States, the elk kill zone is one of the most important things to study in your preparation for the hunt. It may feel like second nature to hit the center of mass of a large animal like an elk, but it never hurts to be prepared.
In this article we will focus on providing the most practical advice on the elk kill zone and providing instructions on how to make sure you don’t mess up at the last minute.
Elk Kill Zone
While text can do a lot, in the context of understanding the elk kill zone, there is nothing better than pictures.
From a fully broadside shot, you can see in this picture where the vital organs are and what you’ll be aiming for:
A better way to focus on the elk shot placement comes from a picture that is centered just above the shoulder of the animal:
One final picture depicts where you would aim on an animal that is facing you. While this is generally not regarded as your best (or even a “good”) shot, with the size of an elk it is a bit easier to make this successfully than a deer. This is still not an advisable or recommended shot:
Elk Kill Zone: How to Practice
Visually understanding where to shoot an elk is only a small portion of the battle. Practicing with either a rifle or compound bow is going to require a bit of finesse in order to pull off the clean, moral kill that you are going for on the elk hunt.
Knowing where to aim on an elk is only part of the equation to develop a solid shot. As you can see from the above section, knowing where to shoot is not the same thing as getting an accurate shot dead on.
Practicing with your weapon is what must come next and that is no trivial task. Why?…
Consider that my elk hunt in only 4 months time is going to include traversing parts of the Rocky mountains at an altitude of 6,200 – 9,200 feet… and in Austin, Texas I live at 489!
That’s a huge altitude change and one my body needs to be prepared for before I even step into that environment. If I practice a challenging shot with no distractions or hardships, being in the field and having the typical hunting struggles is going to cause distress and ultimately a poor shot.
The ideal situation is to be as prepared for all aspects of the environment and shot that can possibly be made. If that means going early to an elk hunting area in order to practice at that altitude and in that terrain, so be it.
Also consider how much gear you will have when on an elk hunt. There is a good chance you will be wearing bulky, warm weather clothing, which is another layer of complexity that you must be prepared for. This is particularly true when compound bowhunting, but useful for everyone to consider.
Range Estimates on Elk
A great contributor to missed elk shots is poor ability to range on the fly. Sometimes in elk hunting situations, getting out a rangefinder and preparing the distance before a shot is not possible. When it is possible, do so as it will give an accuracy that cannot be beat.
However, when range estimates aren’t available, it requires some manual work. The biggest problem is, if you don’t have the range right, it doesn’t matter where your scope or archery pins are pointed: it’s going to be off target.
To hit the elk kill zone reliably, it’s important to have an idea of range. Sometimes this means simply taking the time to practice consistently and track shots. Practice makes perfect and the human brain will adapt to rangefinding when it has the capability to do so.
If you have the time to check on a rangefinder, even better. This is predominantly useful for rifle hunters because they have the time and distance to make that call. Bow hunters have less capabilities in that department, but it’s worth getting one to prepare.
Knowing the Elk’s Terrain
As mentioned earlier, the elk’s terrain is nothing to be trifled with. The altitude of the Rocky mountains can be up to 15 times the altitude of where hunters live (it is for me!), which means not only preparing for their level of oxygen in the air, but also the mountainous and treacherous terrain.
Getting a good shot on the elk kill zone will require a lot of physical exertion beforehand. It will mean taking a lot of time and energy up and down mountains, hills, and all of a rocky nature that makes it easy to roll an ankle.
Prepare for the terrain on elk up to 10 or more miles per day simply to get the body used to that kind of movement.
Common Elk Kill Zone Mistakes
The biggest mistakes with missing the elk kill zone are already discussed, but worth repeating:
- Not practicing enough
- Not having practice in adequately challenging conditions
- Not being physically prepared
- Not having rangefinding abilities (either inherently or via tools)
This is in addition to all the standard mistakes that hunters make, such as lacking patience, making noise, or generally fumbling around.
There is plenty of challenge that comes with elk hunting even in the best of times. It’s best to prepare yourself as adequately as possible for everything to come so as to get the accurate elk shot placement, kill the animal cleanly, and harvest as desired.
NOTE: If you are looking for guided elk hunts because you are new, we recommend it because finding and killing an elk is NOT easy.
Also, my partner is a doula in Austin and has reminded me to remind hunters to be mindful of a pregnant and expecting mother during an extended hunting season. A doula is a birth coach and if you plan to be gone for an extended period (even after childbirth) a post partum doula may be of support.