More Difficult to Hunt: Deer or Elk?

Whether hunting elk or whitetail hunters will face their share of challenges. Whitetail hunting provides a pastime for many across the United States while harvesting a trophy elk represents a dream hunt. In this blog I will explain what makes each difficult and what makes one easier at times than the other. Thank you for reading.

Physically vs. Mentally Demanding

Western hunters often say, “I wish I could sit in a tree stand all day instead of hiking.” That may sound nice, but swaying back and forth 20 feet off the ground facing a north wind will leave any hunter wishing for 70 degree September weather. On the other hand, when I have hiked day after day over the same ridge while elk hunting, I start fantasizing about sitting in a stand only a few hundred yards from the road.

During the rut bucks can show up at any point. The hunt requires an immense amount of self discipline to remain alert throughout the day. On the other hand elk season puts greater demands on your body. The mountains inevitably wear hunters down. However, the fact elk bugle allows a hunter to slack off a bit when things are quiet. That’s not to say whitetail hunting doesn’t cause your back to feel like it was hit with a baseball bat or that elk hunters don’t have to stay focused when walking back to camp, but overall whitetail hunting requires more mental stamina while elk hunting demands more physically.

Snowboarding vs. Skiing

The classic quote when comparing skiing to snowboarding says, “Skiing is easier to learn but harder to master. During your first day on the slopes you’ll be able to move along fairly quickly and look halfway competent by the end of the day. Whitetail hunting resembles skiing. On your first few hunts you’ll probably see a few deer and maybe even harvest one. Sitting in a stand on ten evening will most likely lead to an opportunity to shoot a doe or possibly even a buck. Becoming a really good deer hunter takes a lot more scouting, planning and determination. There is a huge gap between a bowhunter that shoots a yearling and one that takes a trophy buck.

You’ll spend your first day on a snowboard tumbling down the hill. It’s more counterintuitive than skiing. But, once you learn the basics you can handle most terrain. Elk hunting also feels hopeless for the beginner, but once a hunter knows how to call elk, read the wind and pick the right week of the season it’s not hard to shoot a bull. Sometimes quality bulls will offer more opportunities than cows. Thus, elk hunting has a steeper learning curve. However, once a hunter obtains a basic understanding, their not far from harvesting quality bulls.

During The Rut

Hunters that find elk have a good chance at success. However, locating elk can feel impossible. That’s why the rut provides such a great opportunity. When a big bull gets fired up he loses his mind bugling. Hunters find themselves in a game of marco polo with a seven hundred pound animal. Whitetail also become more vulnerable during the rut, but a mature whitetail doesn’t go to such lengths to notify hunters. A mature whitetail buck will still check the wind and won’t leave a hot doe for a can call.

Elk hunters can get away with grinding it out. Even if an archer has a bull wind him, the cows will likely remain in the same valley and the bull will have to stay with the herd. When whitetail hunting the more time a hunter spends in their best stand the worse it gets. Each trip leaves a scent trail on the way in and out. Though a hunter may not spook the big buck, getting winded by smaller bucks and does will mean fewer deer in the area. Thus, during the rut elk provide a better opportunity than whitetail.

Outside the Rut

Hunters face an uphill battle when hunting outside the rut for either species. Mature whitetail bucks go mostly nocturnal, and old bulls hideout in dark timber at high elevation. Elk hunting prior to the rut feels like searching for a needle in a haystack. When whitetail hunting trail cam pictures can provide a glimmer of hope. As the weather gets cooler a hunter may notice a trophy buck becoming active just before sunset. Similarly, snow pushes bulls from their high country hideouts, but this normally won’t happen until after archery season. Thus, outside the rut, whitetail hunting gives hunters a better opportunity.


Elk and whitetail provide different challenges. For out-of-shape hunters elk hunting is brutal. As for those that can’t sit still or have not spent very much time hunting, a slow season in a tree stand will last an eternity. When the right unit and week has been chosen, elk hunting feels easy. Hunters can also get lucky with whitetail, but it’s far less likely. Whitetail offers more opportunity for some level of success, and it’s much easier to shoot a doe than a cow. But, a quality bull seems to come by more often than a quality buck. The comparison is a give and take. In the end the greater challenge depends on the hunter.


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