Everyday Outdoors — Elk in the East

Elk in the East

The young man behind the rifle shivered just a little from the combination of excitement and the cool early morning October air. His Dad had sent out one challenging bugle, imitating a bull elk, and was now calling to a herd of cow elk that were just around the ridge in the meadow below them. Judging by their calls, the cows were coming. That was exciting enough, but along with the cows the hunters knew that there was likely a bull elk — a really big bull elk that they had located the evening before. As the cows filtered into the meadow, the big herd bull rushed forward to protect his cows from the “bull” he had heard. The young hunter put the bull down cleanly with one well-placed shot.

Austin with his bull. Photo by Wade Shambaugh

It was an epic hunt, from locating a huge bull the evening before the hunt, to getting in the perfect position in the morning, to a fantastic job of calling the herd of cows and the bull, to a young hunter making a perfect shot. But what may be even more amazing about this hunt in October 2022 was the location. This hunt didn’t take place in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, or any place that most of us normally associate with elk hunting. This hunt took place in Virginia!

Until fairly recently, there hadn’t been any wild elk in Virginia for a long time. The last known elk in Virginia was reportedly killed in 1885. There is limited information about some attempts at reintroduction in the early to mid 1900’s, but these attempts were not successful. Then, in 2012, the State of Virginia received about 75 head of elk from neighboring Kentucky, where they had been successfully reintroduced.

Virginia now has over 250 head of elk living and reproducing in a three-county “Elk Zone.” There were six tags available for a controlled hunt in October 2022. Five of those tags were available by lottery through Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). The sixth tag, which was offered through a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation fundraising raffle, was the one that made the hunt described above possible for 15-year-old hunter Austin Prieskorn and his Dad, Bo.

Elk herd in Virginia. Photo by Wade Shambaugh

In mid-August 2022, I saw in a social media post that my buddy Bo Prieskorn had won a raffle for a tag for Virginia’s inaugural elk hunt. Bo is a former guide and outfitter and world-class wildlife photographer, and I’ve hunted with him many times in New Mexico and Colorado. I have to admit, I immediately hoped he would invite me to participate. What I hadn’t noticed was that he already had! He had sent me a text as soon as he found out that he had won the hunt. I just hadn’t checked my phone.

After sorting out that Virginia would allow Bo to transfer the tag to his son, Austin, we quickly planned a scouting and photography trip to Virginia.

In September, Bo and I met in Grundy, Virginia, and were shown around by Virginia DWR personnel and local supporters of the program. Austin couldn’t make the scouting trip, because of school. We were able to learn our way around and locate several great bulls, including one huge old bull that would likely score over 450 inches. To put that in perspective, a score of 300 inches or more is considered a trophy elk in most places. We were feeling confident to return in October for Austin’s hunt.

Old bull protecting his cows. Photo by Wade Shambaugh

When we arrived for the hunt in October, the big bull that we were most interested in had been badly beaten up by other bulls while fighting to keep his herd of cows, and had disappeared. We also weren’t going to be able to hunt the area where we had seen and photographed him for a few days, due to other hunters being assigned there. So we immediately met with land owners and stepped up scouting in other areas, resulting in the hunt described at the beginning of this piece. Austin’s bull, which is the current Virginia state record, is an incredible 8×9 point which scores 413 7/8” after deductions, and weighed an amazing 852 pounds!

Austin’s bull, evening before the hunt. Photo by Wade Shambaugh

There are now elk herds in multiple Eastern states, with limited hunting in some. My home state of West Virginia reportedly now has about 85 head. Virginia has at least 250. Pennsylvania is estimated at around 1,400. The real shocker to me is that Kentucky is home to over 10,000 head.

The application for this year’s hunt (2023) in Virginia runs from February 1 through March 30. The application period for Kentucky is from January 1 through April 30. The application period for Pennsylvania hunts is from February 1 to July 16. There is usually a small non-refundable fee (typically $10-$20) to apply for a tag, then a fee of $400 or more to purchase the tag if you draw. Even in the states that don’t yet have a huntable population, there may be viewing and photography opportunities.

For information about these hunts, as well as other Eastern states with elk herds and/or elk hunts, check the appropriate state’s Fish and Game or Department of Natural Resources website.

Elk have been successfully returned to some of their native areas in the Eastern United States. Applying for tags in the limited hunts is a great way to support the various reintroduction programs, even if you don’t draw a tag. And who knows, you may win the opportunity for the hunt of a lifetime!

Wade Shambaugh has lived in Morgan County his whole life and is a lifelong outdoorsman.