What is a Raghorn Elk? (Explained)

If you are an elk hunter or follow some of the elk hunting chat boards, how-to articles, or other forums you have probably heard the term “raghorn”. But what does this mean? What is a raghorn elk? Let us help spread some light on what this unique term means and how it impacts your elk hunting activities.

What is a Raghorn Elk

Hunting has numerous terms, acronyms, abbreviations, or nicknames. Some are used throughout the sport, others are regional. Learning these terms is as much a part of the sports as being proficient in shooting or tracking. 

One such term is “raghorn”, or “raghorn elk”. This is a term that is widely used but not easily explained. Even when those who utilize it are asked to define the term a solid definition is difficult to pin down.

To further complicate the issue, the term appears to have slightly different applications based on the region of the country you are in.

A recent review of a big game discussion forum reviled just how different, and confusing, some of these interpretations can be.

“a small thin horned 2 ½ to 3 ½ year old bull”

“Basically, the teenagers, age of animals/antlers seem to match”

“Just a thin horned branched antlered bull (elk)”

“Any bull 5 points to 3 points that’s scrawny”

As you can see from this sample of responses, even experienced hunters have a varied opinion of what defines a raghorn elk. Even more troubling, many of these descriptions are based on subjective interpretation.

What is the meaning of “small thin horned”? Even a seemingly straightforward definition, such as “any bull 5 to 3 points” is then complicated by the addition of the term “scrawny”.

While these descriptions may make sense to the hunters who uttered them, and I do not doubt are accompanied by a perfect mental picture, they make it difficult for another to see that same picture.

If hunters’ interpretations are not suitable then surely there is a more widely accepted definition available. Perhaps some of the more recognized dictionaries can help.

From Wiktionary and YourDictonary:

“Any male elk (bull) with antlers between one and six points, non-inclusive, on either side. Also called an “intermediate bull” (bull with two, three, four, or five points on either side”.

Or

“Describing the animals as non-prime trophy specimens, i.e.”rags”. Another explanation is that it is descriptive of how new antlers have a velvety covering that sloughs off each year and can hang like rags.”

From The Free Dictionary:

“Any of various hoofed mammals of the family Cervidae, characteristically having deciduous antlers borne chiefly by the males. The deer family includes white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and caribou.”

These definitions are better, but still not flawless. There are some concrete measures by which to categorize a bull elk as a raghorn. The number of points for example is not open to interpretation.

However, as with the common definitions offered previously by hunters, there is still some subjectivity involved. Readers are now left wondering what is meant by “scrawny” or “non-prime trophy specimen”? 

Maybe a review of some legal definitions will help.

Definitions

Below are the legal definitions, provided by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, describing the different categories of elk.

Antlerless elk – male or female with no antlers, or both antlers are less than 4 inches long as measured from the top of the skull. Generally, these are cows or calves.

Spike bull – an elk, usually 1 ½ years old, with antlers that do not branch. Of , if branched, the point (tine) is less than 4 inches long from the tip of the main antler beam.

Yearling – often used to describe spike bulls, however, a more accurate description is an elk that is less than 2 years of age. Roughly 80 percent of yearlings are also spike bulls.

Although Montana does not provide legal definitions for larger elk, the following are some commonly accepted terms:

Fork – a bull with only a single “Y”, or branch, on either side. Generally speaking, this branch would be more than 4 inches long or it would be considered a spike.

Royal – a 6 point, or 6×6

Imperial – a 7 point, or 7×7

Monarch – an 8 point, or 8×8

So where does that leave us?

What is a Raghorn Elk?

After reviewing the available definitions, both official and commonly accepted, there is no clear definition of a raghorn elk.

However, it is possible to determine one through the process of elimination. If elk with 6 or more points are considered a Royal, Imperial, or Monarch and those with less than 2 points are a yearling, spike, or antlerless elk that narrows the field of possibilities.

Therefore, a raghorn must include only those elk that possess more than 2 points but less than 6.

This definition does not account for the often-included requirement of being scrawny or less than trophy quality. However, as stated previously, this is too subjective for widespread interpretation.

Can you take a raghorn elk?

The simple answer is “yes”. You will encounter hunters who claim it is unethical to harvest a raghorn, as they feel is it not yet mature. Others will claim harvesting anything other than a true trophy is too easy or settling for less than the best. Again, this is more opinion than fact.

If the legal requirements for the state or management area you are hunting in allows for the taking of a specific size bull, then it is legal. This means you can take any bull, raghorn or trophy, that meets the minimum size requirements.

More importantly, is personal satisfaction. For many hunters, the chance to harvest an elk is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

In fact, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks estimates that only 20 percent of permit holders will harvest an elk. Of those who do harvest an elk, only 4 percent will harvest one with 6 or more points. This means for more hunters harvest a raghorn or antlerless elk than not. 

Finally, you need to consider why you are hunting. Are you looking to any legal elk, put meat in the freezer, or hang a Boone & Crocket trophy in your man cave?

At the end of the hunt if you have harvested a legal elk and are satisfied with the results than you elk is a trophy regardless of what other may call it.

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