Written by Dustin Hollowell, iHuntFit Field Advisor
You’ve always wanted to chase bugling bulls through the dark timber with your bow in hand. Or maybe you’ve been dreaming about the western high-country and the iconic mule deer that live there. Maybe it’s the wide-open prairies where opportunity abounds to chase pronghorn; a uniquely American species. It could be that you just love the western mountains and landscapes and want to spend more time there, or consistently hunt every year where public land and easy to obtain tags guarantee the opportunity for adventure. So, what’s the hold up?
The West is a big place. Regardless of where you consider the beginning of the west, its comprised of several states. Each state is broken further down into delineated management units by which each states’ wildlife agency establishes tag numbers, harvest quotas and evaluates population objectives for big game species. In some states like Wyoming, the hunting units are not the same for deer, elk or antelope. Not all states call these delineations “units.” Some call them zones, some have regions, some have hunt districts or wildlife management units. Further, some areas are over the counter, or general. Some are controlled, or limited entry. Some states have true over the counter opportunities where you show up to a license vendor and buy a tag. Others have an application process that’s similar to a lottery to acquire a tag. When trying to get a tag through an application process, some states have a true random drawing. Others implement bonus points that increase your odds of drawing a tag as you accumulate points. Some have true preference points, where he with the most points gets the tag. Some have hybrid point systems.
Once you learn the process to legally get a tag, how do you figure out which unit, or district, or zone to apply for? How long are you willing to wait to draw a tag? Do you even want to learn the application process or just go get a tag and hunt? But where can you hunt? When can you hunt? What can you hunt with? What can you harvest?
The whole process is confusing, and for a first-timer hunting the west it can be absolutely overwhelming. But once you dig in a little and narrow down some key considerations, its not as bad as it initially seems. It’s not only possible to hunt the west, but to hunt the west often and successfully. Hopefully this article will help you decide to finally pull the trigger on that western hunt and help get some traction with the initial planning.
DIY OR GUIDED?
Knowing whether or not you would rather embark on a do-it-yourself (DIY) journey or hire the help of an outfitter should be one of the first considerations. Those planning on hiring a guide likely won’t have to worry as much about the planning and logistics as the first time DIY-er. Obviously, hiring an outfitter will come with an additional cost which can be significant depending on the species and area you want to hunt, but may be worth to those who can or want to pay the fee.
For those ready for the DIY adventure, there are several things to think about before you really get going that can make or break your hunt. Hopefully this article can shed some light on those important initial considerations.
ITS ALL ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE
I get many phone calls in the weeks and months leading up to hunting season from hunters excited that they finally drew a tag or are planning an over-the-counter hunt in the area where I live and work. I’m always happy to help and provide as much information as I can, but the first question I always ask the hunters is “what kind of hunt are you looking for?” Knowing what hunters’ expectations are for their hunt helps me provide the right information.
The most important consideration when planning a western hunting adventure is knowing what kind of experience you’re after, and what your true measure of success is. An honest and realistic assessment of your hunting preferences and expectations can set the stage for an epic adventure! However, failure to thoroughly evaluate this can potentially lead to a very disappointing or even miserable hunt.
It can also provide the foundation for making important subsequent decisions about your hunt. For example, if the hunt you’re looking for is a big, comfortable camp shared with hunting buddies mostly to enjoy some vacation time in the mountains, plan to hunt an area and species that can provide that kind of experience. Conversely, if you’re looking for the solitude of a backcountry hunt in the high country, you wouldn’t want to show up to hunt in an area with little or no opportunity to get away from the crowds.
Part of this process should also include some consideration on how you like to hunt or would like to hunt given the opportunity. As the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. There’s also more than a couple ways to successfully hunt western game.Do you want to chase elk over ridges and through basins trying to entice one to come to your calls? Do you want to drive and cover a lot of country looking over animals? Or would you prefer to glass from an elevated position and look at miles of country trying to find that needle in the haystack? Still hunt through timber? Sit in a treestand or a ground blind watching a water hole or travel route?
Think honestly and critically about what you want to get out of your first western hunting experience. If the hunt ends up being the adventure you expected and wanted to have, you’ll likely consider it successful whether you notch your tag or not! You’ll at least have enjoyable memories to last a lifetime!
Anyone that’s hunted very long probably knows the value of a good hunting buddy. I am very fortunate to have a pretty big group of hunters and huntresses that I’m happy to spend time in the woods with each fall. That list gets a little shorter if there’s increased costs, specific gear or logistics involved. However, that list gets very short when I start planning a hunt that may be very strenuous or otherwise difficult, may require several days spent together in close quarters, has potential for a survival situation where you’re depending on that person or a combination of those. Make sure you’re comfortable with who you plan on inviting or are going with. Are you confident enough with their outdoor skills? Do they enjoy the same hunting tactics? Are they proficient with their weapon? Are their physical abilities similar to what you’d expect out of yourself? Are you going to be footing the bill for everything? If so, are you ok with that? Are you going to get along if you’re stuck in camper, or a tent, for a couple days waiting out a storm?
One of the biggest things that can ruin a hunt is sharing it with someone who cannot keep a positive attitude. Nagging negativity or an easily discouraged partner can change the whole tone of the experience. Again, plan accordingly.
Sometimes I may also plan a hunt based on who I’d like to hunt with, see again or spend some extra time with. It may not even be a hunting buddy. It could be your spouse, your kid or a friend you haven’t seen in a while. If that’s the case, think about a hunt that may be a little less intense. I’ve found several hunts across the west that allow me to stay in very comfortable camps or hotels, have a hot coffee and breakfast every morning, requires very little strenuous hiking and keep the ability to see lots of game every day. These are perfect hunts to spend some time in beautiful country on a low stress hunt with great opportunity to fill a tag. Many pronghorn hunts fit this bill perfectly!
There’s a lot to consider about the person you plan on hunting with. If you plan on going solo, you obviously don’t have to worry about this part. However, hunting by yourself brings a different set of challenges.
WE’RE GOING _______ HUNTING!
This may seem obvious but based on your decision about the experience you want have and who you’ll be hunting with, the next step is to decide what species to pursue. I know a lot of people want to the opportunity to chase bull elk across the mountains, but when I lived in Texas I always dreamed of hunting big mule deer “out west.” My wife got her graduate degree researching pronghorn genetics in west Texas so she naturally gravitated towards pronghorn hunting. Each species will typically provide a much different hunt and experience than the others, so planning and logistics for each can also be very different.
Generally speaking, elk hunting is physically tough and can be very frustrating. Having one person to hunt with can be very helpful for hunting elk but having more than that can become a crowd pretty quickly. Its also much harder to deal with an elk once you or your buddies have one on the ground. Getting meat off the mountain can also sometimes cost you a full day of hunting. Further, its not impossible but filling more than a couple of elk tags over the course of a week is a very tall order. If you want to come west with a large group, elk may not be the right critter to hunt.
The west offers opportunities to hunt mule deer from endless seas of sagebrush to the highest, most rugged peaks of the Rockies. There’s definitely a hunt for everyone if mule deer is on your list, although in my opinion a mature mule deer buck is the hardest of all western game to find and harvest. Every year, hundreds of hunters put their tag on a heavy horned, tall-tined mule deer buck; there’s exponentially more that do not. But with a little work, there are many areas a hunter can look over quite a few deer in hopes of finding a respectable, representative buck for the area. Mule deer hunting is a great way to experience hunting the west, is typically more economical than elk, and it’s realistic to fill several tags over a few days of hunting.
Many pronghorn hunts provide the opportunity for a more relaxed big game hunt, and oftentimes have a relatively target rich environment. Although I don’t hunt them very often, pronghorn hunting is the most enjoyable hunting I’ve experienced. It’s a great species to pursue with other people whether its your most seasoned hunting partner or its your kids first hunt, and there are typically multiple opportunities to harvest one of the speedsters. Not only are pronghorn a species that only exist in western North America, a good shoulder mount adds a striking addition to any outdoorsman’s home. They are also some of the finest table fare when properly taken care of.
You can probably find volumes of information and opinions about the importance of physical fitness for mountain hunting but it’s still worth emphasizing here. If you’re not realistic about what you’re physically willing to endure, you may find yourself not hunting as hard as you’d hoped, not enjoying the hunt, or even quickly discouraged and headed home too soon.
In my first couple of mountain hunts, I knew very quickly that I wasn’t fit enough to hunt how I needed to, or even where I wanted to. Some of the best mule deer habitat on the mountain may as well have been on the moon. I couldn’t get there with just my gear, much less get a buck out of there if I were lucky enough to harvest one. I left the mountain with several days of vacation left because I just physically and mentally gave up. You don’t have to have chiseled abs and run marathons to be a successful hunter. But, there’s no doubt that being physically able to endure the terrain, elevation and miles of country oftentimes associated with western hunting will make your hunt more enjoyable. It will also make you a much more diligent and efficient hunter. Also, you’ll probably be able to hunt harder and enjoy the hunt more if you’re not too sore and achy after the first couple of days!
Its easy to find all sorts of training recommendations and programs online or with experts at your local gym. Although any consistent exercise routine is definitely better than nothing, its imperative that you specifically train for the type of situations and terrain you plan to encounter while hunting! Standard sets of bench press and bicep curls and jogging on a treadmill will leave a lot to be desired when your pack gets heavy miles away from camp.Further, nutrition is at least as important as a good training regimen. As the saying goes, “you can’t outwork a bad diet.” If you decide to get serious about hunting the west and want to be able to go wherever your hunt takes you, look into reputable training and nutrition programs designed specifically for hunters.
The majority of units in the western states, especially those with over-the-counter opportunities, have harvest success rates that are dismal at best. Many of the people who are consistently successful are the guys and girls that hunt the same area or the same species year after year and have developed a successful way of doing things. If your first trip out west results in nothing more than a camera full of scenery pictures and stories and memories, you’re in the overwhelming majority (based on statistics)!
Particularly in over-the-counter units or units with a generous number of tags, animals may not regularly reach an age class to grow trophy-sized head gear. If you kill an elk, any elk, on your first elk hunt then you harvested a trophy – especially on an easy to obtain tag and hunting on public land. If you kill a mature 6-point bull on your first elk hunt, then you will have accomplished something very few people have or ever will. Embrace that accomplishment, take great pictures you can look at regularly and then give me a call and let me know your secret! The same can be said for any species with reasonable opportunity to hunt on public land. Mature animals are sometime few and far between and make no mistake, they’re sharp!
Being able to establish and manage realistic expectations about your hunt can also help you determine what your ultimate measure of success is. I like to fill a tag as much as anybody, but I also know that there is a very real possibility of “tag soup.” My measure of success has evolved over the years, but I know that if I leave it all on the mountain and can head home without any “man I wish I would’ves” then I’ll consider it a successful hunt. Punching a tag is always icing on the cake. If you go into your hunt with goals and expectations other than solely filling that tag, you’re going to have a great time!
Generally, whatever adventure you can conjure up in your imagination is likely available somewhere in the west, but it may not end up quite like you initially expected. However, if you spend some time evaluating why you’d like to hunt a new area or new species, who you would most like to share it with and what you really want to get out of it; there’s nothing to lose! Somewhere out there, there’s a sheet of paper ready to be printed as a western big game tag with your name on it! There’s an animal out there right now that you’re destined to cross paths with! There’s a lifetime of memories to be made on the public lands of the west! So, what’s the hold up!