Planning Your First Western Hunt

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The rangefinder read 202 yards. That was far longer than any shot this Kentucky boy had ever taken at an animal, but it was a shot that I had practiced routinely in the weeks leading up to this hunt. I slowly slipped into a sitting position and rested my Sako .308 across the shooting sticks. As I steadied the crosshairs of the Simmons scope just behind the front shoulder, I took a deep breath to settle my nerves. With the bark of the Sako, I watched as my first Wyoming antelope fell in his tracks.

As I stood over my buck and got my first up-close look at one of these unique critters, I couldn't help but feel a sense of accomplishment. The hunt had been my very first trip out west, and was a do-it-yourself endeavor, carried out completely on public land. Every minor detail had been carefully planned and replanned over the course of nearly a year. I would have never believed, just a few years earlier, that I would be this far from home on a hunting trip. It was truly a dream come true.


Nearly a year of planning and a little luck resulted in the harvest of this nice antelope on Wyoming public land.

If you have always dreamed of going on a western hunt, but never acted on that dream because of the expense or the work involved, then read on. Anyone can plan and enjoy his or her very own hunt-of-a-lifetime without having to put a second mortgage on the house to hire an outfitter. With a little bit of saving and a lot of determination and research, you can make that western dream hunt a reality. Just follow these eight simple tips and start planning your adventure today!

1) PLAN EARLY
This is the one aspect of planning a hunt that I cannot emphasize enough - start early! Not just a matter of improving your odds, starting early has become a necessity for many hunts. Most western big game tags are now distributed through lottery-style drawings, with some applications due as early as January 31st. Because of these early deadlines, I recommend starting to plan your hunt at least one year in advance. In some cases, drawing a tag for a coveted area may require several years of trying, so you will have all the time you need to plan the trip down to the last detail.

2) CHOOSE YOUR STATE CAREFULLY
Assuming that you already know what it is you want to hunt, one of the first decisions that you will have to make is deciding where you want to hunt. Things that may influence this decision are tag costs, method and odds of obtaining a tag, game populations, hunter success rates, trophy potential, terrain, and the distance from your home.

A good starting point for narrowing down your choices are the websites of the wildlife agencies that cover the states you are considering (see sidebar below). These websites should contain all the information you need on season dates, license fees, and the process of obtaining permits. Many also contain valuable information regarding harvest statistics, success rates, odds of drawing tags for specific units, and the average days required to harvest an animal. All of this information should be studied carefully, weighing how what each state has to offer fits in with your overall goals and expectations. With that in mind, you should be able to make a very educated decision on the state that is right for you.

3) MAKE SOME CALLS
Once you have chosen a state, it is time to warm up the phone lines. I generally start by calling the state wildlife biologist that oversees the management of the animal that you are interested in hunting. It may take a little digging to figure out just who this person is, but a call to the wildlife agency's information line should get you headed in the right direction (again, see sidebar).

Keep in mind that this person gets bombarded with these types of calls on a regular basis, and you should not expect him or her to point you to a specific spot to hunt. Instead, let them know exactly what your expectations are, and ask them general questions about areas that have piqued your interest. These may include population estimates, sex ratios, hunting pressure, general game patterns and food preferences in that area, etc. I can tell you from experience, that when you can show them that you have done your homework and ask intelligent questions, wildlife professionals will generally be much more giving with their information.


Studying maps and asking the right questions are key to planning a successful western hunt.

Speaking of wildlife professionals, don't overlook the guys who probably know the area as well as anyone - the local game warden or conservation officer. Just as you did with the wildlife biologist, be courteous in your contact, and be ready to show that person that you have done your research before you picked up the phone.

Other people that you may want to consider calling for information are local taxidermists (local to the area that you are planning to hunt), Foresters (if you are planning on hunting National Forest land), and BLM personnel (if you are planning to hunt BLM land). These people either spend a great deal of time out on the land that you will be hunting, or they are in frequent contact with others who are. Either way, they can be a valuable, and often overlooked, source of information.

4) ASK THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN THERE
Another great source of information can be found in those who have first-hand experience hunting a particular area. It may take a little legwork, but there is a good chance that you can find someone out there who has hunted where you want to hunt and is willing to give you some tips or advice. To locate these people, check with some of the local taxidermists, sporting goods stores, and archery pro shops. Somewhere, someone will know someone else who has been on the very hunt that you are planning.

A great deal of information is available right at your fingertips via the internet. Discussion forums like the ones right here at Biggamehunt.net are a great place to meet others who have "been there and done that". Many of these guys and gals will bend over backwards to help a fellow hunter plan a successful hunting trip.


The internet can be a great source of information for the resourceful hunter planning a western adventure.

5) BUDGET ACCORDINGLY
If money is no object, then you can go ahead and skip to tip #6. However, if you are like myself and must stretch every penny, then you need to sit down and work out a realistic budget for your trip. The last thing you want is to realize at the last minute that you didn't budget enough money for your trip, or worse yet, wait until you run out of money 1,500 miles from home!

Start by figuring up all the basics of the trip, erring towards the high side, just to keep you safe. Be sure to include the cost of tags, accommodations (both while you are there, as well as on the way there and back), food (both groceries and dining out), fuel (this is a biggie nowadays, and could increase dramatically between the time you begin planning the hunt and the time you actually leave), and the catch-all "miscellaneous". This may cover anything from replacing a forgotten article of clothing, to meat processing fees, vehicle repair, an extra night's stay at a hotel (if by chance you got snowed in), etc. The possibilities are endless. While there is no way to prepare for everything that could occur, you should allow yourself enough of a cushion that you can cover any reasonable expense that may pop up.

6) GET IN SHAPE
If you want to make for a long and miserable hunt, head out west to the high country seriously out-of-shape. Not only will it be miserable, but it will also send your chances of success spiraling downward. The country out there can be rugged and physically demanding. You should prepare yourself as much as possible for those conditions well in advance of your trip. A regular exercise program would be a good starting point. If you will be backpacking into remote country, then it would be a good idea to practice hiking up in similar terrain with your pack fully loaded.

There are a lot of obstacles out there that can keep a hunter from meeting their goal of harvesting a western big-game animal. Don't let physical demand be one of those obstacles. Start getting in shape now, and when you finally draw that coveted tag, you will have tipped the odds of success just a little more in your favor.

7) ALLOW YOURSELF ENOUGH TIME
One of the most common reasons that many western hunters return home with an unfilled tag is because they did not allow themselves enough time to reach their goal. They schedule a week long hunting trip, and by the time they make the drive there and back, or pack their gear in and back out, they end up with four to five days of actual hunting. While that may be sufficient for antelope, that is not nearly enough time for a game animal like elk - especially if you are pursuing them with a bow. I understand that each of us has to work within the constraints that we have with work and family, but if you have some flexibility in your schedule, then be sure to allow yourself as much actual hunting time as possible to fill those tags. If things go just right and you tag out quickly, you can always pack up and head home ahead of schedule.

8) HAVE FUN
Last, but certainly not least; have fun! I mean, that is the real reason that we go, isn't it? Take the time to enjoy and soak up those memories of the hunt. Sure, we all want to harvest a big trophy animal when we go on a hunting trip, but we have to keep our expectations realistic. The average Colorado archery elk hunter only fills a tag once every seven attempts. Now, that doesn't mean that you can't do things to dramatically increase your odds over the "average" hunter. It does mean, however, that no matter how well you plan your hunt, there are no guarantees when it comes to fair-chase hunting. If you give your best, and keep your sights set on having a safe and memorable hunt, then you should never be disappointed with the results.

I hope you'll take the time to plan that western big-game adventure that you have been dreaming of. Then, years later, you won't have to look back and say, "I wish I would have…" Instead, you can proudly say, "I'm glad I did!"


You have to keep things in perspective on a western hunt. Its nice to bring home some meat, but the main goal is having fun and making memories.

SIDEBAR
Alaska Department of Fish & Game (907) 465-4190
Arizona Game and Fish (602) 942-3000
California Department of Fish & Game (916) 445-0411
Colorado Division of Wildlife (303) 297-1192
Idaho Fish & Game (208) 334-3700
Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks (620) 672-5911
Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (406) 444-2612
Nebraska Game & Parks Commission (402) 471-0641
Nevada Department of Wildlife (775) 688-1500
New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (505) 476-8000
North Dakota Game & Fish Department (701) 328-6300
Oklahoma Dept of Wildlife Conservation (405) 521-2739
Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (800) 720-ODFW
South Dakota Game Fish & Parks (605) 773-3485
Texas Parks & Wildlife (800) 792-1112
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (801) 538-4700
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (360) 902-2200
Wyoming Game & Fish (307) 777-4600


Brian Grossman is a wildlife biologist, freelance writer and avid outdoorsman from Mt. Washington, Kentucky. You can visit his web site at www.PoorBoysOutdoors.com.

Comments

Great article and results!

Great article and results!  As a transplanted hunter from Vermont, now living in Colorado, I would emphasize getting in shape above all.  If you don't, plan on being tired after a couple days and possibly wrecking your hunt.  Lots of walking up and down hills out here, so do a lot of walking, but also pick up some weights and do a lot of squats.  Walking at 1000 ft is a lot different than hiking hills and draws at 10,000 ft.  I use a exercise bike and do a bunch of squats with 50 lbs or more, lots of reps.  If you start in June, you might make it.  You will be amazed at how it prepares you for not only the hunt, but packing out meat as well.  If you knock down a deer or elk, you will be making at least a couple trips to pack out meat.  If you aren't properly conditioned, it may be more than you can handle.  I gave up antelope in favor of elk and deer, and have a few comments on those critters.  First, get a GPS.  Not just to find out where camp is after a hard day, but to locate your animal when you have to hike back in for another load (I packed out 5 big loads last fall). Get Google Earth to help figure out where you want to hunt, where to turn on these forest roads, where to camp, as well as where to pack out meat.  The way you came in may not be the way to pack out 100 lb loads of meat.  I used a cheapy $100 model, but you can sure spend more!  Read up on how to care for your animal.  Elk are big, but they get a lot bigger when you kill one.  Ropes, pulleys, tarp, a couple knives and sharpener, saw, and game bags are must haves.  Once you decide on a place to hunt, take the time to talk to people in the nearest town to find someone who can pack out meat on a horse.  It is money well spent and allows your hunting buddies to keep hunting instead of packing out meat.  Locate a meat processor.  Most of all, be prepared for anything.  Weather has been warmer and drier for several years, but I have still been mired in snow up to my knees the last 2 years.  Chains for trucks, tow ropes, etc. are must-have items.  Budget has always been on my mind, but a western elk hunt doesn't have to break the bank.  Camp, cook for yourself, split costs with buddies, stay out of hotels and restaurants, drive right past BassPro and Cabelas (if you can).  I gave up on rifle season years ago in favor of archery.  I only disagree with your comment that you only score once every several seasons.  5 years, 10 elk (I go either sex OTC and cow only).  I see way more elk, deer, and bear, and way less of other hunters.  Last, network with other hunters out here.  Most are more than happy to share the woods and show newcomers the ins and outs of our areas.  Hunting public land, you should realize that it is as much your land as any resident.  You may not know it as well as we do, but that is just an email or phone call away.

AlpineClimber's picture

A couple questions on your Sako.

Was it the Finnlight Model and what Ring/Optic set up did you go with?  Also, what is the heaviest grain bullet you've tried to group at 200 or 300 yards with it?  Thanks.

hunter25's picture

Great article on the easiest

Great article on the easiest of western hunts to plan. I went through all these steps myself about 6 years ago for ahunt in Wyoming, I can't get enough antelope hunting now and am looking at other states to expand the hunting fun.

South Dakota is for sure one of the states I'm looking at.

groovy mike's picture

Thanks for the numbers

Thanks for those contact numbers for future refernce and congratulations on those antelope! 

I read one time that they are the most prehistoric of any game inimal in north america.  They pre-date deer!  But they are a species I have never hunted, but when you focus on the chance to see new territory and have fun hunting with friends it really doesn't matter what you are hunting.  Like you said the main goal is making great memories that you can savor for a lifetime instead of having regrets.  That is a good point to remember on every level of life, and especially true when we are thinking about hunting!

jaybe's picture

Great Article!

Brian,

  Thanks for the great article.

  As one who has never ventured out of my own state to hunt, I am saving your article for future reference.

  Great things to think about, plan and consider before going.

  I really like your choice of caliber, too; the .308 isn't much to look at on the outside, but with the choice of bulletes available and the options open to a handloader, it can perform very well on all but the largest North American game.

  Thanks again for this information.

  It ought to be helpful for anyone considering hunting out of state, and maight even encourage someone to go who otherwise wouldn't.

 

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