I’m an incessant unit hopper. I have a handful of places that I like to return to, but it seems like I’m adding at least one or two new units every year to the rotation. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you’re after. Some people like a known entity and stability, others are always after greener pastures. So what I’d like to address in this article is the possible rationale for staying put or pushing on.
Very few people have always hunted the same place out west. Some people grow up going to an elk camp that only hunts a specific area, but the vast majority had an elk or deer camp that has moved around a few times in their lifetimes. I’ve talked to people who refuse to move on, either because they feel like they know the woods they hunt and don’t want to learn a new area, or because they doubt they could convince the rest of the camp that it’s time to find greener pastures. Others, like me, never really settle in one place, and find elk or deer camp wherever we declare it to be. Some of this may be because my entire hunting party is made up of transplants with no family in the area. We have no major traditions to fight. Unit hopping doesn’t have to mean a never–ending process of hunting new areas, but it can be the beginning of a 2-5 year process that you use to find a new hunting area.
You don’t have to be afraid of trying new units. Guys who hunt out of state frequently are probably more comfortable with the concept, because anytime they hunt a new state, they will be hunting a new unit. So what’s the difference when trying to find a new unit within your preferred hunting state?
There’s also the wrong way to unit hop. When I was in college in Montana, we hunted a different unit nearly every weekend, and sometimes different days of the weekend. In doing so, we never really got to know many places very well and couldn’t fairly compare one unit to the next. We weren’t following any sort of data that made it seem like we’d find lower pressure here or more game over there. We more or less blindly hunted different areas on a whim. We found a few good places, but only rarely returned to them. Looking back at that, I laugh at what we did. Nowadays, I like to have some sort of rationale to think I can do better in a new place that I don’t know as well as the place I may be leaving.
Let’s talk about when it might be time to leave your old stomping grounds. As with all things biological, conditions change. The thing that people might notice the least after hunting an area for 20 years is the gradual change in the habitat. In some places, shrubs or timber may be encroaching on the hillsides you’ve always hunted, or the shrubs themselves have aged, degrading palatability. A fire may burn a nearby drainage, or a clear cut may occur two ridges over that creates a better forage situation attracting animals away from the area you normally hunt them in. The Forest Service or BLM may alter the grazing intensity or timing, which may also affect your area’s desirability to game. So, while the changes may be slow, some degree of change is inevitable and may be enough to warrant consideration of a new area. Habitat changes to your old spot might not mean that it’s time to consider a whole new unit, but you may want to weigh the pros and cons of moving to another area within the unit.
A more obvious change, and one much easier to define are game population changes. As habitat changes, or is lost to development or other factors, carrying capacity will also change. Sometimes a game department will attempt to buck the declines through proactive measures like predator controls, habitat enhancements or some sort of mitigation. Other times, the managers may accept the decline as inevitable, reduce their population objectives to a more realistic number, and issue licenses based on this new harvest level.
I always monitor the population fluctuations in the units that I’m most interested in hunting, but most folks do not. Many people will assume what was once will always be. Look at the historical trends and current population objectives for your hunting area. Did the population fluctuation occur due to a weather event that the herd can recover from? Or has there been a steady decline over the past 20 years? If the decline is steady, there’s a good chance it will never return to what you were used to seeing and it may be time to think about moving on if you’re disappointed with recent results. Deer and elk herds take time to recover from weather or management events that may have taken a toll on their populations over the short term, but they can recover, so moving isn’t necessarily called for. A temporary move may be justified if you’ve got a place in mind.
Changes in licensing can also mean it’s time to think about moving on. If your unit no longer issues general tags, or the tags have become too hard to draw, you might want to consider finding a place that your whole party can participate in. Now, just because you all can’t always draw bull or buck tags, it doesn’t mean you should move, especially if there are doe or cow licenses available. A rotation schedule can also work out if you have another unit in mind. Another way to compromise would be to hunt a different season if possible. In Colorado, if you can no longer reliably draw 1st season tags for your unit, simply switching to the general 2nd season seems like an obvious solution. If you’re tired of the pressure during a certain period, simply changing the weekend that you hunt could work. In Wyoming, many of the deer units open around October 15th. By hunting antelope on that weekend, you really minimize the pressure and don’t have to learn a new area.
An important factor for many folks who are considering moving on is to think about where you are going before you start pulling up the stakes. If unit X is no longer cutting the mustard for you, what makes you think unit Y will? This is where having hard data really helps. When I started building my databases for Western Hunting Data, I wanted to find a unit that had similar elk numbers to the Flat Tops or Bear Ears, but without all of the hunting pressure. Going by the seat of the pants estimates of coworkers, neighbors and friends wasn’t good enough for me. I want real numbers. So, that’s why I ask, how do you know there’s someplace better for you out there? Are there more elk or deer in this new place, and is the density actually better or is the larger population a product of a larger area? Is the success rate better, and are we comparing apples to apples with a unit with a similar percentage of public land and wilderness?
Are you after something other than good game density and high success? Maybe your goal is fewer hunters or better trophy potential. Either way, with a little research, you can come up with your own answers. But don’t simply trust the input of a hunter with a limited perspective. His idea of trophy potential and hunting pressure may be different from yours and will more than likely make it sound like he shoots both an elk and a deer every year from the same place, when in reality he’s only done it once in his life.
For me and my unit hopping, I’ve liked something about every unit I’ve hunted and enjoy the mental and physical challenges of succeeding in new places. I can rationalize most of my unit hops in one way or the other. Some units are for a low pressure hunt, one more classic big mountain, big timber elk country, another is more mesa/canyon type hunting. Some places are more for backcountry adventure hunts, where I'm in it more for the experience than the hunting. One area is a good combo area, but neither stellar for elk nor deer. Another area is a good place to use a 2nd choice deer tag while building points or just if unsuccessful with the first choice. Yet another is more of a late season cow elk meat hunt. Another place I’m trying out this year will be a unit in Wyoming with a much longer antelope season, allowing me to get in a little more big game hunting in December. I haven’t truly disliked any of my recent unit hops, and there has to be a first time for every hunt. When I go back to them, it feels more like a rotation, and don’t rescout them as seriously. In trying out new areas, I’m able to compare it to others that I’ve hunted recently. That perspective gives me a way to better contrast a unit’s strengths and weaknesses to be able to tell if it really is a greener pasture or if what attracted me to the unit was a statistical anamoly.
Unit hopping clearly isn’t for everyone, but some degree of a rotational schedule may be more up your alley. Maybe you’re just trying to add to the number of hunts you want to get in each year, and going back to the usual spot isn’t an option. If you’re disappointed with some aspect of your current area, try to figure out if you can really do better. We all want to see more game, we all want less pressure, we all want easier hiking and older bucks and bulls. Our wants may or may not be attainable, but you’ll never know if you don’t take a look around.