I'm not much of a gambler and like to know my odds, including knowing my chances on a hunting trip. With that in mind my fingers tightened on my bowstring as a group of twenty caribou passed my brush blind late on last year's Alaskan hunt. They were mostly cows and calves, with one small bull hanging in the back of the pack.
As the last two caribou passed my shooting lane a lone cow made up my mind by blocking my shot at the bull. I drew back and led her as she walked along and watched the arrow hit the right spot at 27 yards. She wasn't the massive bull with double-shoveled antlers I hoped for, but she provided plenty of delicious meals.
Should I have held out? After all, there was still one more day left. It turned out that was the last chance at a caribou. In fact, we never had any close enough for even attempting a stalk. Had I chanced it, I would have gone home empty handed. Earlier, in the hunt I passed shots on small bulls while holding out for a better rack. Knowing the odds made it possible to make a good decision.
In the unit where I hunted, the success rate for non-residents was 66 percent, which sounds awesome, but also includes rifle hunters. In other words, 1/3 of the non-resident hunters didn't score. Factor in that I hunt with a longbow, and my estimate was far less than a 50-50 chance, with the odds getting worse each day. Thus, taking a legal animal when the chance arose late in the trip, a good move considering my love for caribou meat.
Few people enjoy statistics. Unless you are a sports fanatic or a Wall Street Genius, trending data is boring. Yet, the information that state game agencies produce make it possible for a bowhunter to know their odds, and more importantly, the locations with the best chance. There are all manner of statistics available from game agencies, but what data is the most important? How can a bowhunter capitalize on the information?
Hunter success rates are the starting point for contemplating a trip, but the success data for archery hunts is only part of the information you need. Let's use the hypothetical example of two non-resident bowhunters planning a DIY elk hunt in Colorado. These archers will likely look at the various game management units and try and find where success rates for archers are best. They also will also likely steer towards units where they can purchase over the counter tags instead of relying on drawing a tag by a lottery.
Yet simply looking at hunter success rates can be misleading. Let's say these hunters narrow things down to two areas. One of the units had a 15 percent success rate and the other was closer to 25 percent. The choice would seem obvious, but digging a little deeper will usually shed more light on what choice to make.
In addition to hunter success rate, other factors have to be considered including the total geographic area of the game management unit and cover available there. It could be that the area where a quarter of the hunters bagged their elk, the downside is a lack of public land. The gross acreage of this management unit could also be more than double the area of the unit with a 15 percent success rate. Thus the area with the higher rate is really lower considering the number of elk bagged per acre of public land, which is exactly what the DIY hunters were looking for.
Simply examining success rates could yield locations with limited public lands with high hunting pressure. While other game management units may have lower success rates, they also could have had much more public land, making them a far better choice for the folks looking for a DIY hunt. The success data is only the first layer of the onion and may be misleading when taken at face value. Hunters planning on visiting distant locations must go beyond the typical data and look at factors including: the amount of public land, success rates for non-resident hunters, the number of square miles in a game management unit, and the cover and habitat there.
Geographical Harvest Data
In my state the deer harvest is broken down by the take per square mile, and includes the buck harvest on the same basis. This information makes it easier to figure the deer density, and since it is broken down by sex, it provides information on the potential an area has for producing a shot at a buck during bow season.
I'm not a trophy hunter. I'm just as thrilled with a spike buck taken with my bow as I am with a decent set of antlers. When the archery season comes, I know my odds. If I happen to get within longbow range of a buck, any buck, I shoot.
Why am I so willing to loose an arrow on the first chance I get? It has a lot to do with where I live. In my county, the buck harvest is not much better than it is in the middle of the Adirondacks. Work keeps me busy, and there isn't always enough time to travel during hunting season. Most of my hunting is close to home. Knowing and accepting my odds makes me very comfortable with my decisions.
Some of the counties in New York with the highest deer harvests per acre also have little public land and access to private land is extremely difficult. Small lot sizes and places where not everyone welcomes hunters make it difficult. Usually only the local hunters can develop contacts and get access..
Finding the Big Ones
Several years ago a bowhunter told me he was going to only shoot trophy bucks. While it is true that folks who consistently get their name in the records pass up anything that isn't a trophy; it is just as true that Chuck Adams will never set up a treestand in our county. This fellow went through a couple of dry seasons and went back to hunting like the rest of us around here. His statistical odds were such that he would sit in a treestand for many, many years before a trophy came along.
For those folks with trophy aspirations, finding the right spot within the harvest data is important. Again, the answers can be found in the statistics, but you have to dig a lot deeper. Many states produce data on the antlers given areas produce. For example, some Western states break down their elk harvest by the number of antler points. This gives some indication of trophy potential, but not totally. Antlers can have a lot of points, but if they lack mass and spread there is very little potential for seeing your name in the Pope and Young records.
Additional data, often from other sources, will give a better indication of the odds on bagging a real monster. Wildlife biology requires a thorough knowledge of statistics and data gathering. Biologists have many, many more layers of data than the stuff you typically see on game agency web sites. Contacting the biologists who work in areas you want to hunt will yield much more information.
Continuing with the trophy potential discussion, antler beam diameter is an interesting data point that can't typically be found on a game agency web site. Some game agencies gather data from check stations including the diameter of antler beams near the bases along with age and health data. If you are looking for a trophy deer with a bow, this is valuable information. Areas that tend to produce big racks can also be found by checking the big game records to find the best counties in the past.
Another type of data that takes some digging to find is the basic structure of the big game herd. Most game agencies have a rough idea of the male to female ratio in a given county. This information can be used in a couple of ways. If you love to go out and rattle antlers, a buck to doe ratio that is close to 1 to 1 results in more competition for available does, thus antler rattling is apt to produce.
If you are out to fill a tag and put some venison in the freezer, then the areas with a higher ratio are likely to produce. I've used this type of information to find late season archery hunts in nearby states.
Simply drawing a tag for a limited hunt is a gamble. Many states have drawings for big game tags for specific species or areas. In addition to being able to go through the harvest statistics and find where to go, you must know the odds on drawing a tag. If a top area of a particular state has 100 tags available for non-residents and gets 500 applicants, there is only a twenty percent chance of getting a tag- simple math! Yet there may be other areas in the same state with higher odds on getting a tag, but lower odds on scoring on the hunt, thus it is a balancing act.
Putting It All Together
Face it, some of us are not decision makers and like that all cleared up by someone else. If you are going to Colorado, fear not, there are two enterprising companies that will go through the statistics for you. Both www.biggamecd.com  and www.gmuresearch.com  will do all the homework for you. It is likely these companies will expand to other states as well.
Some of us are not as computer savvy as others, but there is a wealth of information on the Internet and it is time for you hold-outs to get with it (my wife bought me an MP3 player so I too, am now high-tech). Many state game agencies have web sites with interactive hunt planners and mapping that can be used to narrow things down to a specific area and include the statistical information needed to produce an informed choice.
Once you have things narrowed down to a couple of locations, other free Internet features can be used to make the choice. Google Earth is an amazing web site with free mapping and satellite imagery can be found. There are other free mapping sites with topographic maps and aerial photos. Other web sites are available to locate anything else that would be needed on a hunt including lodging and travel information.
Another valuable piece of information available in cyberspace are the forums on many hunting web sites. Hunters who have been to specific areas can offer additional first-hand information. The good the bad and the ugly can be found on these forums. If the hunting was good, people talk. If the hunting was bad and all hype, it is easy to find out.
Today it is much easier to plan hunts. Game agencies all have web sites of varying quality, and there are enough other resources available to fill in the gaps. If you do venture elsewhere for the hunt of a lifetime, or are simply looking for the best places in your home state, the stats are important. Knowing the odds makes it easy to decide whether or not to loose an arrow when the time comes instead of gambling on waiting for another chance. Because, as we all know, when you gamble, the house usually wins!
Robert Streeter is a freelance outdoor writer from upstate New York.