The origin of hunting is rooted in the gathering of meat. To this day, most hunters are after meat first, antlers second. But the focus of most hunting shows and articles has been on trophy hunting. I’m guilty of that too in my writings. We all love antlers, but I suspect the majority of hunters consider them to just be a nice bonus. Besides, a yearling or two year old buck or bull isn’t likely to be much bigger than an adult female of the same species.
In order to allow myself the luxury of a trophy hunt, I have to first feel like the meat I presently have in the freezer will last me through the rest of the year if I don’t end up harvesting the mature buck or bull that I’m after. I don’t like paying for meat at the grocery store, and thankfully haven’t had to so for quite a while. Paying for meat meant I wasn’t doing a good enough job while hunting. I was spending the money on tags, ammo, gas and everything else, so the least I could do is come home with something. It’s fair to say at least half, if not three quarters of my hunting is more about getting meat than antlers. I’ve gotten a lot savvier about identifying meat hunts the past few years and wanted to pass along a few ideas that you can put to work in your own areas.
To me, a meat hunt is generally an antlerless hunt, but either sex tags should also be considered. If you have an either sex tag and you’re looking for antlers but aren’t willing to take a cow, then you aren’t meat hunting. Meat hunts are typically outside of the regular seasons in a high success situation. Those high success rates are often a product of good visibility and late or early season, pre or post migration type hunts. There are a lot of opportunities to hunt private lands in a damage control situation if you keep your feelers out. Sometimes these hunts are only available to youths, which can be a mixed blessing. I think it’s great to get a kid some success early in life, but it shouldn’t be too easy, lest he expect all hunting to be like that. In other situations, a meat hunt can be an antlerless hunt in a low pressure trophy area during a regular season. As you can see, there are a lot of situations that I might consider a meat hunt.
A meat hunt is not going to be a primitive weapon hunt unless its near an urban or suburban area. It is not a wilderness or high effort hunt. My meat hunts generally require me to be mobile and adaptable to conditions as I see them. The backcountry muzzleloader elk hunts that my group does are definitely not meat hunts. Those are adventure hunts, where getting there is half the experience. At some level, we don’t really want everyone to fill their tag because we’d then have to spend several days packing all of that meat out of there.
As a bachelor, I’d guess my household meat consumption to be somewhere around 150 pounds per year. That’s about 3 to 4 antelope, 2 to 3 deer or one cow elk. For those of you who are married and have children, or if you entertain a lot, I’d expect you to go through a lot more than that. You do the math on buying that much meat in a year for your family. So that’s what we’re going to talk about here today: how to find those gimme hunts that allow you to relax a little more on your regular season hunts.
You can infer a lot from reading over your big game regulations or by paying attention to season changes. Just about any time there is an antlerless season outside of the normal seasons, it’s fair to assume that hunt exists to address a population, a damage concern or to take advantage of a seasonal condition. Looking over Colorado’s Big Game regulations, you’ll frequently see units with late season cow elk hunts, and even a handful of early rifle season hunts, before the normal 1st season. Those are obvious targets for a meat hunt. Thumbing through last year’s Wyoming regs, I see a number of tags that convert to a doe tag after the regular season if unfilled. Therefore, I’d be curious about just buying the doe tags in those units to focus my efforts and pay a lot less ($326 for a nonresident buck tag, but only $33 for a nonresident doe tag after the drawing).
Another thing I noticed in this week’s big game quota recommendations to the wildlife commission was the increase in cow tags and doe tags in a few areas. On a statewide basis there will be a large drop in tags, so finding units that are bucking the trend is always encouraging. Since I’m looking for as many opportunities as possible for my girlfriend to get her first big game animal, those areas with large antlerless tag increases warrant further thought.
Several western states have some sort of cooperative access hunt administered through the state wildlife agencies. Here in Colorado, it’s called Ranching For Wildlife (I had my girlfriend apply to these as her first choice for deer, elk and antelope). In Utah it’s called Cooperative Wildlife Management Units, in Wyoming it’s called a Hunter Management Area (I do some of my antelope hunting on one of these properties), Montana has Block Management lands (I’ve taken deer, elk and antelope on these properties), etc, etc. These ranches probably aren’t allowing access out of the goodness of their hearts. Sometimes it’s for a direct payment from the state, in other cases it helps them address overpopulation issues, and in other cases they have entered a public access agreement for guaranteed tags for paying clients. Regardless of the rancher’s motivations, it pays to look at ALL of your options.
It’s difficult to get involved in damage hunts unless you are on good terms with your local game wardens. So make a point of getting to know them outside of hunting season. I got turned on to a bear hunt for this coming year just by making myself aware of what’s going on locally. A local dairy farmer here grows corn right up against the mountains, and every September has over a dozen bears destroying his crops. He uses hunters with the appropriate tag, not special emergency tags, so I made sure to apply for one this coming fall. I might not draw, as I only have the minimum number of points required, but if I wasn’t talking to folks here about bear hunting, I would have likely just put in for another preference point and kicked this down the road for another year.
Youth hunts are another fantastic way to put meat on the table. Many states have either a special season, or some sort of easy, youth only hunt available in a drawing. Here in Colorado, we have a few properties that are only open to youth hunting for the whole season, or at least the first week of the opener. Once again, it pays to peruse those brochures for these opportunities. In this state, our Hunter Outreach program actively guides youth and women on private land hunts. These hunts are available through a separate drawing and not well advertised in the brochures. However, if you check your state’s website under the education or outreach department, you may be able to find similar opportunities for yourself or your family members.
As you can see, these meat hunts can cover a wide range of scenarios, but if you’re not looking for them, you’re missing out. Having meat in the freezer allows you the luxury of being selective or hunting a little more casually on your antlered hunts. I can’t think of a better way to get yourself into a game rich environment than by taking full advantage of all that is offered to you. You just have to be thinking outside the box of over the counter tags and regular seasons.