Many of us dream about deer hunting Utah’s Paunsaugunt, or Henry Mountains or unit 201 for elk in Colorado. Bighorn sheep, moose, and mountain goats are also high on the list of many hunters. Others have specific Boone and Crockett class goals for various species. Still others are most interested in the various “Grand Slams."
It’s one thing to dream about these opportunities, but another to actively attempt to pursue your dreams. In writing up some of these articles recently, and then discussing some of my goals with my hunting partners, it’s apparent that some hunts are just unattainable, while other incredible hunts are within easy reach as long as we start doing something about it.
And that’s the real focus on this article: figuring out what is attainable and what is not, and then focusing on the more realistic goals.
My personal preference is to hunt good quality areas as frequently as possible. I’m willing to sacrifice some success rate and some trophy potential for a solid unit that I can maybe hunt every few years or less. I have access to a lot of good western hunting, and am happy with that. Last year I went on a ton of big game hunts: 4 elk hunts, 2 deer hunts (or three if you count going back to one the following weekend), 2 antelope hunts and a mountain goat hunt. And that doesn’t include bird hunts. So, I can easily fill my year with average to good hunts. Others may also have access to good hunts on a regular basis, but if you’re going to travel, you may not find any reason to hunt out of state unless you draw a stellar tag. In my group, we tend to shoot for pretty good, instead of holding out for the best.
Other groups of hunters may not have access to this kind of hunting on a regular basis and their philosophies may fit into one of two categories. For those that see a western hunt as a once or twice in a lifetime event, they may only be interested in hunting in one of the very best units. Other hunters may only be able to come out west once every ten years or so, but will be happy with just getting everybody in the party a tag.
And that brings up one of the big problems with trying to do a group hunt in a trophy area: there might only be one nonresident tag available for your chosen season. That will now put you and your partners on different point schedules, so make sure you’ve worked out how to handle those hurdles.
Right now, I’m accumulating preference points in Wyoming for elk, deer and antelope, Utah elk and deer, and Colorado elk, deer, bear, antelope, moose, sheep and goat. I’m also applying for Nevada deer without earning preference points, and I have one point for California deer that I need to decide if I’m going to just let go because I haven’t applied for the last couple of years.
In looking over the draw odds in Wyoming and Utah for the last couple of days, I don’t believe I can realistically catch up to a few units. Utah’s San Juan unit for elk, Henry Mountains and Paunsaugunt for deer and Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge elk units are probably unobtainable for me. If it was as simple has waiting 17 years for some of the Utah hunts and 5 years (max points) in Utah, I wouldn’t be worried at all. However, when looking at the dreaded point creep, it’s pretty obvious the minimum point requirements will continue to escalate. When only 4% of applicants with 5 points are drawing elk tags in the Flaming Gorge, you know you’re looking at what will eventually be at least a 25 point tag before the max point applicants are all gone. And I don’t have max points, so I still have to wait out the 3 and 4 point applicants too. See where I’m going with this? There’s just no way I’m going to wait 30 to 40 plus years for an elk license. While it may not really be that long of a wait before the older generations quit hunting or decide to burn their points on lesser hunts, I’m just not willing to commit to that kind of schedule.
My goals are short, medium and long term. Moose, bighorn sheep and are my longest term goals. I hope to pull those tags within 20 years here in Colorado. I see no reason to apply for nonresident licenses when I can hunt those species here. If I lived in Alabama, it would be different story, and I’d probably be taking the shotgun approach by applying for numerous states. At the sheep and goat hunter’s orientation here in Colorado, there was a guy from Georgia who spent 34 years waiting for his sheep tag. That takes a kind of dedication (and a lot of big checks) that I don’t have, and is a part of the reason I live here in Colorado.
There’s always a way around the long waits for a sheep license, but I have no interest in hiring a guide in Canada or Alaska, and I certainly can’t afford an auction tag. While moose hunters here in Colorado frequently wait over 10 years (typically I hear about 12, but that will likely rise too), I can and likely will be going to Alaska in the next year for a moose hunt. Many areas in Alaska have over the counter tags, and at just $485, it seems like a bargain. Getting there will be the real expense. But a $250 resident moose tag in Colorado, and associated travel expenses will be far less costly, so I’m going to stay the course here too. One other option for lower 48 moose are the three northeastern states that allow nonresident moose hunting. Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire all have moose lotteries that I need to participate in more often. Once again, I have no interest in hiring a guide in order to go to Canada for a moose hunt.
I hunt antelope every year in Wyoming, but getting a quality tag here in Colorado is so difficult, I expect it to take me nearly 15 years (I have just 4 points now) to draw a good buck tag.
Arizona would be the one state that I haven’t hunted, am not working on accumulating preference points and am interested in trophy hunting a few of their top deer and elk areas. That’s something that I’ll have to put into my long term goals, but recognizing I need to get in the application game for that to even be a realistic goal. New Mexico and Idaho do not have a preference system at this time, so I don’t feel compelled to apply there every year. Besides, I just hunted New Mexico elk last year with a buddy who drew in his first year.
For my medium term goals(less than 10 years), I’ll be expecting a mountain goat tag here in Colorado (can’t hunt those in Alaska or Canada without a guide). Mountain goats are much easier to draw than bighorn sheep tags in those states that have them. In fact, my plan is to try to hunt them twice in the next 10 to 15 years here in Colorado. A buddy and I will probably burn our points on a nanny tag, just so we can guarantee that we can hunt together next year. Another buddy drew an either sex tag last year after waiting just four years, and I’ve talked to several others who drew in less than 8 years. So, it seems like this could be a realistic goal, as long as I stay out of the highest demand/easy access units.
As I alluded to earlier, what sparked this article was trying to plan out which units a buddy and I could actually draw within the next 10 years in Wyoming and Utah. After accepting the fact that we won’t ever catch up to the top areas, settling on areas that are a notch below the best seem like reasonable goals. In Wyoming, you can see which areas are probably coming close to peaking out in their preference point demands by finding areas where 50% or more are applicants are drawing in less than 5 points. We will probably first use our points on one of those hunts, then build back up for at least one general bull elk tag that we have in mind.
I could either be zeroed out on deer points in Wyoming this year or be up to two points depending on how the draw goes. Getting friends to deer hunt with me out of state is much more difficult, but I have a few friends coming out from California this year for a deer and antelope hunt in Wyoming who will at least be in the same boat as me.
Utah is a little easier to plan for, once you accept that you probably won’t ever draw the best units if you haven’t already started accumulating points. They are far enough into their preference system that you can see which units you can draw in about 10 years. Most of Utah takes either nothing to draw or 8-12 points, so if you’re after a good limited area, expect to wait about 10 years for most elk and deer tags.
I presently have no interest in trying to get into one of the quality managed Colorado elk units. I’d rather pull a limited either sex tag every other year or so, and hunt OTC bull tags on off years. One of the advantages to all my data analysis is that I’ve found units that kill a lower percentage of bulls than units 76 and 61, and I don’t have to wait to hunt them. Of course, those elk are much more difficult to get at, but I’d rather take those chances.
Also, I see no difference in the bull quality between units 2, 10 and 201, so if you are waiting for one of those tags, go for unit 10. There’s more elk and therefore more tags, so you’ll draw sooner.
Then there are the short term goals: hunts you can do just about every year. For me, it’s muzzleloader backcountry elk hunting. I’ll cow hunt in the years that I don’t draw a bull tag, then OTC hunt the years I don’t draw a bull tag with either archery or rifle (normally rifle). In the years I do draw the muzzleloader bull tag, I’ll also add a late season leftover cow tag.
For deer, I haven’t settled into a routine yet. After burning my points on a hunt last year, I had 0 this year, so I figured it was a good year to just go ahead and try to draw a 0 point tag in an OTC area for a combo hunt. I’d like to do another high country mule deer hunt in September with rifle equipment, so the only way I’m going to be able to do that is to hunt on 2nd choice tags for the next few years while I build a couple of preference points. Either way, it’s just a short term proposition.
Short term plans are much easier to pull off without much advance planning, and you can be a lot more flexible there. However, it’s those long term goals that you really have to pay attention to now. Think about how old you’re going to be in 20 years. What kind of hunting shape are you going to be in? Is a DIY sheep or moose or mountain goat hunt going to be realistic? If so, then you better start taking steps to accomplish those goals now, and that starts with playing the preference point games. If not, and you’d still like to do one of those hunts, then you may have to accept that a guided Canada or Alaska hunt is the only way to go. And if you can’t presently afford one of those, your short to medium term goal may be figuring out how to save for it.
One last point before I leave you: try to add an antlerless hunt or small vacations in some of the areas you are considering hunting. Many of those top trophy units have pretty easy to draw antlerless hunts. However, some of those areas can be pretty ugly, desert-like places that may not be appealing for your dream hunt. Spend some time pre-scouting those areas to figure out what you like.
Hopefully this article gave you something to think about. I know we all have different philosophies and goals, but if we don’t have a plan on how to accomplish those goals, we will never reach them.