Over the next few weeks, your hunting plans should start to come together. Your final plans should not be just one plan, but building in a series of if “a” then “b” type plans. While there is no cookie cutter for hunt planning, I’ll hopefully be able to give you a few things to think about here. In addition to environmental or other hunting conditions affecting the hunts you’ve been planning for several months (or even years), I use this time of year to look for back up meat tags, for worst case scenarios.
Much of what I want to address is building contingency scenarios into your plans and how to gather information ahead of time so you aren’t surprised. What are you going to do if there’s a fire this summer? What if it doesn’t rain between now and mid October? What if road X is closed? What if I can’t really access the public parcel that I thought I could get to? How will a heavy snow affect my hunt? What if this area that looked good on paper is devoid of game for some reason? What if I’m biting off more than I can chew, and need to find a less physically demanding area? I’m sure there are other scenarios that you can go through (including medical emergencies), so make sure you think about a few things that could ruin your hunt before you head on out.
Regarding fires, much of north central Colorado and southern Wyoming are primed for a good forest fire with all the beetle killed timber those places have. However, these areas got a tremendous amount of snowfall last year and are benefitting from the increased moisture. But how do you keep track of forest fires or determine fire risk and drought impacts? The site I check almost daily is the National Interagency Fire Information Center large fire map at http://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_maps.html . This site also has a drought monitor and you can download fire perimeter maps for use in Google Earth.
I use the NRCS Snotel  site to monitor snowfalls. Last year, with a late season cow elk tag, I figured it would be pointless to hunt until we got enough snow to force them down from the high country that we would have a difficult time accessing with anything more than 6 inches of snow. Knowing elk really need about 16 inches of snow to be forced to lower ground, I simply watched the site, and waited. My partner and I went out the weekend before Christmas when a fresh snowfall indicated we now had 18 inches at the nearest pass, with more coming, and we were immediately rewarded with unsuspecting elk at low elevation two days in a row. You can use those sites, and similar ones to monitor freezes at high altitude, precipitation, accumulated snowfalls, river flows and other useful data.
But how will gathering this data fit into YOUR hunting plans? Looking for information that you can’t or aren’t prepared to utilize is pointless. Will a drought make you look for more permanent bodies of water, and not count on ephemeral streams providing enough water to hold elk in the area? Will an early summer fire in a nearby drainage entice you to hunt there because the green up will attract game, or will a late fire send you looking for someplace else to hunt? Your maps show that there is a seasonal gate on the road you want to hunt off of, have you talked to the forest service or BLM about when they plan to close it?
Many stochastic factors may explain why there’s no game in the area you chose to hunt from afar, or even in an area that you traditionally hunt. I like to build some kind of flexibility into my plans. How many times have you heard hunters whine about the elk being up high this year, or a hoped-for migration not taking place? My question for them is: Why don’t you hunt higher? The usual answer is, “Well…. This is where we always hunt.” Or “we couldn’t move, because we had an outfitter drop our camp here." Or any number of other excuses to stay in camp and drink beer instead of getting out and hunting. The outfitter drop camp is a legitimate excuse, and is the very reason I would avoid using them during later seasons when weather will play more of a factor.
Mid summer is both leftover tag season and scouting season for me, so I’m scouting for both my potential leftover tag areas and still trying to focus on my draw tags. Now that all my drawings are complete, I at least know what time periods are open. Between myself and my girlfriend, we presently have one September bear tag, one muzzleloader (Sept) cow elk tag, 2 Wyoming October antelope doe tags, one 2nd season buck deer tag, one 3rd season buck deer tag, and one 4th season cow elk tag. Neither of us presently have a bull tag, but will likely combo those with our deer tags, despite the fact that I don’t like to do that. If I really wanted to pile on the tags, I could maybe add private land doe tags, but then I’d have to add door knocking and phone calls to my scouting.
This schedule doesn’t leave a lot of room for additional tags, so my focus in looking over the Wyoming deer and antelope leftovers has mostly been on the later seasons. Several units have seasons that go into late November and December, which would work better than trying to add an additional hunt in September, mid October or early November. One other option would be early October, which I haven’t crossed off yet completely. Yet another option for me is to just add more tags to units that neighbor what I have drawn, but that really isn’t an option for white-tailed deer tags.
A problem with adding neighboring unit tags is trying to fill them all in just one weekend. It’s doable, but since our party is growing (again!), and many of the new people will need or want supervision, trying to fill my four tags in two units while also coaching a couple newbies over the Columbus Day weekend can be a bit much.
So here’s my dilemma, and you may want to refer back to some of my meat hunting philosophies for this: I want to already have a full freezer before I go out buck or bull hunting. For Katie, that will be 2nd season, and for me that will be 3rd season. The hunts that I have leading up to those two hunts are my muzzleloader backcountry cow elk, September black bear and the October antelope. I consider only the October antelope hunt to be a sure thing, leaving me with only 70-80 pounds of meat between those two tags I presently have, assuming I finish the rest of the meat I have now. That doesn’t give me much of a cushion in order to be able to be picky about what kind of buck or bull I take.
So what do I do on leftover day? Add to the pressure of having to fill more of my own tags on the Wyoming antelope hunt? Plan for a second weekend of hunting immediately after the group hunt? Or utilize the late season leftovers to fill the freezer when I know I will actually need the meat? That would add some pressure to the hunts when I prefer to just go out and have a good time taking opportunities as they come. As of right now, I’m going to split the difference by picking up just one neighboring unit tag to try to squeeze in during our 3 day weekend hunt. On top of that, I’ll add one late antelope tag and one or two whitetail doe tags whose season overlaps most of the antelope season. So even if I don’t kill an elk or deer here in Colorado, 4-6 Wyoming deer and antelope tags ought to be enough to feed me, leaving me no excuse to go back to Western Nebraska to take advantage of their new, longer, late doe season. Dangit!