Shortly before early-season Western hunts begin, depression can start to set in if you’re on the outside looking in without a tag in hand.
If you love to bowhunt, muzzleloader hunt or rifle hunt the prairies, foothills and mountains of America’s Rocky Mountain West, that is and don’t have a tag to the big hunting party that starts in August and continues until late in the year.
I know about that depression, having put into the annual late winter and spring tag draw cycles in a number of states, only to come up empty.
So what do you do when Plan A is a no-go and Plan B isn’t looking too good either?
Simple; you draw up plans for a Plan C kind of fall – as I like to call it – and get ready to go hunting.
1. Get a Leftover Tag: While numerous hunters know the disappointment of failing to draw a coveted tag – say an elk tag in Utah or Arizona – that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
So says Outdoor Channel television personality Ralph Cianciarulo, who co-hosts the Archer’s Choice and The Choice programs with his wife, Vicki.
“So you didn’t draw?” queries Ralph. “Well, now is the time to get on the Internet and see which state has leftover tags! Yes, many states do have this (option available) and normally it’s on a first come first serve basis.”
Some states sell those remaining tags, so be sure to explore this as a possible option in the state you want to hunt for critters like antelope, mule deer and elk.
Do be forewarned that what you’re looking for is a chance to get out and go hunting – don’t expect to find a golden ticket tag into a premium unit offering the chance to kill an 80-inch speed goat, a 200-inch mountain monarch mulie or a 350-inch bull elk.
While such animals are occasionally taken by hunters using leftover tags, more often than not, you’re looking to tag a legal animal that saunters by, not the buck or bull of a lifetime.
2. Go Private: If you failed to draw a tag – and if the above option is no longer available in the state you wish to hunt – see if the option of purchasing a private landowner hunt is still available.
In states like Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, hunters who have some surplus cash in their bank account can still find an opportunity to go hunting.
“Most western states also have land owner vouchers and sometimes these come at a premium price, but if you got it (in your wallet) you can still hunt some premiere areas,” said Ralph.
Where does a hunter find such options? Years ago, I used to scout the online classified ads in the “Hunting Land and Lease” section of major metropolitan Western newspapers for potential hunts.
Today, there are plenty of smartphone apps and numerous websites and online forums (an example is the www.TexasHuntingForum.com site where an October antelope hunt tag or private-land mule deer hunt package can be found) that provide potential starting points to purchase a private ground voucher or tag.
“There are also services that help you to not only apply for tags early in the year, but give you options if you don’t draw,” said Ralph. “This can be a great investment for you to keep hunting on those tagless draw years.”
3. Consider an Outfitted Hunt: Sometimes, even at this late date, there are outfitted hunts still available in certain Western states. Those come by way of hunts that have yet to sell, cancellation hunts or even Over the Counter (OTC) tag options.
In terms of the latter, my outdoor writing buddy, Brian Strickland, my good friend, Dave Price, and yours truly took advantage of this option a few years ago by booking a drop-camp hunt in Colorado. What’s more, it wasn’t until late July booked the hunt, if memory serves correct.
After being packed in (on horseback) nearly 10 miles deep into a rugged mountain range by a local outfitter, we set up camp and hunted September elk on OTC tags for the next nine days, never seeing another human being in the process.
While we didn’t tag an elk during a season where warm and dry conditions were conspiring to keep few bulls bugling, we were able to chase a few (including a 300-class bull who posed on top of a ridge one evening) up and down the rugged mountain terrain.
In a year when I thought I wasn’t going to be elk hunting, I might add.
What’s more, my pal, Strickland, had a mule deer tag for this particular unit and spent the entire week chasing a 200-inch velvet mulie he still dreams about to this day.
Unfortunately, it was Dave and I who actually got within shooting range of this mountain monarch, less than 50 yards from our spike camp! But alas, we had only OTC elk tags in our back pocket, providing a hunting story that the three of us still talk about to this day.
4. Do Your Homework: If a Plan C hunt is something you’re determined to pull off, you’ve got plenty of homework to do and very little time to do it.
For starters, you will need to collect information and data from wildlife biologists, unit managers, game wardens, other hunters and just about anyone who can help you figure out where to start your search for the big game critter that you’re hunting. What you want are good notes that help you hit the ground running as you look for a buck or bull to hunt.
You’ll also want to spend plenty of time looking at aerial maps from sources like Google Earth – especially the archived historical satellite photos – to know the lay of the land where you’re hunting.
And don’t forget to know the legal boundaries of the spot you’re hunting as well. That came into play for me a few years ago on an antelope hunt. Unfortunately, the mid-80s pronghorn buck I had my sights set on was over the line and I was never able to get close to him.
“There are many apps out there that show you public and private land boundaries,” said Ralph Cianciarulo. “A little research with them and you can find some incredible hunting opps on some BLM land that has a very limited access. We have used this in the past to take some great Western animals on public land.”
Ralph says to keep in mind that some of these tactics being discussed in this story can also work for a Plan C whitetail hunting.
“Across the Midwest (where we live), a quick search can put you on some awesome state ground with great whitetail action,” he said. “You just need to use the satellite photos to help pin point the funnels or pinch points to and from the feeding and bedding areas (and you can be in business).”
5. Secure Good Equipment: I won’t belabor this point too much, but oftentimes, when hunting big game out West, you’re hunting experience may be closely tied to the quality of the gear that you’re using.
From the breathability of a backpack tent to the weight of a sleeping bag and inflatable mattress to the clarity in low light of a pair of hunting optics, spend as much as your budget allows and buy the best bombproof gear your budget will allow.
While such gear may not be entirely responsible for your success or failure on a Plan C kind of hunt, you don’t want to find out too late it was the deciding factor.
6. Practice with Your Weapon: Again, I won’t belabor the point here. But I will note it doesn’t make much sense to come up with a Plan C option, spend the money to travel and hunt, finally get an opportunity at taking a buck or bull and not succeed because you missed the shot.
Put in plenty of time on the practice range with your bow, muzzleloader or rifle and be able to calmly seal the deal should an opportunity present itself.
7. Go Hunting and Have Fun: At this stage in the game, just getting to enjoy a Western big game hunt is the name of the game.
So keep your expectations realistic, do your best, enjoy the camaraderie of hunting buddies and hope for the best.
And smile, laugh and have a lot of fun in the process too. Because who knows what kind of memories you will be able to still create.
“No matter what, don’t be disheartened,” said Ralph. “There are many options (to potentially still explore), you just need to use that Internet and get those fingers - or in my case a single finger – typing on that keyboard.”
Because if you do, who knows how your fall may end up? Even on a Plan C kind of hunt, it might be the hunt of a lifetime.