April 25, 2016
Interested in living your own Western big game hunting dreams? Then know that such dreams actually start and finish with the first step of acquiring a valid tag for the species you want to hunt.
In my early days, I knew little about the process of researching units and their draw odds, applying for tags in various state drawings and what to do if I actually drew.
But over time, I learned the ropes and acquired a garage full of lightweight camping equipment and hunting gear helping me turn dreams into adventures.
Along the way I asked questions and listened to the hard-earned advice of such Western big game hunters as Jim Welles of New Mexico, Mike Barron and Orvie Cantrell Jr. of Texas, Larry Altimus of Arizona and Cameron Hanes of Oregon.
Add in a key friendship with Colorado outdoor writer and big game bowhunter Brian Strickland and the learning curve for Western big game hunting gradually became less and less steep for yours truly.
Even if the mountains never really did.
Heck, once upon a time, I even beat literal lottery-style draw odds and drew one of the most coveted elk bowhunting tags in all of the American West.
The tag was so good, I found out that I had a real chance to arrow the bull of a lifetime in Utah with scores soaring from 350 inches on up towards the fabled 400-inch mark.
Unfortunately, days before I headed out the door, the tag of a lifetime got sabotaged by unexpected health trouble and subsequent surgery.
But that's behind me now and I've continued to head west as opportunity allows. And not a year goes by I don't take the latest Big Game issue of Bowhunter magazine and dream and plan for another western adventure.
And you can too, if you'll follow these 10 Commandments for drawing a big game hunting tag in the wild, wild American west:
1. Plan Ahead - While you can draw a tag the first year that you apply (I did for mule deer), obtaining a tag is usually not a one-year deal. Research what you want to hunt, where you want to hunt and then formulate a strategy to secure such a tag. And consider your Plan B options for over-the-counter tags, leftover tags and even private land hunts if you fail to draw a first choice tag.
2. Be Persistent - Remember the Utah elk tag I mentioned above? I drew that with a small amount of preference points and despite the fact that only two non-resident tags were offered for that particular unit that year. Had I let the long odds of drawing (I might have had a better chance to win a Powerball jackpot in all honesty), I might not have applied. But I did, reasoning that someone was going to draw and it might as well be me. And do you know what? It was!
3. Play the Points Game - I'll admit that the preference point and/or bonus point game can be complex and demanding from state to state, not to mention expensive. But using these point systems helps a hunter's odds of drawing to increase with each passing year. Some states do force a hunter to buy a hunting license, but in some cases, such an investment can be worth it in the long run when the tag of a lifetime gets drawn.
4. Submit Numerous Applications: I'll admit I'm a man of modest means. But that didn't stop me from dreaming big or putting in as many tag applications as the budget (and my wife, the family CFO) would allow. Eventually, I started using a tag draw service that fronted the application fees up front, enabling me to increase my potential draw options each spring.
Dream of hunting big game out west? Then follow the 10 commandments in this story in terms of upping the odds for drawing a tag. One of those commands is to apply for easier to draw primitive weapon tag options when available. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
5. Use Primitive Weapons: Want to hunt the huge pronghorn antelope bucks a state like New Mexico is known for? Well, if you want to do that with a rifle, good luck because you're going to need it with steep draw odds in many units. But by opting for primitive weapon tags (bows and muzzleloaders) when available, your draw odds will increase since fewer hunters typically apply for such tags.
6. Select Lesser Known Units: Using the example above, say you want to hunt big mule deer in Utah, maybe in one of the state's premiere units like the Paunsaugunt or Book Cliffs. Again, good luck because a lot of folks will be putting their ticket into the hopper as well. But if you look for units with lesser quality animals on average, difficult access to those units or something else that might keep the hunting masses away, then sometimes, a tag can be easier to draw. And if you're on the mountain with a tag in your back pocket, you've got a chance to make a hunting dream come true.
7. Use the Party Application: When offered, use the buddy system or party application process. That way, if you are drawn, you've got a buddy to share the adventure with and a means of keeping trip expenses down.
8. Consider an Outfitter: Since some states give preference to hunters who have contracted with a state-approved hunting outfitter or guide, consider that draw odds can go up considerably if you're willing to book a trip.
9. Dot the I's, Cross the T's: Make sure applications are filled out correctly and online requirements have been met before hitting the submit button. Most states reject applications – and don't offer a chance to correct mistakes – when such applications aren't filled out properly or all prerequisites are not met.
10. Don't Miss the Deadline: This one is simple. If you want a chance to draw a tag, get the application completed before a state's deadline. No matter how compelling your reason might be, there simply isn't a second chance (until the following year) for a hunter who misses a tag deadline.
While this list of ideas isn't exhaustive, it can help a hunter begin moving down the path in the right direction towards fulfilling a dream to chase elk, mule deer and antelope in the high country of the American West.
The bottom line is that if you want to play this game, then acquiring a hunting permit and valid tag is an absolute must.
And no matter how steep the odds might be, jump in and play the game as best as you can because somebody is ultimately going to draw.
Maybe even a guy from the state of Texas.