Hunting out west is a dream for many hunters. The images of foggy aspen-lined canyons full of bugling elk, and the unmistakable outline of a mule deer rack rising from a coulee against a sunset are the sorts of things that keep hunters awake at night. Hunting the West has the perception of being more difficult to do, especially for hunters from the East who are able to buy their tags on demand, where quotas don’t exist, and hunting spots are often passed down through generations. While many spots rely on tag lotteries, and more planning is required to trek the West hunting elk, even now there’s still time to make plans to make hunting the West a reality.
How to get tags
Of course, if you’re wanting to hunt the West, you’re going to need a license or tag to do so, and while many people think the West is locked up in tag lotteries that closed weeks or months ago, that isn’t always the case.
Just because a state has a tag lottery doesn’t mean every available tag is claimed in that lottery. Leftover tags are available in many areas of the West. While these tags may not be in the most trophy-rich areas, if you aren’t dead set on needing a record-book animal, leftover tags may be the way to go. These tags may even be available at a reduced rate.
OTC – Over the counter
There are still plenty of big game tags in the West that are available over the counter. This makes access to the tags simple, but creates a new problem. Because the tags are so easily available, it’s also where many travelling hunters tend to go. This means more crowded areas and more pressured game. If it’s more about the experience than the trophy, this may be your best bet.
Landowner vouchers and the regulations that go along with them vary greatly from one state to the next, so this will mean the most research and planning for you, but they are out there and available. These tags are often more expensive than other tag opportunities, but if you still want to make a hunt happen for this year, and you’re wanting to score a real trophy, this might be the way to go.
Where to hunt
So, you’ve got your tags figured out, now where do you plan to fill them? Finding land to hunt, especially when that land is a full day’s drive away, is always the hard part of a hunt. Don’t forget that your tag may be limited to use in a specific area or unit, so pay attention to make sure you’re looking for access in the right spot.
The West, far more than the East, offers large tracts of public land that is open to hunters. You may find huntable tracts on Bureau of Land Management areas as well as state or national forests. Availability is great, but if it’s easy for you to get onto, it’s easy for everyone else too. You may need to put in more time to avoid seeing more hunters than game.
If you’re not on public ground, then someone owns it, and that means it’s private. Many Western states have walk-in access areas where landowners have granted blanket access to hunters. If you want to knock on doors and do a scouting trip, you may even be able to find land to hunt that is otherwise closed to hunters. It just depends how much time you have to invest. Regional game wardens and biologists may be able to help you narrow your search to areas that are likely to be productive.
What to hunt
With those considerations out of the way, you can start to drill down into what kind of hunt is going to work for you. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the options that you may be able to take advantage of out west yet this year.
If you don’t mind paying a trespass fee, you can probably score a leftover doe/fawn tag for pronghorn in Wyoming. South Dakota has over-the-counter archery tags and a lot of public or free land. It’s not an easy hunt with archery tackle, but you could score a great animal. Colorado has landowner tag options, and the chance at a monster buck is real, but so is the effect on your wallet.
Just like pronghorn, you can find OTC tags in South Dakota for archery gear, but be aware that public ground is closed to non-residents until October. Idaho has OTC tags available as well, and an abundance of public ground. Keep in mind, Idaho is big country so you could put in a lot of time and come home empty-handed, but the chance at a trophy is real too. And so are bears. Remember what we talked about in Colorado for pronghorn? It applies to deer as well.
When we talk about Western hunting, this is the animal that probably came to mind. Once again, we look at the OTC options in Idaho. Lots of land, lots of elk, lots of hunters. Utah has similar opportunities in some spike/cow-only units if you’re looking to fill the freezer. Arizona is home to some truly remarkable trophy bulls, and landowner tags are an option. Keep in mind, trophy animals and no-draw mean the costs can go up in a hurry.
Once you know you have a tag and where you’ll be hunting, how do you make sure that your trip out West will result in actually filling that tag? Scouting from a distance is difficult, no doubt about it. Let’s talk about how you can increase your odds for this last-minute trip to hunt out West.
In recent years a lot of apps have been developed specifically for hunters. We won’t list them all here, but a quick search in your app store will yield a lot of results. Talk to other hunters and see what they use, or look at reviews on forums you trust. You can get a lot of information from these apps that are doing some of the hard work for you.
If you can swing it, there’s no substitute for putting boots on the ground. Even if it’s only a few days to get your bearings in the area you’ll be hunting. Any time you can save finding a good place to stay or spot to grab breakfast is something you won’t have to do once the season is open. Take good notes. This isn’t familiar country, and even though you think you’ll remember, you probably won’t.
If you do make the trip, take the opportunity to set some cameras. Best-case scenario you can use cellular cameras so you can get the updates as the season approaches rather than having to collect the cameras and pour through weeks or months of images looking for a pattern when you arrive to hunt. The shortened timetable of your trip may not let you focus on one animal, but it will at least let you set reasonable expectations based on real intelligence of what animals are in the area, as well as provide invaluable insight into how the animals are using the area.
It’s not too late to plan a trip to hunt out west. There are hurdles, for sure, but if you can be flexible, able to keep an open mind, and put in a little bit of work, you can make it happen. Maybe looking into a trip this fall, you decide that you don’t want to rush it? At least you’ll have a head start on planning for next year.