Hunting the West for Big Game – Part 1 | Zach Bowhay
Hunting the West for Big Game – Part 1
by Zach Bowhay
For guys like me, the idea of going on a hunt for an animal like elk, mule, deer or antelope isn’t that far of a stretch. Where I live you can load up after work and be out hunting any of these species within 20 minutes of home. For guys in the mid-west or even further east it is much more of a trip to plan. Over the next few months, I am going to detail the planning that goes into acquiring the tags you need to go on these hunts. In this first article, I plan on talking about species available, deciding on your personal goals and weapon choices and the time of year these hunts take place. In the next two articles, I will break down the states and there draw systems as well as building a drawing strategy to get the tags you want to reach your hunting goals. Below is an overview to follow for hunting the West for big game.
Elk- If you ask any group of hunters what is top of their list for favorite hunts that they have either been on or want to go on, I would almost bet many those would say elk. For many people, myself included, bugling bulls are near the top of the list when it comes to dream hunts, so they earned the top spot. Elk are abundant from Southwestern states of New Mexico and Arizona clear up through the rocky mountain states like Idaho and Colorado and on up into the Northwestern States like Oregon and Washington. There are many opportunities for elk hunts from places that take years to draw a tag to places where you can simply buy a tag every year and go hunting. Contrary to what many people say, even with the re-introduction of wolves into many states, elk hunting is still excellent across much of the west.
Mule Deer- Also high on that list would be the mule deer. Years ago mule deer were rumored to be dumb and not very hard to hunt. Nowadays, that is far from the case and I would dare to say that there is no harder trophy to kill than a truly big mule deer buck. Although mule deer numbers are not what they once were, they still have a huge range from the desert of Mexico to the northern US border and into Canada. Mule deer can be found from the desert floors of Southwestern states to the 13,000+ foot peaks in Colorado and many terrains in between. No matter where you decide to hunt them it will surely be an unforgettable experience hunting an amazing animal.
Whitetail Deer- From Mexico to Canada and from the prairies to the West Coast, there are numerous possibilities to pursue whitetails. Mexico alone has three species of whitetails: Coues, Carmen Mountain and Texas. In West Texas, you have Texas and Carmen Mountain whitetails. Arizona and New Mexico have ample opportunity for Coues whitetail and New Mexico also has Texas whitetail — albeit not many. The majority of Rocky Mountain states have solid populations of whitetails and tags are readily available. To top off the category, Canada is home to a huge population of whitetails where a trophy is highly likely.
Pronghorn- Or antelope as they are more commonly called in my neck of the woods are a very unique animal. Although sometimes found in strange places like the mountains, these animals are mostly desert dwellers. They have amazing eyesight and lightning speed. They can be challenging to hunt, but they are in my opinion a great hunt to get your feet wet out west. Tags are readily available especially in places like Wyoming and Montana. Success rates are usually high and although frustrating at times, they are very fun to hunt. Many times there is an opportunity at a combo hunt when you are hunting mule deer or elk by adding an antelope hunt at the beginning or end of a hunt.
The Big Three
Hunting the West for big game includes a few — three to be exact — species, where tags are more difficult to draw and hunting them, can be extreme.
Bighorn Sheep- Hunting a sheep in North America is a little more difficult task. Of course, the hunt itself is hard, but getting a tag can be the hardest part of the entire ordeal. That being said, you won’t ever get to hunt one if you don’t apply, so if you can afford to put in, then you should be applying. We will talk in a later article about the right strategy to go about this, but consistency putting in year after year is the key. Drawing a tag your very first year isn’t out of the question either. There are a few different types of sheep found in the western United States, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn, Desert Bighorn and California Bighorn. All of them are beautiful animals that can are usually always found in very unforgiving terrain. So these hunts are not for the faint of heart, but if you get the chance to hunt one it will surely be the experience of a lifetime!
Mountain Goat- Mountain Goats are one of the most under-rated trophies in the world in my opinion. Goats inhabit some of the most amazing yet rugged places in the US. These animals are truly unique and there is no other animal on earth like them. I know from personal experience that they are an absolute blast to hunt and there are many places in the west where draw odds are quite reasonable for a once in a lifetime animal such as this. Like sheep its expensive to play the game, but this animal is worth the price of admission and then some.
Shiras Moose- Moose are BIG, and often grumpy. Most animals will run when you come upon them and sometimes moose do too. They are just as likely to stand there and watch you waiting for you to make a move. Some may say that they are just big dumb animals and I guess sometimes it seems like they are. Most people say that all changes though when you have a tag in your pocket. Finding a big bull then becomes much more of a challenge, and a bull that will usually just stands there will take off running like a cagey whitetail. Hunts for moose can seem like the easiest hunt ever, but sometimes it can be exceptionally difficult. Like goat and sheep tags moose can be very hard to come by, but they are generally the easiest tags to come by as far as the big 3 are concerned. For someone wanting to hunt moose, the time is now to start applying.
Here in the US, we have several different weapon choices you can use on your hunts. The three most common choices for hunting the West for big game are rifle, bow and muzzleloader. There are many good hunts for all three weapon types in most states and there are benefits of each.
Rifle- Hunts, as can be expected, are the most common and often most sought after tags. Because of this, you can also expect to have the lowest draw odds for most quality tags. One really cool thing about rifle hunts is that they are usually always considered “any weapon” hunts. What this means is on these hunts you can hunt with any weapon you choose including your bow or muzzleloader. Don’t let me say that these are the toughest draw odds scare you off though. There are still many hunts that you have a very good chance at even with a rifle as well as hunts in several states for species like elk and deer where you can buy a tag over the counter every year. The one HUGE benefit of rifle hunts is that they usually by far have the highest success rates. So if rifle hunting is your thing, you should have a very good chance of a nice animal in your near future. You can even rent a long-range rifle these days.
Archery- Hunts are fast becoming more and more popular out west. Most states are generous with their archery tags and many times those hunts are long and take place during prime dates. Even at this success rates are often nowhere near as high as any weapon hunts. Draw odds for these tags are usually better than rifle hunts, but with their gaining popularity, they are definitely getting tougher all the time. If you have ever dreamed of bowhunting out west there has never been a better time than right now!
Muzzleloader- Hunters are a minority for sure in today’s hunting world, but like archery hunts, they are gaining steam in the last couple of decades. There draw odds and success rates usually fall somewhere right between that of archery and rifle hunts. As with archery hunts, muzzleloader hunts often times have generous season lengths and quality season dates. One has to be careful though as regulations on what makes a legal muzzleloader vary greatly from state to state. So before you draw a tag and run out and buy a new gun, make sure you find out what regulations are on muzzleloaders in that certain state. Hunting with a muzzleloader can be very exciting as it’s a game of getting close much like archery hunting. If you want better draw odds, but don’t desire to hunt with a bow then a muzzleloader hunt might be right up your alley.
If you plan on hunting the West for big game, there are a few other considerations to factor into you hunt plans.
Season Dates- Most hunts will take place between the middle of August through the end of the year depending on species and weapon choice. Generally, most archery hunts will take place earlier in the fall and rifle hunts will be later. Muzzleloader hunts seem to be scattered depending on states, sometimes they come before rifle hunts other times they are after. For the BIG 3 in many states, the seasons are very generous, for example, if you draw a moose tag in Idaho you have from August 30th to the middle to end of November in most units. So if there is a certain time of year that it’s harder for you to get away than others than the time of year may help you make up your weapon choice. No matter what time of year you decide to hunt the fall season is a beautiful time to visit the western United States and you are sure to have the trip of a lifetime.
Your Personal Goals- Now that we have gone over the seven major species, the weapons you can use on those hunts, and the time of year they take place it’s time to decide on what your personal goals are for hunting out west. Is there one particular species that you desire to hunt or do you want them all. I am sure that like me many of you are planning your hunts with minimal funds so that often times determines where or what you are going to try and hunt. Being an elk guy I put the majority of my money and resources into trying to draw quality elk tags in new areas. However, I do build points and apply for other species when I can. For example, in Arizona, to apply for an elk tag I must buy a $160.00 non -refundable hunting license every year to apply. Once you have that license you can get a point for other species like deer, antelope and sheep for only $15 apiece so building points for them is a no brainer.
Hunting the West for Big Game | Final Thoughts
If you have unlimited funds then, by all means, I would start applying for all species in as many states as you can. Especially since bonus and preference points are the name of the game in most western states anymore. So, drawing quality tags can take years in some cases, so you had better get started. (Don’t get discouraged, this isn’t always the case). If you are like me and don’t have unlimited funds then I would pick one or two of the species that I desire the most and formulate a plan of how to get the right tag to make that dream a reality. In an upcoming article, I will talk about application strategies on how to go about doing just that. For now, though you just need to decide what animals you want to hunt so we can move on in the planning process of getting you the tag you desire, so you can effectively be hunting the West for big game on an annual basis.