Don’t wait for a dream tag for your first western big game hunt. A DIY trip provides valuable experience — and better odds than you might think
The American West is one of our nation’s most prized possessions, long associated with adventure and land that’s as wild as it is beautiful. For many eastern hunters, it’s also a place where dreams can be found in the form of pronghorns scattered across the open landscape, mule deer grazing in high-mountain meadows, and bull elk bugling on cool September mornings. But due to lottery systems and preference points that can be complex, hunting out west is often viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime endeavor by those living east of the 100th Meridian.
It doesn’t have to be. Here’s why you should start planning a western hunt right now.
1. Draw Odds and Point Creep
Many of the West’s most coveted tags are “limited entry,” meaning they require a few (or many) years of applying to draw. The simple reason is if more hunters apply for a tag than there are tags available, then the tag allotment is made by a selection process. In some cases, hunters are selected by a random lottery-style system, where all applicants have equal chances of drawing a tag. However, the majority of limited-entry tags are distributed using a point-system draw. Preference-point systems vary by state. For some, tags are given to applicants with the most points in descending order until all tags are distributed. In others, applicants with points receive a predetermined number of entries into a random drawing; the more points a given hunter has, the more times his or her name is entered into the draw.
Tracking applicant data and draw success rates make it possible to get an idea of the draw odds for a given tag. This information is often available through state game agency websites. When looking at draw odds, keep in mind that there are many potential factors in play. One obviously is the number of applicants. If a large animal is taken out of a particular unit one year, you can almost guarantee a surge in application numbers the following year. Available tags — and the number of applicants for them — can change year to year, too, due to drought, disease, natural disasters and other environmental factors. Researching those things can work in your favor when applying for limited-entry tags.
Point creep is another serious factor in some draws. When the number of applicants dramatically outnumbers the number of available tags year after year, the majority of the applicant pool is awarded a point instead of a tag. As time goes on the number of points required to even have a chance of drawing a tag increases. As a result, there are now some limited-entry hunts in the West where, under the current system, it is statistically impossible for someone in their 30s to hunt more than once in a lifetime, if they start applying now. That certainly isn’t the case for all limited tags, but it’s not unheard of for a tag that was once a 4-year wait to creep up to a 7- or 8-year wait, either.
2. Experience Helps Your Chances
What would you do if you drew a tag for the very best elk hunting unit in the country, tomorrow? Would you know how to scout? Could you establish a high-odds plan after locating a bull and his harem of cows? Do you have the skills to call him in?
What might surprise you is that success rates for hunters in OTC units and limited-entry areas usually aren’t all that different. Draw units might hold better opportunity for trophy-class animals, but if you’re looking for a western hunting experience, go get it now — all the while applying for points and waiting for that dream tag, too. Arrowing a cow elk or dropping the hammer on a fork-horned mule deer buck will help you gain valuable experience and put meat in the freezer. And you’ll be better prepared when you do finally draw that tag you’ve been applying toward for years.
3. Technology Makes It Easier
When I hunted the West for the first time almost 20 years ago, it was a far more daunting task than it is today. Scouting was done on printed maps, and research was typically limited to word of mouth and a call to a state wildlife biologist. Luckily for me that first elk hunt in the Rockies was with family and friends who had already had a decade of experience. Today’s information is much easier to come by online, and through resources like GoHunt, Huntin’ Fool, onX Hunt, and more that provide specialized information and services to help you research both OTC and limited-entry hunt opportunities. They make it relatively easy to plan a DIY western hunt while also strategizing for future dream hunts.
Traveling out of state — and potentially across the country — to hunt for the first time is a big step for anyone whose typical season consists of chasing whitetails close to home. If heading to the mountains in search of elk seems like too large of a leap, build up to it. Start by taking a whitetail hunt in a part of the country you’ve never been to before, or pick a high-odds opportunity like a rifle hunt for pronghorns. That experience will help build the confidence needed to take bigger hunts, farther from home, while at the same time developing your skills.
All that will prove indispensable when you finally draw the tag you’d never thought possible.