The incredible sights and sounds of the western United States drive thousands of easterners west every fall. It is so hard for the dedicated hunter to turn down the opportunity to hear the bugling of a bull elk on a crisp, autumn morning. Driving along the roadside, seeing a bear scrounging for food. The prairies filled with antelope, and herds of buffalo roaming, as they did hundreds of years ago. The Rocky Mountains with their peaks obstructed with snow and clouds. The rivers swiftly snaking their way through at the base of the mountains. Fly-fisherman fishing with earnest to catch one of the beautiful Rainbow Trout that calls the water home. Close your eyes for a moment and picture all of this. With a little homework, hunting these vast lands is easier than you think.
Unfortunately, many hunters have fallen for the myth that in order to have the opportunity to kill a trophy big-game animal that you must spend thousands of dollars on guide fees. Sure, it helps to have all of the scouting done for you on the best land available before you ever arrive at camp. A warm place to sleep with three meals a day might sound appealing to some. All of these things are nice, but they will not give you the satisfaction you get on a DIY hunt.
For a satisfying hunt that will not break the piggy bank consider a do it yourself hunt. Every year countless big-game animals are taken by hunters, just like you, without the aid of an experienced guide. The thrill of knowing that you and you alone, are responsible for the outcome of the hunt, rather it is good or bad, is an exuberant feeling. Remember, just because you might not harvest an animal that it was a bad hunt. Many guided hunters go home empty handed every year too. It is the memories, being with family and friends, and doing something you have a passion for is what this is all about. Getting the opportunity to wrap a tag around a nice animal is an added luxury.
Once I have decided what type of animal I am going after I turn to the Internet. The World Wide Web is full of useful information for finding all sorts of priceless answers to question that you might have.
The first thing I like to do is look up the Pope and Young records. Depending on what species I want to hunt (elk, deer or antelope) I find which states have the most entries in the last five years and then list the top five states. With the top five states narrowed down, I then find the top 5 units for each state.
Now that I have a short list of where I would like to hunt, I go to those state’s Game and Fish Web Site. Here I can find information for obtaining an application and success rates for obtaining a particular permit. Some application deadlines are as early as January, while others could be mid-summer. Be sure to check closely for application deadlines.
Depending on what animal and area you want to hunt has a lot to do with your chances of being drawn for a tag. Some tags can be difficult to get, possibly taking years of applying before being drawn. The most sought-after units will have a high volume of applications with a very small number of available permits. This is especially true with bull elk and mule deer tags. However, some states sell archery tags over the counter.
It is common for most states to use a point system when awarding tags. What this means is that each year you apply and do not receive a permit you will be awarded a point. As you accumulate points your odds of being drawn increase. Some tags can be drawn the first year without any points, while other units might take up to seven years before you are awarded a tag. The more popular a unit is with hunters, the more points will be needed to get a tag.
Many of the states that use the point system will allow the hunter to buy a point without actually applying for a permit and still be able to apply for another unit with better odds of being drawn. When I have my heart set on hunting the west I will buy a point for a unit that takes years to be drawn for and apply for a permit that is all but guaranteed in another unit. If for some reason I do not get awarded that permit, there are almost always leftover cow elk tags and doe/fawn antelope tags that can be purchased over the counter. Check the Internet after the initial drawing to see what is available. Often times these permits will be for private ground so make sure you have permission before buying one. However, most landowners are more than happy to have cow elk and doe antelope taken off their property before they do more damage to crops and fences. Even when I am drawn for an elk tag, and I know that I will be in an area that has antelope, I will purchase a doe antelope tag if one is available. The same goes when antelope hunting, I will try and get a cow elk tag. Doe and cow tags are inexpensive and will hone your hunting skills with a good chance at success.
Other options that hunters have to find ground to hunt are to talk with other hunters who have hunted this area in the past. If you do not know of anyone personally who has done this type of hunt, the Internet is another good place to look. Hunting forums are all over the web. Most hunters are more than willing to share their knowledge with you. Taxidermists are another good opportunity. Talk with taxidermists in your area and see if they know of anyone who has done a western hunt before.
One of the best ways I have found to hunt private ground is to talk with local game wardens. These guys and gals are full of possible leads. When I first started hunting in Wyoming I contacted the local game warden to see if he knew of any land that might be available for me to antelope hunt on. He gave me the names and numbers of landowners who had an abundance of antelope. The first landowner I called was more than happy to let me hunt without a trespass fee. I killed a nice antelope the first morning and have every year since. Not all landowners will allow you to hunt for free, but many landowners will if it is for a cow elk or a doe antelope.
After you have decided to hunt private or public ground, it is then time to apply for a permit. If you choose to hunt private ground, be sure to secure permission to hunt before applying for a permit.
If you have not already obtained a map for the area that you will be hunting, now is a good time to do so. Most state game agencies have maps in their hunting regulations booklet. If you are not able to find one there, many sites are available on the Internet like the USGS that you can get maps for the area you wish to hunt.
Sit down and scout from home with your maps. Look for food sources, water and possible travel corridors for the animals. Another thing you can do is to find a possible parking area for your vehicle. This will save time once you arrive out west to start scouting.
When meeting with a landowner, have him show you his property boundaries on the map. You do not want to ruin a good hunt by unknowingly trespassing on someone else’s ground.
When hunting public ground, you are apt to have thousands of acres to hunt and you are not likely to see signs letting you know that you are leaving public ground and entering private ground. Study your maps thoroughly before you go and always keep it with you while hunting. I like to keep my maps, licenses and other important papers in zip-loc bags to protect them from moisture.
Depending on your preference and what animal that you will be hunting has a lot to do if you will be camping or staying in a motel.
When I am antelope hunting or chasing cow elk late in the season I always stay in a motel. Most of these hunts will be very close to civilization and the comforts of a warm room and warm food.
Depending on the circumstances of the elk or mule deer hunt I am on helps me decide if I will camp or rent a room. It is an easy decision to camp when chasing elk high in the mountains. A lot of hunting time would be wasted, traveling back and forth to the grounds. Camping is also a must when you have a big bull or buck spotted and all you are waiting for are the right condition for a successful stalk.
You can make the camping experience what you want. Some hunter’s camp with what they can carry in on their back. Others either rent horses or hire local ranchers to pack in camping equipment for a base camp. The choice is yours, depending on your needs and how much money you want to spend.
If you choose to camp there is the added challenge of planning your meals. Do not depend on harvesting an animal for your meals, as you might just go hungry. I like to pack dehydrated food because they are lightweight, inexpensive and easy to prepare, with many different meals available to satisfy your taste buds. Not only is food important, but so is water. I always have a minimum of two canteens full of water when I pack in. And, depending on how heavy my load is, I like to put two 1-liter bottles of water in my pack. Whenever I come upon a stream, I fill my canteens and bottles up with water. Another thing I try to do is always make camp near water.
The weather is unpredictable in the west. Daytime temperatures could be in the 80’s, dropping in the 30’s during night. Throw in the howling winds and it can get downright cold. For a seven-day hunt I like to have three sets of clothing and plenty of extra socks. Do not forget your gloves and stocking caps. For an early season antelope hunt I can normally get away with lightweight clothing. As the season advances and the temperatures drop the heavier my clothing needs to be. If you have questions on what clothing to bring, contact the local DNR office for their advice. One piece of clothing advice I can give you has to do with boots. DO NOT venture on a western hunt with new boots. You are only asking for discomfort and blisters. Always break in your boots; nothing will ruin a hunt quicker than having problems with your feet.
When planning on how many days to take off work for your hunt, give yourself a couple of days prior to the hunt to get settled in and do some scouting. Also, plan for a couple of days after the hunt. If you happen to kill a big bull on the last day of the hunt, it will take a while to get the brute off the mountain. For that reason, I always plan for a couple of days after the hunt too. On the other hand, if you tag out early you can head home early, sightsee, or try and purchase a leftover doe or cow tag. I usually opt for the latter.
Before I ever ventured out west for my first DIY hunt, my big-game hunting was limited to Midwestern whitetails. I was given some advice before my first elk hunt that is worth sharing. If you have never had to pack a big bull elk off the mountain by yourself, you do not know what you are getting yourself into. Many hours and trips back and forth from the elk to your vehicle will take place. This will make the strongest man sluggish. Again, consider making arrangements with a landowner or renting horses in the event you fill your permit. This will save a lot of time, not to mention your back.
Another thing for hunters to consider is what to do with the hide and antlers. Some hunters choose to leave it all out west, have a taxidermist do the work and then ship the finished project to the owner. I go a different route, as I am devoted to my local taxidermist. I like to cape out the hide, taking it to a local taxidermist out west and having the tide tanned. I have the taxidermist ship the tanned hide to me. I always take the antlers home with me. Still, some hunters take the hide and antlers home with them and drop them off to their taxidermist.
Getting the meat home is another thing that will have to be worked out. Because I drive to my destination I always have plenty of coolers. I like to have enough room in the cooler to be able to put plenty of ice in it. I first place a layer of meat in the cooler, cover that with ice, add another layer of meat and top with ice. Every time I stop I drain the cooler and replenish the ice. Once home you can either take the meat to commercial processor or finish the job yourself.
When flying with meat, hides, and antlers, first check with the airlines you are flying with to find their specifications for such items.
The last piece of advice that I have, is to go with your buddies. Even though a DIY hunt is cheap by yourself, sharing the expenses with three other people is even cheaper. You will only have to pay one-fourth of the gas, drive one-fourth of the time, buy one-fourth of the groceries, etc.
Another reason not to go by yourself is for safety reasons. It is always a good idea to have another person with you, especially when hunting unfamiliar territory. If something were to go amiss it is a comfort to know someone is there to help.
I hope the advice I have given you will get you started to an enjoyable DIY hunt. Do not get overwhelmed with too much at once. Take your time, do your research and good hunting.
What to bring?
- First aid kit
- Extra batteries
- Knife and sharpener
- Fold-up saw
- Dehydrated food
- Eating utensils
- Bow and arrows
- Extra sight and release
- Zip-loc bags
- Trash bags
- Maps of hunting area
- GPS system
- Rain gear
- Hunting boots
- Fanny pack
- Emergency blanket
- Pack to carry out meat
- Sleeping bag
- Foot powder
- Three sets of hunting clothes
- Head net
- Ground blind for antelope hunters
- Binoculars and spotting scope
- Toilet paper
- Marking tape
- Blaze orange clothing when required