This question is for anyone who has dreamt of hunting the West. What if I told you that going on a western adventure every single year was possible? This isn’t just hyperbole; it is a true statement that is attainable by anyone who has the desire to do so. Yes, it takes research and strategy, but I assure you it can be done and doesn’t have to break the bank.
The first step in the process is deciding which species you want to hunt and whether it will be a guided hunt or a do-it-yourself (DIY) hunt. If a hunter wants to hire an outfitter, I simply recommend you decide on the species you want to hunt and start contacting outfitters. Outfitters often operate in areas where they have tags allocated to them that they sell as part of the hunt.
In other cases, tags can be bought over-the-counter or must be acquired through a drawing. Outfitters should be willing and capable to take you through the process of what you need to do to acquire the tags and permits needed to contract their services on a hunt.
If the self-guided DIY hunt is more your bag, then figuring out how to get the tag you need for the species you want to hunt becomes the game. Choose what animals you want to pursue and what weapons you feel comfortable hunting with and start looking for opportunities to get tags.
For example, if all a hunter wants to do is hunt elk or mule deer, there are several states that offer over-the-counter opportunities where a tag can be purchased every year. As much as I recommend hunters going this route and begin hunting as soon as possible, I believe this is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to hunting out west on a regular basis.
I asked Adam Bronson with Epic Outdoors the best advice for someone just getting started. He said, “Hunting in 2020 and beyond will require thinking outside the box more and doing more with less. Meaning, you likely won't fill your hunting schedule with a bunch of great tags every year. Rather, you'll likely have to get more out of general or easy to acquire tags and will have to work and plan harder with them, to get more out of less. Don't wait for only the best tags, get tags and go hunting, and then make the most out of them. Don't be afraid to eat tags if you don't see what you're after. You'll usually still learn plenty from the hunts where you eat your tags, and use what you learn to alter your plans and try again.“
As great as over-the-counter hunts can be, these hunts are often tough and hunting pressure can make them even more difficult. However, they get you in the field and hunting while you start building part two of the strategy. Part two of this strategy is acquiring limited entry tags in areas that will often provide better hunting opportunities and/or bigger trophies.
The process of applying for tags varies greatly by state. States like New Mexico and Idaho have kept their drawings as a random draw where each applicant has the same odds of drawing tags each year regarding their residency status. All the other states have bonus or preference point systems where applicants are rewarded with better odds of drawing tags by applying annually and building points. Some states are true preference point states, where tags are awarded to those with the most points.
In other states, a portion of the tags go to those with the most points and the remainder of the tags go in a random draw. Many states require the purchase of a non-refundable hunting license to be eligible to apply for tags and points. And in other states, purchasing a license is not required to apply for tags and points. Some states also require applicants to front the entire tag fees while others don’t charge tag fees unless they draw a tag.
Brendan Burns, who serves as KUIU’s Chief Hunting Officer likes to keep his application strategy simple: “My application strategy for the west is pretty simple: apply for every species that you want to hunt everywhere you can afford to apply. I plan my schedule every fall for the tags that have reasonable certainty to draw and react to good luck as it happens. You cannot win if you don’t play. “
Those new to the game need to understand that there are some tags that are simply out of reach. With hordes of hunters ahead of them in the points game, they literally will not live long enough to draw some permits. Don’t let this deter you from applying, as there are plenty of tags that are attainable with minimal points as well as some that will take many years to draw. Therein lies the final piece to the western tag puzzle.
I asked Jerrod Lile of Huntin Fool what the best strategy for building points is. He said, “It has never been more important to start building points, but it’s equally as important to not get attached to those points. Hunters shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that their points should create hunting opportunities beyond just building points. Applicants should be willing to use their points, when hunts meet their expectations.”
Find areas you can hunt now, while applying for tags that will get you into the next tier of tags within a few years. This next tier of tags is worthy of applying for as long as your research leads you to believe that you may someday draw while remaining realistic that some tags are simply out of reach. Websites like TopRut are a great resource when it comes to looking at drawing odds that are broken down by state, species, weapon and residency.
For those that find the application process overwhelming, there are companies that will do the legwork for you. Both Huntin Fool and Epic Outdoors offer memberships to their publications that provide a monthly magazine that details harvest stats, draw stats, detailed unit descriptions and more.
Additionally, you will have access to hunt advisors that can provide a deeper insight into hunt areas. If you want to apply for the drawings, but don’t feel like doing the research on your own, both these companies for a fee will build you a draw strategy and submit your applications based on your needs, wants, and budget.
Here are the state specific links to learn more on their regulations and application processes.