If the urge to hunt the Rocky Mountains, the craggy badlands, or the sweeping prairies has risen inside you to a point where you can’t contain it, it’s time to get moving and plan your first western big game hunt. Here’s how to go about it.
Is it Your Time to Take a Western Big Game Hunt?
It may be five, ten, even 15 years after you first pick up a gun or bow, but for almost every hunter living East of the Mississippi, there comes a time when you know you can’t control the longing any more. It’s time to make that first western big game hunt.
This is no reflection on your love of hunting whitetails, turkeys, squirrels, and ducks back East. It’s simply the thirst to expand your hunting sphere in a way that can only be quenched by a trip West to experience the grandeur of that vast setting and a new, intriguing game species. A book could be written on this subject, but here in a nutshell are some of the key things to consider as you plan your first western big game hunt.
Planning & Timing the Hunt is Important
It may be too late in some states to obtain licenses for certain species and special permits. But that’s fine. Other licenses are still available, sometimes up until the day of the hunt. And the fact is, it’s really not too early to start planning now for next year.
Researching What, Where & When to Hunt
This is the first step and requires lots of time and effort. Fortunately, much of this can be done on the internet today, instead of by writing letters and waiting for answers and packets to come in the mail. All states and many regions, counties, tourism groups, chambers of commerce, and guide associations have either material on the web or pamphlets and brochures they can send to get you started. For example Colorado Parks & Wildlife provides a Big Game Hunting Planner. Many satellite and topographic maps are also available online. Focus on a few prospective areas, and then get all the information you can, including highway, BLM, topo, and satellite imagery maps.
Tip: Game and fish departments will send you their regulations for each species for free with maps, quotas, time frames for applications, fee information, and lots of contact addresses for additional help. Select a few states you’ve thought about hunting and take this step right away to get started.
Where to Hunt
The decision of where to go will depend a lot on what species you are interested in hunting, whether you’d like to hire an outfitter or go on your own, and how late in the year the licenses are still available in that state. Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Idaho top most hunters’ lists and offer the true essence of a western hunting experience. But don’t overlook other top destinations such as Arizona, South Dakota, Nebraska, Utah, Washington, and Oregon.
Tip: Once you focus on a state, start narrowing it down to a region, then a specific mountain range, county or other more specific area. You need to get the most focused data available to help your hunt be as successful and enjoyable as possible.
Deciding Which Big Game Species to Hunt
Deciding what species to go after is a sweet but difficult decision. Of course eventually you’ll probably want to hunt them all, if possible. Some game animals such as bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and moose, however, can be difficult to draw licenses for and expensive to hunt.
The top species for a first or second-time hunt in the West for most sportsmen would be mule deer, pronghorn (antelope), and elk. Elk hunts will be higher priced and more time-consuming, with 7-10 day hunts often typical. In many cases you can hunt pronghorn and enjoy a great trip in just 3-4 days. Doubling up and going after mule deer as well requires a 5-7 day hunt to have good odds for success.
Tip: Don’t neglect the idea of hunting black bears, either as your main species sought or as a possible second animal. In many states you can purchase a bear tag for a reasonable fee and have it in your pocket if the opportunity for taking a good animal arises. And if you just focus on bears, a spot-and-stalk hunt is a truly unique western experience.
Hiring a Hunting Guide or On Your Own
This is a major decision, with pros and cons for each choice. Finances are clearly a factor. Time available is another thing to consider. Do you have days to devote to scouting, getting equipment organized and locating prime areas? A good guide will do all that for you ahead of time.
On the other hand, some people simply get more satisfaction from planning and executing the hunt totally on their own. You can hunt exactly the way you choose, as hard as you like, in the style you prefer—and save money in the process.
Tip: Yes, you’re in control. But realize that success rates for self-guided hunters are always lower. If you’re okay with that, fine. Go for it.
Think about this early in the decision process. Will you fly and rent a car? Be picked up by the outfitter at an airport? Drive the whole way? If flights are involved, the earlier you book the trip, the better the chance for obtaining the lowest fares.
Driving is a good option with no hassle from airport parking, security, checking bags, etc. This is a particularly good choice if you have a group and can split up the driving without having to stop overnight.
Consider Your Budget
Plan out a realistic budget by figuring all the basics of the trip and round up. Make sure you include the cost of tags, food, fuel (suggest you factor 5-10% higher cost in case gas goes up), transportation, guide services (if that's what you decide to do), meat processing fees. Also budget for miscellaneous stuff such as an article of clothing you could forget or extra lodging in case of bad weather. Just allow yourself enough expense cushion for the what if's.
Time Off Work & Physical Conditioning
Be sure to correlate the dates of your hunt with a time you can get off work and request that well in advance of your trip.
Let’s face it. The type of hunting many sportsmen do for big game back east is not too physically demanding. We sneak into a treestand or blind. And we sit. Sometimes we call or lay a scent trail for bucks. But none of this gets us in the best physical shape.
Western hunting can be far more demanding on the body. Start an exercise program at least three months before the trip. Start with simple activities, and then expand it to more arduous cardiopulmonary workouts. I've gathered a few links to tips to help you to get started.
Tip: Be sure to get a physical before the hunt if you haven’t had one recently. This is especially important if you’re over 40 years old. Get your doctor’s approval for the type of activity you expect to be involved in. This can vary from modestly hard for pronghorns on the prairie to extremely difficult for elk in steep mountains.
Follow these planning tips and you should be able to enjoy a western hunt that can be relived with rich memories for years to come, and one that will draw you back to those unique regions again and again for other hunting adventures.
States with Western Big Game Hunts
Alaska Department of Fish & Game (907) 465-4190
Arizona Game and Fish (602) 942-3000
California Department of Fish & Game (916) 928-5805
Colorado Division of Wildlife (303) 297-1192
Idaho Fish & Game (208) 334-3700
Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks (620) 672-5911
Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (406) 444-2612
Nebraska Game & Parks Commission (402) 471-0641
Nevada Department of Wildlife (775) 688-1500
New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (505) 476-8000
North Dakota Game & Fish Department (701) 328-6300
Oklahoma Dept of Wildlife Conservation (405) 521-2739
Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (800) 720-6339
South Dakota Game Fish & Parks (605) 773-3485
Texas Parks & Wildlife (800) 792-1112
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (801) 538-4700
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (360) 902-2200
Wyoming Game & Fish (307) 777-4600