Last year proved to be a much better year than some of the folks I interviewed for the 2011 forecast indicated. The optimism of biologists in the Midwest proved to be justified, but the bleak forecast put forth by those in some of the western states was a bit hasty. In fact, most of the West did much better than their respective spokespeople predicted, with great harvest numbers and excellent trophy quality on deer and elk. According to the folks I interviewed this year, 2012 is going to be even better.
I am happy to report that, overall, 2012 should be an excellent year for North American hunters. We may never see the numbers of sheep and mule deer our grandfathers did, but thanks to conservation practices, those species are doing well, and the more common species like elk, deer, and bear have never been in better shape. Those coveted tags take a long time to draw, but don’t let another year pass without applying. The more often you apply, the better your chances of drawing one of those precious once-in-a-lifetime tags.
2011 was another great year for whitetail hunters, with some monster bucks coming out of some unlikely locations.
Indiana, Missouri, and Mississippi all produced Boone & Crockett bucks last year, while Louisiana and Wisconsin each entered two bucks in that prestigious record book. Oklahoma produced the new #191 buck taken in Rogers County, and 15 B&C non-typicals have been taken in the state over the last four years. According to Joel Trammell, director of Whitetails of Oklahoma, 2012 should be another great year thanks to healthy populations, despite a small die-off from blue tongue. Trammell attributes low hunting pressure on both public and private lands as the main reason hunters have been taking so many big bucks. Hunters hoping to bag a Booner in Oklahoma can get tags over-the-counter, and they should focus on the northern and western part of the state for the biggest bucks.
Jeff Schinkten, president of Whitetails Unlimited, predicts a banner year for Wisconsin deer hunters thanks to a mild winter. That’s saying a lot, because the state has produced 158 B&C bucks in the last four years. According to Schinkten, the population is on the increase, and he expects that trend to continue. Buy your tag over-the-counter and head to Buffalo County for Booner bucks, though southwest and central Wisconsin are also great bets.
Barbara Simpson, executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation, says the state’s whitetail herd is in great shape after a very mild winter. Trophy quality is also very good, as evidenced by the fact that Indiana has produced 70 Booners over the last four years. That’s the second most entries over that period. Look to agricultural areas to produce the biggest bucks. Ripley, Ohio, Posey and Hamilton counties in particular have been producing some real monsters.
America’s heartland has been blessed with timely rain the last few years, but Texas is just now recovering from a long drought. If the rains continue, the big buck mecca of south Texas will be in prime shape for the 2012 season. The Texas Hill Country, which is known more for quantity than quality, also looks to be on track for a very good season.
Though they aren’t widely pursued, those hunters who pursue blacktails are a dedicated lot indeed. Many calls and emails after last year’s roundup led me to include them this year.
Pat Fitzmorris, field director of the California Deer Association, said California’s herd is approximately 300,000. The population has been on the decline, but four Booners were taken there last year, and 56 book bucks have been shot over the last four years. With lots of public land and tags available for resident and nonresident hunters, ample hunting opportunities exist, although gaining access to prime trophy ground or drawing a good tag is increasingly difficult. Trinity and Mendocino counties have historically produced some of the state’s best bucks, though Humboldt and Colusa counties also yielded book bucks in 2011.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Michelle Dennehy says that state’s blacktail population is on the decline. It’s hard to get an accurate population estimate because the forests in the western parts of the state are so dense, but Dennehy said an increase in predation and the reduction in timber cutting are the primary reasons for the decline. Currently, blacktails are available with no special draw, but the state is going to revisit their management strategy because of the decline.
I didn’t find a single B&C mule deer entry for 2010 or 2011 from Sonora, Mexico, a consistent producer of B&C-quality mulies over the years. Last year I blamed this on the fact that fewer hunters are traveling south of the border because of the country’s skyrocketing crime rate, and because mule deer quality was down across the country. I am sure both factors are to blame for Mexico’s problems again this year. Unfortunately, the outlook in some of America’s best big-buck hotspots is also a bit bleak.
Colorado has always had a large mule deer herd, and the state has consistently produced more than their fair share of book bucks, too. Thanks to its mix of draw and over-the-counter tags, it’s also a very popular destination for nonresident hunters. According to Carol Ashurst, hunt planner for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the state’s herd is 700,000 strong and doing well. According to Ashurst, GMU 49 has excellent habitat that should produce some very good deer this year, and the eastern plains are always a great bet for trophy bucks.
According to Miles Moretti, CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation, Nevada’s mule deer population is relatively stable, but some areas in the eastern part of the state were hit hard by fires. Deer tags in the Ruby Mountains area are coveted by trophy mule deer hunters, but some parts of the area were hit hard. The state still needs time to determine the impact of the fires, but hunters may want to take a close look at their preferred area before submitting their application. Moretti went on to say that eastern and southeastern parts of the state that were not affected are still prime areas for trophy deer. Lincoln County produced the sole B&C entry from Nevada in 2011.
Utah’s mule deer population is currently estimated at about 250,000 animals, which is well below its high of 350,000. Moretti cites habitat loss, predation and car fatalities as the three main reasons for the decline. Though numbers are down, a mild winter was a nice respite from 2010’s harsh winter, and the population appears to be stable and healthy. Moretti said Utah is doing an excellent job in trying to build habitat and is being proactive in stopping the decline in deer numbers.
Thanks to mild winters, 2011 was a great year to be an elk hunter. My top elk pick, Utah, had another banner year, with three B&C entries, including the new #46. According to Bill Christensen, regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Utah, the state’s population of 60,000–65,000 animals is stable and healthy, and opportunities abound for hunters of every stripe, with seasons for archery, rifle and muzzleloader hunters. Meat hunters can also take advantage of ample over-the-counter spike tags in several areas, and “any bull” units in the South Slope Uinta Mountain Unit. Trophy hunters with enough preference points should focus on traditional big-bull areas like San Juan and Philmore counties.
Wyoming, another great state for elk hunters, has a healthy herd and some excellent trophy areas. The last few winters have been tough, but 2011 was a bit milder, and a statewide food plot program has minimized winterkill. Most of the state is on a draw, but you can buy leftover tags over-the-counter. If you’re after a trophy bull, Areas 7, 100 and 123 are known for producing good bulls, according to Jeff Obrecht, information officer for Wyoming Game & Fish. You stand a better chance of drawing good areas with preference points, but 25 percent of the quota is issued in a random draw, so hunters without points have a chance. If you didn’t put in for 2012, you can apply for preference points from July through September.
According to outfitter Steve Linenbrink of the Bar 5 Ranch, New Mexico’s elk herd is healthy and stable thanks to a mild winter. The state has a mix of landowner permits and state-drawn tags, so the odds of finding a hunt there are very good. He says look to the Reserve and the northern Gila areas for really big bulls.
Wyoming had another good pronghorn season last year, though record-book entries were down to 11 from a whopping 31 in 2010. According to Al Langston, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department’s information specialist, the forecast for 2012 is very good, with excellent habitat across the state and a healthy population of over 400,000 pronghorns. Statewide success averages 90 percent with Carbon, Freemont, Natron and Sweetwater counties producing, on average, the biggest bucks.
Last year, I reported that the outlook for pronghorns in Texas was not good. According to outfitter Hunter Ross of Desert Safaris, the die-off in the Trans Pecos Region hit hard, and the outlook in that part of the state is bleak. However, herds in the Panhandle are on the increase thanks to abundant winter feed in the largely agrarian region. You may not shoot a book buck in Texas, but over-the-counter tags make it a popular destination for sportsmen in search of a quality hunt.
Ross also outfits in New Mexico and said the overall herd is holding steady thanks to an excellent fawn crop. While 2011 was not a record year for big bucks, some traditional big-buck areas like Taos are still producing big bucks, while others, like Vaughn and Roswell, are still recovering from a long drought that saw a significant drop in population and trophy quality. But overall, New Mexico’s pronghorn herd is in great shape.
Four of the five bighorn sheep entered in B&C in 2011 came from Montana, and an impressive 90 book rams have been entered since 2008. But a pneumonia outbreak has sheep numbers down from 6,000 to 5,000 animals over the last two years, according to Kevin Hurley, conservation director of the National Wild Sheep Foundation. The state’s open areas with over-the-counter tags allow hardcore hunters a realistic chance at a ram, and a new $5 super tag, which gives hunters a chance to draw a statewide super tag, means hunters have an extra shot to hunt hard-to-draw areas like the Missouri Breaks for big rams. Other bighorn hot spots include New Mexico’s Taos and Grant counties, Utah’s Grand County, and Elko County in Nevada.
If you don’t want to put in for the draw, you can head north to Alberta or British Columbia for an outfitted hunt. Those bighorn hunts cost north of $20,000, but populations are strong and minimum size restrictions allow hunters to take some nice trophies. But if you plan to hunt in Canada, do your research. Not all sheep outfitters are completely truthful about their success rates. When a guy says that he filled all his sheep tags last year, you need to find out exactly how many hunters it took to do that. Caveat emptor.
Drawing a desert bighorn tag is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, but only if you’re lucky. Very, very lucky. I’ve been putting in for tags in Arizona, Nevada and Utah for as long as I can remember, and all I’ve ever gotten was a stack of nice postcards thanking me for playing. That’s not about to change, but with states like Texas coming on strong, the odds could get just a tiny bit better. According to Hurley, half of the state’s historic range has been retaken, and the population has risen to roughly 1,500 animals. Only 15–17 tags are issued each year, but trophy quality is good and getting better. Last year, two Texas rams made the B&C all-time record book. Nevada issued a whopping 222 tags last year, and it would probably be my first choice if I were just jumping into the application game. Nye and Clark are the top counties for big rams.
If you’re not the patient type, hunting Dall sheep in Alaska is a great way to get your sheep-hunting fix. It’s relatively affordable as sheep hunts go, and you can buy a tag over-the-counter in some darn good areas. According to outfitter Phil Byrd, the sheep population across the state is stable and trophy quality is up thanks to effective predator control. Last year, Alaska produced five new B&C entries and, according to Byrd, 2012 should be another excellent year. Some areas that have done well historically are Chugiak and Tok, though you’ll have to draw there. If you want an over-the-counter tag, the Brooks Range consistently produces very good rams.
Stone sheep are found in B.C. and parts of the Yukon. Stone sheep hunts cost $35,000, on average, so the market is small, but for those well-heeled hunters with a big Stone ram on their mind, populations are stable and in good shape, according to the outfitters I spoke with. As long as they don’t get rained, snowed, or fogged off the mountain, those hunters should do well.
According to outfitter Phil Byrd, 2012 is going to be a great season for moose hunters in Alaska. A harsh winter took a toll on the population, but that was balanced by reduced depredation thanks to a liberalized bear season. Most of the state’s population is holding steady. Byrd said Unit 20 has the highest moose density in the state and has the potential to produce bulls in the 60-inch range. For the best trophy quality, the Koyukuk and Galena areas are proven producers of big bulls, as is Unit 9E on the Alaska Peninsula.
For the best Canada moose, you’ll want to hunt British Columbia. Southern B.C. lacks the size you’ll find in the northern half of the province, but what it lacks in quality, it more than makes up for in quantity. In fact, Ken Watson of Opatcho Lake Guide Outfitters has the highest moose density in B.C. If you’re looking for a bigger bull, hunt farther north with outfitters like BC Safaris or Prophet Muskwa. Prophet Muskwa also has an excellent Yukon area if an Alaska-Yukon moose is on your wish list.
If you want to hunt Shiras moose in the U.S., you’ll need to apply for a permit in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Washington or Wyoming. A limited number of private land permits are available in some states, but most of those tags are drawn only after accumulating a pocketful of preference points. Trophy quality is excellent across the West, with Montana producing three book bulls last season. If you don’t want to spend your preference points on a moose tag, southern B.C. and southern Alberta have excellent Shiras moose. Unfortunately, the Boone & Crockett Club does not recognize them as Shiras moose, but Safari Club and most biologists agree that those moose are, indeed, the Shiras subspecies. I am not too concerned with the record book, and I was tired of applying, so I hunted with outfitter Frank Wesley of Sundown Outfitters last year and took an excellent Shiras bull.
Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Washington all have huntable herds of mountain goats, but Utah consistently produces some of the best billies in North America. In fact, last year the state produced five Boone & Crockett goats, including the new #52. According to Anis Oudy, big-game program coordinator for the Utah DNR, 2012 should be another excellent year for hunters who draw prized tags in top areas like the Tushar Mountains. Beaver, Box Elder, Piute and Weber counties all produced book goats in 2011.
If, like me, you’re too impatient to deal with the draw—and the decades it may take to finally have your name pulled— you can buy mountain goat tags over-the-counter up north in either Alaska or British Columbia. Guided hunts are also relatively affordable, too. Alaska offers everything from backpack adventures to late-season, yacht-based hunts that allow you to live in the lap of luxury until you spot your goat. Once the climbing starts, you’ll sweat, eat freeze-dried food, and sleep on the ground like every other goat hunter, but the good life is nice while it lasts. In British Columbia, horseback hunts in exclusive guide areas offer very high success rates on trophy goats. The coastal areas of B.C. also produce solid numbers of whoppers, too.
Last year I reported that eight Wisconsin counties had produced 70 B&C entries in the preceding five years. Well, they did it again in 2011 with four book bears, including the new #114. And, since I wrote this piece last year, even more black bears were entered. This sleeper state has now booked 109 bears in the last four years! Clearly, Wisconsin has big bears, but it has a large population, too. Unfortunately, it takes four to nine preference points, depending on the area, to get a chance at bagging one of those big Wisconsin bruins. Anyway, 2012 promises to be another excellent season, with Price, Marinette, Chippewa and Barron bear management zones offering the best chance at a brutish cheesehead bear.
If you want a brown bear, you have to go to Alaska. Outfitter Phil Byrd says Unimak is the top choice for a B&C-sized brownie with skulls averaging 26 inches—bigger even than Kodiak bears. Only six permits are issued for Unimak each year, but the chances of taking a book bear there are second to none. Byrd says bear populations are up across the state, so the chances of taking a big bear almost anywhere are pretty good.
British Columbia and Alaska are your only bets for grizzly. Grizzly hunting is once again under fire by anti-hunters in B.C. In Alaska, outfitter Virgil Umphenour of Hunt Alaska predicts an outstanding year in the Nulato Hills area, where he consistently produces book bears. He’s also optimistic about the prospects in his flagship Unalakleet area.