With massive predation, horrific winterkill, and the effects of poor nutrition caused by way too many consecutive drought years, the West is suffering under a triad of conditions adverse to healthy big-game populations. That said, you can still have a good Western hunt this fall. You’ll need to do more research, search a little harder for an over-the-counter (OTC) tag or leftover permit, and hunt like you mean it, but it can be done. After conversations with state biologists and wildlife managers in nine different states, here’s our analysis of what you can expect for big game hunting, along with a few backstage pointers for success.
- <h2>Arizona</h2>In Arizona, finding public land to hunt isn’t an issue, getting the darn tag is. Once that lovely moisture-resistant piece of paper slides in your wallet where the photo of your wife and kids usually sits, all you’ve got to do is put in some scouting time. If you live too far away for weekend trips, consider hiring an outfitter. <p> <strong>Elk</strong> <br> Populations in Arizona burgeon unless controlled through hunting. Overall, there are 25,000 to 30,000 adult elk in the state. According to Big Game Management Supervisor Amber Munig, the best trophy quality is usually found in units 1, 9, 10, and 23, where the herds are managed for older age-class bulls and higher bull-to-cow ratios. Populations have exploded in units 1 and 27 due to the Wallow Fire of 2011, the aftermath of which created a massive amount of habitat favorable to elk. <p> Another area with a growing population is unit 6A. Managed aggressively for some 15 or 20 years to keep the elk from degrading habitat, recent improvements in habitat allow an increased carrying capacity, so the population is being allowed to grow somewhat. <p> Of course, those desirable units are absurdly hard to draw. Better odds exist for the late season hunt that occurs across most of the state. You’ll be up against more hunter pressure and tired, solitary bulls, but hard hunters will bring home some very good bulls this fall, especially if moisture patterns continue to be plentiful this year. <p> Unknown to most hunters, Arizona does offer an OTC-type tag. They are for what Munig termed “fringe” areas, where a few elk have obtained a toehold even though the state doesn’t want them there. Called “Non-permit” tags, there’s a special table in the regs for them. Poor habitat and very low populations make for a low-success hunt, but hey, there’s a chance. And even though not many bulls are shot from fringe areas, each year a few nice mature bulls are brought in. Look to the Little Colorado River area near Winslow and Holbrook. <p> <strong>Deer</strong> <br> Arguably the best trophy mule deer unit in the world, Arizona’s “Strip” (units 13A and 13B) along the northern border is spectacular in both deer quality and the difficulty of drawing. But if you want to hunt legitimate 200-plus-inch mule deer in your life, you gotta try. For a more likely draw, consider Coues deer in the southern part of the state. <p> If you just want to hunt deer in Arizona, purchase an OTC archery tag. It’s good for all the general seasons in the state (of which there are several, in early fall, late fall, and mid-winter), and for all units except the limited draw areas. The best time to hunt is probably during the Dec./Jan. rut. Some good Coues deer rut hunting is found in the southeast part of the state. <p> <strong>Antelope</strong> <br> Tied with New Mexico, the Grand Canyon state is one of the top two trophy-producing antelope states. Populations are stable to increasing, with around 12,000 statewide. Munig said that Arizona has no top-level objective—the state is always working to increase the pronghorn population. Application service Huntin’ Fool puts units 5B and 10 at the top of the list, and great hunting is found on both public and private land. Accessing the latter will usually require paying an access fee or hiring an outfitter, but you’ll contend with less hunter pressure. Tags are only available through the draw.