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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Randy Hampton, elk populations in the Centennial State have declined. However, unlike other declines in animal numbers, this reduction was by intentional management, and the elk herd, which now stands at a staggering 265,000 animals or so, is currently at department objectives. A few very difficult-to-draw units offer trophy elk quality close to that of Utah and Arizona. Me, I’d rather have a legitimate chance to shoot a mature five- or six-point bull every year, and that’s what the bulk of Colorado’s units offer. Aside from the September archery and muzzleloader hunts, there are four separate rifle elk seasons that span October and early November. The first and last seasons usually require a point or two to draw, but tags for the second and third season may be purchased over the counter. Look to the western border units and southwestern units for good populations and plentiful public land or hunt the state’s biggest herd (the White River herd, north of Glenwood), particularly if you’re man enough to saddle up your backpack and penetrate the Flat Tops wilderness.
Mule deer populations took a severe hit during the recent hard winters, and some legendary portions of the state are still in pretty poor shape. Population numbers are currently hanging at about 420,000, which sounds like a lot, but biologists hope to bring it up. Statewide success rate is 45 percent, but tags must be drawn, although there are usually a few leftover tags available on a first-come, first-served basis. Really good units can be harder to draw than an impacted wisdom tooth, but many offer a legitimate chance at 180-inch deer if you do your scouting and hunt hard or hire an outfitter. For physically fit hunters, early season high-country hunts—at and above timberline—are easier to draw and make for a brutally demanding but fantastic hunt in stunning country.
The beauty of Colorado is that any of the areas can provide good hunting and trophy bucks. In the words of Hampton, “If you want deer, get a quarter-mile off the road; if you want elk, get a half-mile off the road. Get off the ATV and use your feet.”
Monster bucks are killed over much of the eastern half of the state, too, but it’s primarily a private land endeavor. Because of this, hunters must first obtain permission—in writing—before attempting to draw a coveted tag to chase these open country bruisers. If you’re determined to hunt eastern Colorado, you’re better off hiring an outfitter that has already gained access to landowner tags.
Elk and deer get most of the attention from visiting hunters, but don’t forget that Colorado is also home to some 70,000 antelope. Much of the population roams private land, and while trophy quality is not that of New Mexico or Arizona or even Wyoming, good bucks are taken every year by prairie hunters. Be sure to find a good public-land area or obtain permission to private land before applying for an antelope tag.
Numbers across the Cowboy State are trending up except in the wolf-inhabited areas around Yellowstone. In fact, 2012 saw the highest harvest number on record, with hunter success an incredible 45 percent. Hopefully, 2013 will follow suit.
Due to long-term drought and the wolves, season duration has been shortened in some areas, particularly in regions north of Cody. Other areas south of Yellowstone are still very good, according to State Wildlife Information Specialist Al Langston. Elk numbers across the southern and southeastern parts of the state are high, and though access can be an issue because much of the units are on private land, once that access is gained, hunting can be excellent.
No OTC permits are given to nonresidents, although there are occasionally leftover tags sold on a first-come, first-served basis after the draw. Be aware, most of them are for private land areas or wilderness, where nonresidents are required to have a guide.
Nonresidents may apply for a premium, limited draw elk tag as a first choice and a general-season tag as a second, with the benefit of drawing a preference point if they don’t get their first choice. It’s a great way to get to hunt the general season every year or two while building points toward a great trophy unit. If you want to virtually guarantee drawing the general-season tag, pay the extra dollars (almost double) for the “special” elk tag, which just means you get favoritism for the general-season tag. Mercenary, yes, but hey, it gives you a better chance if you’re willing to pay for it.
Wyoming allows hunters holding a rifle tag to purchase an archery license, which offers additional advantages for those with lots of vacation time.
Whitetail populations are burgeoning across the state, and very good hunting can be had on central Wyoming private land if hunters are willing to knock on some doors and pay trespass fees. The best public-land whitetail area is the Black Hills in the northeastern part of the state. There, numbers are down from a couple of bad winters and some disease, but good hunting can still be found. Mule deer are struggling. The state has suffered badly from winterkill, habitat loss, predation, and the other myriad factors that adversely affect mule deer. As Langston explained, without several consecutive years of good moisture, the bitterbrush, mountain mahogany, and other browse preferred by mule deer can’t put on the fresh growth needed to support high recruitment.
That said, the northwest part of the state, just east of Yellowstone, still offers some good trophy hunting, especially if you’re willing to fork over the funds and hire an outfitter to take you into the wilderness areas. It’s a migration hunt, so having that access to the wilderness can make or break your success. Though nonresidents may obtain tags only through a draw, there are sometimes leftover deer licenses. Predictably, they are not for the better hunting areas.
Fawn production is down due to drought, especially across the legendary Red Desert areas. In response, game managers are giving fewer licenses, which makes the best public-land areas even harder to draw. Hunter success is still running 90 percent, and if you are lucky enough to draw one of those desirable tags, Langston assured me you’d still have a fantastic hunt.
Areas across the southeastern and eastern parts of the state have lots of antelope, and tags are easy to get. Access is not. Most of the land is private, and you’ll have to get out and knock on doors and most likely pay a trespass fee to hunt. However, the hunting is good and hunters can often purchase a second buck tag from the leftover pool.
Wyoming is not the trophy destination that New Mexico or Arizona is. However, when a state has as many antelope as Wyoming, it’s bound to produce its fair share of record book heads, and lots of happy hunters take home the typical, nice pronghorn that most areas yield.
Langston urges out-of-state hunters wishing to hunt private land to contact Wyoming G&F offices for help. The offices can provide maps and contact info for landowners willing to host hunters.
According to Aoude, Utah does its best to balance elk hunter opportunity with trophy quality. OTC spike bull tags are available for most of the trophy bull elk units, allowing elk hunters to get into the field and bring home some meat while they apply year after frustrating year for a tag to kill one of the monster trophies they have to shoo out of their way while hunting spikes. Utah does employ a bonus point system, but currently so many hunters have so many points that drawing a tag is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The good news: Once that tag is in your pocket, you’ll likely shoot a 330-plus bull, possibly one much bigger. In fact, Utah continues to produce more record-book bulls than any other Western state. Age-group management dictates that you’ll find bulls wearing the most inches of bone in the Pahvant and San Juan units, while the Wasatch and Manti units offer much better draw odds.
Elk hunters willing to hunt hard can purchase OTC any-bull tags for a few wilderness areas, mostly in northeastern Utah, plus a few primarily private-land areas where permission to hunt can be very difficult to obtain. Success hovers around 12 to 18 percent, but now and then a hunter does bring out a nice bull.
Deer hunters must apply for a tag. Populations are a bit low, as is the average age group of bucks. Premium draw units will produce some real stompers this fall, as they always do, but general-season hunters will have to work hard and put in plenty of time afield to shoot a mature buck this year. Scouting and local knowledge is key to success in any of the 30 different regions.
Antelope are one of the easier of the “Limited Entry” species to draw in Utah, and while not on a par with Arizona or New Mexico, occasionally hard-working, patient hunters bring home a good trophy.
Population numbers are currently stable, though some desert units are struggling.
Most of Idaho’s bad rap as a result of the wolf invasion is misleading. Although elk populations in wolf-friendly wilderness areas have indeed declined precipitously, according to Idaho Deer and Elk Coordinator Toby Boudreau, two-thirds of the state is at or above objective. Those areas aren’t just in Idaho’s legendary wilderness elk country. Statewide peak population was 125,000 elk some 15 years ago; current statewide population is around 105,000. Some of the best hunting is found in the southeastern parts of the state during the OTC, month-long archery rut hunt.
Idaho is rolling out a new statewide elk plan based on several years of research, hunter surveys, helicopter animal counts, and so on. Interestingly, the massive fires of 1910 and the ’30s created the best habitat Idaho has ever known, resulting in an unprecedented explosion in population. The slow, 75-year decline since then is more of a return to traditional habitat capacity than a sign of Idaho elk-nirvana doom. Don’t write Idaho off for future forays West.
Mule deer numbers are stable or perhaps even trending up. Boudreau, a Boone & Crockett measurer, said last fall produced some tremendous bucks from OTC, public-land hunts, and indications are the 2013 season will be as good or better.
Boudreau has a great viewpoint on current mule deer quality in contrast to the good old days. “Back then, there were no three-wheelers or four-wheelers. Hunting was on foot, on horseback, or, among the few who could afford one, by jeep. Limited access to rugged habitat allowed bucks to grow old. It’s not that way anymore. The bulk of the security habitat is no longer secure.
“Additionally, many of the seasons back then ran in November, often after or during migrations and during the rut. Schedule late-season hunts like that today and folks would see a lot more mature animals.”
While that would make for a glorious season or two, it wouldn’t last. There’s a good reason (aggravating as it may be) that biologists schedule hunts during the toughest, worst time of the fall: It allows more hunters in the field without wiping out populations.
So do your homework, hunt hard, and you’ll still tag a good buck.
Where to hunt? The southeast region is good, as is the upper Snake region. Most of eastern Idaho, all the way up along the Montana border, is public and OTC rifle tags may be purchased. The Salmon region has less deer, less deer hunters, and it takes longer for a buck to grow really big. However, some amazing deer come out of the Salmon region every year.
The state offers 12,000 OTC either-species (whitetail or mule deer) tags, so hunters in hot pursuit of a mule deer can shoot a monster whitetail should one jump up in front of them. Additionally, 3,000 OTC whitetail-only tags offer extended seasons for hunters wishing to focus on whitetails only.
Idaho is not a particularly great pronghorn antelope destination, and there are no OTC tags, but there are some unlimited “controlled” hunts (you put in, you get the tag). Archery antelope tags are either sex.
Elk populations are excellent, considering that numbers have burgeoned from 2,000 elk in 1992 up to 15,000 currently, and trophy quality, per capita, is statistically the best in the West. However, like all of Nevada’s draws, actually pulling a tag is as rare as finding gold pieces of eight in great-grandpa’s tackle box.
Although there are no OTC tags for any big-game species in Nevada, sportsmen with means can look into purchasing a transferrable landowner tag. You’ll pay through the nose, but if you’ve got it to burn, I can’t think of a better way.
Drought conditions and major fires in the popular northeastern Elko County region have adversely impacted mule deer. According to Public Information Officer at Nevada Department of Wildlife Chris Healy, populations hit a low of around 106,000 in 2009 but have recovered back to 112,000, which is slightly above the 10-year average of 110,000. Without at least three consecutive high-moisture years, dramatic population increases—such as the explosion to 240,000 deer some decades ago—just can’t be expected.
Tag numbers have increased over recent years, too, boosting hunter impact, but great bucks can still be found with diligent hunting. It’s too late to apply to hunt in 2013, but for the future it’s worth knowing that northeastern units 6 and 7 tend to be easier to draw than most and yield up good bucks to hunters willing to put in plenty of hunting time. Central Nevada units 14 through 17, around Austin and Eureka, can be very good for physically fit hunters willing to tackle very steep and rugged country.
Nevada antelope quality is not far behind pronghorn meccas New Mexico and Arizona, and most units have the real potential to yield 80-plus-inch bucks. Again, the hard part is drawing the tag. But on the bright side, herds are burgeoning. In 1981, Nevada had 9,800. Today, current numbers are somewhere north of 28,000 animals.
Roosevelt elk are down some 16,000 below the state’s ideal population of 72,000. According to biologist Don Whittaker, it’s due to a lack of groceries. A decade of drought conditions coupled with managed, thick-growth forestry allows little light to reach forest floors, adversely affecting plant recruitment. That said, the archery season still offers a legitimately good Roosevelt hunt. It’s a month long during late August and early September, and the rutting, bugling bulls are much easier to locate and pursue than during the later rifle hunts.
Like most of the West, mule deer numbers have trended downward in Oregon since the early ’90s. Estimated current population is 218,000, about 129,000 under objective. The state is pushing hard to increase habitat and support existing populations, hoping for regrowth.
The southeast part of the state offers the best opportunities, and though populations are low, every year a few big bucks are taken.
Blacktail deer rifle tags are available OTC and can make for a great hunt in western and coastal Oregon if you either gain access to private land or search out a chunk of public land. Most of the eastern half of the state is public, but blacktail country tends to be a checkerboard of private and public. The state Fish & Wildlife website has a very good layered map powered by Google to assist in cyber-scouting.
According to Whittaker, outfitters can prove helpful but aren’t always necessary. Individuals willing to do research and scouting can find some very good DIY hunting in Oregon for less-common species, such as Roosevelt elk and blacktail deer.
Though the state doesn’t have a management objective for pronghorn antelope, populations are stable at 25,000 to 30,000. There are no OTC tags.
Being one of the most arid states in America, horn or antler growth is very dependent on monsoonal rains. Early growth this year should be good due to the early green-up, but the spring has been very dry, and late growth will suffer if the monsoons are not generous.
Herds are stable to slightly increasing. According to state Big Game Program Coordinator Stewart Liley, populations are flourishing, well within the state’s objective of 70,000 to 90,000 elk. The north central part of the state is managed for opportunity (easier to draw, lower bull-to-cow ratio, trophy quality, and/or population), while the southwestern units are managed for trophies. Part of the state, around the Sacramento Mountains, is something of a crossover area, offering a generous number of tags yet pretty good trophy quality as well.
Like most of the West, New Mexico’s mule deer populations are down significantly. Decline, according to Liley, is due to a multitude of factors but primarily from predation by mountain lions. While the state doesn’t have a statewide population objective, the goal is to restore high populations in order to benefit hunters. Currently, the best mule deer trophy potential exists in unit 2, in the northwest corner of the state. Late seasons are best, with the January archery hunt being perhaps best of all.
Liley said Coues deer get overlooked by nonresident hunters. Good populations in the southern part of the state offer a unique, challenging hunt for the mountain-loving whitetail subspecies, which, in Liley’s words, behave more like bighorn sheep than whitetails. The best unit is the Burro Mountains in the southwestern corner of the state.
No OTC permits exist for elk or antelope, but New Mexico does sell an OTC tag for deer—any species—for use on private lands in the southern part of the state. It’s prudent to obtain written permission before purchasing, but at least the opportunity exists.
Numbers in the premium units in northeastern New Mexico are increasing. Numbers in what is potentially the single best trophy antelope unit in the state (the Plains of St. Augustine region) are doing well, too. However, some of the southern desert units are struggling from recent drought conditions. Interestingly, the state is working on translocating antelope to historic habitat areas currently devoid of antelope.
Several interesting dynamics are at work in Montana. Elk license costs have risen. Outfitter-sponsored tags—and the increased drawing odds they offered—are no longer available. Wolves have wreaked havoc on wilderness hunt quality, both in reality and in nonresident hunters’ imaginations. In a way, it’s good news for hunters wishing to make DIY hunts on public land, because the high tag costs and lower population numbers in legendary elk destinations make for fewer competing hunters and—most importantly—leftover licenses. The 2013 application period is over, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t hunt elk in Montana this fall. Most of the better public-land areas are in the far southwest portion of the state, and often the best opportunity is the six-week archery hunt. For the most part expect good access but steep, rough country where horses or a good backpack are necessary to access the best hunting. That said, the state has over 9,000,000 acres in “block management,” cooperative private land that allows public-like access, across the southern and eastern portions of the state. Hunters who missed the draw can typically obtain a leftover tag and, with a little research, find some excellent hunting on block areas. Regions 4, 5, 6, and 7 are well above population objectives.
Eastern Montana mule deer populations have suffered badly from recent winterkill. According to Montana Game Management Bureau Chief George Pauley, the winter of 2010 had tremendous mortality, reducing the population some 60 to 70 percent. Numbers are slowly beginning to rebound, but it will take time to reach objective. Leftover tags will likely be available after the draw, but expect tough hunting and low age demographics in the bucks you do see.
Whitetails have suffered from winterkill and an outbreak of EHD disease, particularly in the legendary Milk River area. Numbers are extraordinarily low.
A hunter’s best bet for a mature buck—either mule deer or whitetail—will be in Montana’s mountainous western areas.
Pronghorn antelope numbers in the heart of speed goat country are not just down, they are way, way down, owing, in Pauley’s words, to “horrifying” winter kill. Few tags are available, and it will take years for the population to rebound. The unit 900 archery tag is a good way to go if you’re determined to hunt Montana antelope this fall, as it is good in almost every unit in the state, allowing tag holders to roam until they find a huntable buck on public land.