Elk, mule deer, and pronghorn are three iconic species among the big-game animals hunters pursue throughout the western United States. Each fall, hunters from all over the country, and around the world, set their sights on the mountains, valleys, and wide-open spaces of the West in search of adventure, camaraderie, a world-class trophy, and the opportunity to fill the freezer with lean protein.
For many hunters, even those who don’t live in the region, western big-game hunting is a passion that consumes them year-round. From applying for tags early in the year, to buying, preparing, and organizing new gear through the summer, to the trip, long or short, to the hunting grounds, to the excitement that makes it almost impossible to sleep the night before opening day, the anticipation of the hunt can be almost as enjoyable as the hunt itself.
Read on to discover some of the best units and areas to consider when applying for elk, mule deer, or pronghorn tags out West.
Elk hunting is a tradition shared by thousands of hunters each fall. The sound of a bugling bull elk or the sight of two monster 6x6s fighting for mountain dominance is a memory that will stay with a hunter for a lifetime.
Guided elk hunts, with guaranteed tags on private land, are expensive; elk tags for public lands with limited access can be tough to draw; and competition from other hunters on public land with over-the-counter tags can be maddening, but elk hunting still is a passion that drives hunters from all over the country.
Mike Ornoski has bowhunted in Arizona for more than 35 years. He is vice president of Christian Hunters of America and is a Cabela’s Pro Staffer.
Ornoski said elk hunters with patience should consider looking at Arizona units 1, 3A/3C, 9, 10, 23N, and 27, which typically are extremely hard to draw.
“Each of these units is worth the wait and gives the hunter an amazing opportunity at Pope & Young and Boone & Crockett bulls,” he said. “The up-and-coming units in Arizona are 6A, 8, and 5BS.”
Sergio Alcazar, owner of ALC Global Adventures, has lived in and hunted Colorado for 24 years. He had two suggestions for hunters who approach drawing an elk tag in different ways in the state.
“Units in the northwest corner of the state, 10, 201, and 2, are known for producing amazing trophies and offer plenty of public land to hunt,” said Alcazar, who added it could take as many as 17 to 25 preference points to draw a rifle elk tag in these units. “I am currently applying for those myself. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Archery and muzzleloader tags in those units will require fewer points.”
Alcazar recommended units 7 and 8 in the north-central part of the state, near the Wyoming border, for hunters looking for areas with lots of public land and good potential for trophies. He said it might take only one point to draw a tag in the first rifle season, and some might draw with zero points.
In Montana, Region 3 in the southwest corner of the state covers nearly 12 million acres, more than half of which is public land managed by the BLM or Forest Service. Montana’s Block Management Program opens more than 500,000 additional acres of private land to walk-in public hunting in the region, which is home to the highest concentrations of elk in the state, produces huge bulls, and is responsible for approximately 50 percent of the state’s elk harvest each year.
Wyoming’s Elk Area 7, south of Casper, is a large unit with lots of elk and is about half public land. Large chunks of the private land in Area 7 are enrolled in Wyoming’s Access Yes program, which opens private land to public hunting, with some restrictions in certain areas.
For many hunters, wrapping their hands around the thick bases of a tall, wide, heavy mule deer rack is a moment dreams are made of. There’s good news and bad news for hunters who want to pursue mule deer in the west, however. The good news is many Western states have huge mule deer herds and produce phenomenal bucks. The bad news is it can take decades to draw a coveted tag in some of the premium units.
Utah took advantage of a combination of favorable weather, aggressive habitat management, and strict regulations to increase its mule deer population by as much as 100,000 from 2008 to 2016, pushing the size of the herd past 380,000 animals. A tough winter in 2016, followed by a drought that lasted more than a year and a half, cut that total by about 20,000 deer, but Utah still remains a top destination for mule deer hunters, according to Covy Jones, big-game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
“These are the good old days of hunting mule deer in Utah,” said Jones, who added that all of the 29 general-season units in the state are capable of producing 200-inch bucks.
Utah has six limited-entry units where trophy quality can be amazing, and a bonus-points system is used, rather than preference points, meaning half the tags in each unit are given to the top points holders and half are awarded in a random draw.
Jones said the famous Paunsaugunt unit on the southern border with Arizona and the Fillmore/Oak Creek and Vernon units, both in the central part of the state, all produced incredible bucks for hunters in 2018.
As for general-season units, Jones suggested hunters take a look at Pine Valley in the southwest corner of the state, the four Oquirrh/Stansbury units west of Salt Lake City, and Zion on the southern border.
The best opportunity to harvest a quality buck in New Mexico is in the northern Game Management Units (GMUs), according to Tristanna Bickford, communications director for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.GMUs 2B, 2C, 4, and 5A are quality hunting areas with large numbers of deer, many sporting antlers that will make the Boone & Crockett (B&C) book. Some large bucks also have been taken in GMU 45 in recent years. Sand Hill country GMUs 31, 32, and 33 in the southeast corner of the state also are capable of producing B&C bucks.
John Vore, game-management bureau chief for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department, reported some hunters tag huge mule deer bucks using boats to access the Missouri River Breaks area where the river separates regions 4 and 7 in the state.
Like Utah, Arizona is famous for producing record-book mule deer. Dream destinations include the Arizona Strip (units 13A and 13B) or Kaibab Plateau (units 12A East, 12A West, and 12B), but the drawing odds are long, sometimes in the low single digits, Ornoski said.
Arizona and New Mexico are home to huge pronghorn bucks, including the current world record, which scored 96-4/8 B&C points and was killed in Socorro County, New Mexico, in 2013. That buck displaced two former world-record bucks, both from Arizona, that were tied at the top spot with scores of 95 B&C points. Pronghorn tags in both states can be very difficult to draw.
Wyoming likely is the first state that comes to mind when hunters think of pronghorn hunting. It’s often reported the state is home to more pronghorn than people in a good weather year. Wyoming offers large expanses of public land, mostly in the western part of the state, and produces lots of record-book bucks.
Lydia Decaria, license sales representative with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said Pronghorn Area 73, north of Casper, is very popular with hunters because it has huge tracts of Bureau of Land Management property. She said it currently takes six preference points to be guaranteed a pronghorn tag in the draw in Area 73 but added the state allots 25 percent of the total quota in each area to a random drawing of all applicants who chose the area as their first choice.
Pronghorn Area 38, between Cheyenne and Laramie, is a mix of public and private land where landowners typically charge minimal trespass fees and hunters needed only two preference points to draw a tag in 2018, Decaria said.
As mentioned previously, New Mexico is home to world-class pronghorn hunting. Hunters have a legitimate chance at shooting a B&C pronghorn in all GMUs that have a huntable population. The most likely areas to produce a record-book pronghorn are GMUs 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 46, 47, and 48. The northeastern portion of the state has the highest number of pronghorn and provides an opportunity to see a large number of animals during the hunt, while still providing an opportunity at a trophy buck.
Montana Region 7 (made up of districts 700 to 705) in the southeast corner of the state, especially the southern parts of the region, wasn’t as affected by the brutal winter of 2011–12 as other parts of the state and has good numbers of pronghorn in each district, Vore said.
Colorado unit 57, which includes areas 57, 58, and 581 northwest of Canon City, produces quality pronghorn bucks, Alcazar said. It can take six or more points to draw a tag for the rifle season, but the area offers abundant public land, including BLM, state wildlife areas, and National Forest Service property.
For some hunters, pursuing elk, mule deer, and pronghorn in the western United States is a future dream; for others it’s a yearly routine. And everything about the pursuit is big. The landscape is big. The trophies are big. The adventure is big. Drawing a long-awaited tag—or lucking out with a lotto-like win—in a coveted area can be the second biggest hunting thrill of the year for most hunters. Whether the tag in your pocket leads you to a comfortable lodge for a guided hunt on private land, a DIY spike camp deep in backcountry wilderness, or somewhere in between, hunting the West will grab you by the soul and easily can become a year-round obsession.