If you're planning a western big game hunt this year, it's time to study your options. If you'd like to apply for a limited tag, check out our recent article for a few tips. Meanwhile, some hunters will be looking to over-the-counter (OTC) options. And for many of us, it will be a combination of both.
No matter which boat you’re in, the direction from here is clear. It’s time to begin doing our homework. Whether you’re researching limited license units or sorting through OTC options, there’s a great deal of planning to be done.
As you begin the research for a limited license or an OTC area, here are 4 tips to make the most of your scouting efforts...
1. Identify Hunting Spots
When you first sit down and look at the map, deciding where to go can be intimidating. Even if you drew a license for a single unit, it can be overwhelming trying to decide where to begin. That feeling is further amplified if you’re looking at a list of OTC units.
There are no shortcuts and it can be tedious work. But the best place to begin is to slowly identify areas on that map that (at least on the surface) have good potential. We will sort through this list and prioritize later. For now, just get the list started.
If you prefer paper maps, start circling areas. If you’re comfortable using digital mapping tools like OnX Hunt and Google Earth, start dropping pins on likely locations for the habitat and seasonal needs of the species you’re hunting.
2. Prioritize Hunting Spots
Now that you have a list of spots that hold potential at first glance, it’s time to narrow that list and prioritize the best options.
First, cross-reference your list with available public land if you didn’t already take that into account. Make sure the habitat that meets the needs of your target species is on (at least in part) accessible public land. It’s ok if that prime habitat overlaps both public and private. In fact, hunting around those boundaries can sometimes be an advantage. But there needs to be sufficient habitat on the public side of the fence – otherwise, it goes to the bottom of the list.
Next, sort your list by the quality of the habitat. Which areas have the best potential to hold game during your season? Take into account food, water, cover, weather and other needs of that particular species. Put the best-looking areas at the top of your list.
Next, cross-reference your list of areas with roads and access points. As you do this, consider where hunting pressure might come from and how animals will react. Will they head into the backcountry? Will they seek refuge on private land? Are there other pockets where they can find safety? Additionally, think about your own abilities and expectations. If it’s not realistic for you to walk several miles and pack out an animal, then rate such options accordingly. Look for possible areas that meet the animals’ needs and which align realistically with your abilities.
3. Ask for Advice
By now, you have narrowed your list of potential hunting spots and prioritized them based on their availability of public land, habitat quality and accessibility. Now, it’s time to ask questions and see which of your assumptions are true.
This is a great time to reach out to local biologists and wildlife managers. In highly limited units, you can usually track down folks who have previously hunted the area. You can even check with local businesses, sporting goods stores or even private landowners in the area. Having done your research, you can now ask intelligent questions. Don’t ask them where to hunt. If they told everyone, you wouldn’t want to hunt there anyway.
Instead, ask questions to confirm or correct the things you’ve already gathered about the area. You might ask about the condition of roads, the availability of water sources, and other things you can’t determine by looking at OnX Hunt or Google Earth. If you come ready with good questions, you’re more likely to get helpful answers.
4. Make a Game Plan that Maximizes your Time
With your prioritized list of hunting spots and some local intelligence, you can now make a game plan for in-person scouting trips and even the hunt itself. Make your plan in a way that will maximize your time once you arrive.
If one of the spots at the top of your list is a 4-hour drive from the rest, accept that it might not fit into your game plan. You only have so many days to scout or hunt. Create plans that make the most of your valuable time on the ground.
Always have backup plans. And backup plans for your backup plans. If you’re hunting a new area, you’re almost guaranteed to find something you didn’t expect. Prepare to be agile when things don’t go as planned.
Have Fun This Season
As you prepare for your upcoming adventures, remember to have fun! Whether it’s an OTC license or a tag you’ve been waiting decades to draw, take the time to enjoy the process each step of the way!
Here at Caribou Gear and Hunting Gear Outfitters, we’re excited about our plans for the upcoming hunting season. If you need help with gear for your upcoming hunt, please don’t hesitate to use us as a resource. All the gear we carry here on the website are items that we personally use and have tested in the field. We’d be happy to answer questions and help you find the right pieces of equipment for your hunt.
By Ryan McSparran
Ryan is an outdoor writer based in Colorado, and is proud to be a part of the team at Hunting Gear Outfitters.