What’s the next-best time of year after hunting season? It’s big game application season! From now through the spring and early summer months, we will be busy researching, studying maps and deciding on our application choices for big game hunts.
In case you missed our article on application strategy for 2020, go back and take a look here. Though it was published a year ago, there are some ideas worth considering. Now, we’re taking a fresh look at our options for the 2021 hunting season. And this year, we’ve got some new ideas – particularly for filling freezers with delicious and healthy wild game meat!
Whether you’re applying in a single state or multiple western states for big game tags, here are a few tips to consider:
1. Mark The Application Deadlines On Your Calendar
You can’t apply if you miss the deadline. So first thing’s first. Know the application deadlines for the states and species where you intend to apply. From Wyoming elk on February 1st to Arizona deer on June 8th, there are a lot of dates spread out over the next several months. Here are a few key deadlines to remember:
- Wyoming Nonresident Elk: February 1
- Arizona Elk and Antelope: February 9
- New Mexico Big Game: March 17
- Montana Elk and Deer: April 1
- Colorado Big Game: April 6
- Wyoming Deer and Antelope: June 1
- Arizona Deer: June 8
Wherever you plan to apply, go to your calendar and mark those dates – or set reminders in your phone. You can’t go hunting if you don’t have a license! And in many cases, it’s worth applying in the limited draw versus relying on over-the-counter opportunities.
2. Weigh Quality Hunts vs. Opportunity Hunts
When deciding on hunting applications, there’s usually a balance between quality and opportunity. The highest quality hunts are the most in-demand. Thus, they are usually very difficult to draw. On the other hand, some hunts offer an abundance of opportunity. These licenses are easy draw or can be purchased over the counter. But this abundance of opportunity usually comes at a cost – more hunting pressure, lower game density, lower trophy quality, difficult terrain, limited public access, or a combination of these factors.
When planning your applications, it helps to define your priorities. Are you willing to wait years or even decades for a very high quality hunt? Or, are you willing to sacrifice some quality for the opportunity to hunt more often?
Perhaps like a good investment strategy, a good application strategy can involve a combination of both those short-term and long-term goals. For example, if you’re applying in multiple states, you might apply in one state for that high quality experience. If and when you get lucky and draw, great! In the meantime, you might take advantage of opportunity hunts in another state.
If you only apply in one state, which would you prioritize? Would you rather wait for a tag that could lead to the trophy of a lifetime? Or, would you rather hunt more often, knowing you’ll sacrifice quality? There’s no right or wrong answer. But knowing the answer will help you decide where to apply – and ultimately be more successful in reaching your goals.
Making A Case for Opportunity Hunts
In most cases, I’m an opportunity hunter. And I’ll readily admit to being the world’s worst trophy hunter. On many hunts, I’ve been known to take the first opportunity I get. But what my walls lack in record-book trophies, I’ve made up for in once in a lifetime experiences. By applying for lower demand hunts, I’ve been able to hunt a wide rage of species in several western states. While none of them will make the record books, I’ve been able to harvest deer, elk, antelope, moose, mountain goat and bighorn sheep, all in the past 10 years.
If you’re willing trade some quality (trophy size, difficulty, etc.) for the opportunity to go hunting, then consider using that to your advantage when you apply in this year’s big game draws!
3. What to Do with Few or No Preference Points
If you’re just getting into big game hunting or if you don’t have years worth of preference points saved, what are your options?
Here in Colorado our limited licenses are issued using a preference point system. Simplified, that means the applicant with the most points gets the tag. The highest quality elk units can take more than a decade to draw. Some take more than 20 years of preference points! What’s more, the number of points required to draw these tags increases every year. This is often referred to as “point creep.” Here’s the point – even if you start applying and saving points now, you'll probably never draw an elk license in a place like Colorado’s coveted unit 2 before you die.
Crazy, right?! But don’t be discouraged. It’s just my humble opinion here – but I’m not sure any elk hunt is worth two decades of waiting. There are lots of great opportunities for applicants who are just now getting started!
Over The Counter Options
First, there are opportunities to purchase over-the-counter (OTC) licenses. Here in Colorado, hunters can purchase OTC licenses for elk. In Arizona, archery deer licenses are available over the counter. These OTC opportunities usually don’t boast very high success rates. However, they give you the opportunity to get out there and hunt.
Low Point Options
Next, hunters can find some great opportunities with just a handful of preference points. These may not provide the kind of quality you’d find in those super high quality units. But they can certainly provide an improvement over OTC hunt quality. Here in Colorado for example, there are a number of good hunts that require anywhere from zero to five preference points. In Wyoming, a nonresident can draw a general elk license in three years or less. Similarly in Montana, the elk combo and deer combo licenses allow you to hunt general units and are relatively easy for a nonresident to obtain. If you’re new to the game but you’re looking for something better than an OTC hunt, consider applying for one of these hunts that you can draw in less than five years.
Finally, you might consider applying in a state like New Mexico or Idaho where there are no preference point systems. In New Mexico for example, big game licenses are issued in a random lottery. If it’s your first year applying, you’ll have the same shot as everyone else.
4. Freezer Fillers
If you’re not hung up on antlers or horns, the big game world is your oyster. Antlerless tags are usually less expensive for nonresidents, they are often much easier to draw and the success rates are often higher. If you’re looking to fill the freezers this fall, consider applying for a female or antlerless hunting license.
Female harvest is usually tightly controlled by state game and fish agencies because the harvest of females has a higher impact on herd population and dynamics than the harvest of males. Therefore, expect to apply in the limited draw for these opportunities. Even though you’ll have to apply, don’t let that process deter you. These tags are often much easier to draw than antlered tags in comparable high quality units.
Of course we all love those antlers or horns on the wall. They’re undeniably cool and they provide a unique keepsake and reminder of a memorable hunt. But if you’re willing to give that up and perhaps frame a photo instead, consider an antlerless tag. Your freezer might just benefit from that decision!
5. Black Bear Hunts
When we talk about western hunting, elk, mule deer and pronghorn dominate the conversation. But if you’re looking to go hunting this year, you shouldn’t ignore the opportunity to hunt black bears. The tags are easy to obtain, the skull and hides make great trophies, and the meat and fat can be delicious.
Here in Colorado for example, nonresidents can purchase a black bear license for a little over $100. That’s one of the best deals on a nonresident big game license anywhere in the west. And black bear numbers are strong all over the state – in many areas bear numbers are over objective.
The best time to hunt black bears is in early fall during hyperphagia, when they are constantly feeding to put on fat for the winter. Colorado offers September archery and rifle bear seasons during this prime time. Elk and deer hunters can also add on a concurrent bear license in many units.
If you’re looking for a great western hunting opportunity with a far lower price tag than a typical nonresident elk or mule deer license, a fall bear hunt might be the perfect fit!
Hunting Gear for the Adventure
As you plan your big game applications and fall hunting adventures, check out all the great gear we offer here at Hunting Gear Outfitters. The gear we choose to carry in our store is the gear that we personally use in the field. From Kenetrek boots to Jet Boil stove systems and everything in between, we’ve used it, tested it and it’s what we recommend.
If you have any questions about gear for the upcoming season, please don’t hesitate to ask. We’d love to help you prepare for your next great adventure!
By Ryan McSparran