New Mexico offers the widest variety of big game opportunity in the West, with elk, mule deer, Coues’ deer, whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, desert sheep, and also ibex, oryx, and Barbary sheep. New Mexico doesn’t offer a bonus point system, so every applicant is on the same level each year. One nice thing here is that if your schedule is tight, then you are not missing out by not applying.
Wyoming is the obvious choice for a high success rate antelope hunt.
The bad news is that the New Mexico legislature passed a bill last winter that cuts the DIY nonresident allocation of tags down from 12% to 6%, and the tags allocated to the guide draw was cut from 12% to 10%. It also requires nonresidents to purchase a $65 hunting license that you have little chance of needing.
Due to the large amount of private land in New Mexico, there is an abundance of landowner tags available for elk and antelope. Elk tags can vary from $1000 to $6500 depending on the trophy potential of the unit. Antelope landowner tags generally range from $750 - $2000. So, if you are waiting to draw a Gila region elk tag in order to fulfill a lifelong dream, you really need to quit dreaming and start saving your money for an outfitted hunt.
Note: North-central New Mexico, surrounding the Jicarilla Reservation, is famous for huge mule deer, but the rest of the state gets overlooked. The genetic potential for big antlers exists from one end of the state to the other. You won’t have the advantage of the rut or a migration to deliver the bigger bucks; you will need to mount your binoculars on a tripod and dig them out of the brush. As I mentioned, elk and antelope are the cash cows when it comes to private land income, so with a little effort and a smile, you might be able to gain access for a relatively small amount of money.
Utah has the easiest to use online application system in the West. Until a few years ago you could purchase a bonus point for $5 and no license was required, but you were only allowed to apply for one limited entry hunt (deer, elk, or antelope) and one once-in-a- lifetime species (sheep, moose, goat, or bison). Now, a nonresident must purchase a hunting license ($65 in 2011) in order to apply, the price of points has gone up to $10 each, and you can apply for every species. At first glance you might think this was a good idea, but it has served to destroy the drawing odds, especially given the low number of tags available to nonresidents. Honestly, unless you have been applying for years, have years left to apply, or just feel lucky, there isn’t much use in applying in Utah; the odds are just that bad.
Note: On the bright side, the dedicated archery deer hunter has the upper hand in Utah. There used to be leftover tags every year, but the odds are still as close to 100% as you can get. This is not a secret by any stretch and there will be a lot of competition, but there is a lot of opportunity as well. The mule deer genetics are excellent statewide and late August is a great time of year to be in the mountains.
Look to Colorado for trophy mule deer once again in 2012.
Wyoming is having its share of difficulties. With excessive hunting pressure, ever-expanding wolf populations, and a very tough winter, even the most diehard hunters are a little nervous, but with huntable populations of mule deer, elk, antelope, moose, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and a growing population of whitetails, there are still some great hunting options to the hunter willing to do his research.
Wyoming does have an online system that is relatively easy to use. They have a modified preference point system, with 75% of the tags going to applicants with the most points and 25% available in a random draw. They are unique in that they have two price structures for deer, elk, and antelope draw tags. You can pay extra for a special tag, which should theoretically reduce the number of applicants for those tags, or you can apply for a lower price “regular” tag. These are the same exact hunts; one just costs more than the other. Sometimes the difference in drawing odds between the two tags is dramatic and other times it is almost identical. Wyoming Game & Fish publishes the drawing odds for each hunt and type on their website. There are different drawing deadlines for each of the species, with elk applications historically due by the end of January, so use the information tools to stay in touch.
Note: Until a few years ago, Wyoming didn’t have preference points for deer, elk, and antelope. When they initiated the program, most hunters were already well versed in the idea of accumulating points from their experience in other states, so a huge number got in on the ground floor and are sitting on max points. Now those hunters (me included) are hesitant to burn their points on anything but what is perceived as the best hunt in the state. What this has done is increase the drawing odds in many units, especially for early mule deer hunts. Wyoming still has a tremendous antelope population with easy-to-draw tags for bucks, and doe tags that can be added on. This is a great chance for young hunters to get multiple chances to hone their skills.
Big game hunting in the West has become an expensive sport. Tag, license, and application prices are increasing and gas, ammunition, and food aren’t getting any cheaper either. Sit down and think this through. Decide which species are the most important to you and develop a plan with reasonable expectations on when you can expect to draw a tag. Don’t overlook over-the-counter or easy-to-draw tags! My bet is that you will discover why you fell in love with hunting again when you aren’t worried about tape measuring your hunt.
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