Draw the Trophy Tag of Your Dreams In 2012
By Chris Denham
©Copyright, Western Hunter Magazine
Conundrum n. (kuh-NUN-drum) - a problem without an apparent solution; a puzzle; a mystery.
For the last two years, I’ve written an article in this issue of Western Hunter Magazine regarding the application process in each of the western states. The first year I titled the article, “The Application Game”, as in a game of chance. Last year I titled the article, “The Application Competition”, as I observed sportsmen willing to do anything to improve their odds of drawing even the slightest amount.
Western Hunter President Floyd Green with his 2011 Arizona archery bull.
After the completion of the 2011 big game draws around the West, I had to sit down and scratch my head (I have a few scars to prove it). After six years in the application business, I have multiple clients who have built a substantial war chest of bonus points, so I was expecting a fair number of high value tags to be drawn. After thousands of rejections, I was sure that I was going to be making a bunch of those fun calls. “Guess what? You drew a ____tag!” Sadly, just about every tag my clients drew were ones we felt they had enough points in order to be guaranteed to draw anyway. Being an optimist (and a Red Sox fan), I’m convinced that we will beat the odds next year, but this year the odds beat the snot out of us.
So, with that in mind, let’s take look at the application process in each of the western states and some of the premier species available in these states. With this basic information, you can begin to devise a plan for the 2012 application and hunting seasons, and planning is critical. Each year one state or another raises the cost of simply applying for a tag or even just a bonus point. In fact, this past year it was possible to spend over $2000 on mandatory hunting licenses, application fees, bonus point fees, and convenience fees, and this is not including the 20% interest most credit card companies are charging. That’s a lot of money! By developing an application strategy and then sticking to that plan, you’ll avoid wasting money in the short run and losing tags in the long run.
When it comes to bighorn sheep, it's all about being lucky. Your best bet is to apply in as many states as possible.
First of all, if you decide you just don’t want to mess with the details, then I would recommend you hire an application service. There are a number of companies, which for a fee, will handle every aspect of the application process for you. I have operated Western Hunter Services for a number of years and would be glad to talk to you about the process. We will build a customized strategy based on your hunting goals and budget.
If you intend to handle your own applications, then you need to pay close attention to each of the following tools. 1) The Huntin’ Fool magazine has been operated by Garth Carter and his family for many years. They pioneered the concept of delivering exclusive hunting information and application services, and they are still the benchmark in the industry. An annual subscription will cost you $100, but it’s money well spent. 2) The website MonsterMuleys.com has an online information system listing the drawing odds for all of the units in each of the western states. It breaks down the number of applicants for each hunt, how many points each applicant had, and all the information is free! 3) Also, if you aren’t a Western Hunter Magazine “fan” on Facebook, then you need to be. Starting in January, as each of the states’ application deadlines loom, we will share the most up-to-date information possible. This information will also be available on WesternHunterMagazine.net. Armed with these tools, you will have a good chunk of the information available.
As a side note, I’m of the opinion that too many hunters are so hung up on drawing the right tag in the perfect unit that they are missing some great hunting experiences with easy-to-draw or over-the-counter tags. Seriously, if you draw an archery deer tag in the Arizona Strip but you’ve never even launched an arrow at a mule deer, then what do you really think your odds will be of having a successful hunt? Don’t let your hunting skills atrophy due to lack of exercise! Make sure you are honing your skills each year so that when you are presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, you have what it takes to finish the deal. Each state offers at least one of these types of hunts, so pick the closest or most convenient hunt and start making a plan.
Arizona still offers the best trophy quality and variety of any state in the West. If you’re looking for the biggest antelope, elk, mule deer, Coues’ deer, desert bighorn sheep, or bison, then you need to be applying in Arizona. Barring any kind of dramatic winter drought, the trophy potential for 2012 should be excellent. There have been dry spots at various times around the state, but for the most part, each county received adequate rain at one time or another.
Arizona has a bonus point system, with 20% of the tags going to hunters with the most points for that particular hunt. If you apply for five consecutive years and keep applying, you will be rewarded with a loyalty bonus point as well. You must purchase a hunting license in order to apply ($151.25 for nonresidents). For the last five years, I have been predicting that Arizona will finally get their online application system fixed and I have been wrong for five years, but it looks like it will happen this year. They used the system for the spring draws (very low participation compared to the fall draws) and from my experience, it worked very well. So keep your eyes peeled and bookmark the AZGFD.gov website. There are two application periods: elk and antelope applications will be due in early February; deer and sheep will be due in early June.
Note: The most overlooked hunts in Arizona are Coues’ deer hunts. Tags are very easy to draw, public land is readily available, and if you choose to hire a guide, the hunts are very reasonably priced. If you are a bowhunter, don’t overlook the January archery season for deer and javelina. You can hunt both Coues’ deer and mule deer in most of the southern units and January is the peak of the rut. Honestly, there is not a better place to be in the middle of the winter than deer hunting in Arizona!
Even with the long history of elk hunting in Colorado, and the fact that they boast the largest herd of wapiti in the country, I would rank them #5 on my list of things to hunt in the state. It won’t come as much of a surprise that mule deer would be #1. Even a poor mule deer unit in Colorado is better than a good unit in other states.
Next, I would pay attention to bighorn sheep, moose, and mountain goat. In order to draw one of these tags, you have to apply for three consecutive years before you are even eligible in the drawing. On top of that, you have to front all $1819 (subject to change) in order to accumulate your point. It weeds out many applicants, so the drawing odds are relatively good for these species.
Colorado is a pure preference point state, which means that 100% of the tags go to the applicants with the most points in that unit. It allows you to plan your hunt a little more accurately, because the number of points needed to draw a unit does not usually change dramatically from one year to the next. On the other hand, you’ll have to wait it out since there is no luck involved. Colorado has an easy-to-use online system, but it is subject to crashing in the final 48 hours before the deadline, so don’t wait until the last minute.
Note: I mentioned that the mule deer hunting in Colorado is great; actually it is really, really great. Though there are units famous for producing big bucks, a quick review of the record books will show that every county in the state has produced a B&C buck recently. So, if you’re not in great shape and don’t want to beat yourself up in the mountains, there are plenty of units in the farm country of the eastern plains that are less stressful. If you don’t have deep pockets, you can draw a tag in some units with as few as two points that offer very good potential as well. In many of these units, there are over-the-counter or easy-to-draw elk tags available during the mule deer seasons, so you can scout deer for the future and maybe fill the freezer at the same time. Landowner vouchers can be purchased for many of the units as well.
Shiras moose is a rare trophy but the persistent hunter can draw a tag.
Idaho is struggling. Some of their best elk and moose country is being overrun with wolves. This, combined with a growing human population and some questionable management practices, has reduced the quantity and quality of its big game hunting.
The best part about applying in Idaho is that they don’t have a bonus point system. You also must purchase a license in order to apply. When you do apply, you must choose between 1) moose; 2) sheep; 3) mountain goat; or 4) deer, elk, and/or antelope.
Given all of these perceived negatives, many nonresidents don’t even apply, so Idaho has some of the best drawing odds in the West. Much of the sheep and mountain goat country is extremely tough, with very dispersed populations, so a guide is worth considering for the nonresident. There are many over-the-counter or easy-to-draw hunts available, especially for bowhunters. The trophy quality may not rival other states, but the opportunity can be priceless.
Montana is legendary for big horn sheep, with tremendous Rocky Mountain goat and Shiras’ moose populations as well. If you have any desire to hunt one of these three species then you need to be applying for them. At $750 the tag prices are the lowest for any of the states we have listed and their application fees are reasonable as well.
Two years ago, the state did away with outfitter sponsor licenses for elk and deer, raised the prices for non-residents and started issuing all the tags through the drawing. As predicted, with the steep price increase, a slow economy and weak trophy potential a large number of non-residents just did not apply and they now have left over tags available. I am still of the opinion that quality elk and deer hunting in Montana will continue to be dominated by the resident with time and experience on their side, or within the confines of a private ranch.
Nevada is an amazing state! Not only does it have great trophy potential for a variety of species, but every person in Nevada likes to hunt. Of course this is an exaggeration, but Nevadans love to hunt and they are very good at it, so competition in the field and in the drawing is tough. All tags in Nevada are issued through the drawing. Nevada uses a bonus point system that awards a point each year you are not successful in the drawing. Nevada squares your bonus points, so your first year you have one point (1x1=1), then four points (2x2=4), then nine points (3x3=9)…so your loyalty is rewarded.
Note: If you are sincere about hunting desert sheep, then Nevada is arguably your best option in the country. For the past decade, the population has continued to grow and the trophy quality just keeps getting better. Mule deer is still the premier species, but I would highly recommend that you consider hiring an outfitter. Nevada has a separate outfitter drawing so do your research early and get to know your potential guide. Nevada has a few landownder tags available but they tend to be very expensive. Nevada is just not one of those states with easy to draw tags, this one will take patience.
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.