If you've ever dreamed about hunting out west for big game, you're not alone!
By Will Bowen | PUBLISHED November 29th, 2022
On October 29, 2022 my aspirations of filling a western tag had been fulfilled. A beautiful 4x4 muley laid at my feet and I was still in awe of it all. The various game I had encountered on my trip were unlike anything else I had seen. The landscape was so vastly different from my homeland of Southern Missouri. The hunting tactics shown to me were on a different level than my native whitetail skills. One thing is for sure, hunting out west is a totally different ballgame.
I had been planning my first western hunt for about two years. My graduate school schedule and lack of funds (being broke) kept this dream just out of reach for the several years. But finally I graduated, got a job, saved some money, and did some research on how to get one of these western tags. Through online study and guidance from some relatives that lived in Eastern New Mexico I was able to put a plan together for this mule deer trip.
The hunt itself was amazing and fairly difficult to pull off but it was the pure logistics that made the hunt almost not happen. As a resident of the Eastern United States and a first time western big game tag applicant, there were several barriers that had to be addressed to ensure that I got a tag: money, lottery tag allocation, vacation day availability. Any of these factors could serve as a deterrent for any eastern hunter but trust me, you can make it happen.
I hope that everybody gets the chance to travel out west to hunt someday. The key is to start planning now, even if you won’t get to go for several more years. Long-term planning cuts down on future hassle. On the basis of planning there are five things you must first consider before any further plans are made. Let's discuss those five things now.
Hunting the Plains vs. the Mountains
Addressing where you want to go and what type of terrain you want to hunt is a great first step. Aside from just the visual aesthetics you desire, there are a couple other things to consider in your decision on mountains versus plains hunting. What is your fitness level? How much gear do you want to pack? And are you ok with backpack camping as opposed to truck camping?
To hike the rugged mountains of the west efficiently you will have to be in pretty good shape. Don’t feel like this is something you could handle just yet? Maybe a pronghorn or deer hunt on the plains suits your abilities better. Do you want to be camped as far from civilization as possible and enjoy pure serenity? Well then the mountains are where you need to be. Figuring this out first will help you in all of your further decisions.
Now that you’ve figured out a hunt setting that suits your capabilities and wants, it’s time to pick a species to hunt. The most popular and most accessible big game species out west are the American Elk, the Mule Deer, and the Pronghorn Antelope. What do you want out of your first hunt? Do you want the interactive cat-and-mouse game of an elk hunt? Do you want the challenge of spotting and stalking sand hill muleys? Or do you want to hunt among vast herds of antelope?
Each species comes with its unique qualities and challenges. All three species provide amazing table fare but obviously an elk will yield more meat. All three species look good mounted and provide awesome talking pieces in your home! If you are looking for some direction on this decision, most experienced western hunters will say that if you plan to hunt all three eventually a pronghorn hunt is hard to beat for a first western experience. It’s a cheaper option when compared to the other two and is a great hunt for those not in marathon shape. Any first hunt will be tough no matter the species, but the choice is yours! There really isn’t a bad option!
DIY vs. Outfitter
While this question is often a matter of money, it can also be a question of preference. What do you want out of your hunt? Do you want to backcountry camp or do you want to stay in a lodge? Do you want to scout and figure everything out on your own or do you want the aid of an experienced guide? There is nothing wrong with either option, like I said it’s a matter of preference and money.
DIY trips are great for the hunter that wants to travel west every year. It’s comparatively low cost and gives you a chance to learn a hunting area. But for the hunter that travels west maybe only a few times, a guided hunt will probably be the ticket. You’ll have more time to allocate the funds and your success rate will be higher. There is no reason to look down on either option. Do whatever it takes to get yourself out west!
Archery vs. Firearm
Once again this question is a point of preference. Taking a rifle might put you at a higher percentage chance of success, but a bow will allow you to get close and see things that not many humans have ever laid eyes on. You also have to remember that oftentimes obtaining an archery tag is easier than a firearm tag. There are still plenty of firearm hunting opportunities though, you just need to know where to find them.
Over-the-Counter vs. Lottery Draw
After mulling over every other decision, it is time to finally get the tag. Most desirable units in almost every western state are lottery draw only. This isn’t a bad thing! It keeps hunting quality and trophy potential in that unit on the upper end. The drawback is the inability to consistently hunt and learn that unit. However, formulating a good yearly application plan will help you hunt better units more often.
Over-the-counter tags are a great option for folks who want to hunt consistently and don’t put trophy potential high on their list. Several states have OTC options for various game with various methods, whether it’s archery elk in Colorado or black powder mule deer in Nebraska. The plus here is that you can pick an area and hunt it year after year and still have good odds at harvest.
Don’t Shortcut Your Planning!
As you can see there are many things to figure out for your first western hunting endeavor. Don’t skimp on time spent planning. It’s important to go through every consideration and to make sure that this trip will not only be fun but also possible. I’ve recently had my first taste of the west and now have the desire to return every year. I would encourage every hunter to start making progress in that direction because you won’t regret it! Hopefully the previously mentioned considerations will help you get there!