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Western Big-Game Tag Draws: Separating Facts From Fiction

If I’ve read it once, I’ve read it a thousand times, in every popular hunting magazine out there, as well as on popular hunting websites. It always starts off something like this: “I couldn’t believe it! I finally drew that tag of a lifetime!” Right next to it is a grip-and-grin photo of the author posing with a magnificent bull elk or muley buck or bighorn ram he killed.

Is this your dream? Drawing the tag is just the start.

Is this your dream? Drawing the tag is just the start.

Having been in the business all my adult life, I know that big antlers sell magazines. Having been a very serious big-game hunter and sometimes hunting guide in places like Alaska, I also know how misleading these stories can be. Unless you understand the game, you might read such articles and think, “Well heckfire, all I have to do is to apply in several states for a few years, and then, boom! I’ll draw my tag and waltz right down the aisle and shoot a giant whatever, easy as pie.”

I promise, that is not how it works.

Reality Check

Back in 2008, I had 10 preference points in Utah for elk and finally drew a highly-coveted archery tag that cost me more than $800. I also had the help of a local outfitter chosen through the tag application service through which I drew my tag. My expectations were high.

And yet, after 12 days of dawn-to-dark hunting, I left totally disgusted. I never saw or heard a big bull. There were hunters everywhere. Not all had trophy bull tags; some had cow elk tags, some had mule deer tags. All the trophy bull hunters I met—and there were plenty of them—had at least two buddies in tow, and they all tromped through the woods stinking it up, blowing calls like a high school marching band, and generally terrifying any critters. Dream hunt? It was more like a nightmare.

Once-in-a-lifetime tag? You best practice until making the shot is second nature.

Once-in-a-lifetime tag? You best practice until making the shot is second nature.

Lesson learned. I started consulting with friends who have been guiding western big-game tag draw winners for decades. Their advice should be taken to the bank by all of you, because such tales of woe like mine are far more common than those of success on giant critters. Here, in a nutshell, is the truth.

First off, because it has become increasingly difficult to draw a top-quality, high-demand hunting permit on public land, it is imperative to implement a plan and conduct your due diligence if you hope to be successful. Remember that the tag is just the beginning, not the end. Once you draw, you now have to work all the research, do your own pre-scouting or hire a qualified, experienced guide/outfitter to do the work for you. Failure to do either or both will lead to certain failure and disappointment.

Second, you cannot hire just any outfitter. Draw a once-in-a-lifetime sheep tag, for example, and you can be sure you will be inundated with solicitations from outfitters who want you to hire them. Research them first! You must make sure they both know and have successfully hunted the specific hunting unit for which you drew your tag and what class of trophies they’ve previously had their clients taken in that unit and, thus, what you should expect regarding an opportunity to fill your hard-won tag given your goals, firearms proficiency and physical condition.

For nonresidents hiring an outfitter who knows the unit in which you drew, and who can provide a quality camp, food and service, is something to seriously consider.

For nonresidents hiring an outfitter who knows the unit in which you drew, and who can provide a quality camp, food and service, is something to seriously consider.

It is also critical that the outfitter and his guide(s) are available to pre-scout everything and do everything for you. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized, because this is what you are paying for. You are not paying to scout for four days and hope to shoot something on your fifth and last day afield. If the outfitter will not personally be your guide, ask if you can meet and/or speak with the person who will actually be guiding you, so you can get a feel for him or her and make sure they know what you want and desire out of your hunt. (Yes, a reputable outfitter will gladly supply you with his qualified guide’s name and phone numbers, if you are truly interested in a hunt with that outfitter.)

It’s Stiff Competition—Set Expectations Accordingly

Be aware that today, all the western states provide top-quality, high-demand, limited-entry permits, with more competition as well as hunts and hunt permits, for the general public to participate in. It is therefore even more difficult to not only draw such a quality permit, but to actually take the trophy-class animal of your dreams on that hunt. It is highly competitive out there.

Let me give you an example. I have lived in Arizona for more than a decade and have become very familiar with how it works in this Mecca for big bull and buck hunters. In the past decade, the state has increased the overall number of elk permits it issues annually, so that more sportsmen can participate and actually hunt elk. That means that in many areas, Arizona elk are actually being continually hunted from mid-September through the first week of December. In other words, you may have drawn a great elk tag in a great elk unit, but you may be the fourth and or even fifth elk hunt in that particular unit, which makes it very difficult to take a true trophy-quality bull elk after all of the previous and continuous hunting pressure.

Never forget that public land hunting in the mountains of the West requires you be dedicated to being in the best physical condition possible, being mentally tough, and sticking your goal of taking the best trophy possible, win, lose or draw. You must be proficient with your firearms or bow and take off the time necessary to get the most out of your hunt. The really serious tag draw recipients often plan to hunt the entire season if need be.

After 14 years of applying, the author drew a near-impossible permit to hunt free-range bison in Alaska. Lots of research and pre-scouting paid off.

After 14 years of applying, the author drew a near-impossible permit to hunt free-range bison in Alaska. Lots of research and pre-scouting paid off.

Limited-entry, high-demand public land hunting tags are the way of the future in the West. Serious nonresident hunters stay abreast of the changing nature of these tags and are learning to make the system work for, not against, them. Even the experienced local hunter must put his time in order to even expect to have a reasonable opportunity to see or take a trophy-class animal. For the nonresident tag holder, it will be doubly difficult. The one thing you can be assured of is that the days of waltzing unprepared into National Forest or BLM lands out West and shooting a whopper buck or bull are over. If that does happen to you, immediately rush out and buy a lottery ticket. You are destined to be easy rich!

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Bob Robb is one of the most well-respected voices in outdoor media, with more than 40 years of columns and essays in print recounting his exploits in the field. A renowned archery expert, Robb has hunted on five continents and also lived 15 years in Alaska, where he held an assistant hunting guide’s license. His work has appeared in titles small and large, from American Hunter and American Rifleman to Whitetail Journal, Field & Stream, Petersen’s Hunting, Deer & Deer Hunting, and many others. He recently retired as Editorial Director from Grand View Media Group, where he oversaw the content for eight publications, including Bowhunting World, Predator Xtreme and Waterfowl & Retriever. Still, retirement is rather an ugly word to Robb, and so he continues to contribute to a variety of publications, just as he continues to hunt around the world. 

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