The new year has landed, and for some, resolutions are the primary focus to trim off that extra waist line of the Holiday season. But for the 5% of the American population who purchases a hunting license, the new year is synonymous with tag application season and strategy. Although this can be an exciting time for most, others can view as an overwhelming exercise of numbers and percentages that would make a statisticians head spin. It also can be a very expensive upfront investment when applying for trophy big game in the various states that offer those species of animals. All in all, most serious hunters who apply in the majority of the Western states are waiting for their credit cards to ping a payment to the state in which they applied for one of these trophy units and big game animals.
1937 proved to be a pivotal legislative year that set the framework for our right to harvest fair chase game. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act most offend referred to as The Pittman-Robertson Act was signed into law by President Franklin D Roosevelt which created an excise tax that provides funding to each state for management of animals and their respective habitats. Because of the this act, it saved many notable species of animals (e.g. wild turkey, white-tailed deer) from being driven to extinction because of habitat degradation or over pressured commercial hunting. This act requires that the states set aside those tax funds
from hunting license sales back into the state's fish and game departments for biological surveys, research, conservation efforts, or acquiring leases of land for public access. If for some reason this federal money does not get spent within a two year timeframe, it gets reallocated into the Migratory Bird Conservation Act which establishes waterfowl refuges across the lower 48. Fast forward 80 years later, and the populations of most big game species are thriving and healthy with the work done many years ago. And the intrinsic value proves hunters contribute about 3.5 million dollars a day to conservation efforts by purchasing taxable items such as hunting licenses. I ask, please do your part and purchase a hunting license today.
Twelve years ago, I filled out my first paper application in Montana for a coveted elk tag that is managed as a high bull to cow ratio trophy unit. I didn't know there was only 25 tags distributed, I just applied thinking I would draw the tag and be able to hunt that fall. And being a non-resident at that time, cut down my chances even more as only 10% of the total tag distribution was achievable (In this case would be 2 tags, 1 to high points, 1 to random draw). 12 years later, I am going into the Montana draw with 12 points (13 with 2017 application) with the same high hopes I had previously. Many would ask me, why do you build up all those points when you can hunt over-the-counter (OTC) in many states including Montana. My simple answer was, "Somebody has to draw the tag, it might as well be me"! At that same time, I picked up archery hunting which generally puts better odds in your favor based on the tag allocations. Although there is no guarantees, with doing just a little bit of research, you can draw good quality tags and hunt various species of animals across the West every year.
Once you decide to go down this journey, you need to set achievable goals with timeframes. Everybody wants to hunt the Henry Mountains for mule deer, but the reality is that will likely never happen based on Utah's system for non resident applications. With that said, the time to start is now. Focus on a couple states and the species of animal(s) you would prefer to hunt. This will help narrow your scope and give you the skills necessary to become proficient in the year to year draw systems. Every state is different and some are not intuitive from the start. My recommendation is utilize all the information on the local fish and game websites. Most states provide hunt planners which allow you to select a species of animal and follow their road map highway of information. All state departments provide harvest statistics along with the total number of tags to give you an idea of success rates from the previous year. This can help you in determining which units are viable to draw a tag and also harvest based on the age class. There is a lot of survey information as well that can be a useful resource. It's never too late to jump into the game, but just remember there is always somebody ahead of you.
As you consider your application strategy for 2017, here's 5 simple pearls of wisdom I've learned over the 12+ years of applying:
1. "Know that you have to invest money, to make money" - The meaning behind this is in order to play the game, you have to front the money. In some circumstances, states will just charge you an application fee per species and if successfully drawn, pay the full price of the tag (e.g. Arizona, Utah). Other states require the full license and tag fee up front when applying (Wyoming, New Mexico), and will reimburse most of your application fee (minus $10-$30) if unsuccessful.
2. "Always purchase points option if available" - Every big game hunter wants to increase their odds of drawing that trophy unit tag when they apply. Most all states provide either a bonus or preference point system which in Lehman's terms provides you more of a statistical advantage of draw each year you apply. States like Idaho and New Mexico do not have a points system so all applications would be treated alike based on the total number of tags versus applications. If you are an odds guys like me, you want stack the chips on your side and the nominal fee ($20-$50) per species pays off in the long run.
3. "Chose states with public land access" - Arizona has approximately 9.3 million acres of public free range access that allows for some of the best trophy hunting in the West. Although some have access onto private gated land or may pass the steep trespass fee, most are DIY public land hunters that research the areas virtually from their PC and make calculated decisions in hopes to strengthen their opportunity of harvest. With having more public land options, it gives the hunter a better chance of finding habitat and sanctuary with limited amounts of pressure and a higher density of animals.
4. "Ability to hunt multiple seasons" - Wouldn't you like to have the option of hunting bull elk in the September rut or the ability to chase them in the November snow? The good news is, there are states that offer license holders the choice to hunt both the archery and later rifle seasons. Montana is one of those states that the Deer and Elk season traditionally opens the Saturday of Labor Day weekend for archery and closes the weekend of Thanksgiving for rifle. If you were unsuccessful in your fall adventure with a bow in your hand, you can come back in a month and give it another try with a rifle. Just remember, Montana is a 50-50 split public/private land state, and weather pending, most of the elk have already transitioned down to the lower elevations frequented mostly by private property.
5. "Don't get overwhelmed, get some help" - There is a ton of resources out there on the internet that can help steer you down the right path. Most of those are 'free' of charge if you are willing to put in a little time and effort necessary to draw the tag of your dreams. There are many consulting companies that for an annual fee, will take the guesswork out of the numbers, and put it in a straightforward context that's easy to understand. I would advise looking into the suite of services these companies provide before going in on a subscription. They all have their specialties and you want to align your goals and expectations with their mission and vision.
Please view our website for some free and instructional information to help you make the best decision possible when applying this year. We have linked all the fish and game websites along with free mapping resources that can assist with decision making on where to apply. We also have updated the draw deadlines for 2017 by state so you don't miss an opportunity.
Good luck and apply for as many states and species as you can afford. There are only so many tags and so much time, so you better start now!