Are you thinking about going hunting out west this fall? Unfortunately you have missed most of the big game application deadlines, if you didn’t already apply, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are too late to plan a hunt. Planning next fall’s hunt usually begins long before this very moment. If you wait until now, you will not only miss most of the western big game draws (all of the elk draws are over), but you will most likely not find an outfitter with availability. Most western outfitters have been filled up with clients for several months, for the 2018 season. The only exception to finding a reputable outfitter without advanced planning would be a last minute cancellation. Fortunately, there are some areas that offer OTC hunts, but you better get your research going if that is the plan. However, it’s not too early to start planning a hunt for the fall of 2019.
My planning typically starts as soon as I return from the current seasons hunting trip, whether I am planning a guided hunt or DIY. Much of the research can be done using the internet, by making a few short phone calls or a few email exchanges. I start by figuring out how many preference or bonus points I have for the animal I want to hunt in each state. Then I start looking at draw odds based on the points that I have, that eliminates a lot of units. Are any of the units that are available to me interesting? If so, am I going to burn 20 points and completely wing it? Absolutely not! I want to have my ducks in a row well before I put in for the draw.
Types of application systems
The application deadlines in some western states start in early February and typically run into April. Depending on which state or states you choose, they basically operate in one of three ways. The Preference Point system, Bonus Points, or Random draw. They are all different from each other; some hunters prefer one system from the other.
Colorado operates a Preference Point system. The main issue with this system is the point creep. A few years back, it took about 18 points to draw an elk tag in one of Colorado’s “premiere” archery elk units. This year it will take about 25 nonresident points and next year it might take 26 points. Each point is a year of being unsuccessfully drawn. It is difficult, because there are a limited number of tags and you only get a tag if you have the highest number of preference points. This can be great, if you have been accumulating preference points for many years, because you would have an opportunity at a great bull. But, some of these units are truly a once in a lifetime hunt. If you haven’t been building points for dozens of years, then you need to plan on an OTC unit or a unit that doesn’t take nearly as many preference points. Colorado has a large populous of elk, which creates the opportunity for OTC hunting units and some draw units that can be drawn with only a couple of points.
Arizona offers a Bonus Point system. Meaning there is always a chance that you may draw a tag. Each year that you apply, you get your name tossed into the hat one time for each year that you apply, then after four consecutive years you get an additional loyalty point. So if you apply for an elk tag for 5 years, you will have 6 chances to have your name drawn, because of the additional loyalty point. Always having a chance to draw an elk tag in the lottery is a huge benefit. Plus hunters in Arizona have historically killed some of the biggest elk.
New Mexico has a random elk tag selection, no preference points and no bonus points. However, only a certain allotment of the tags can be distributed to non-residents, 6%. Sounded great at first, until you realized your odds went down a lot because of being a non-resident. With that being said, there are some great elk to be had in New Mexico and some of the tags are very feasible for a non-resident to draw. Besides, it puts all non-residents on the same playing field each and every year.
Of course there are many other states that you could apply for and a couple of states that offer OTC hunting units; Colorado has been mentioned as one of those states. There are good opportunities to kill elk or deer in some of those areas, but you are likely to find better animals in areas where there is a draw. But they can always be fall back areas if you do not draw a tag in the area that you had hoped for.
Decision on Guided or DIY
Once I figure out where I can possibly draw a tag, then I start doing a lot of internet scouting and answering a lot of my own questions. Am I going to go guided or am I going to DIY? Do I even have the necessary equipment for a DIY hunt? What guide or outfitter service should I use? Do I drop camp or do a fully guided hunt? Some of the answers to these questions are simply answered by another question, how much money do you want to spend?
If you are going to go on a guided hunt you better prepare yourself to spend several thousand dollars. Sometimes you get what you pay for with these services, sometimes you don’t. There are outfitters that you could find that only charge $1500 or so, but you may get an experience that you wished you would have spent four to five thousand or even did a DIY hunt instead. Many of the most reputable outfitters charge five thousand or more dollars for a fully guided hunt, depending on the species, accommodations and the quality of animals available. The quality of the animals, private land availability, experience of the guides, reputation, meal service, lodging, etc. will all help in determining your price. A brand new outfitting service is not going to be able to charge what an outfit with 35 years of quality experience and great reputation can charge.
Picking the guide is probably the most difficult part of planning the hunt. They all have websites that tell you how great each and every one of them is, many of them actually are great. They will also provide you with references at your request, obviously they aren’t going to provide the name of someone who is going to badmouth them. You need to do your own research, talk to people you know that have used these outfitters, read the forums, ask questions, contact wildlife managers, wardens and biologists, etc. Do your homework, and when you think you are finished researching you should research some more. One of the main things to remember is that many people base their opinion of the outfitter on whether they were successful in filling their tag. Indeed that is a huge part of a “successful” hunt, however that shouldn’t be the sole reason. But, what makes a hunt “successful” is something that you have to answer for yourself.
DIY hunts can be expensive too. The gear and equipment for a camp can run into the thousands of dollars, but once you’ve spent that money it becomes an investment that you will have for years to come. It really depends on how comfortable you want to be when you set up your camp. Our DIY camp typically entails a wall tent with a floor, an outside covered area for cooking, latrine, shower, lots of water and all of the other camp necessities for cooking, sleeping and eating. Shower?! Yes we have a portable shower system. Zodi makes a shower that can be pressurized and heated, making for a warm shower. This is how camp is set up when I hunt with 4 to 5 other guys.
If I hunt by myself I simply hunt out of my truck or a smaller tent, fairly inexpensive but sometimes it’s not very comfortable. I usually don’t bring all of the modern conveniences with either, as I’m typically trying to conserve space. DIY hunting can really be as expensive or inexpensive as you want it to be or what you make it.
If DIY is the way I decide to go then I have a lot more homework to do. I need to select a few particular areas to hunt and to camp, within the unit I selected. I pick a few areas within that unit because maybe someone is already there when I arrive or maybe the elk moved out of that area because of pressure or some other reason. You always have to have a backup plan to the backup plan. If I showed you my OnXMaps, you would see pins and markers dropped all over the place. (By the way, you will never see my OnXMaps!) Some of them are from actually being there and some are simply from internet scouting. Living in Wisconsin makes it very difficult for me to take a scouting trip to where I am going to hunt. Therefore, when I come upon a spot that lives up to my expectations, I will return the following year and expand my horizons and explore the area even more from the first year.
Purpose of this website and blog
I created this website because I found it difficult to come upon neutral information on guides and outfitters. A lot of the information that is available is from the actual outfitters web page. I would hate to be the bearer of bad news, but what are they supposed to say about themselves on their own website but the positives? www.outfitteradvisors.com was created solely because I know that there are always three sides to a story; Truth, Lies and somewhere in between. We never get the entire story if we only listen to one side. This website is intended to get to the truth by connecting hunters with outfitters and hunters with other hunters. The idea is to help the hunters choose their next adventure with confidence. As a result, feedback from the outfitter services and the hunters has become very important.
Remember though, success isn’t always based on whether or not you killed an animal or filled your tag. Some of the greatest hunts I have been on have resulted in me going home with tag soup. It’s about the camaraderie of hunting with family, friends and just being in the wilderness.