As I sat in my ground blind overlooking a Utah waterhole where I hoped a thirsty pronghorn antelope would soon water, I looked to the north and could see the mountain range where, 11 months earlier, I had the elk hunt of a lifetime. I remembered not being able to sleep at night because of all the bulls bugling outside my tent, the almost daily encounters with elk while out hunting, and the Pope and Young 6×6 I was able to arrow as he pushed his cows up through a high mountain slide.
With experiences like that, you would think I was on a high-dollar guided hunt or behind the locked gates of a private ranch. Nothing could be farther from the truth; I was hunting by myself on National Forest open to everyone. Well, everyone lucky enough to draw a limited-entry archery elk tag, and there were only about 25 of us who had that privilege.
So, how does a whitetail bowhunter from Pennsylvania decide where to hunt 2,000 miles away from home in a place he has never been? Simple, use a home computer and research hunting areas using wildlife agency Web sites and network through hunting message boards.
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do the same thing I did and enjoy a champagne hunt on a beer budget:
Where to Apply
Nearly every Western state has some limited-entry units, and states such as Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah issue almost all their big-game tags through a drawing. Limited-entry hunts are just what you’d think. They limit the number of hunters who can pursue game in that unit. While it may take many years to draw a tag, when you do you will have the chance to hunt older (think bigger) animals without the crowds usually associated with hunting public land.
By accessing statistics available on the various wildlife agency Web sites, you can begin to narrow down your unit choices. Generally, the harder the unit is to draw, the better the hunting. Some things to look for are drawing success, harvest success rate, average age and size of animals harvested and the number of tags available.
Once a unit is chosen, a quick call to the area biologist is in order to check on things such as the amount of public land and if the terrain is suited to your hunting style. While there are several paid services that provide detailed information about units and will even apply for your tag for you, I have always liked doing my own research and tag applications. All the information these services provide is available simply by investing a little time and Internet sleuthing.
After You Draw
After you get lucky and have a limited-entry tag in your pocket, it is time to begin some serious research. Start by ordering Bureau of Land Management and National Forest maps for your hunting area. Then call the area biologist and ask some general questions about hunting pressure and areas that hold good concentrations of animals. Keep in mind that these folks talk to hunters every day, and the information you receive is most likely being given to everyone else. Once you have some general information about your unit, it is time to turn to your computer.
Begin by logging onto your favorite hunting message board and making a post on the appropriate forum stating that you drew a tag for XYZ unit and ask for information from anyone who may have hunted it in the past. It is good to state that you have already begun researching the unit and want to confirm some of the things you found. You should also ask for replies via private message. All these boards have a feature that allows a private reply. This means you get to see the message, but the rest of the world doesn’t. While I have found members of these boards to be very helpful, most don’t want their information posted for all to see.
The more research you have done, the more likely you will get good information from people on the message boards. When you get a reply, share the information you got from the biologist. Many times, the person who knows the unit will tell you the area the biologist recommended is good but heavily hunted and then will offer advice on where they would hunt.
One way not to get any advice is to post something like this: “I drew an elk tag in XYZ unit. Where should I hunt to kill a 400-inch bull?” People tend to help those who have already done their traditional research and are trying to fine-tune their efforts. Another thing to remember is the harder the unit is to draw, the more likely people will share information. Some Utah and Arizona elk tags are literally once-in-a-lifetime hunts, as are some great mule deer tags and any sheep tag. People will share information on these hunts much more freely than for a unit that can be drawn every few years. As you talk to more and more people, you will see a pattern develop, and after a while, you should have a good idea where to focus your attention.
After selecting the drainage or mountain where you plan to hunt, you can get a firsthand look at the area by logging on to a Web site that provides topographic maps, aerial photos or 3-D aerial photos. This will allow you to get a feel for the area before you ever set foot in your unit. You can identify potential bedding areas, feeding areas and water sources and then quickly evaluate their potential with some on-the-ground scouting when you arrive.
This is the formula I followed when I drew my first limited-entry area tag and was the reason I was sitting in an antelope blind the following year. Sitting in the blind with me was my g
ood friend Rick, an avid sportsman I met on a message board when researching my elk hunt. Rick and I struck up a fast friendship and he even offered to pull his trailer up and take a week’s vacation to hang out with me while I hunted elk. As we sat in the blind, we reminisced about my elk hunt.
The evening after Rick arrived, he spotted three big bulls on the mountain behind camp. That night, we hatched a plan for Rick’s son Jace and I to intercept the elk on their way to the dark timber high on the mountain. The next morning, Jace and I climbed in the dark as elk bugled all around us. Halfway up the mountain, we stopped and waited for daylight.
As Jace called, two bulls answered. I tried moving toward the closer bull, but had to quickly set up by a root ball of an overturned tree as some cows moved into view. They were drinking at a spring 35 yards away when the trophy herd bull arrived. As he stood and bugled at 67 yards, I was sure he would come and gather his cows and provide me with a shot. My heart sank as he pushed his other cows up the mountain and out of my life.
Jace and I chased the herd up the mountain, but we couldn’t keep up. Just below the ridgeline, we stopped to catch our breath. Another bull was bugling below us, so we quickly set up. Soon I saw cows picking their way across the slide below me, with a nice 6-pointer pushing the herd. I quickly ranged a cow and decided if the bull stopped in the same place I would take the shot. The bull moved forward and stopped where the cow stood moments before.
My sight pin hovered on his chest and I saw my arrow disappear just above my pin. The bull ran across a draw and started to wobble. Soon he went down and started sliding down the slope. I finally had my Pope and Young elk, and I did it without hiring a guide or paying for private land access. That moment may have been the most satisfying of my hunting career.
After that successful hunt, Rick convinced me to put in for an antelope tag in a nearby unit. Even though I had never applied for antelope, I got lucky and drew a tag. Rick wanted to come out and spend the opening weekend with me. I had arrived early and set up my Primos Double Bull blind on a waterhole Rick suggested. The first day passed with many antelope being seen and me messing up a shot on a trophy buck late in the afternoon. The second day started with Rick, his 16-year-old son Chet and I in the blind.
Once again, antelope started heading in to water, and before long, a really good buck showed up on the other side of the pond. I was able to slip an arrow into him and finish him with another one when he stopped at the top of the hill.
As we walked up to the fallen buck, I couldn’t believe the number of animals I had seen on my two hunts. These were the first two limited-entry tags I had drawn, and I couldn’t believe I had killed two Pope and Young trophies in less than a year. Not only did I have two fantastic hunts, I also made some great friends in the process; and all because I put a post on an Internet message board.