In today's economy, the dollar just doesn't stretch as far as it once did. This leaves many of us out of luck when it comes to fully guided hunts. Even the basic bowhunt for whitetail deer on decent ground has become out of reach for the average blue collar bowhunter, with costs reaching upwards of $3,500, not including licenses and travel expenses.
You can't really blame an outfitter. He's feeling the pinch, too, with fuel reaching the $4 per gallon mark in many areas, the government taking ever-bigger bites in the form of "user fees" and professional license costs, and we live in the age of $50,000 pickup trucks.
I have nothing against guided hunts — they're normally a sound investment if for no other reason than a quick acquisition of hunting knowledge — but the fact remains: Most outfitted hunts are financially out of reach for most of us working stiffs.
1. Alaska Float Trip
There's good news and bad news when it comes to a float trip in Alaska.
The bad news: Hunting in Alaska is pricy. Airline tickets to Anchorage will run you around $750. It's $85 for a hunting license, $80 for a fishing license, $550 for a moose tag, $350 for a caribou tag (check for availability in moose areas), and a black bear tag is $150. Then, take into account the various assortment of motels and taxi rides, equipment rental, food and supplies, satellite phone rental and excess baggage fees and we're talking roughly $5,000 when all is said and done.
With non-resident success rates for a DIY moose hunt cracking 20 percent, nasty bouts of weather including horizontal rains and howling winds guaranteed, and swarms of biting insects, it should be readily apparent this isn't for the faint of heart. Not to mention the very real prospect of big, fearsome brown bears encountered on the river or snooping around your tent — yes, you'll need a backup firearm. On top of it all, it's going to be a dead minimum 14 days vacation time squandered (probably closer to 20).
Good news: Don't let the bad news discourage you. It doesn't really matter if you kill a single thing on this trip because you're in for the ride of your life. You're truly and absolutely on your own in trackless country without the realistic prospect of rescue until reaching a designated take-out point well downstream. Stay up to look for northern lights on clear nights.
Stop occasionally to enjoy the fishing (salmon, arctic grayling, pike, Dolly Varden), as it's likely the best you'll ever experience in your life. The country is beyond description. And, yes, you might just get lucky and stick an arrow through the heaviest-furred black bear you've ever seen, a moose wearing 60-pound antlers, or even a caribou in the right place and time. There's nothing quite like it in all of hunting.
2. Alaska Caribou Drop Camp
To me caribou are the fairest of them all when it comes to North American big game. And Alaska is home to the biggest of them — the Alaska Barren Ground Caribou. A world-class caribou, in my opinion, puts even the American elk (which I love dearly, by the way) to shame with their sheer looks and awe-inspiring antlers. Alaskan game country will also take your breath away and send a chill down your spine, if you take only a moment to consider just how disconnected from civilization you are in this barren country.
Everyone should bowhunt caribou at least once in their lifetime. But I won't sugarcoat it. Although it's the hunt of a lifetime, Alaska is damn expensive and success is a virtual crapshoot. Caribou are either there, or they aren't. When they are you'll think you're in bowhunting nirvana. When they aren't you'll become convinced you've been swindled.
It's a 2 ½- to 3-hour floatplane ride to get into caribou country — which will run you around $750 an hour. And, of course, there are the travel expenses, food and other supplies. Once on the tundra you'll face some of the most inhospitable weather imaginable — days on end of horizontal rain and tent-ripping winds.
Plan on at least 10 days (14 is preferable), as you'll remain stranded in your tent many days, or scanning empty horizons waiting on the arrival of the 'bou. Choose your hunting partner(s) (absolutely mandatory) wisely, and bring a deck of cards and some good novels to avoid potential homicide. All in, you're looking at around $4,000 each for the trophy (or trophies) of a lifetime. Give yourself at least two years advanced planning.
3. Colorado Alpine Mule Deer
Nothing speaks DIY bowhunting more than backpacking (or packstringing if you own seasoned horses/mules) into the vast bastions of Colorado Rocky Mountain habitat to spot-and-stalk wily mountain mule deer. This is the epitome of wilderness bowhunting, trudging a dozen or more miles into timberline reaches at 12,000 to 14,000 feet to seek velvet-antlered mule deer during early seasons when temperatures are still climbing into the triple digits well below but your water bottle freezes at night up in the clouds.
This is nowhere for tyros, the weak of heart, ill-conceived game plans or flimsy equipment. Colorado's high country will kill you if given the chance — which is also part of the allure. I've seen it snow in August at these altitudes, where even an evening shower can leave the unprepared hypothermic. This is a land of dehydrated food, bivy tents, feathery down sleeping bags, mountaineering boots — and the most expensive optics you can possibly afford.
The reward is the daily sighting of some of the biggest mule deer antlers in North America. Colorado high country provides the ideal combination of genetics, seclusion and light hunting pressure to have relinquished several world records in past years. You'll normally find the biggest bucks in the highest reaches well above timberline, with the mountain goats and above even bighorn sheep.
This moonscape habitat — and thin air — will test your stalking skills like nowhere else. You'll traipse until your legs and lungs burn to reach a commanding vantage, put optics to work on distant bowls, benches and chutes, and test the wind while trudging some more. But all of that is worth it when you're ending the day under the most brilliant stars you have ever witnessed in your life.
4. Idaho Elk
Southwestern states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada get all the press for regularly relinquishing big bulls. But drawing tags in these places is akin to winning a Power Ball Lottery. It might require a lifetime to draw a tag in better units in these states. Montana has the history and post-card scenery, but also lottery tags for non-residents, and now the new problem of wolf predation. Only Idaho (and the roughest, most remote portions of Colorado) offers the luxury of over-the-counter tags combined with abundant bulls.
Just for the record, Idaho isn't the place to travel for the biggest bulls in the record books. But for those simply seeking a guaranteed hunt on extensive public lands, with a chance at arrowing a decent 5x5 or 6x6, central and northern Idaho are the answer. Tags are issued on a first come, first served basis beginning August 1, so make plans now.
Idaho offers so much public National Forest, BLM and state lands, plus private timber company lands open to public hunting, that finding a place to hunt is easy. Idaho elk hunting, however, is challenging. Mountains are rough and thickly wooded. Luckily Idaho bulls are also quite receptive to calling — something that can't be said about even better parts of the Southwest from my experiences. The last bull I killed in Idaho was shot at 7 yards, responding to a combination of cow calls and bugling.
5. Arizona January Deer
When the best parts of whitetaildom are under the spell of Old Man Winter and covered with snow, Arizona bowhunting is just beginning to peak. In the dry, lonely southeastern reaches of Arizona's foothills and scrubby desert mountain ranges, January represents the desert mule deer and Coues whitetail rut. And as any bowhunter knows, the rut brings the biggest bucks out of the woodwork (or is it cactus in this case?).
Wide antlered desert mulies can be found in the lowest reaches of these mountain ranges, while the challenging little Coues whitetails inhabit the higher reaches where more brush has taken hold. Both species offer the ultimate bowhunting challenge and adventure worth experiencing.
You'd better arrive with the willingness to hike long miles and hours in this sparse country, as game densities are most often low and vistas vast. Mounting a commanding vantage and putting quality optics to work is typically the name of the game, covering miles with glass instead of your legs. After discovering a buck, form a viable approach strategy or ambush after careful study of the wind and available topography.
Some hunters also find success on water holes during dry spells. Abundant cougars keep deer on edge, noisy-dry ground makes moving quietly tricky and thin vegetation makes you more conspicuous. Come geared for long-range accuracy and your chances of success increase considerably.
6. Kansas Whitetail
The biggest problem with DIY whitetail hunting in the times we live in, especially in Midwest trophy grounds, is gaining access to productive ground. Trophy whitetail now command big money, while common is the story of hunters with access to good hunting ground suddenly shut out when an outfitter or group of well-heeled hunters offers the landowner a substantial sum of cash for exclusive hunting rights.
Everyone understands Kansas is a top destination for trophy bucks. What many don't know is Kansas also harbors thousands of acres of 'walk-in ' areas open to the public for hunting. I've killed a couple big bucks off such ground myself. I won't tell you where I hunted. You'll have to do the research and find your own place, but rest assured they're out there and worth the effort. Kansas tags have also become easier to draw in recent years.
One of the hints I will offer is to look toward the country of the desolate central and western portions of the state. At first glance you'll think you've been hoodwinked into running a fool's errand. It's all so seemingly featureless and open you can't imagine any self-respecting deer inhabiting the place. But Kansas is misleading that way.
I've killed a couple of my biggest bucks in country with only a few trees, the occasional creek bed and lots of CRP and dry-land agricultural fields. It's pretty common in western Kansas to witness some of the biggest bucks of your life. You just have to figure out how to kill them.
7. Montana Pronghorn
The American pronghorn is one of the West's most handsome and unique big-game trophies. They're found in rolling foothills, desert and prairie habitats from southern New Mexico to Alberta, and from eastern Oregon to the western Dakotas. Unfortunately for the aspiring bowhunter, in many states pronghorn tags can be a bit difficult to come by, requiring submitting an early application and beating steep draw odds.
One glaring exception is eastern Montana, where pronghorns are quite numerous, trophy quality is good and the odds of drawing a lottery tag remain around 90 percent. Eastern Montana also offers an abundance of public access lands in the form of BLM, state and public walk-in areas. See regulations for more details.
Pronghorn are highly conducive to DIY success. Heck, Fred Bear and friends traveled Out West in the 1950s without prior experience — and with much less information available to them than today's bowhunter — and were highly successful with primitive recurve bows.
Pronghorns are bowhunted most successfully by guarding water from pop-ups or natural ground blinds when hot and dry weather predominates (especially during standard August seasons); by stalking rimrock country when it rains; or by waiting until September and luring them with decoys during the rut. The wide-open terrain and highly visible nature of the pronghorn makes scouting fast and easy; the only requirement afterwards is to hunt hard and hunt smart.
8. Wyoming Baited Spring Black Bear
If you've ever dreamed of baiting spring bears on your own there are but a few options in today's world. All of which are out West (Utah by special permit, Idaho in restricted areas), and none are better than Wyoming.
Bowhunters actually get first crack at spring bears with a special season, but can also hunt during the general firearms season. Not all units are included and certain rules apply. Be that as it may, tags are readily available and wide open public lands abound. Trophy quality is also generally quite good, world-class trout fishing often comes as a midday bonus and hunts can be conducted for a fraction of the cost of a Canada adventure. See Wyoming Fish & Game's web site for details on season dates and requirements.
Now there are many who believe baiting bears is like shooting fish in a barrel. However, in reality, productive DIY bear baiting involves a lot of hard work, hunting savvy and time. You must first secure enough bait to see you through a week or two hunt (stale bakery goods, past-expiration-date groceries, cheap dog food and used deli grease).
Then, scout out a likely site with fresh bear sign and complete wind management capabilities and invest a week or more of hunting time. But rest assured there's nothing more exciting than witnessing a bear at close range, or the satisfaction that comes from tagging a trophy bruin completely on your own.
9. Alaska Sitka Blacktail Deer
The Sitka blacktail is an oft-neglected deer species native to the coastal islands in southeast Alaska. They live in some of the most beautiful yet ruggedly-wild country left in the U.S. and offer bowhunters a high-odds opportunity at bowhunting success. It's not that Sitka deer are absolute pushovers, it's just they are normally hunted so lightly they generally allow small mistakes, making them quite approachable.
Given the right weather (little rain and wind) and straight shooting, a Sitka hunt can prove a 100-percent-plus foray. I add the plus because in most cases it's legal to tag multiple bucks after purchasing the appropriate tags ($150 per deer, plus $85 hunting license).
The best places to pursue Sitka blacktails are Kodiak or Prince of Wales (POW) islands. Of these, Kodiak is more expensive because it requires hitching a float-plane ride into remote lakes with carriers such as Sea Hawk Air in Kodiak City (about gallery=76,000 round trip). The key is to recruit a couple of reliable buddies to share expenses (and equipment needs).
POW has the advantage of being accessible by vehicle, allowing you to drive to your destination. A ferry ride across from Prince Rupert, Canada, will cost a few bucks, but basic necessities are readily available and you'll have more mobility during your hunt. Both options offer top-notch trophy quality.
10. Wild Hogs
Wild hogs, wild boars or feral swine — whatever you prefer to call them — are simply just pure fun to bowhunt. They're normally abundant and subject to fewer regulations than most other big game. Licenses are either dirt cheap or nonexistent; seasons are wide open and most states have liberal bag limits. And pork chops taste good.
Better yet, hog hunting normally offers high success rates due to a hog's poor eyesight, average hearing and devil-may-care attitude, which makes them quite approachable. Just watch that nose, as you'll never fool a hog's superior olfactory senses.
While wild hogs are found in 42 of 50 states today, according to recent Department of Agriculture reports
, the best destinations remain California, Texas and Florida. California hogs can be hunted on public lands in the central and northern portions of the state with affordable licenses. Texas hogs require a modest day-fee arrangement with a willing rancher (normally around $100 to $200 per diem for prime locations) and a $65 non-game permit for non-residents.
Florida has plenty of public wildlife areas with state imposed regulations, but private-land hunts can also be arranged cheaply. Check out state game agency web sites and contact area chambers of commerce for leads to bowhunting opportunities.