October 28, 2010
By Patrick Meitin
How you approach special hunt application deadlines can mean the difference between hunting or sitting the bench.
By Pat Meitin
I begin to feel old every year about mid April, and it has nothing to do with Uncle Sam. You see, that's application deadline time in a number of western states where I hunt. I feel old because I remember a time when all this nonsense wasn't necessary, I mean, meeting deadlines and submitting early applications for bowhunts months away, waiting anxiously for the lottery numbers to roll out my number, the depression that follows an unceremonious rejection notice.
When did things get so complicated? By mid April I've already missed a good portion of deadlines in a number of great bowhunting states--again!--and I wonder if Alzheimer's is hereditary and if I'll know the difference if it does strike.
It's the Catch .22 of this business, that while I want our sport of bowhunting to grow, adding ranks to the files in the fight against those who would oppose us, it also means there are more of us out there vying for tags in the most coveted bowhunting areas. Imagine a time when New Mexico archery-elk tags were unlimited. I remember such. I also recall over-the-counter Moffat County, Colorado, pronghorn tags. Really.
When I got into bowhunting you could bowhunt deer darn near anywhere you wanted by simply purchasing the required license. Today, places I once visited with friends as ritual are not only on limited drawing, but receiving a tag is akin to winning a high-stakes lottery. Though game managers admit whitetail numbers are skyrocketing, it's difficult to distinguish when you've gone a couple years without drawing a Kansas tag or were just informed you'll have to sit out an Iowa season just when you got an area wired.
Rocky Mountain Elk are found in increasing numbers in nearly all of their range, especially on public lands. Even so, to hunt them you will have to apply in a limited permit system, as the popularity of the beast has also increased.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS. . .
You have two choices in this matter, and playing the tag game is the only one that really makes any sense at all. Limited area hunts do, after all, provide the opportunity to enjoy a quality experience, where animals are allowed to reach their full potential through limited and controlled pressure. In other words, this is all worth the effort.
In fact, if you don't apply you may be missing out on many great bowhunting opportunities in states other than the one you reside, maybe a neighboring state, or perhaps one clear across the country. If you're in the market for a trophy Rocky Mountain elk, odds are you'll need to submit an early application. More super mule deer areas are going limited all the time. Pronghorn hunts without application deadlines are rare indeed. The Midwest's trophy whitetail meccas mean early application. Mountain sheep and goats, well. . .
Limited hunts do not necessarily spell exotic quarry or far-flung destinations. In many cases there are opportunities for limited hunting in your own backyard, whether this means a small but quality game refuge, or an area where trophy quality is better than other places. In more crowded portions of the nation, limited hunts may simply mean public lands in a burgeoning human population. In Texas, public lands are quite limited, but a number of drawing areas allow you to hunt without the expense of a year-long lease. These are worth looking into, and may entail no added expense other than filling out a standard form before the deadline and mailing it.
Step one, then, means collecting pertinent information and keeping abreast of developments and opportunities--most importantly, application deadline dates. Local opportunities may come and go; a refuge that finds it suddenly has too many deer and holds a one-time hunt to thin populations, or a trial bowhunt on state-owned property that will not come again.
I have missed the boat on a number of these bowhunting opportunities that never returned. I remember a primitive weapons hunt on Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. Lucky applicants tagged some unbelievable mulie bucks on that hunt; Boone & Crockett caliber non-typicals. It has not been held again. Another time, archery elk hunts were held on the Fort Bayard State Game Preserve near Silver City, New Mexico, and several 360-plus bulls were taken. There was a pronghorn hunt that produced several back-to-back state records. I missed that one, too. These hunts normally aren't advertised or highlighted, and only those who delve deeply, read game proclamations carefully, are able to take advantage. Don't let these opportunities pass you by.
Bighorn sheep are perhaps the epitome of limited hunt opportunities. Preference points are your best avenue to hunting them eventually, either weighing your application heavily with accumulated points, or putting you at the top of drawing lists.
In the bigger picture, hunting in another state for more romantic game takes more effort and thought, but game such as trophy elk, prairie pronghorn, alpine mulies, sheep, goats, even javelina in certain areas, require early applications, and are worth every minute. To get started you'll need to understand basic procedures, deadline dates, areas offered and season dates. Only then can you begin research into areas you might be interested in, and your chances of actually hunting there.
THE RIGHT STUFF
There are those obvious places that we would all like to bowhunt, the very best areas with the very best trophies. Arizona's Unit 9 and behemoth elk comes to mind, certain Nevada or Utah muley hotspots, Moffat County pronghorns where possibly more Pope & Young bucks have come from than any single area. Attach bighorns and Lower 48 mountain goats to this list. You have to be realistic when approaching such hunts, those with odds of one in seven at best, one in 20 more likely.
Drawing such a unit means investing time to accumulate required preference points, or you might just stumble into a tag on blind luck. Preference points are a more reliable avenue, and the only way you will realistically hunt in such places. There are states such as Arizona, where preference points help your quest, but are not necessary to draw. With each preference point your application is weighted more heavily, like buying several raffle tickets instead of only one. Every year you do not draw your odds become better with the next. These preference points don't come cheaply, because most states require the purchase of a hunting license ($85 to $150) to receive your point. These can be applied to other tags, either over-the-counter deer tags,
or at least something with better odds.
In Colorado only the group with the highest number of preference points are actually in the drawing. The rest of us are only lending the state money for a short time, buying a point. The only consolation here is that given enough time you will draw a tag, even if the subject is bighorn sheep. Those with the means often apply in two or more states each season, hoping to increase the odds of hitting the jackpot. A savings account reserved for such occasions is not a bad idea. When you fail to draw, nearly all of your cash goes straight back in and little is lost.
There is also the matter of preference points averaged for a group application. Some make a career of locating those with accumulated preference points and begging inclusion on their application form. Deals are struck, extensive knowledge of an area traded for riding along on an application. I guess there are those who'd go so far as to buy a place on a heavily-weighted form.
In the mean time we would like to hunt; something, somewhere. That is when you have to look to other units or seasons or even species with better draw odds. There are many compromises to be made in this area. There may be areas with draw odds approaching 90 to 100 percent. You must ask yourself before applying in such a place why this is the case. Limited access around private ground, or into extensive wilderness may be to blame, or worse, there just might be few animals to begin with. A state game department's hunter success statistics should give you a better insight into these too-good-to-be-true units.
In general, success rates better than 40 percent on elk, 50 percent on pronghorn, or 25 percent on deer should be considered exceptional. Numbers well below these marks are acceptable if you consider yourself a better-than-average bowhunter, and are willing to put in the effort required to buck the odds. Too, high odds can also point to areas with a large percentage of private lands inaccessible to those without an impressive financial portfolio.
Do yourself a favor: Call folks in the know (game biologists, wardens, and area sporting goods shops) and find out why areas relinquish the numbers they do. Ask pointed questions about access, animal density, and terrain features that might hinder success, and so on. Be honest with yourself in evaluating the information you receive.
At some point you will find some sort of compromise is in order, whether due to a desired level of hunter success offered by an area, or the promise of trophy-caliber animals. For example, I could hunt elk in Colorado every year if I wished. However, I have tagged my share of elk, and some mighty good ones too, and I see no point in it if there is not some chance of bettering what I have.
Holding a trophy whitetail such as this 155ish Iowa monster makes all the extra effort involved in putting in for limited permits worth every moment.
Colorado public lands don't offer this for me. There are areas where big bulls are "commonplace," but I might go years without drawing a tag. Mostly, this is a fate I have accepted, sitting out an occasional season for a particular animal, satisfied to hunt only the best places. I normally find something else to do with the time.
Or, if these bench warmings have become unbearable in their frequency, I look for alternatives; a place with better odds, but also big bulls. Word gets out on proven units, making them more difficult to draw all the time, while some fringe areas offer fewer animals, but some bruisers and a realistic chance of drawing a tag with regularity.
What is realistic is left to translation. One in three odds are not bad. Shuffle a marked card into two other cards, placing them face down on a table. Pick one at random. How often do you find the marked card? The odds remain the same with each try. Transform each try into an entire hunting season.
Willing to proceed, research completed, species and hunt dates chosen, begin with a clear head. Read all instructions carefully to assure you are filling out your application form correctly, and that you have submitted the correct amount of money for the hunt you have chosen. My home state, for instance, charges more for certain "quality" or "mature bull" elk hunts than other "non-trophy" areas. I once failed to draw a tag I was really counting on by submitting the wrong amount of money--too much, of all things! This takes depression to new levels. Too, there was another time when I did draw an elk tag in a coveted unit; only problem being, it was an antlerless tag instead of the bull tag I wanted...
Most states afford additional hunt-code opportunities beyond that of first choice; labeled second choice, third and so on. If you will be satisfied hunting only your first choice, stop at that. You are not required to add these second and beyond choices. If you do take advantage of these spaces, give a little thought beyond whim to which hunts you plot in these spaces. Firstchoice is one thing, bucking odds to hunt where you want, but in dealing with choices beyond first, you really do have to be realistic about draw odds and how they affect your chances of receiving a tag.
Odds beyond 1:3, or even 50-50, do not belong in second and third choice slots. It is time wasted, because you'll never receive a high-odds tag in such a slot. What these spaces do provide is a chance to get into the woods if you miss first choice. Look for lesser-known units for spaces beyond first choice, choosing better odds the farther from first you get.
This big-game license lottery game is a dodge we would all rather just skip altogether, but a necessary evil in today's climate. The human population is simply multiplying, hunting areas becoming more sought after and crowded. As bowhunting licenses become more difficult to draw, the bowhunting fraternity growing, we become a more powerful political force, and with power comes a stronger voice that will bring us more legal days afield, more special areas for our archery gear. Studying and entering drawings is a way to remain connected to our sport when the crisp days of autumn are far removed; days marked against the calendar; dreams formed with the stroke of the pen and the lick of an official envelope; dreams delivered or broken in the mail.