Choosing the Right First Western Hunt

So you’ve finally built up vacation time and a bit of cash. You’re ready to pit yourself against the western terrain for a big-game hunt.

Don’t waste the opportunity.

Find a hunt that matches your skill set, physical conditioning and priorities.

Some dream of bugling elk in the mountains and pushing their body to the limit. Others want to get away from crowds and slow down for a week. Travel time, finances, and stamina will all play a role in the decision.

Each hunt has its own challenges and rewards. To increase your odds of filling a tag, understand the reality of each hunt.

Antelope

As three college kids from Iowa with almost no knowledge of western game, our first antelope hunt was a dream come true. We filled all three tags and narrowly avoided bankruptcy by purchasing $90 doe/fawn tags and relying on gear dug out of our parents’ basement,

With high success rates and dependable weather antelope hunting offers a great opportunity for the budget-conscious outdoorsman. Wyoming averaged a 90% success rate in 2019. Antelope rely on eyesight to keep them safe and prefer open country, which makes the first step, locating herds, fairly straightforward. Not every hunt has such promise.

Antelope live in drier, lower elevation terrain than bear and elk. Because of the geographical differences dangerous weather conditions are less likely. Though high winds might leave your camp in shambles, winter storms won’t appear out of nowhere.

Scorching temperatures in August and September can wear on hunters and spoil game quickly. Though antelope meat doesn’t top many hunter’s lists, some do love it. Remember to have a cooler and bag of ice ready.

Antelope hunting is an affordable option with a high likelihood of success. Hunters won’t have to dip into the kid’s college fund to go on this hunt, and newcomers will gain scouting and camping knowledge that will benefit them on future trips. The hunt doesn’t require advanced calling techniques or backpacking expertise either. For all of these reasons, consider an antelope tag.

Black Bear

Black bear provides another hunt with affordable tags and good success rates. My first bear season started just as the COVID lockdown began. It became a two-month chess match played in the mountains. As I split time between glassing nobs and bait stations the bears seemed to stay one move ahead. In the end, I harvested two bears but not before learning a few valuable lessons in the process.

It’s difficult to interpret bear hunting statistics. Some states allow the use of dogs and bait while others do not, and success rates may be contingent on the style of hunt. For instance spot and stalk hunters won’t have the same odds as those using bait. To add to the confusion, many hunters buy bear tags during elk season just in case they bump a boar but never specifically target them. Keep this in mind as you research units.

Attracting bears during daylight hours takes determination and skill. Don’t expect a herd of bears on the first evening. Last year I spent several weeks baiting before filling my tags.

For those with one week to hunt, consider a hybrid strategy. Set up a barrell and trail camera, but spend the evenings glassing open hillsides. Check the memory card and bait each morning. If a bear shows up, sit on the site. If not, play the spot and stalk game.

Though some baiting areas will become crowded, spring won’t draw nearly the number of hunters as fall. On public land you’re welcome to bait where you choose, but remember to respect other hunters as well. Keep an eye out for ribbons in trees and other signs that another hunter has already established a bait station.

If you choose to chase bears, check the weather regularly. Spring conditions can rapidly shift from beautiful to deadly. Spending time in the mountains as they transition from winter to spring will make the trip worth it. Just don’t let your guard down after a few warm days.

Like antelope, bear tags don’t cost a fortune. Idaho sells wilderness unit tags for $41.75 and statewide tags for $231.75. Nonresident hunters will need to pay for a hunting license ($185) and depredation fee ($10) as well. A few hundred bucks and you’re set.

A bear hunt will demand more patience and stand time, which may bode well for eastern hunters. Unpredictable weather and rough country will also push hunters in ways that antelope does not. For those truly looking for a challenge, keep reading.

Elk

In my opinion Rocky Mountain elk offer the best hunt in North America. The combination of fall weather, bugling bulls and mountain hikes is hard to beat. That being said, it’s a demanding first hunt.

An elk hunt can feel both isolated and crowded at the same time, with trucks parked around every bend and no cell reception to touch base with family. In 2017 I harvested my first bull after spending 10 days alone in the woods and nearly losing my marbles.

While on an antelope hunt it’s hard not to see something, that’s not the case in the elk woods. Most archery elk hunts range from 10 to 20 percent success rates. The first time I caught a glimpse of an elk I remember thinking, “Holy sh*t! They’re real!” It seemed impossible that these massive animals were lumbering around in the mountains. Until you start to locate elk effectively the experience feels like chasing a leprechaun.

Though winter storms can pop up, you’ll likely hunt brisk fall days in the 60s and 70s. Expect cold nights as the thin, dry air won’t hold heat long after the sun goes down.

Physically and logistically elk hunting requires more fortitude than antelope or bear. Hiking over steep terrain at high altitude will leave many hunters wishing for whitetail season. I’ve had friends refuse to leave their tent on the third morning. Others have been turned off of elk and western hunting in general after spending a grand and a week of vacation without glimpsing a bull.

The trip can become a significant investment. If you’re a hunter from the midwest you’ll likely need to invest in a good pair of boots and a decent pack. A bull tag will set you back between $600 and $1100 depending on the state. But, filling the tag will leave you with several hundred pounds high-quality meat. High risk, high reward.

On the flip side, you’ll pay travel expenses and sacrifice vacation time for any hunt. From that standpoint it might make sense to chase elk. If you can only make a trip west every few years, why not go all out?

While regulations vary from state to state, most will feel fairly crowded during elk season, but a little leg work can get you away from crowds and into elk.

I have a tendency to only tell positive stories from elk season, then lead friends on the Bataan Death March Ep. 2. The hunt will require a significant amount of prep time, which could be seen as a positive or a negative. The internet is full of elk hunting articles and videos to make the process easy. Every hunter should experience an archery elk hunt at some point. Just know what you’re getting yourself into: a demanding hunt that leaves many hunters empty handed.

Conclusion

For a cost-effective, high-success trip out west grab an antelope tag. To get into the mountains and glass avalanche shoots as the wildflowers bloom steer towards a bear hunt. You’ll learn a lot of dos and don’ts from each. Finally, for those that seek adventure and don’t need any guarantees, start planning for elk season.

Depending on where you live, other first hunts might make sense. Consider mule deer, javelina,  or coues deer. Maybe travel out of state to hunt pheasants or fish for walleye. As with any hunt, prioritize the experience, and good luck wherever you end up.

Thank you for reading,

Stu

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