Most guys that don’t live in a western state have to start planning a trip for big game months, if not years ahead of time. Tag draw deadlines are usually in March or April and non resident fees are expensive so planning and money are needed, and for some guys they just don’t want that hassle. Personally I don’t find it a hassle at all anymore but I don’t always know what I’ll be doing 6-8 months ahead of time and nobody wants to draw that expensive tag and then not be able to go, or what if you don’t draw at all after all your planning, well you have options.
Option one is always an over the counter tag in a state like Colorado for elk. On public land, you’ll have to work and often hunting pressure is high but it can be done with some time and effort.
Option two is go to that western state anyway and just hunt birds, small game, and/or fish. This is the option I took last year.
Driving from TEXAS to Montana we pass through New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, all of these states have public land and a license that can be bought without drawing for some form of hunting and fishing. Montana alone has over 4 million acres of public land so there’s some opportunity there. Look I love hunting big game in western states but just because you can’t hunt big game there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel there and enjoy the scenery and some of the other activities.
We made the 22 hour drive and enjoyed goose hunting, pheasant hunting, and ice fishing for a very minimal amount of money and it was just as enjoyable as hunting big game, at times even more enjoyable. Too many times I hear guys say “I ain’t going to X state because I didn’t draw a tag.” That’s ridiculous! If you’ve planned that trip since March and you’ve saved that money then go! Sure a pheasant is not an elk but a pheasant is better than sitting home crying because you can’t kill an elk. That public land is ours, we pay for it, we are the public land owners, go enjoy your land.
I think the mentality of having to kill the biggest animal or thinking you are not getting your money’s worth because you aren’t hunting big game ruins a lot of guys hunting. Take for example a goose hunt in TEXAS, that’s gonna run you about $350 a day with a guide, and a pheasant hunt somewhere about the same and ice fishing a little less but are you gonna do all that in one place and get your guides lined up for three different trips? Likely not but if you do it on your own you can. Take a week and have a plan to do a certain thing each day and if you have to adjust you can.
We spent half a day without a bite but I started making changes, getting smaller baits, moving up and down in the water column, doing different things and before you know it we have a nice pike laying on the ice. Now I have more information to go off of and within another half day we have caught five more fish. It takes minimal equipment. Would you be more comfortable in a ice house with a heater, sure, is it necessary, no. I’m not really an excuse maker I’m a doer. Use what you know and figure it out. Spend the money you would spend on a guide on equipment. You will have that forever and I think learning on your own will save you money in the long run by giving you the confidence to do things on your own.
A couple of the days we were going to goose hunt the weather was 50 degrees and sunny, these are not good goose hunting conditions but they are great ice fishing conditions. If I had hired a guide for that day the goose hunting wouldn’t have been any good and I still have to pay him. You have options doing it on your own. Some people get intimidated by the amount of land or water and have no confidence in their abilities and feel a guide is the best option and in some cases it is. I have a different mentality. I go at it like this, I’ve fished all over the world and big fish eat little fish the world around so start at the local bait store and ask questions. Buy some bait and go put it in the water somewhere. You can’t catch a fish from the couch or the truck. Once you are there adjust.
Admittedly I have family in Montana and they have land to hunt but there’s public land all around it. Get the OnX maps app and find the public land. I’ve killed just as many critters on public land as private land in western states.
One morning I had a plan for a goose hunt and it was a disaster. Birds weren’t working, wind was all wrong it sucked, it happens but guess what instead of giving up on the day we packed up early and changed shotguns and now we are off on a pheasant hunt on the same land. There’s always something to pursue if you WANT to. I get it some guys don’t like bird hunting or fishing and I guess those guys can shop with their wife all fall when they don’t draw a tag but I’ll be in the woods. We don’t last forever and every year that passes is a missed opportunity to be out enjoying the wildlife.
I had a guy say to me, “man it looked like y’all had fun on that goose hunt.” I said we did you should go. He said “I don’t really bird hunt.” I just stood there confused. You just said it looked fun, you own a shotgun, you have the right to be on public land for free so what’s the hold up? To me once you let the numbers or size of the game you collect determine the success of the hunt you’ve already stopped enjoying the hunt. Not having a tag sucks!! Killing birds and catching fish does not, so go do that.
We would all love a brand new 4×4 truck fully loaded but most of us can’t afford it right? Does that mean we have to walk? No it means we drive what we can afford, so why just because I don’t have a tag should I not go hunting?
Another thing people don’t realize is this. When I’m walking 5 miles in a day looking for a grouse I’m also walking 5 miles through mule deer country. It’s a scouting trip. What if I find a hidden draw I didn’t know about? What if I come across a shed off a 180” deer? I can use this information for a year I do draw a tag. Drop a pin on your app and go there next year when you do draw that tag. You are scouting for big game and you get to shoot delicious birds along the way. How is this a bad thing?
I’m always disappointed when I check on my tag draws I see that dreaded UNSUCCESSFUL show up but I immediately start thinking of how I can make my next year more successful and any big game hunter knows feet on the ground scouting is the best way to be successful so while you’re out there carry a shotgun.
This last trip we only had 36 goose decoys. Anybody can easily carry that in their truck, maybe throw in a lay out blind or even make a little brush blind and you are goose hunting. Don’t get me wrong having 200 would be better and having a heated blind on private land would be nice too but you do with what you can the best you can. I’ve seen guys literally hide in tall grass without decoys and pass shoot geese with success. It can be done with some effort.
We fished a lake on public land with access to pheasant, grouse, ducks and geese. If you want to fish and duck hunt go before the ice sets in, if you ice fish then wait till later and just walk up some pheasants when the fishing gets slow.
Another good thing about bird hunting is it’s pretty easy to get permission to hunt on private land. Once in Kansas while goose hunting we seen a ton of birds on a field and the farm house was nearby. We simply knocked on the door, explained the situation and the farmer said, kill them all they are eating all my wheat.
I’ve seen more land walking for birds than most any big game hunt I’ve been on. You can cover miles and miles a day with a very small pack and mark locations you feel are good deer areas and you still get to enjoy the scenery.
You know me I’m hitting every cafe I can no matter where I’m at and while there I talk to people, all the people, my wife might say too many people for too long but most people are friendly and will help. Ask them if they know where you can find some pheasants or a field with geese and you may get a honey hole or you may get told they haven’t seen any but so what. Being out there looking and talking to people is never a bad thing. Maybe that farmer says yes you can walk up that patch of choke cherries and then a nice buck jumps out. Now you know the location of a nice buck, doesn’t mean the farmer will let you hunt him but it does mean that somewhere in that area a buck lives. Go to your app find the closest public land and start looking for ways he may travel from his bed to his feed. He’s not the only deer around either but you have a starting point for next year when you draw a tag.
While driving back from fishing we seen four big rooster pheasant cross the road, a quick look on OnX tells me that’s public land they went onto. So guess what, tomorrow we can start there looking for pheasant. It’s really not hard to do and the more information you can gather about the land, the people, and the other wildlife the more successful your big game hunt will be.
I’ve passed up a lot of opportunities at grouse or Hungarian partridge while deer hunting and then the stalk was unsuccessful and I wished I’d went after the grouse. Now without a tag I can. I love having a more relaxed hunt myself. Bird hunting in a group is a great time, that’s something you can’t really do while stalking a bedded elk. Get some buddies and go have some fun. I have buddies that would rather bird hunt than big game hunt. That’s even better take them with you and now you have another set of eyes looking out for sign that you can use later and they can pitch in on that gas money.
The point is, not having a tag sucks but the hunt isn’t over. There’s always something out there to chase and let’s face it if everybody got a tag every year then in a few years we wouldn’t want the tag because the hunting would suck. I like the lotteries, it’s just another way a hunt can give you a rush of adrenaline when you do draw and if you don’t no big deal, make an adjustment and go enjoy the land and water in pursuit of something else.