Finding a Deer Hunt You Can Afford

Got an email from a reader of my blog. He expressed a sincere desire to find a way to hunt deer with his son. He was vague about his means and may have had more resources that he let on, but because he was vague, I decided to respond with a range of options and the letter back to him formed a basis for this post.


You’ll have a better chance for big bucks if you can hunt during the rut.

After some editing, this is what I told him:

There is no easy solution to your problem. It isn’t hard to get a chance to hunt mule deer and it’s not too difficult to get a shot at a legal buck. But, even that is not a slam-dunk these days.

Budget has a big impact upon one’s chances. With a budget of $500-$1000 per person, you’re pretty much limited to a California hunt with a good chance of being drawn for a good chance at a mule deer buck within three or four years if you retain preference points. Or, if you’re lucky you might get drawn in Nevada which uses a weighted lottery system and you may get drawn on any given year. If you go the Nevada route,  the price will go up somewhat.

My buck where he fell

Here;s a buck I took on a do-it yourself California hunt in X12. Unless you’re lucky, it takes about four years to draw in this unit.

Idaho has a first-come first-served basis for many of its mule deer hunts and it also has enough deer to give you a reasonable chance of success. The cost of a do-it yourself hunt in Idaho would probably be $1000-2,000 per person, mainly because out-of-state tag prices are higher and travel is costly. If you camp out you reduce your cost, but for late season hunting it can get almost unbearably cold.

Oregon  and Utah may be places where you can obtain a tag and hunt for a price similar to Idaho. Travel will vary depending upon the cost of gasoline, and once again non-resident tags aren’t cheap – maybe talking $1,000-2000 for travel and tags.

If your budget is in the $4,000-$10,000 per hunter range, you may be able to find a landowner tag and camp out in Nevada, but you need to be resourceful to find a tag for sale. Landowner tags are in demand. Contact Nevada Department of F&G for a list of landowners who have tags.

IMG_0028 Rich with buck angle view cropped and resized

Killed this buck on top of a knob in the Cortez Mountains of Nevada. The landowner tag cost $4,000, but that was about ten years ago.

Guided hunts in Montana and Wyoming tend to be less costly, but tags and travel will get you into the $5000-$7000 range.

For a really good guided hunt, you will probably have to spend between $6,000-$10,000 per hunter plus the cost of travel and tags – maybe $1500 added on. Colorado and New Mexico are places to consider.

On any hunt there is a chance you’ll come home empty-handed. I’ve hunted with guides for mule deer three times in Montana, once each in Nevada (muzzleloader) and South Dakota (archery) and twice in Canada. (Once each in British Columbia and Alberta AB.) I killed a nice buck in Montana and had chances on the other two Montana hunts. (Passed on one buck and missed the other.)  Although I didn’t have a chance at a buck on the guided Nevada hunt, I did kill a buck each time I purchased landowner tags. Never got a shot at a mule deer in BC and missed a great buck on an Alberta archery hunt.


I really like this Bob Marshall Wilderness buck killed three years ago. The total cost of the hunt including travel was about $7,000. It was a true wilderness hunt.

The greatest hunt of all was last year when I purchased a California Open Zone tag in an auction. The price was $10,500. I spent another $1500 on travel and scouting. In the end I killed a buck near Doyle on November 19th. It is clearly the biggest buck I’ve taken.

IMG_3106 Doyle buck 2017

This is clearly my best buck. Killed it last November in California during a muzzle loader rut hunt. It was also my most expensive hunt when you add in the cost of the Open Zone tag.

So there’s the picture from my view. Most of my life I’ve hunted cheap, but often. Now that I have more resources, I spend the amount of money I need to spend in order to make sure I hunt in good deer country, but money is no guarantee.

If you’re willing to part with the money, I’d suggest the option of a Nevada landowner tag program. It requires some leg work or you may want to call it sweat equity.

I bought a deer hunt in Alberta for next November (2017). The hunt is very popular. I had to put a deposit down three years in advance. The total cost of the hunt is $13,000 and that doesn’t include travel to Calgary (Call it another $1,000).  Last time I was there I saw some of the biggest mule deer bucks ever. Hope they survived the 2016/17 winter.

Note: I didn’t bear down hard while coming up with these numbers so they are meant to be just a ballpark estimate. Be resourceful and you may do better than my numbers. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have friends who own a ranch.

Planning Your Big Game Hunt

Obtaining a big game tag was once guaranteed. That is no longer the case, but it is still the first important step towards going on a hunt for deer, elk or other big game animals.

For a small minority, tags are still easy to obtain as every year there are big game tags sold at auction to the highest bidder. Earlier this month, two deer tags sold for $400,000 or more. However, there are still deer tags available to resident hunters in every state I know of. And, those tags sell for in the neighborhood of $25.

Take my home state of California. In California, the northwestern portion of California (B Zone) and some of the Western slope deer zones (D Zones) are managed for maximum harvest and availability.

On the other hand, “X” zones are managed for buck quality and have limited availability. This system was designed to  provide enough opportunity to keep everybody in the game and also provide a special opportunity for those who want to hunt for mule deer, which are primarily found on California’s Eastern slopes.

Each state has its own criteria for the sale of tags. Most have some “fundraising” tags which are sold at auction or raffle in order to raise funds for habitat management. Remaining tags are sold either over-the-0counter or by use of some type of rationing mechanism.

Rationing mechanisms can be random draw, preference point draw or bonus point draw. The state which is the most aggressive proponent of big game management, Utah,  uses several types of draw and also has many fundraising tags.

Hiring an outfitter or purchasing landowner tags simplify acquisition of tags, but raise the cost. One of my biggest mule deer bucks was taken in Nevada by purchasing a landowner tag. Finding a landowner tag at a fair price requires either inside help or a lot of searching.

Rich with buck

I hired a guide to assist me on the Colorado antelope hunt that resulted in the take of this buck.

Idaho, which believes in making over-the-counter tags available, is probably the easiest state for tag planning. That’s why my first 20 years of out of state hunting took place mostly in Idaho. In those days I had more time to plan, a dedicated hunting partner and less money to spend.

Most years we returned to familiar sites where we learned where the game went as the hunting pressure increased.

Idaho 2004 Rob's bull

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to kill a nice bull elk. My brother, Rob, arrowed this bull in 2004 and tagged it with an Idaho over the counter tag.

At my current age of 66, my hunting partner is now fishing more, my time is less my own and I can afford to take a different path. Which brings us to the next important part of planning a hunt.

Once you have figured out how to get your tag, you need to figure out where you’re going to hunt. This is where your ability to find resources determines your success.

Resources are, State agencies, friends, acquaintances, the internet, maps, books and clubs – of which there are many. Some might be conservation organizations and other may be hunting clubs like  California’s Wilderness Unlimited. Hunting periodicals provide good information as well.

After you determine where and when you plan to hunt, you need to figure out where you will reside during your hunt, what you will eat, how you will travel etc.

Staying in decent physical shape is an important asset for hunting. A regular exercise routine will allow you to do more hunting once you’re in the field.

These days I hunt more often with a guide who takes care of the many hunt details, freeing me up to focus on other things, like writing this post.

The great thing about hunting is that the anticipation of the hunt and memories of the hunt become as big a part of the hunt as the hunt itself.


This whitetail buck was killed behind a friend’s home in Idaho. He invited me to visit him after we reunited at a high school reunion. He had a tree stand set up when I arrived and this buck was shot with my muzzle-loader at 65 yards.


Nevada Landowner Tag Auction March 8, 2012

UNIT 102

Ruby Mountains

To be auctioned at the March 8th, 2012, Livermore-Pleasanton Mule Deer Foundation Annual Banquet.  The first tag will be auctioned and the high bidder will have the opportunity to buy the second tag at the same price.  To bid by phone contact Randy Morrison at (707) 592 9998, prior to the night of the dinner.

 Unit 102 runs from Highway 80 at the North end, to Harrison Pass on the South end, (see map) and there are several guides and outfitters who provide service for the unit.  For additional information contact Bob Holm @ 925 447 2044.

 A Landowner Tag allows you to hunt ALL of the legal seasons (with the appropriate weapon) in Unit 102.

 ESTIMATED season dates.  Actual dates will be published by Nevada Dept. of Wildlife

Archery:                    9/1 to 9/14

Muzzle Loader:       9/15 to 9/30           

Early Rifle:                10/ 1 to 10/12

Middle Rifle:            10/ 13 to 10/26

Late Rifle:                  10/27 to 11/5

Late archery:           11/10 to 11/30

 A Landowner Tag can allow access to hunting areas otherwise restricted by private property.   

The Ruby Mountains, during the last several  years, have  provided excellent opportunities on self guided hunts for really good bucks.  The deer numbers are the highest in many years and there is an excellent buck to doe ratio.  The earlier season hunts can be challanging as the good bucks are in batchelor groups on the top of the mountain.

If you’re not a strong hiker an outfitter can take two hunters on a horseback drop camp to the top, with all your own gear, and return, for about $600 each.

Also available are the typical fully guided week long hunts.  Generally these hunts are not available in the middle and late seasons as the weather is too unpredictable.

Here's a nice Ruby Mt buck tagged with a landowner tag in 2010

Of coarse the late rifle season hunts can be less challenging as the bucks pull out of the high country and the rut is active as well.  An early winter can produce great hunting in the low desert country, much of that on the private ranch land.

Basiccally this hunt can be as easy or difficult as you like.

Note: This hunt description was provided by Bob Holm, co-chair of the Livermore-Pleasanton Chapter of MDF. Bob has purchased Nevada landowner tags in the Ruby Mountains and elsewhere.

Gaming for a Big-Game Tag in 2011

It’s easy to spend money and not go hunting. I once came across an interesting character who used to put in for Los Banos Wildlife Area in the waterfowl lottery. One weekend he was drawn and arrived three days early so he could be first in line for the Saturday hunt. He got the space blind he wanted, but quit hunting at 8 AM so he  could get back to the parking lot in time to be number one for the Sunday hunt.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to kill a nice bull elk. Rob arrowed this one in 2004 and tagged it with an Idaho over the counter tag.

For this year, at least, I’m back to hoping for a tag. Hoping is not as good as just flat-out buying in terms of ease of planning and satisfaction with the result. I’m not really into gambling, so the process of gaming for a tag is a real drag. I do it every year anyway.

Of course there are still some over-the-counter options and we’ll be using that one this fall by purchasing archery elk and general deer tags in Idaho. We’ll be hunting in a group of four during September. I’ve also purchased an A-Zone tag and preference point with my first CA deer tag. Next year we should have enough preference to hunt a California X zone. These things are good.

This is a typical A-zone blacktail. I'll try to arrow one of these on our ranch.

However, gaming for a high value tag is not looking good in California this year. I have eight preference points for Antelope, Elk and Sheep this year. Eight is one less than the maximum, so I’m in the 20% that have to get extra lucky and the odds are very poor. In most cases, even the holders of nine points will need luck – especially in the sheep category and they have a chance for 100% of the available tags.

California has three species of elk, but it takes a lot of luck or money to hunt them. I photographed these Roosevelt elk while on a blacktail hunt near the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

I’ve never had much luck in draws, but I drew an archery antelope tag one year and an Anderson Flat archery deer tag another year. Didn’t bring home any venison, but I did have the opportunity.

 A quick look at my California odds shows that I have a less than 1 in 450 chance of drawing an antelope, elk or sheep tag combined. That’s a chance, but not much of a chance. That’s at a cost of $24.39 for 1/450th which comes out to $10,975.50 for a 100% chance. If I hunt until the age of 81 (unlikely), my remaining lifetime chance is 20/450 or 1 in 22.5. Doesn’t look good for hunting elk, antelope or sheep in CA unless I spend the money to purchase a tag. 

My personal choice for the elk lottery was the Cache Creek bull elk hunt. Somebody will get it.

In Nevada, I’ve been buying bonus points for several years. I currently have three points, which means I may get lucky on a deer, elk, antelope, sheep or goat tag. My chance of drawing an archery mule deer tag alone is almost 50% and when that is combined with the other four choices I selected, two rifle and two muzzleloader hunts,  the mathematical odds are that I’ll get some kind of tag, but it’s not for sure.



For antelope, I put in for an archery tag that has a high percentage chance of drawing, so I may get that one. I didn’t calculate the odds for elk, sheep and goat, but they are very low.

I paid $4,500 for a Nevada landowner tag the year I shot this buck. I think the prices are down slightly now.

 In Colorado, I opted to purchase only preference points for deer, antelope and elk. One of these days I’ll have to get serious and put in for an actual hunt. The cost of the preference points for three species came out to $25. I have seven points for elk and antelope – about five for deer. That comes to about $200 over the past seven years. I hunted twice for deer with my bow.

For the third year in a row I entered the Utah lottery for tags at the Wildlife Conservation and Hunting Expo in  Salt Lake City. The hunts offered looked good, but by the time I purchased a Utah hunting license and paid for the chances, it added up to about $250. It would be worth it if I got drawn once, but so far I haven’t had a sniff. That’s $750 invested over the last three years.

Finally I purchased five chances for the California Open Zone tag for $27 and two chances for a Owens Valley tule elk tag at $10.80. All together I spent about $558 for these draws. That’s a lot cheaper than $10,000 for a Nevada landowner elk tag, or maybe it’s not?

Deer Hunting 2010, Decision Time

Had to make a couple calls regarding deer hunting in 2010. First I had to decide whether to purchase a landowner tag in Nevada again. I paid $4,500 for the tag in 2008 and 2009, a price that I thought was maybe a bit high, but it gave me some amount of control over the tag for future years, so I figured that added a little value.

My hunting partners decided to pass in 2010, leaving me the option of purchasing two tags, one for me and another for a hunting partner. I checked in with my first two choices and they didn’t want to spend that much money for a tag. I could have purchased one tag for $4,500, but decided that my budget was $3,500 this year. Business is down and it makes sense to have a budget.

So, I told the landowner that I could only do $3,500 – essentially declining the tag, but he could have changed his mind and accepted $3,500. He didn’t.

I went to the WHCE at the Salt Palace armed with my $3,500 budget. It took me a couple days of shopping to pick out the hunts that peaked my interest. It came down to a Montana deer/elk combination – seven day pack trip for $4.500, a Montana mule deer/antelope ranch hunt for $2.500 or a BC  7-day mule deer/white-tail combination hunt in November  for $3,250. All three prices are for two hunters to one guide.

A big difference in  total cost of these trips was tags. In Montana the guaranteed tags would add $1,500 for deer/elk and $1,250 for antelope/deer, while the BC tags  would cost about $500 total for the two deer species.

I figured that travel cost would be basically the same for each of the hunts – in the ball park of $600-$700 for plane, taxi and possible overnight hotel stays.

Out-the-door the BC hunt price came closest to matching my budget and also filled my personal hunting desires as I’ve never bagged a white-tail deer. And, it kept open my chances for a big mule deer as well. Kiff Covert, of  Dome Creek Outfitters is our guide/outfitter.

I put the check in the mail yesterday.

Back to Nevada – ’09 Mule Deer

Last year’s Nevada buck. We’ll be looking to do better this week it will be back to Nevada. I’ve got my Nevada landowner tag again and this year I’ve saved it all for the last ten days of the season. If you followed my blog last year, you know that I hunted both the archery season and also late season for mule deer in Nevada. You can only do this if you have a landowner tag.

This year I decided to forgo the archery season and focus on the last few days of the rifle season as that seemed to be the most productive. Last year was the first time I ever hunted in Nevada at the end of the rifle season. I bagged my buck at the end of October and observed some serious rutting action during the first few days of November. This year I plan to hang on as long as possible before taking a buck and hopefully it will be worth the wait.

I’ve got my ATV all set up and my 300 WSM tuned. We’re packing starting Thursday and (after opening day of duck season) well be heading east. I’ll be reporting in.

My partners for the hunt did make it to Nevada for the first couple days of the rifle season, and one of them, Dave, shot a real nice buck. I haven’t got a picture yet, but it was a big enough buck to entice him to pull the trigger early. I’m told it was 26 wide and heavy.

Late Season Nevada Mule Deer Hunt


The late season finally arrived and four of us set out with high hopes for bagging a monster Nevada mule deer. The country was wide open and the mountains steep. We were prepared with spotting scopes, ATVs, backpacks and good attitudes.

We were especially pumped after visiting a neighboring rancher and viewing his collection of wall hanger bucks. But, reality would arrive after a few days of climbing, glassing and hunting.

We still hunted, we glassed we climbed but the monster bucks didn’t appear. On day one, I had a chance at a nice 4×4 buck in the low twenty inch wide class. He was a big boddied buck and was tending a group of does, but he didn’t quite fit the order.

The weather started out warm the first half of the trip – could have hunted in shorts. But the second half of the trip was completely different. By the seventh day I was ready to close the deal on a good buck and surprisingly that’s what happened. Putting down an ATV trail in a deep canyon, a large buck climbed out of the canyon and stopped overlooking me at 130 yards.


His antlers were medium size and his body appeared huge. I decided that this mature buck would be appropriate. I held on him off hand and hit him with the first shot from my model 70 Winchester in .300 WSM. He didn’t go down so I fired again and this time he took a few steps before falling.

The others were holding out for bigger bucks and I wondered if I had made a mistake. I had a bit of buyer’s remorse at first, but by the next day I resolved the fact that he was a good buck for me. I spent quite of bit of time dressing, boning and caping the buck. I’ll decide later whether he will make the wall, but he’s the largest buck I’ve ever taken. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to upgrade next year.

The others continued to look for a large buck and on the last day two of my partners shot bucks, but not the wallhangers we were all looking for. It was a great trip with all the aspects of mule deer hunting that make it so attractive to me.

The rut started during the last few days of the hunt and most of the does were courted by some type of buck, many of them impressive in size, but not quite big enough for our fouth hunter who held out to the end and went home without filling his tag.


We were amazed by the numbers of wild horses that roamed the hills with the mule deer. The are nice to look at, but compete with native wildlife like deer and I wonder at the decision land managers have made to let them remain.

This was the third filled rifle deer tag of 2008 for me and each was different from the others. Having been an archery hunter most of my life, filling more than one deer tag in a season was almost unheard of. My late-in-life switch to rifle hunting has been very interesting and now I understand how people bag those big bucks during the rut.