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.

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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.

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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.

Ode to Rocky

Just one of many standing in a booth selling his wares. Rocky couldn’t have been more comfortable.

It was as if he’d known you all his life and he had.

Nothing to sell, but plenty to talk about without saying much Rocky had nothing to prove even though his living depended upon it.

My first day of hunting with Rocky seemed routine. We dismounted at a spot new to me and known to him.

We climbed a hill in a foot of snow. I placed my boots in his tracks. We sat against a ten foot tall spruce in a  two foot snow drift. I sat on my coat.

Rocky told me where to look. Then he told me not to shoot at a medium-size buck that trotted out below us.

“There may be elk coming.” he said.

We sat in windless silence and watched.

Finally two rag-horn bulls stepped out of the timber about 200 yards below us. I placed the cross hairs of my scope on the bigger of the two and it seemed to fall into the timber out of sight. Rocky said it looked like a hit.

We climbed down through drifts that were deeper than they looked and came upon the bull.

“I’ll help,” I said.

“No, sit down over there in case a buck comes by,” said Rocky.

So I sat, until another hunter appeared on his hike from below. When I returned to Rocky and the bull, it was quartered and ready to be dragged down the hill.

I couldn’t imagine that anybody could quarter a bull so fast.

Now, after a few more hunts in the Bob, Rocky Heckman is gone. But, like all special people, he cannot and will not be forgotten.

Rocky Heckman

Rocky was standing  next to where I shot my Montana bull when I snapped this photo.

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.

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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.

 

Great County – Few Goats

I flew into a remote lake in the Northern Rockies expecting to find mountain goats within my reach. After a week of searching, we found none. And, my butt was sore, as were my legs and bad ankle.

However there were many redeeming factors. Among those was the fact that I saw some of the most scenic and remote country I’ve ever seen in my life.

The habitat was not densely inhabited by mammals and I have to admit that I saw very few. It was clear that grizzly bears were present, but they managed to stay out of sight while leaving plenty of sign.

While searching for goats in a remote canyon, my guide came upon a woodland caribou, but I didn’t get a chance to see it. Moose tracks were present, and one of our party saw a cow at one of the small lakes near camp. Our group saw goats, but I observed only one and he stayed in site for only a minute or two. The mammal list topped out with a tree squirrel, meadow vole and porcupine.

Turns out that as remote as the territory was, a pair of hunters flew into the same lake as I, but a week earlier and they each bagged a billy-goat. Unfortunately their success was counter to my own.

Here are a few photos of the terrific scenery.

A terrific early morning photo of a peak we observed from camp.

A terrific early morning photo of a peak we observed from camp.

The country was as pristine as any.

The country was as pristine as any.

Ranger was a trusty steed. I covered about 30 miles on his back.

Ranger was a trusty steed. I covered about 30 miles on his back.

Goat county can be intimidating.

Goat county can be intimidating.

 

 

 

Pumped About Next Fall

Set up some great hunts for next fall. With the day approaching  when I’ll no longer be able to climb mountains and ride horses, I look forward to the fall with impatience.

Last hunting season wore me down, especially the eight day hunt in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. But now my enthusiasm is renewed and I’m ready for another go-round. One of the keys is to keep climbing my local hill on a regular basis.

This is the area where I missed a big buck last Novermber.

This is the area where I missed a big buck last Novermber.

I’ll be back in the BOB again next November, hunting with Montana Safaris and looking for the big wilderness buck that has eluded me the last two years.

I’ve put in for a Shiras moose tag in Idaho and if I get drawn, I’ll be packing into the Lolo Wilderness during September. That’s the time when the moose will be rutting, it’s also archery deer and elk season. If I get drawn, I’ll also be looking to hunt deer with my bow and I’ll also be looking into whether I can purchase an elk tag as well. May have to go for two weeks.

I paid $4,500 for a Nevada landowner tag the year I shot this buck. It's still my biggest muley buck.

I paid $4,500 for a Nevada landowner tag the year I shot this buck. It’s still my biggest muley buck.

However, just in case I don’t get drawn, I’ve got a back-up plan to hunt mountain goats with Kiff Covert in BC. If that happens it will be with rifle and I’ll also have a deer tag in case we come upon a worthy mule deer.

The usual smorgasbord of draw tags has also been applied for in Nevada and California. That is another unknown, but something good could happen and if it does, I’ll be hunting closer to home as well.

Who knows what the duck season will be bring this year, but whatever it is, I plan to be there. Even bought a new O/U shotgun. Can’t wait to test it out on the pond.

At the end of the month, the schedule will begin to clarify and my excitement continue to build. Anticipation is one of the key elements why hunting is such a great pastime.

Hunting the Bob Marshall Wilderness 2014

Hunted again with Rocky and Lorell Heckman of Montana Safaris. Modified the hunt this season. Spent most of the time camped in a spike camp on the continental divide, guided by Rocky and Lorell’s son Coulter.

The change put us in the middle of our hunting territory at the start of each day. We used our horses to get around for the most part, but hunted out of camp on day two.

Here’s the gist of the story.

Day one, Rich misses a cow elk at 200 yards. With a herd of 30 elk, no bulls, passing through a burn at 200 yards, I got prone and shot at one of the herd. Looks like I never touched any of them leading my guide, Coulter, to theorize that I must have hit a tree. In any event, it was a clean miss.

On day two we hunted out of camp and saw no legal game animals, but we did find two grizzly bears about 160 yards from the trail and 200 yards from camp. Got a couple pretty good pics.

These look-alike grizzlies were searching for berries on an open ridge about 200 yards from our camp site. Fortunately they never came for a visit.

These look-alike grizzlies were searching for berries on an open ridge about 200 yards from our camp site. Fortunately they never came for a visit.

Day three produced one of the most exciting days of deer hunting ever. After I missed three times, we followed a buck estimated by Coulter to be about 27 inches wide. We caught up with him twice during the day. The first time we caught up with him I buried a bullet in a tree on my fourth shot and plain missed him running on my fifth.

When we caught up him and his doe companion, the 320 yard shot was nearly impossible in fifty mile an hour winds, so we tried to get closer, but failed. By then it was getting dark. We rode to camp in twilight.

On day four we found the herd of cow elk again, but couldn’t find a way to get close enough for a shot.

The crew brought us feed for our horses on day four and then they hunted near our camp where they came upon two wolves, but were unable to get a shot.

The crew brought us feed for our horses on day four and then they hunted near our camp where they came upon two wolves, but were unable to get a shot.

Day five and six produced some opportunities at deer, but nothing that we were looking for. That’s hunting.

This is the area where we found the big buck.

This is the area where we found the big buck. It was a burn created in the fires of 1988.

In all, the group had sightings of wolf, grizzly, black bear, elk, moose and mule deer. We observed many tracks of these species and also the track of a wolverine. This wilderness area is about as wild as it gets in the lower 48.

As a large winter storm approached at the end of the hunt, large flocks of migrating geese and swans could be heard above us. Winter came in as we departed.

When I climbed into my cab to head to the airport on my last morning in Montana, the temperature was nine below zero, Fahrenheit.

2014 Hunting Season Taking Shape

Applied for California tags yesterday, at the deadline. I was feeling so satisfied with my projected hunting season, that I didn’t apply for a deer tag other that buying two tags for the local blacktail deer zone. (A Zone)

With an antelope archery hunt in August, archery and rifle blacktail hunts this summer, a muzzleloader mule deer hunt in September and a deer/elk Montana hunt in November, I’ll be busy enough with hunting to keep my wife up at night. She’s not that excited about it.

When duck hunting is taken into account, it will be a very busy fall and winter.

Decided to set up guides for all three of my out-of-state hunts this fall. Since I’ll be traveling alone, it will be nice to have company. The Nevada desert is a lonely place for the solo hunters as I found out last year on my antelope hunt. And, having a guide will get me onto animals sooner with less trouble and packing less gear.

I just sent my deposit for the deer hunt to Hidden Lake Outfitters. The deer hunt will last for about 5 days and we’ll be up high in the Ruby Mountains.

In contrast, the antelope will start on August 1 and take place in the desert heat. I’ve not put down my deposit on that yet, but it will happen soon.

The Montana deer/elk hunt has been scheduled for a while and it will happen on ridge tops in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with  Montana Safaris.

Now it’s time to shoot my bow, clean the muzzleloader and put up my new tree stand at the ranch.

Applying for elk, antelope and bighorn sheep in California was an afterthought. What will I do if I draw one of those tags? Not thinking about that and the odds are extremely low.

Anticipation is key to the enjoyment of hunting. I’m sure glad I retired last month.