By Erik Barber
Wide-open vistas and whiffs of sage and ponderosa pine inspire bowhunters to flock westward each fall for adventures on rolling prairies and remote mountains. If a Western bowhunt is on your agenda, here’s how to get started.
Two main types of hunting licenses are available. Some can be bought “over the counter,” and others are distributed through a drawing or lottery. Wildlife agencies in each state provide information on their websites explaining how nonresidents can obtain hunting licenses.
Several states have application deadlines, so start planning your Western hunt early in the year; even the previous fall. Include backup plans in case you don’t draw the primary tag you desire. Information about draw odds and tag availability is available on most agency websites, but you can save yourself legwork by checking out GoHUNT’s Insider program. Besides providing up-to-date draw odds for management units across the West, GoHUNT’s software also shows the percentage of public land in each unit, and offers online forums where members chat with others who hunt areas of interest. You can also cross-reference those units with a digital mapping program like onX Maps, which gives you a snapshot of the terrain and accessibility as you decide which areas match your goals.
After studying areas you’d like to hunt, it’s time to buy a license. If you didn’t draw your dream tag, consider bowhunting a state with over-the-counter licenses. Idaho, Nebraska, Colorado and North Dakota all offer OTC options, which vary by the species you want to bowhunt. Also consider pursuing species with plenty of bowhunting licenses, such as pronghorn antelope and white-tailed deer. Both are fun to hunt, and satisfy the Western bowhunting itch without the challenging logistics of elk hunts. These tags are usually easier to obtain, and the gear you bowhunt with at home also works in the West.
Hunting the West’s management units is usually more restrictive than in the East or Midwest. Some statewide tags are available, but most tags restrict license-holders to specific units or regions, making them invalid elsewhere. Most traveling bowhunters schedule about a week for their trip, so maximize your time afield. Scour aerial photos and topographic maps beforehand to learn the area. Mark potential hunting sites with pins on a GPS app or digital-mapping software. Once you have a general hunting plan, contact an area biologist to confirm and fine-tune your expectations and observations.
After that chat, expand your research. Visit hunting forums and search for anything relevant to your hunting area. Post a thread that outlines your plans and request feedback. Those familiar with the area will likely provide feedback that ensures a great experience. You might learn about places to eat, or options for campsites or lodging. You might even create a bond with a local hunter who helps you zero in on good spots.
When the moment you’ve waited for finally arrives, and you reach your destination, don’t barge in. Spend some time driving to locations you marked to evaluate them in person. Assess the hunting pressure and study the landscape. Find vantage points where you can glass the surroundings. This low-impact scouting method helps you identify core areas to focus your time. You might think you’re wasting precious hunting time, but being mobile while learning the overall area saves time later by helping you focus on one or two prime spots.
Meanwhile, soak in the views, take photos, and smell the sage in the pure Western air. Savor your time exploring new areas, regardless of whether you fill your freezer. Western adventures inspire us to hunt beyond our comfort zone, and keep returning year after year.