I saw a thread on a western hunting forum a while back that really piqued my interest… the primary question was an inquiry how guys who apply across many western states plan ahead so they don’t end up with too many tags one year and not drawing anything in other years. The thread morphed into a discussion on building an extended plan for applying and drawing tags. I was both surprised and intrigued by the detail and how carefully thought out many of the responses were. I sat down with the intent of building my own extended plan just to see if I could do it. I figured that this would be a simple exercise… it didn’t take long before I felt like I was sitting in front of a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.
I found these questions critical in constructing my plan:
- What species do I want to hunt and where do I want to hunt them?
- How many tags can I reasonably expect to get each year?
- For tags that are issued through a drawing system, do I have contingency plans for years that I an unsuccessful in the drawings?
So let’s attack each of these questions.
What species do I want to hunt and where do I want to hunt them? If I didn’t have to choose I think I would hunt just about anything that walked around on four legs, but since time and money are both limiting factors for me I have identified four species that make the cut.
Deer - Starting at 14 years old I began hunting deer and the Utah general buck deer hunt is a family tradition. This is time spent with my grandfather, uncle, father, brother, etc. The deer hunt to me is simple and I don’t really have a need or desire to hunt deer outside of Utah (but I will reserve the right to change my mind).
Elk – If my wife told me that I could only do one hunt every year… without question it would be elk. I have hunted elk each year for the past 5 years and I have developed a passion (perhaps better defined as an obsession) for chasing these creatures. Elk brings a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment unlike anything I have ever experienced in the context of hunting.
Pronghorn – I think pronghorn has overtaken deer as number two on my list of favorites. This has been a recent addition to my annual list of tags… 2015 was my first try at pronghorn hunting and it’s become a family favorite. The hunts are easy enough for my young kids to go with me and the meat has been absolutely delicious (a pleasant surprise since opinions on pronghorn meat are varied).
Moose – I decided to begin applying for moose many years ago in the Utah once-in-a-lifetime (OIAL) drawing. I’ve got a handful of points and don’t really have much of a desire to hunt any of the other OIAL species.
How many tags can I reasonably expect to get each year? For many years I only got one tag, the general deer tag. Then I decided to try out elk hunting and for a couple years and had two tags. I then began to get an occasional cow elk tag and every so often had three tags. With the addition of two doe/fawn pronghorn tags I have had five tags each of the last two years.
Five tags has been a lot, and if each tag had its own season I’m sure it would never work out. But I have been able to take advantage of some overlapping dates in the same area for deer and elk, and overlapping dates in the same area with bull and cow elk. This has made for some very fun “combo” deer hunts where I’m able to chase cow elk during the general muzzleloader deer hunt when the rut is usually going pretty hard, and has also made for some very flexible general elk hunts where I know I can shoot an elk regardless of what it is as long as I can get in range. The doe/fawn antelope tags are what I call “filler” tags. The drive to the area is short and I can usually work a half day and just head up for the afternoon & evening and be back home before it’s too late. I tend to just fit in this quick hunt where I can and when I feel like I just need a little break between the deer and elk hunts and when the kids have an open afternoon without soccer, piano, dance, etc.
The last two years have been lots of fun so my goal moving forward is to have a minimum of 5 tags every year (so long as I continue to have some overlapping seasons)… one deer, two elk, and two pronghorn with the possibility to have maybe one or two more depending upon how individual state drawings work out for me.
For tags that are issued through a drawing system, do I have contingency plans for years that I am unsuccessful in the drawings? This only matters if you are absolutely intent on hunting every year… if you are satisfied with only hunting on years that you are fortunate enough to draw then you can skip this part. But if you are like me and my hunting buddies, if we don’t draw we are looking for other options to still get out and have a good time.
For deer, I don’t have too many concerns in not drawing my first choice general buck deer tag in Utah. The unit that I have hunted since I was a kid is not what you would consider one of the more desirable general units and up until just a couple years ago there were always a good handful of leftover tags that could be purchased over the counter (OTC) later in the summer. In fact, with the new changes to the preference point drawing for general deer tags, I would venture to guess that fewer guys list this unit as one of their “other” choices this year and we end up seeing leftover tags for this unit. Since I have no reason to believe that I will not draw this tag on an annual basis I don’t have a contingency plan in place for deer.
For elk, I am currently applying in the Utah limited entry drawing for an elk tag. Obviously my first choice would be to draw this tag, but I have applied and been unsuccessful for a number of years now. My contingency plan has been and will continue to be to purchase a general bull elk tag when they are made available OTC later in the summer. I have several options for cow elk tags as well… the unit that I hunt for both general deer and general elk offers a good amount of tags through the antlerless drawing, but also offers antlerless control and private lands tags. My primary choice for antlerless is to get a tag through the drawing but in the event that I am unsuccessful there I can choose between the control tag option or the private lands tag option. Both of these options have advantages and disadvantages… the control tag allows me to hunt anywhere within the unit but the private lands tag restricts me to private land, the control tag limits the dates I can hunt to when I have an open buck or bull hunt also within the unit but the private lands tag goes from August to January. Each tag is flexible in different ways but also restricting in different ways… so it can be a tough decision. In the past I have elected to go with the control tag and I’ve been very happy with the experiences that I’ve had. Elk is the most complicated part of my long term plan with contingency plans for both bull and cow tags depending upon how the different drawings work out.
For pronghorn, like deer, I don’t have a contingency plan in place. I will continue for the next couple years to purchase preference points for Wyoming buck pronghorn and Utah doe pronghorn. I have done a considerable amount of research with a friend and we have identified a couple different units in Wyoming where tags could be drawn with about 3 preference points. The doe/fawn tags that I like to apply for in Wyoming are easily drawn and I expect to draw them annually for the foreseeable future. I’m not exactly sure when or where I will use my Utah preference points for doe pronghorn, I hadn’t seen a unit that really got my attention until earlier this year so I’ll monitor that particular unit for another year or two before deciding whether or not to jump in.
Now that we’ve answered those questions, we can begin to put everything together. The easiest thing for me was to simply put together a plan for one year that outlined what my plan for applying would look like with the contingency options… I call this my “Annual Application Strategy.” This was my strategy for 2017 year:
I have clearly outlined the limited entry, general, and antlerless hunts that I applied or will apply for as well as the two pronghorn preference points that I just plan on purchasing the preference point. So I applied this year for general buck deer, limited entry elk, and OIAL moose tags in the bucks/bulls drawing back in February. The results of the elk drawing will determine if I buy the OTC elk tag and then I can proceed with the antlerless application. I will also apply for doe/fawn in Wyoming after the Utah results are released simply because that application period is open for a little while longer. Let me make it clear that knowing when the application dates open and close and when results get posted should also play a key role in formulating your yearly application strategy. I know many guys who apply for elk in Wyoming and Utah… they apply first in Wyoming because that application period is very early and the results of that drawing are posted before the Utah application period closes so their results from Wyoming affect how they end up applying in Utah. Careful planning and coordinating in your strategy regarding the application dates and the dates that results are posted can be critical… especially if fortune curses you with two tags in two states with the same dates and you have to surrender one of them because you can’t do both.
It would seem simple enough to take that “Annual Application Strategy” and extrapolate it across ten years… deer, elk, pronghorn, and moose applications. For those tags that I expect to get each year like the general buck deer and the doe/fawn pronghorn tags it can be just that simple, but for the limited entry permits that accumulate bonus or preference points it is more difficult. Much of the difficulty here lies in interpreting draw results from previous years, trends in growing application pools, possibly shrinking numbers of tags being offered, etc.
In a long term plan you are trying to take your strategy then match it up against all the application data and results to make an educated guess to somehow hopefully predict when you might draw that limited entry tag. To begin putting together my ten year plan I starting with my 2017 Application Strategy and began forecasting my expectations for 2018 and beyond. I made a grid and began to fill in and color coordinate the boxes… red for years when drawing the tag was not likely, yellow for years when I might have a reasonable chance to draw, and green for years when I expect to draw. I wanted to make sure I took a conservative stance, understanding that it would be better overestimate the number of points it would take for any given tag. In business there is a saying that goes, “it is better to under-promise and over-deliver than to over-promise and under-deliver” and it seems fitting to take a similar approach here. It would be infinitely easier to move my plans up in the event I draw a tag earlier than planned as opposed to have to push my plans back because I did not properly account for the “point creep” and had unrealistic expectations.
So let’s have a look at what I ended up with as my initial long term 10 year plan:
Through my research and based upon the units that I have identified as the ones I want to hunt I have predicted when I should draw the limited entry tags (elk and WY pronghorn) and I have color coordinated the boxes accordingly. I really like the long term visibility that I now have, especially with the color coordinating. One thing that I found to be very fortunate, in my conservative plan, was that as I build points for my limited entry and OIAL tags in Utah and also a buck pronghorn tag in Wyoming, I shouldn’t be in danger of overlapping quality tags (no yellow or green boxes overlap). Admittedly, my plan appears to be pretty generic compared to the detail of the Annual Application Strategy, and that is by design… I want my plan to be realistic but flexible. For example, what if I decide to pursue a Utah limited entry deer tag instead of a limited entry pronghorn tag after I draw my elk tag and begin the 5 year wait period? I want to be able to have that kind of flexibility in my plan and if that’s a change I do decide to make revise the grid accordingly. It should be noted that I also included my contingency plans for bull elk because I know that I will have to deal with a waiting period for elk at some point in time and the general elk hunt would then be my only option for bull elk during that period. I did not specifically include details on the antlerless elk contingency plan that I had mentioned earlier in an effort to not overcomplicate the grid diagram
As I shared a first draft of my plan with a friend his response was, “So when are you going to come to Idaho? I don’t see that in your plan.” I also have a friend in New Mexico that regularly invites me to join him in hunting his home state. The grid made it pretty clear to see when I could make a realistic case for going and hunting out of state with one of my friends… and I was surprised to see that depending upon how some of the drawings work out that the possibility of going with them might be easier than I had anticipated. New Mexico doesn’t provide me as much flexibility or predictability because of their random drawing system and their application period being earlier than Utah. The other caveat in New Mexico is that my friend takes advantage of the tags set aside for applicants that are under contract with a guide/outfitter service. Although I’m not thrilled at the prospect of utilizing a guide, he has developed a reasonable relationship with a particular guide service over the last couple years and the fees do appear to be on the lower end of the pricing spectrum so it’s not entirely out of the question. In order for New Mexico to work I would need to be pretty confident with my prediction of the Utah drawing results and be sure I can manage the additional financial burden of the guide service. Idaho gives me exceptional flexibility because the tags that we would get are OTC so I would have time to wait and see how the application periods play out.
The largest hurdle came after I had completed my 10 year plan and I realized that within the next couple of years I will begin to add my children to this plan. I have a ten year old son and in two years he wants to be able to start applying and getting tags for himself. In short succession I will also have a daughter and four other sons that will be added to this plan if the desire is there. As I began to think about adding each of them into my plan over the next ten years or so… honestly, I thought my head would explode. I could easily go broke financing all their tags so there will need to be compromise… I’ve toyed with a number of different options for what and how much I will pay for their tags.
There are a number of great opportunities for youth throughout the western states but one opportunity that I have decided I would like to do with them is a Wyoming buck pronghorn hunt. Pronghorn seems to be the least strenuous of the big game hunts available to me so it would be as easy as anything for young hunters and the cost of youth preference points and youth tags makes this an extremely viable option. As a bit of a side note to my 10 year plan I put together a separate plan outlining the timeline for each of my kids to draw a Wyoming buck pronghorn tag. I found that there would be a number of consecutive years where I could potentially be heading to Wyoming and at first blush the prospect of a nearly annual trip to Wyoming was exciting, but then I began to consider the logistics and costs associated with each of these trips (gas, motel, and food) as well as the time away and the other hunts that would likely need to be sacrificed to make such a plan work. As an alternative, I decided to look at clustering the kids together in pairs and taking two at a time. This actually appeared to work out very well and even allows me to take advantage of some of their preference points on a group application. I think this plan is workable and I’ll plan on taking my kids on a Wyoming buck pronghorn adventure two at a time every three or four years. I finally arrived at this plan.
That led me to refining my own plan and merging this Wyoming pronghorn plan with my long term plan. I also identified the years that I might be able to plan on hunting in either ID or NM, and I added a column the makes it easy for me to track the bonus and preference points as I accumulate them over the years. Just to make it clear, the numbers in that column are the point totals I have/will have at the time of application each year. My overall plan was modified and my final long term “10 year plan” looks something like this:
The key with having a plan is the ability to be flexible and adjust, you never know when you may discover another opportunity or are fortunate to beat the odds of drawing a random tag or something. You also never know what future management plans and herd conditions will be. As with all things you need to reserve the right to make changes how you see fit… I would bet that in ten years if I when I look back at the plan that I composed today that it will not look identical but hopefully it was reasonable enough that it at least appears similar.
All the images in this post were generated using an online concept mapping program called LucidChart.