So, you want leave home and get your share of that sweet, sweet Western hunting gold rush. Here’s your guide.
Simply opening YouTube and searching for Western hunts will uncover a seemingly endless stream of content designed to convince you the West is where you need to be if you’re looking for the hunt of a lifetime. And, while it’s certainly true the hunting out here can be amazing, today’s content producers won’t tell you what you really need to know. That’s where TAB’s Guide to Hunting the West comes in – let’s get to it.
Choosing a Tag
In order to hunt, you’ll need a tag. That’s simple enough. What you may not know, however, is any tag you can purchase or draw in the first year is going to suck ass. Tags that are easy to purchase/draw are easy to purchase/draw for a reason. There will probably be fewer animals, more hunters, less public land opportunity or a combination of those things. The question you need to ask yourself is, “is it better to hunt on a shitty tag than to not hunt at all?” You can choose to build preference points for a better tag or play the “I hope those deer feed down to this five acre chunk of public ground, otherwise I’m f**ked” game. The choice is yours.
Speaking of choices, you’ll also have to figure out where you want to hunt. Many hunters lean on tag services to help them make a decision. It’s a free country, and you can do what you want, but please keep in mind these services flourish because you drew a tag – they couldn’t give a shit less about the quality of your hunt. Selecting a tag can be a daunting task for a new Western hunter and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Not everything in life has to be easy, and no amount of time searching the internet will make up for a single day in the field.
Whatever tag or tags you end up with, the ball is ultimately in your court. Good hunters are successful and bad hunters aren’t. It’s OK if you’re a bad hunter because hunting is like running, in that there’s only one way to get good at it, and that’s by hunting.
Interacting with Residents
Someone unfamiliar with hunting the West might find themselves interacting with resident hunters online long before they meet one in the field, so I’ll cover that situation now. No serious resident hunter is going to give you anything remotely close to good advice when you encounter them online. Most will choose to stay silent and a few dickheads might provide blatantly unhelpful information in hopes of sending you on a wild goose chase. If a Western resident does offer you some advice, they’re likely a weekend warrior that only leaves their truck to take a leak or shoot basket-rack bucks standing on the side of the road.
It’s helpful to understand why this is the case.
Contrary to what many non-residents will tell you, resident hunters don’t actually believe they “own” the wildlife in their state. Rather, it’s a matter of precious, hard-earned knowledge and experience they’d rather not give away to someone who hasn’t put the requisite time in to acquire it. Most of us die-hards have sacrificed time with family, weekends at the lake, gas money and a lot more to scout and hunt the areas we love. That’s why so many of us lose our shit when we see influencers and content producers blowing up once-secret areas. They’re not doing what they do to help hunters – they exist to make money off of hunters.
So, what’s the correct way to interact with residents? I’d say it’s the same way you should interact with all hunters, and it starts with respect. Nobody wants or expects you to apologize for coming to hunt their state – it’s your right to be there. But, understand where residents are coming from and accept the fact they’re going to be guarded and might hate you a little bit. You’ll be fine – you’re there to hunt, not to change the world.
Setting up Camp
Most hunters value the solitude and space the Mountain West affords them. Whenever possible, give other hunters plenty of space when setting up camp. Nobody wants to be your camp “neighbor” and we don’t want to recap the day’s events with a stranger. I want to sit in my tent alone, freezing and housing Fireball shooters until I’m either no longer cold or too damn drunk to know the difference. I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE “BIG BULL” YOU YOOPERS THOUGHT YOU HEARD. F**K OFF, DONNIE!
Residents and non-residents alike are guilty of dragging their campers into places they don’t belong in an attempt to cordon off large swathes of public land. If you want to park your camper in front of a mile’s worth of a closed U.S. Forest Service road, be my guest. But, if you think you can block 15 miles of trailhead with Cousin Eddie’s mobile home, you’ll be very surprised when you see me and whoever else walking right through your camp every day. Don’t be this asshole.
And, there’s a time and place for “spike” camp. Don’t confuse “being in the elk” with “sleeping with the elk.” All you’re doing is blowing out the area. If you can hunt your area with a day pack, you don’t need to spike out. Resist the urge to keep hammering and do only what is necessary to effectively hunt. Backpacking into a unit might seem cool, but if you don’t have a solid understanding of what you’re doing, you’ll likely be doing more harm than good. I can’t stress this point enough; no matter how many CrossFit “WODs” you do, no matter how much pre-workout you drink – you will never, ever be able to hike in far enough to avoid other hunters. This is because you are now a clone, and all the other clones have the same idea as you, Chad.
Dressing the Part
Dressing appropriately for a Western hunt is more than tucking your ears into your flat-billed hat and wearing whichever camo pattern your favorite influencer told you to buy. If you’re hunting Pronghorn from a ground blind in August, you can probably get away with a dark shirt and moisture-wicking boxer briefs. If you’re heading into the mountains, you’ll need to start thinking about layers.
I hate hunting pressure as much as anybody, but I don’t want to see a reduction in numbers because people are dying from hypothermia. You’ll hear people say, “cotton kills,” and that can be true. A good synthetic or Merino base layer is a good idea, along with mid- and outer-layers and some sort of rain gear. The more you can tolerate the elements, the longer you’ll stay in the hunt.
Regardless of how many “miles you put in” hiking around your South Carolina subdivision with a dumbass altitude mask, you’ll never completely get in shape for a mountainous hunt. Just make sure your boots are broken in and you have some way to treat and protect blisters, because you will rip the skin off your feet no matter what. Aside from your weapon, your boots will be the most important item you bring on your trip.
Don’t spend a year’s salary on hunting clothes – just get the basics and you’ll learn more about what you need (and don’t) as you continue hunting. And, don’t waste your money on scent-elimination products when you’re going to be hiking around all day. After a mile of hiking up a mountain you’re going to smell like a high school football team’s locker room anyway.
Stay tuned for part two of TAB’s Guide to Hunting the West, where we’ll cover weapon selection, packing out animals and more.