Get Your Dream Tag
Tired of reading about other hunters' big-buck adventures? Here's how to find your own.
Over the years you’ve read hundreds of articles about big bucks in Outdoor Life and other magazines. Now, after finally saving up enough money and vacation days, you want in on the game. But where should you go? This is the opportunity you’ve always dreamed of and you want to leave little to chance. Here are my picks on how to up your odds and get to a place where big bucks grow.
The best place to avoid a tag lottery and buy an over-the-counter permit that will give you an awesome chance at a big deer is western Canada. Many hunters look at me like I’m pointing them to Mongolia when I say that. But Edmonton, Alberta, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, are both an easy day’s flight from anywhere in the Lower 48.
After a short drive from the airport, you’ll be in some of the wildest deer habitat on earth. Lurking in the bush alongside moose, wolves and bears are 300-plus-pound bucks with gnarly black racks that routinely measure 140 to 170 inches or more.
I don’t recommend heading north until the rifle season in mid to late November. That’s when the monsters start to rut. If you can hack the cold weather and 10-hour sits in a box blind, you stand a good chance of killing the biggest buck of your life.
Countless outfitters in Alberta and Saskatchewan vie for U.S. dollars. Most are good people, but there are a few shady characters out there. One way to avoid trouble is to hire a hunting consultant like Cabela’s Outdoor Adventures (800-755-8247; www .cabelas.com) or Jack Atcheson and Sons (406-782-2382; www.atcheson .com). You just pay, show up in camp and go hunting. Rut hunts with the best Canadian outfitters fill up quickly, so start planning now for 2005 or even ’06.
My favorite spot to bowhunt for whitetails is in the river bottoms of northeastern Montana. It’s true there aren’t as many monsters out there as in hot spots like southern Iowa or Kansas. But where else in North America can you hunt for a week, spot hundreds of deer and have an 80 to 90 percent chance of running an arrow through a buck in the 130 to 140 class?
Rather than risk losing out in the state’s annual lottery, I apply for a tag each March through an outfitter who hunts private ranches crawling with deer. An outfitter-sponsored permit costs about $400 more than a general tag, but you’re guaranteed to get it. You can plan a hunt six to eight months in advance, confident that you’ve secured your most critical piece of gear-the tag!
[pagebreak] Similarly, if you’ve got family or friends who own 80 or more acres in the big-buck paradise of Kansas, try to get your hands on a tag through them. A Kansas landowner can apply for a tag and give it or sell it to anyone, resident or nonresident alike. You can then hunt in the county in which your source owns land, or possibly even in an adjacent county. How coveted is such a landowner tag? In a top-end unit in the south-central part of the state it might sell for anywhere from $500 to $1,500. Hopefully your uncle Joe will cut you a deal.
Hire a Pro
Eric Pawlak, a consultant for Cabela’s Outdoor Adventures and its new T.A.G.S. division, told me that for a crack at a mega buck he recommends south-central Kansas, southeastern Iowa or a limited-entry area on the plains of eastern Colorado.
“Colorado is interesting because if you draw a tag in the right unit you could either stalk a big muley or stand-hunt a whitetail in the 140- to 150-inch class. You can probably get an archery tag the first year you apply for one. However, it might take three to five years to draw a rifle tag for the rut,” Pawlak says. Now that’s the kind of information a person needs, and I got it in less than five minutes on the phone.
If you don’t already have contacts in the Midwest or West or you’re too busy to spend days or weeks on the Internet checking out nonresideent hunting options, you’d do well to hire an outfit like T.A.G.S. A guy like Pawlak makes his living researching top units for big bucks. He knows the ins and outs of systems that use preference points and the draw odds of states from Montana to Iowa to Kansas. You just tell him where you want to hunt or the type of hunt you’re after; he does all of the legwork and files the paperwork to make it happen.
Here’s the kicker: T.A.G.S. even floats your application fees. For example, if you apply for a Kansas deer permit you pay T.A.G.S. a $50 consultation charge, and it covers the $201 state application. If you get lucky, you pay back the $201. Then you either hunt on your own, or T.A.G.S. can hook you up with a top guide in the area. It’s a sweet way to get your dream tag.