Where to Hunt: Guide to the 8 Best Big-Game Hunts in the West
Go big, go West, or go home
There are few places in the world more exciting and challenging to hunt than the Western United States. From the high, snowy peaks of the northern Rockies to the low deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, the American West is home to a wide variety of game in many different habitats.
If you’re an experienced Western hunter, you’re probably familiar with the idea of preference points, controlled hunts, and limited draws.But if you’re new to hunting the West, these concepts might seem overwhelming. Whether you want a record-book ram or to fill the freezer with antelope steaks, you’ll have to do your homework.
We’ve done our part to help you get started. After contacting state wildlife agencies, studying draw odds, consulting biologists, and speaking with hunters and guides from the Olympic Peninsula to the Mexican border, we’ve come up with eight hunts that will put you on the game you may have only dreamed of.
1) Wyoming Antelope
Wyoming is the runaway winner for the largest number of antelope, so it will always be a favorite destination for pronghorn hunters. Antelope hunts in the Cowboy State are ideal do-it-yourself adventures. The weather is usually pleasant, and you won’t be trekking into remote mountains or quartering and hauling out really big game like elk and moose. Good glass is the order of the day for a pronghorn hunt, and the farther you get from the main roads, the more you increase your odds of success.
The plains in the east-central and northeastern portions of the state are prime antelope hunting areas. There are lots of pronghorns and some good places to hunt them. The problem is that most of those places are privately owned, and getting permission to hunt can be difficult. There are small pockets of public land, but these are heavily hunted. If you can draw a tag in a central or southwestern unit, you’re more likely to find plenty of public ground to hunt, but those are the hardest tags to draw.
Some of the best units for numbers and trophy quality are 57, 60, and 61 in the south-central part of the state. Draws odds are slim, but there are lots of antelope in these areas and plenty of public land. Lack of rain will likely prevent this from being a record year, says Jeff Obrecht of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (307-777-4600; wgfd.wyo.gov).
“Some areas had good snows in April, but most of the state is dry.”
If you aren’t worried about trophy quality, Obrecht suggests applying for a doe/fawn tag, which is $40 for a non-resident. Leftover “any-antelope” tags went on sale July 10, and unsold doe/fawn tags became available for purchase on July 17.
GO POSH: If you’d rather not spend your nights on the dusty prairie or in a questionable motel, grab a bunk at the 15,000-acre Brush Creek Ranch (brushcreekranch.com) in Saratoga. In addition to pronghorns, the ranch holds deer, elk, bears, and moose. Bring your shotgun for pheasants and chukar, or cast to wild browns and rainbows on 10 miles of private access to Brush Creek and the North Platte and Encampment rivers.
Trophy Potential (2 out of 5): There are a lot of antelope in Wyoming, but it’s tough to find a book head on public land. If you want to find the next world record, look to Arizona’s Unit 5B and hunt the Anderson Mesa area. This area is home to giant pronghorns and numbers are on the rise, meaning better draw odds.
What It Costs: $272 (non-resident antelope tag) +$14 (drawing application fee) = $286
Exertion Level: As Western hunts go, spot-and-stalk antelope hunts are pretty easy. The difficulty and the trophy potential both increase the farther off the beaten path you go in search of undisturbed bucks.
2) Utah Mountain Goats
The odds of getting a goat tag anywhere are slim, but if you want to focus your efforts in one place, the Wasatch Mountains of Utah are an excellent choice. These high, rugged peaks are home to lots of goats, and some of them are really big. You’ll need to plan on accumulating some preference points, but when you finally draw a tag, you’ll be in for an unforgettable experience.
“The Wasatch is the best place to find really big goats, but they’re way up top,” says Jon Crump, owner of Hunter’s Trailhead and Double C Guides (801-979-8843; doublecguides.com). “If a hunter is lucky enough to draw a tag he’d better be ready to hike or ride horses for a while to get to the best hunting locations.”
Crump says hunters can expect a five- to six-hour hike from the vehicle to get into good goat country, but he says in the best areas in the Wasatch Range, you’ll see goats just about every day. If you’re looking for a goat with a full, white coat, plan on hunting in the later part of the season, from the last week of September until the close in mid-October. Mountain goat hunts are at least as physically demanding as sheep hunts, and having a good guide that knows the country reduces the amount of fruitless climbing you’ll do in search of a big billy.
Expect this to be a tough hunt and make certain that you are in top physical shape. If you want to hunt goats in Utah, you’ll be much more likely to draw when you accumulate 10 preference points, after which you’ll become eligible for bonus tags. This will significantly up your drawing odds. Crump’s advice is to start accumulating preference points as soon as possible to ensure you’ll receive a chance to hunt goats before you’re physically unable to do so. That’s not to say you can’t receive a tag the first year you apply, but the odds increase as you collect points.
One important note: Unlike resident hunters, non-resident hunters who draw a tag for a hunt in the Lone Peak district of the Wasatch Range can hunt in any of the four Wasatch districts. This is one of the few perks of being a non-resident you can find anywhere in the West.
Trophy Potential (4.5 out of 5): You’ll see lots of goats if you’re up high, and your odds of taking a record-book billy are as good here as anywhere in the Lower 48.
What It Costs: $65 (non-resident license) + $1,518 (Rocky Mountain goat tag) + $4,000 (5-day guided hunt with Double C Guides) = $5,583
Exertion level: This may well be the toughest hunt in North America.
3) Washington Moose
Moose tags, like goat tags, are hard to draw anywhere in the Lower 48. It might be years before your name is called, but the chance to hunt in Washington’s Selkirk Unit 113 is worth the wait. Since Washington is a bonus-point state, every year you don’t draw squares your odds of being selected the following year. With tag in hand and some knowledge of the area, you’ll have the opportunity to shoot not only a 40-inch moose—a good Shiras by any standard—but possibly a 50-inch brute.
Dale Denney of Bearpaw Outfitters (509-684-6294; bearpawoutfitters.com) has hunted moose all over the West, and he believes that Unit 113 has the largest bulls. “We see an average of five to 10 bulls a day there,” says Denney. “I wouldn’t shoot anything under 40 inches.”
The Selkirks aren’t as high as many ranges in the West, and dense, old-growth forests dominate the country. Lots of hunters spend their time searching these forests for moose and come away disappointed. Instead, glass areas where timber companies have removed trees.
“Concentrate on logging cuts where the regrowth is 10 to 15 feet tall,” Denney says. Most shots will be relatively close, but you should be able to shoot out to 250 yards in case your bull appears at the far end of a clear-cut. Denney charges $950 for a semi-guided hunt, which includes accommodations in a cabin near the hunting area, meals, hunting advice, and removal of your kill.
With a total cost of less than $3,000 for the hunt and the potential to take a 50-inch bull, this is possibly the best bang-for-your-buck moose hunt in the United States.
Trophy Potential (5 out of 5): There are lots of 40- to 50-inch moose in Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.
What It Costs: $110 (non-resident draw application) + $1,652 (non-resident moose tag) + $950 (drop-camp hunt with Bearpaw Outfitters) = $2,712
Exertion level: Compared with sheep and goat hunting, this is a relatively easy hunt. However, quartering a moose and bringing it out of a steep canyon piece by piece is extremely tough work.
4) Montana Whitetails
Montana is gaining a reputation as a premier whitetail destination, and the western portion of the state is producing trophy bucks with some regularity. If you’re looking for a good deer in one of the most beautiful areas in the Rockies, start planning a DIY spot-and-stalk whitetail hunt in Montana’s District 285. The heavily wooded Seeley-Swan Valley lies between the Mission and Swan ranges. While other hunters are busy chasing elk in the nearby Bob Marshall Wilderness, you’ll be working your way along the edges of clear-cuts looking for bucks that are cruising in search of food or does. Most of the valley is heavy conifer forest, which provides cover for the deer. Take your time and keep your eyes open as you move along the edges of open areas and down heavily used trails. If you prefer to sit still, you can set up a stand near prime feeding areas and wait for your buck to come to you.
According to Montana Region 2 wildlife biologist Mike Thompson (406-542-5516; fwp.mt.gov), the mild winter of 2012–2013 should make this an excellent year, since there was very little winter die-off. He says that the bulk of the land in District 285 is Forest Service ground, and that timber companies open patches of forest that attract deer. Be aware that District 285 is in grizzly country, so take the appropriate precautions.
Hunters can take a buck with their general deer license, so there is no draw. Montana has a system where non-residents enter a draw for a hunting license, but as of this writing there were leftover licenses available for sale.
GO POSH: Just across the border from Montana, Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest is home to some pretty good whitetail bucks, too, and there’s no more comfortable place to hunt them than from the base camp at Flying B Ranch near Kamiah (flyingbranch.com). This 14,000-square-foot lodge is Orvis-endorsed for both wingshooting and fishing, and it offers a Jacuzzi, a sauna, a Laser Shot indoor range, and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
Trophy Potential (3.5 out of 5): There are plenty of deer in the area, and they may be hard to spot, but this is one of the best places in the Rockies to take a record-book whitetail.
What It Costs: $570 (non-resident license and general antlered deer tag)
Exertion level: This is a simple walk-and-stalk over relatively flat ground.
5) Oregon Bighorn Sheep
Sheep tags are the golden ticket of the Western hunting world, and there are many hunters who applied without ever hearing their names called, until their bodies weren’t capable of making the climb into sheep country anymore. If you have deep pockets, you can purchase a conservation tag at auction, but for the average working-class stiff, a sheep hunt should be on your wish list rather than your bucket list.
But just like the lottery faithful who play their numbers every week, we hunters just know that someday we’ll win. After spending some time researching draw odds for every state at hunterstrailhead.com, one particular hunting area stood out for its relatively good chance of drawing a permit—the John Day River units in northern Oregon. Odds here are still low, mind you, but because Oregon offers no preference points on sheep hunts, your draw odds are as good in the first year as in the tenth.
There are plenty of sheep along the John Day, and floating in a raft is the best way to find them. Trophy potential is good in this area, with the possibility of taking rams in the 170s or even larger. In fact, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has predicted that the next world-record California bighorn will come out of this area.
You could float the John Day River by yourself, but understand this requires covering 70 miles of water between put-in and pickup. Ten miles a day would be a good clip, and if you happen to see a big ram and float past him, the opportunity will be lost. For a once-in-a-lifetime hunt, you’re better off hiring a guide, and on the John Day River, the name you need to know is John Cole (541-934-2080; outfitterjohncole.com). Cole, a resident of Oregon’s Grant County, has been guiding for more than 30 years and has helped several hunters realize their dream of taking a trophy bighorn. Much of his hunters’ success can be credited to Cole’s thorough outfit and knowledgeable guides. “We have four guides in two self-bailing rafts for each sheep hunt,” Cole says. “We also have one-man inflatable pontoons that we can deflate and pack on the rafts.”
One mistake unguided hunters often make is shooting the first ram they see. “It’s hard to tell the difference between a 140-inch ram and a 170-inch ram if you’ve never hunted sheep before,” Cole says. If you can locate the ram before you float by him or spook him, it’s usually possible to stalk him along the beach, which is far easier than climbing the sheer cliffs. Be prepared for a long shot in this canyon country—perhaps as much as 400 yards. The John Day River is divided into western and eastern units, which fall on opposite sides of the river. If you draw a tag for the east side and a big ram shows up on the west side, you’re out of luck. However, you’ll likely see shootable rams on both sides of the river, as the sheep cross it regularly.
If you take your sheep early, you can enjoy fantastic steelhead and smallmouth fishing or hunt chukar along the river’s edge as you make your way to the take-out point.
Trophy Potential (4 out of 5): You’ll see a lot of sheep and some really good rams if you are patient and pay attention.
What It Costs: $140.50 (non-resident license) + $8 (controlled hunt application fee) + $1,300.50 (non-resident bighorn sheep tag) + $5,500 (fully guided hunt with Hunter’s Rendezvous) = $6,949
Exertion level: By sheep-hunting standards, this is pretty easy—if you can find a ram along the river. If you have to climb the steep basalt cliffs, you’re in for a workout.
6) New Mexico Black Bears
Legendary houndsman Ben Lilly, who ate mountain lion meat, slept in trees, and hunted every day of the year except Sundays, made his home in southwestern New Mexico’s Gila Forest. There were plenty of “varmints” (Lilly-speak for bears and mountain lions) to pursue, and the solitary mountain man with the long beard and homemade knife spent years traversing the Gila in search of game.
Today, if you’re looking to tag a black bear, there are still plenty of these varmints roaming around the Gila. In fact, New Mexico Bear Management Zone 5, which encompasses all 2.7 million acres of the national forest, has one of the highest allotments in the state. You can hunt them with hounds, as Lilly did, but if you don’t have a pack of bear dogs and don’t want to hire a guide, consider a spot-and-stalk hunt. Bears in the Gila spend their time searching out food sources, and berries and acorns are their favorite fare. Scout open hillsides, valleys, and forests that contain food sources and plan on hunting these areas at dawn and dusk. Focus your attention on units 16A through 16E. With a Forest Service map in hand, take notes on areas where you find bear sign and look for open meadows that border forest cover. Most of these units are made up of public lands, so finding a place to hunt isn’t an issue. You can pack your gear into the Gila and camp, or rent a cabin in one of the small towns bordering the forest. The season is closed when 109 bears or 44 sows have been taken, so call the zone closure hotline (877-950-5466) to make sure that the limit has not been reached before you set out. New Mexico requires a waiting period of two days after purchasing a tag before you can begin hunting, and if you harvest a bear you must report your kill.
Lilly chose to dispatch his bears with a special knife he designed himself, but today more modern weapons are the standard. Firearms season runs from the middle of August until September 1 in the Gila, and archery season is from September 1 until about the end of the month. This is followed by a second firearms season that runs until the end of November. But keep in mind that the season ends when the bear limit is reached. Hound hunting is not allowed during archery season. For more information, contact the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (888-248-6866; wildlife.state.nm.us).
Trophy Potential (3.5 out of 5): The Gila has a lot of bears and some big bruins; you can reasonably expect a 250- to 400-pound bear if you do your homework.
What It Costs: $65 (non-residentlicense) + $260 (bear tag) = $325
Exertion level: New Mexico allows hound hunting, but spot-and-stalk opportunities also abound. For the best bears, find food sources in more remote areas.
7) Nevada Mule Deer
A mule deer is one of the West’s great trophies, and these days a good buck is getting hard to come by on public land. The famous mule deer haunts—Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau and the Henry Mountains in Utah—offer low draw odds, and the notion that there are 30-inch-wide bucks running around all over the place is pure myth.
When balancing trophy potential against the odds of drawing a tag in this lifetime, Nevada is your best bet for a good buck. Just as many people imagine that the whole of New York looks like the Big Apple, we tend to associate Nevada with the Las Vegas Strip. In fact, Nevada has more than 150 mountain ranges. Many peaks rise above 10,000 feet, and large, grassy plains provide perfect habitat for deer.
Nevada has preference points and bonus points, but there are also guide points that significantly increase your odds of drawing a tag. The caveat is that you have to hire the guide that signed off on your application, and the right guide is your best chance to score on a really big buck. One of Nevada’s best mule deer guides is Mike Sondermann of Black Mountain Outfitters (775-635-5609; blackmountainhunts.com) in Battle Mountain. Sondermann’s passion is mule deer hunting, and he’s studied the habitat and the drawing odds in his home state for years.
“By far the best chance to draw a mule deer tag in Nevada is the Non-Resident Guided Deer Hunt 1235,” says Sondermann. “The application deadline for this draw is early March, with results coming out at the end of March. Early archery hunts in 2012 (October 5–20) had very good draw odds, with 32 applications for 28 available tags in the 061,062,064,066-068 unit group. It featured a 66 percent overall success rate, with 68 percent of those [being deer with 4 points per side or better]. The late-season hunt in the same units (October 21 to November 5) featured 89 applicants for three tags and a success rate of 67 percent. Both of those were 4 points or better as well.” Trophy potential in Nevada is high, but 30-inch bucks are a rarity anywhere you go (yes, even on the legendary Kaibab).
Are there big trophy bucks in Nevada? Absolutely. Sondermann’s daughter drew a tag last year and took an exceptional 223 1/8-inch buck, the kind of trophy that every Western hunter dreams of. If you’re going to gamble on a big muley buck, roll the dice on the Silver State.
Trophy Potential (4 out of 5): Nevada doesn’t have extremely high deer densities, but the odds of finding a big trophy are good here. Winter weather and annual precipitation affect overall populations.
What It Costs: $142 (non-resident license) + $10 (non-refundable application fee) + $240 (mule deer tag) + $3,400 (5-day guided hunt with Black Mountain Outfitters) = $3,792. Note: A convenience fee of $3.50 applies for non-resident online purchases. The price of the hunting license fee is refundable if you don’t draw a tag, and the tag fee is paid only after successfully drawing.
Exertion level: This isn’t as hard as a goat hunt, but you’ll have to be able to cover some ground, and it might be steep.
8) Idaho Elk
Rising between Salmon River Canyon and Hells Canyon in western Idaho is the Seven Devils Range, a cluster of mountains with clever names such as She Devil, He Devil, and so on. This is a rugged and remote part of the world, and Heaven’s Gate Outfitters (208-628-2783; hgoid.com) leases 1,200 square miles of ground in the Devils. (All of Heaven’s Gate’s hunts are combo trips, so for an additional $301, you can buy a deer tag that is good for a whitetail, mule deer, mountain lion, or bear. It’s money well spent.)
Far different from the canyon country along the Snake and Salmon Rivers, the high country of the Devils is a breathtaking landscape covered with conifer forests and alpine lakes. It’s beautiful and isolated territory, and bull elk abound here. Tags are easy to get and reasonably priced in Unit 23, and the wolves haven’t cleaned all the big bulls out, either. Hunters score on bulls ranging from 260 to 350 inches, but each year larger bulls are taken in the Devils. Archery season usually runs through September, and this is when you can expect to have a close encounter with rut-crazed elk. There’s an October rifle hunt as well, but be prepared to deal with snow at higher elevations at that time of year.
Heaven’s Gate has well-appointed wall tents and a fine string of horses, and their staff knows where to find the elk. Shot distances vary, and you may find your bull up close in the dense forests or across a canyon, so being proficient with a rifle out to 300 yards is going to increase your chances of taking one of the monster bulls that come out of this unit.
There are few experiences in the world of hunting that are more exciting than seeing a big bull elk come barreling in at close range to answer your call. If you’re up for a mountain hunt in one of Idaho’s wildest and most remote wilderness areas, you need to plan a date with the Devils.
GO POSH: The Chama Land and Cattle Company (lodgeatchama.com) offers 36,000 acres of free-range elk hunting, and this is the land of 400-inch bulls. The area is also home to some outstanding trout fishing. And when you’re not wetting a fly or trying to bugle up a massive bull, you can relax in the 27,000-square-foot lodge, complete with fitness and game rooms, gourmet cuisine, and some of the finest suites you’ll find anywhere in the West.
Trophy Potential (4 out of 5): Unit 23 is home to a lot of elk, and hunter pressure is low on leased ground. You’ll have a shot at taking a bull taping 350 inches or better.
What It Costs: $154.75 (non-resident hunting license) + $416.75 (non-resident elk tag) + $5,950 (guided 1×1 hunt with Heaven’s Gate Outfitters) = $6,521.50
Exertion level: The Seven Devils Mountains are steep, and this is a horseback hunt, so even though experience in the saddle isn’t required, it would be beneficial.