By Garth Jenson, February 2016
Twenty-two years ago, when I began my hunting career, tags were easy to come by. I simply had to walk to the local sporting goods store and buy a deer tag and go hunting. How times have changed. Nowadays, mule deer numbers are a shell of what they were in the heydays of the '60s through the '80s and even into the early '90s, which makes drawing a quality mule deer tag harder than ever before. However, it's not just mule deer tags that are struggling to keep up with demand. Since hunting out west is getting more and more popular, draw systems and tag restrictions are the norm for every huntable game animal the West has to offer.
Rifle hunting has always been the most popular hunt by far for all species when it comes to supply and demand. This results in applying for over a decade in most trophy areas throughout the West. This is where being versatile in your weapon choice can make the difference between sitting on the fence year after year watching everyone else bag their own trophy or bagging one for yourself. Another advantage of being a versatile hunter is that you can take advantage of hunting units that are all too often crowded and are more frustrating than fun when you are tripping over orange shirts during the rifle season.
I'll never forget the day I was out glassing for a friend of mine in an area that would get absolutely destroyed by hunters during the muzzleloader and rifle seasons but had very low hunting pressure during the early archery season. I watched from a distance as my friend put a textbook stalk on a giant velvet buck in a general unit and snuck into 35 yards of that monster. This being the first year my buddy had bowhunted, he was obviously going to go through some growing pains, but as I watched the arrow sail harmlessly over the buck’s back, I remember wishing it had not been with this buck. As we combed the area for any sign of blood, I kept saying to Bill, "I have got to get me a bow before next season." The tags that we had allowed us to hunt archery, muzzleloader, and rifle until we harvested our bucks. I couldn’t shake the thought that that could've just as easily been me up there stalking a once-in-a-lifetime buck. Reality set in two weeks later when I was in the same area looking for that buck with a muzzleloader in my hands and couldn't pan 100 yards in any direction without finding another hunter doing the same thing. Since then, I have been hunting every year with a bow, muzzleloader, and rifle.
In 2012, I was finally able to draw my premium limited-entry deer tag in Utah. When I started applying for the tag 12 years prior, the muzzleloader hunt was in November and was a great rut hunt. Times change and so do hunt dates. By the time I had accumulated enough points to draw my tag, the muzzleloader hunt was now in late September, the deer were in their transition zones, and early season scouting was not an effective tool. The archery hunt was now the best hunt for me as I lived close enough to scout it and the deer I scouted would remain in those areas through the archery season. Being proficient with all three weapons allowed me to pick the best hunt for that unit with the season dates that were given.
I am an opportunity hunter, so to speak. My definition of "opportunity" is putting the most tags in my pocket in those areas that are currently producing quality animals. The best way I have found to do this is by applying for the easiest tags to draw in those areas. One good example is the prior two seasons as I have hunted the southeast corner of Wyoming for mule deer in a general season area. This area is currently producing great quality but is an over-the-counter tag for residents. The rifle hunt can be a little overwhelming with thousands of hunters afield where you can’t find a single trailhead with less than five to ten pickups with horse trailers and backpackers alike. In Wyoming, if you draw the general deer license as a non-resident you can pick up an archery stamp for an additional $35 and hunt during the archery hunt dates. This hunt is the best chance to find the big, old mature bucks before they get pushed into the timber and go nocturnal. Less than one-third of the people are in the field during the early archery season as well. A guy who is handy with a bow can now capitalize on the system and have a chance at finding and harvesting one of these bucks before the masses attack during the rifle hunt. Furthermore, if you just can’t get it done during the archery season (any bow hunter knows that anything archery is never a guarantee), you already know where the bucks are and can turn to your rifle when the season opens to hopefully get it done before anyone else figures out your honey hole.
I don't want to paint too dismal of a picture on all rifle hunting possibilities because there is still great rifle hunting potential in a lot of states if you're willing to hunt in and around other hunters in units with a lower buck-to- doe ratio but that still have potential and genetics to produce giant bucks. In Colorado, I never want more than 3 bonus points for deer because there is a great potential to hunt big bucks during the third rifle season with 3 points and under during November. I have taken some of my best bucks and have seen some giant bucks taken during this rifle hunt. Idaho is popping for quality right now. Some of the best bucks to come out of Idaho were taken on the general rifle hunts. There is still good rifle hunting opportunity out there, it just takes a little research to find those hidden gems. Rest assured that we will keep digging them up for all Huntin' Fool members.
Another state that has incredible opportunity for versatile hunters is Arizona. It is one of the top states in the West for elk hunting. They have early rut and late season rifle and archery tags in most units. To hunt some of the best units in Arizona for elk during the rut with a rifle, you will need 21 plus points to draw, and to hunt some of those same units with a bow during the rut will take 12 plus points. This means that if you are rifle only, you could potentially never hunt Arizona elk during the rut. If you want to hunt the best units in the state for trophy elk and you don’t care about the time of year or what weapon you hunt with, you have the opportunity to hunt those units in November every year or at least every other year. When it comes to deer, Arizona has some incredible opportunities for both Coues and mule deer. You can bowhunt some of the best Coues and mule deer units in the state a week later than the late rifle hunt, which would take 13-14 points to draw in those units. You can hunt the famed Kaibab almost every year for mule deer with a bow but possibly never get a tag for the late rifle hunt without max points.
The most difficult thing about being proficient with a bow, muzzleloader, and rifle is finding the time to practice enough with all three to be just as effective when in the field, regardless of the weapon you're using. I constantly battle with this because between family time and putting food on the table, I just don’t have a lot of spare time. I tend to focus more on my archery skills as it takes more practice to hunt accurately with a bow than with a rifle or muzzleloader. I am the first to admit that I am not even close to being as good of a shot as I once was with my rifle, but shooting a rifle is like riding a bike, you don’t forget how to do it. A muzzleloader, as far as inline muzzleloaders are concerned, is like short-range single shots, once you get the process down and accept the fact that you’ll be cleaning the gun more than firing it, it can be a very fun weapon to hunt with. I have found that being a little less of a marksman with my rifle but being able to hunt effectively with any weapon I choose is worth the sacrifice.
I could go on and on about the countless opportunities I have had since adopting this philosophy, but the moral of this article is that there are a ton of opportunities out there for hunters who are willing to take up bow, muzzleloader, and rifle hunting. Ultimately, what every hunter wants is the opportunity to be out hunting instead of sitting on the bench, watching.