You’ve eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a year and worked all the overtime you can get. You’ve pinched pennies here and squeezed dollars there saving enough cash to go on that ultimate big game hunt, fullfilling the dream of chasing monster whitetails or giant bulls in some mythical place you’ve seen on television. So now what? It’s only March, but it’s time to get serious about making plans.
“I start planning for next season as soon as hunting season is over,” said Steve Stoltz, a member of Knight & Hale’s Ultimate Hunting Team and a long-time hunting videographer. “The best outfitters fill up fast and it takes a lot of work to find a good area and a good outfitter.”
Many of the top big game states have such fantastic hunting because they limit the number of licenses they sell. Less pressure usually translates to older bucks and bulls. While resident hunters in top deer states like Kansas and Iowa are virtually guaranteed a tag, non-residents aren’t. That means in order to get in, you have to fill out some paperwork, write a check, send it in and wait.
Some states, Iowa and Colorado, for example, offer a point system that allows unsuccessful hunters to accumulate “points” each time they fail to draw a tag. The more points you have, the better your chances of drawing the next season. Eventually, you’ll get in, if not this season. So even if you can’t hunt this fall, it’s not a bad idea to at least start putting some preference points in the bank.
Before he settles on a specific area, however, Stoltz will call wildlife biologists to discuss the trophy potential. He asks about hunting pressure, population densities, approximate buck-to-doe ratios, the rut schedule when he’s focusing on whitetails and the overall potential for at least seeing a big buck. He’ll also do some research on the habitat itself and if he’s planning on hunting public land, the amount of public land and access to that land.
Stoltz will then find an outfitter if he is planning on using one. The recommendation of a friend is worth more than perhaps anything, but Stoltz will poke around the Internet and even watch television shows that profile a region or a specific outfitter. Then he’ll contact the outfitter and ask for a current list of references. He’ll call successful and unsuccessful hunters and ask them about their experience with the outfit. Even if they didn’t tag a monster buck, bull or ram, they should at least be satisfied with the camp itself and the effort put forth by the outfitter and his guides. Of course, if an outfitter gives you only a limited selection of references, especially if they were all successful, he might be hiding something.
The services of a guide aren’t mandatory, at least not in the Lower 48. Plenty of the top big game states have generous amounts of public land, and states like Kansas, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota have a private land lease program that allows hunters to roam across quality private farmland at no cost. Some land is far better than others, and finding the best country can involve countless phone calls, hours on the Internet and plenty of sleepless nights fretting about your decisions. Taking a trip half way across the country without doing some legwork is a gamble, a huge gamble that has pretty low odds of success. For some hunters, however, the notion of tackling all those challenges is as rewarding as pulling the trigger on their first Booner.
If you do choose to go self-guided, it’s critical to line up all the essentials before you show up in some strange town in some distant state. Book hotel rooms, and find restaurants, sporting goods stores, even game processors and auto repair shops long before you take off on the hunt of a lifetime. Planning now can save you a lot of headaches and give you more time to hunt.