Rob Thornberry

June 1, 2016

The Three Kinds of Hunters Competing for the Best Tags of the Season

Win, lose, or fail to draw, everyone has his own wish list for the perfect fall season on public lands

This Sunday is the deadline to enter the lottery for Idaho’s finest deer, elk, and pronghorn tags, and I am like a child on Christmas Eve. Instead of the J.C. Penney Christmas catalog of my youth, I endlessly thumb through the Idaho hunting regulations booklet, looking for the present I most want this year: a hard-to-draw controlled hunt that could help me plan a few dinner menus or even result in the trophy of a lifetime. My ultimate wish list includes an elk for the table and a muley for the wall.

But since I’m blessed to live in a state that is 62 percent public land, I can enter drawings for everything from wolves to mountain goats to turkeys. I have public access to world-class moose, sheep, and mountain lions, too.

So do I want an Oct. 1 bull tag? Or would a late cow hunt be better to fill the fridge? If I hunt cows in late November, I will have to wait until next year to chase whitetails in north Idaho. It is a tough call on an embarrassment of riches. With so many possibilities, it’s sad that there are so few fall days (and so many demands that come with earning a paycheck.) But choices need to be made. Santa won’t fill the tags.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

I flip the pages back and forth, checking for conflicts, considering my odds, and searching for that rare hunt that perhaps hasn’t been discovered by other hardcore hunters.

I am not alone celebrating this important date. Conversations with friends this time of year are without customary salutations. We cut to the chase: “You apply for tags yet?” Paul Kniss has his sights on a 14-inch pronghorn buck. Jimmy Gabettas is after a fat cow. Mike Clements is after monster bucks.

Idaho sells more than a quarter million hunting licenses in a given year. More than half of those who buy also spend the extra money for a chance in the lottery. Idaho Fish and Game offers 22,365 elk tags, 16,916 deer tags, and 2,345 pronghorn tags.

In my experience, hunters who apply for those tags generally fall into one or more of three categories:

  • Trophy hunters, who want a chance at a record and by nature pursue the most sought-after tags. In one eastern Idaho trophy hunt, only 2.5 percent of applicants are rewarded, because conservative limits allow only a tiny number of hunters to chase trophy animals when they are most vulnerable. The 20 who are lucky enough to draw are spread across thousands and thousands of acres.
  • Parents trying to get their children interested in hunting. Fish and Game has created a wide array of youth-only hunts that offer the highest odds of success. They normally start before the general seasons or run later, giving youngsters a chance to become lifelong hunters.
  • Specialists, or those who treasure the hunt itself, and have little interest in filling the fridge or the scrapbook—at least not anymore. They limit themselves to traditional gear, such as exposed-cap muzzleloaders, trading lower success rates for the alone time.

I basically fall into two categories and my lottery choices tilt, as always, against the odds.

Image courtesy of Roger Peterson/USFS.

If all goes as planned, I will hunt pronghorns with a muzzleloader in August and September on the Bureau of Land Management land near the High Divide. I have a 50-50 chance of drawing that tag. In early October, I will hopefully hunt for my trophy mule deer on public ground atop Idaho’s highest ridges, tucked far away from roads and other hunters. I missed a bruiser during my teen years and it would be rewarding to erase that memory. My chances of drawing that tag are one in six. In late November, I will return to the High Divide and tote a muzzleloader in the snow for elk. It is an either-sex hunt, offering that rarest of opportunities to harvest a trophy bull or a tasty yearling. I have a one-in-five chance of drawing that tag.

My wish list is set. Tag Day is near. I have been good (I promise), so my optimism is high. Still, my heart has been broken before. More years than not, I fail to draw a tag. But I still have a gift to treasure: a chance to hunt.

And that privilege is one that we’d be well-served to focus on, even without the promise of a tangible reward in the next few months—or even years. The critical conservation of the West’s most wild and intact backcountry areas might not impact this year’s tag selection, but ultimately we are all responsible for which critters will be in the lottery for those kids who are just starting to get hooked on that Christmas-morning feeling.

Here in eastern Idaho, the Bureau of Land Management is in the first stages of rewriting management plans for 3.14 million acres of critical wildlife habitat from Sand Creek to Salmon and Challis. Sportsmen have an important role in deciding how this wonderful area, and our public lands across the West, will be protected for decades to come.

The TRCP is here to help you stay informed on this process and the ways that all sportsmen can contribute to better conservation and land management policies. That’s actually the stuff that makes our wallhanger, freezer-busting wishes come true.

2 Responses to “The Three Kinds of Hunters Competing for the Best Tags of the Season”

  1. dale lockwood

    As future years go by,public land will come more valuable than it even is today. With human population increasing and private land less accesible(sp),let keep and use everybodies public land wisely.

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