The bugling just didn’t stop. I’m not exactly sure how many bulls there were altogether, but there were a bunch, all competing for volume. Throughout the morning I saw two bulls and almost had as many shot opportunities. I chased bugles until noon when I thumped a big old 6-by-6 bull. I was in elk heaven.
If you’ve assumed that I was in a hard-to-draw unit or on a decorated private ranch, you’re incorrect. It was an over-the-counter hunt on national forest land, open to anyone with an OTC tag. It was my sixth season hunting as a nonresident in that unit, and the experience I’d accumulated during those years culminated in a dream hunt, and my second elk.
If you’re new to Western hunting, or simply haven’t had much success, consider one of three approaches. First, you can build preference points with the intent to draw a trophy unit in about five to 15 years. Alternatively, you can hunt strictly OTC units annually or biannually, if your schedule and finances allow. Finally, as I do, you can hunt OTC units annually to gain experience while building preference points for better tags. For die-hard, lifelong hunters in the West, this is the way.
There are good and bad things about draw hunts. Some Western states now require you to purchase a “qualifying” license or an annual hunting license in order to apply for bonus or preference points. For example, Colorado requires me to purchase an annual small-game hunting license (or another qualifying license) before I apply for preference points. Between the qualifying license and my points, I spend nearly $150 annually just to build points in Colorado.
If I wait 10 years or longer to draw a really good Colorado unit for deer, elk, or antelope, I not only have a lot of money invested, but I get only one chance to hunt that unit. The time between hunts can vary based on species, unit, and luck, but every 10 to 15 years is not uncommon on the whole.
Regardless of how good a trophy unit is, seven to 10 days gives me very little time to learn the area, find a quality animal, and make a kill. Plus, everything I learn probably won’t apply to my next hunt in 10 or more years, as habitat changes — think burns, clear-cuts, and crop rotations — and other variables affect animal habits and behavior. Yes, I’ll do these hunts when I have enough points, but I’m not patient enough to eat elk meat once every decade. I hunt elk in OTC units annually. I get to hunt and harvest elk while I wait for better tags, and the experience I gain by roaming the mountains with elk will serve me well when I finally pull a premium tag.
Be aware that drawing a hunt in solid units doesn’t mean you’ll walk out and take your pick from a group of world-class bucks or bulls; GMU 76 in Colorado is one example of why that’s true. The unit offers rifle hunters with 11 to 12 preference points good chances to hunt for bulls in the 330- to 360-inch range, but that doesn’t mean one will waltz in front of your crosshairs. You’ll usually have to work very hard and live with the reality that all the money you’ve invested might yield nothing.
Draw hunts have positive points, too. If you want to hunt nonpressured units known for 340-class-or-larger bull elk or mule deer bigger than 180 inches, a draw hunt puts you in the game. Those animals are few and far between in OTC units across most of the West. That doesn’t mean you can’t pluck a 360-inch bull from an OTC unit, but the odds are so very slim. In a trophy unit, that dream is well within reach.
While high success rates in draw units are always enticing, understand that state wildlife agencies don’t provide separate rates for private and public land categories. A good many hunters hire outfitters to make the most of their dream tag that took years to draw, and a guided private-land hunt has far better odds than a public-land DIY hunt. So, if success rates are 50% for a premium unit, it doesn’t mean that your personal success rate will even touch that on a public-land hunt. That’s reality.
One more thing: Playing the draw can put you on a once-in-a-lifetime hunt, like drawing a bison tag in Utah. There are very few opportunities to hunt wild bison, and while drawing a tag like that is like winning the lottery, also like the lottery, someone has to draw them. It could be you.
While OTC units don’t teem with giant bulls or bucks, the beauty is that it’s possible to hunt in them annually. OTC hunts are opportunity hunts, not trophy hunts. If you’re okay with chasing 200- to 300-inch elk, 120- to 150-inch muleys, and 55- to 70-inch antelope, OTC hunts are terrific. Larger animals usually exist, you just won’t see as many of them as you might on a draw hunt. But hunting that unit every year means you’ll likely encounter the best quality animals the unit has to offer.
Obviously, success rates are usually very low in OTC units. Expect more hunters and usually fewer animals (at least on public land). Most Colorado OTC elk units, like GMU 3 for example, have a success rate of 10% or lower. When you hunt such units for the first time, expect your success rate to be right on par. But your personal success rate will improve slightly each season. Why? Because the knowledge you’ll gain will help you identify opportunities to position yourself for success.
Another downside to OTC hunting is that you can almost guarantee hunting pressure will affect you, at least for the first two seasons, as you learn how and where other people hunt. Additionally, OTC units with uncapped, unlimited licenses are unpredictable in terms of pressure. A unit might have 700 hunters one season and 1,400 the next. That can drastically impact your chances of success.
If you’re flexible on animal quality and want to punch more tags, hunting OTC units annually is your best bet in lieu of waiting 10 years or longer to hunt a premium unit. More time afield means more opportunities.
Two Worlds Collide
Again, if your finances allow, you should hunt your target species on OTC tags annually while you build preference points for draw units. I’m building preference points in Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado, but I hunt elk and mule deer a ton on OTC tags as I wait. The more I’m around elk and mule deer, the more comfortable I become and the more I learn about their tendencies. That, I hope, will make me way more effective when I draw a big tag and have a bunch of money on the line along with the pressure to produce.