SCOUTING REPORT: Scouting the Long-odds Tag
by Mark Kayser
Why should you research your dream unit annually? It’s worth doing legwork for the day you actually draw.
Play the point game
The vast majority of elk hunting states give you opportunities to increase your chances at drawing an elk permit annually through the accumulation of bonus or preference points. Systems vary, but in general, for every year you apply and don’t draw, your chance of drawing a permit increases if you pay a few extra dollars. Some states simply put your name in the hat an additional time for every year you’ve applied. These are commonly referred to as bonus points. This doesn’t guarantee you a tag, but it does increase your odds over applicants with fewer years of participation. Montana’s system follows this model.
Other systems actually put you in different drawing brackets that almost guarantee you a tag the longer you apply. Oftentimes referred to as “max points” once you get a certain number of points you qualify to be placed in a drawing with a smaller pool of hunters. If you don’t die beforehand you’ll likely draw a tag for the coveted unit of your choice.
A few states even give you the opportunity to purchase a preference point without applying for any specific tag. This means you can increase your odds of drawing a license when your schedule allows. In many states you’ll lose the accrued points if you don’t add to them or apply after two years or more.
Most of my friends study the odds, especially if using preference point systems, and cash in their points when they feel their schedule and odds are highest for snatching a tag. Two of my out-of-state pals did this recently for a Wyoming hunt. By studying the system and knowing the odds, they were confident in the year they would draw. They planned over several years, scouted beforehand and put in knowing they would likely draw the tag. They did.
You’ll also find states that don’t have any system in place for the average hunter to accumulate points for the draw. Arkansas, with its limited tags, comes to mind. New Mexico doesn’t offer points either, but does hand out landowner tags that are readily resold and has higher-priced application options, both catering to hunters with deeper pockets. In the absence of points you simply have to roll the dice every year.
Research the news
Putting in for a preference or bonus point doesn’t take the pressure off of you. Instead, it should actually place increased emphasis on staying up-to-date on your targeted hunting area.
Begin analysis at home by visiting online state game and fish department resources of your targeted elk state or states. Start by clicking on “news” icons and peruse the headlines. Some agencies email you updates and this saves you the time of a weekly check to see if anything is occurring in your elk region of interest.
Other online areas to survey include files on strategic habitat management plans, wildfire forecasts, game surveys, predation issues, disease outbreaks, access opportunities and a host of other topics that could affect your future hunt.
Habitat changes, like fire, could lead to elk using a specific area differently or vacating it altogether, yet fire can be your friend. After years of fire suppression a wildfire can rejuvenate vegetation. Burns often lead to future elk hot-spots with loads of new grass. Nevertheless, hot fires can wipe an area clean of both vegetation and refuge cover. This could lead to large numbers of elk deserting an area or spending more time on fringe regions with conifer cover for sanctuary, but also access to fresh growth as burned land regenerates.
Disease can also change the dynamics of a herd, particularly if a state agency attempts to study or even eliminate infected individuals with hunting management. Increased licenses to acquire herd data or decreased licenses to combat struggling populations are possible. The same is true of weather and predation. One only has to look at the fluctuating elk numbers in the Greater Yellowstone area due to predators and drought.
Whether you pore over online resources or forge a relationship with a local biologist, it pays to keep tabs on your intended hunting area. The only surprise you want is a bull bigger than you expected.
Boots on the ground
Finally, don’t overlook the importance of onsite visits. You can do as many Google flyover missions as your evening hours allow, but until you actually plant your boots on a trail you won’t be able to see the area as elk see it. Topographical lines on maps, blues lines representing creeks and satellite images lay the groundwork for scouting, but walking the country conveys its soul to you. Onsite visits can be done during a deer hunt, a summer vacation or as a spring outing to cure a case of cabin fever. In addition to scouting and learning the country, you can pick a campsite with leisure. If hunting proximity allows, you could also scout motels, cabins and campgrounds, possibly even reserving space for a later date.
And without question forge new relationships. Whether you visit with a local conservation officer, a regional biologist, a rancher or fellow hunter, use your time in elk country to get every morsel of information possible.
Wyoming-based writer Mark Kayser lives at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains with his wife Sharon and children, Cole and Katelyn. He is a frequent contributor to Bugle.