Whether you want to hunt new terrain or a new species or go on a hunting vacation, America has plenty of opportunities to satisfy your desires. Although you can hire a guide or outfitter, a do-it-yourself hunt is less expensive and extremely rewarding, according to Jon Gabrio.
Gabrio, 34, grew up hunting deer and elk in Washington and currently lives in Montana. His dad introduced him to out-of-state hunts, and he planned his first DIY trip to Idaho in high school. Since then, he’s hunted in all the Western states except Colorado. He’s pursued elk, deer, antelope and black bears, and he’s helped and traveled with friends chasing moose, sheep and mountain goats. He plans to travel to Midwestern states in the coming years.
He’s also the co-owner of The Elk Collective, a virtual elk hunting resource with nearly 170 educational videos on elk hunting tips and tactics. He loves to help others go on bowhunting adventures, so he shared his thoughts on how to plan an unguided bowhunting trip. Use this five-step process to get started.
Do you want to hunt a specific place or animal? Do you seek adventure or a trophy for your wall? Do you want to travel alone or with friends and family? Do you want to camp, stay with a friend or get a hotel? Gabrio encourages all hunters to think about the specifics of their desired journey, so they know what to research in the next step.
For example, Gabrio’s motivation for bowhunting trips is adventure. He loves to explore and hunt uncharted territory, so he starts his research by finding a cool, scenic spot to hunt.
If you want to chase a specific species, you must determine where that species lives so you can hunt it. If you’re going to hunt a specific state or area, you must determine what animals live there and are legal to hunt. Picking an animal and location for your trip go hand in hand.
Gabrio said determining where you’re going to hunt is the hardest part of the planning process.
“Anyone traveling out of state to bowhunt should do their due diligence,” Gabrio said. “If you’re spending that kind of time and money on a trip, you don’t want to throw a dart at a map and hope your target species is there.”
Instead, visit the state wildlife agency website for where you want to hunt to see maps of public and private land. Decide what unit, county, region or area you want to hunt and determine whether you can hunt public land or if you want to ask permission to hunt private land.
Gabrio also recommends that hunters search the internet and talk to any friends or family who live in that state to gather intel and information.
“If you know someone in the state where you want to hunt, ask them for advice,” he said. “Most people are willing to share basic information to get someone started. Then, start your internet search. You might dig up relevant information in a blog or on YouTube, social media or a hunting forum. Somebody somewhere has coughed up information.”
If your search doesn’t yield good results, contact a game warden or wildlife biologist in the state for details and recommendations. Gabrio believes many people are scared to talk to wardens because they feel intimidated by law enforcement. In his experience, they want to see hunters be successful, so they willingly share information.
Once you’ve done your homework and know what to hunt and where to go, check to see if you can get a license. Most states have over-the-counter tags, but if you plan to pursue game in a Western state, you’ll likely encounter a preference or bonus point system where the people with the most points get the licenses. If you’ve never applied for a preference point, you likely won’t get drawn for a tag.
If that’s the case, you must decide whether you want to play the point system and wait for your turn to hunt the animal and place you picked, or go back to Step 2 and conduct additional research to find something more readily available. Gabrio suggests hunters do both to give themselves more options down the road.
“Don’t give up if you find a state or species you want to hunt (in the West),” he said. “If you play the points game now, you can build your points and open up opportunities to hunt in the future.”
Read the Bowhunters United article “How to Master Western Tag Draws” for more information. If you want to plan a trip ASAP, you must find a state that offers OTC tags. You might bounce between Steps 2 and 3 for a while, but once you locate and purchase a tag, you can move to Step 4.
After securing your tag and hunting license, you can make travel and lodging plans. Will you drive, fly or do a combination of both? Will you stay in a hotel, set up at a campground or tent camp on public land? You must also determine what gear you need and what food you plan to eat.
While you’re at it, Gabrio encourages hunters to make post-hunt plans should they shoot an animal. Will you donate the meat, process it yourself or get a processor to do it? Whatever you decide, it’s smart to find a butcher, meat locker and taxidermist in the area. Ask about costs and write everything down.
Keep your trip notes in one place so they’re easy to find and reference. Think through the hunt from start to finish to know what to expect so you can be as prepared as possible.
Lastly, to give yourself the best chance at a successful hunt, Gabrio said you’ll want to dive deeper down the research rabbit hole to virtually scout, learn the lay of the land, identify potential game hot spots, and plan your hunt approach or strategy. He recommends spending 10 to 20 hours learning about the area and animals you plan to hunt, but you can stop whenever you feel comfortable. You’ll be well versed by fall if you start the planning and research process now. Plus, you can spread the research over several months so it’s not overwhelming.
You should also double-check the state hunting regulations regarding gear and equipment. For example, some states have draw weight limits, regulations on lighted nocks and other area-specific rules. You must also learn how to legally discard the animal carcass and transport game meat. Memorize the rules so you can hunt legally and stay out of trouble.
The planning process from start to finish can be challenging and time-consuming. Still, Gabrio said it’s well worth it because you can look back at all your work and feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, especially if you get your animal. “It’s surreal in a way,” he said.