Love hunting but don’t have a lot of money to spend? Check out these budget-friendly adventure options.
North America offers some of the best hunting in the world, but many of those experiences come with a high price tag. Every year it seems guided hunts become more and more expensive, and some hunting is limited to those who have serious disposable income. Alaska usually tops the list for dream hunt destinations, and, as a result, prices tags are very high there, as they are for many species in the American West. A Dall sheep hunt will cost upwards of $25,000, and Stone sheep are more expensive yet. Alaska-Yukon moose hunts are costly wherever they are available, and if you think you’re going to find a legitimate budget grizzly or brown bear hunt forget about it. Likewise, fully-guided elk hunts with guaranteed tags and an opportunity at a really big bull are going to cost a lot of money. Even mule deer hunts—once widely available and affordably-priced—are not nearly as affordable as they once were, especially if you stand a good chance of getting a big buck. In many states you can draw a tag in a prime area, but oftentimes that’s an iffy proposition at best and it might requires years before your name is drawn.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a fall filled with success and a freezer full of meat. It just means you’re going to have to be more creative and maybe burn a little boot leather to get into public land areas where other hunters fear to tread. But, after all, isn’t that what we love about hunting? Hard work pays off, and you just might find that trophy of lifetime is easier to acquire than you think. If you’re willing to do your homework and have the skills that set you apart from other hunters then there are plenty of opportunities to put together a great hunt this year.
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Pronghorn antelope are fast, agile, and fun to hunt. They’re also very abundant in many areas, and if you are willing to get off the beaten path the odds of killing a big buck increase dramatically. Guided hunts vary in cost; in some areas you can book an antelope hunt with a fair chance of success for as little as $2,000 and maybe even less if you shop around. In states like Wyoming, which has millions of these animals and produces big bucks each year, landowners offer a trespass fee and allow you to come on their land to hunt, though you are generally responsible for finding the game and all meat care. Antelope tags are also relatively easy to draw in some states, and if you get in the right areas in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Idaho there’s a good opportunity to shoot a buck on public land. Eastern Montana has lots of space and antelope, and southern Idaho’s game units are often overlooked.
Once upon a time you could simply knock on any Midwestern farmer’s door with your hat in your hand and stood a good chance of gaining access to hunt their land, but that has changed. With the rise in trophy hunting and the popularity of hunting leases you are far less likely to stumble upon great whitetail habitat where you are welcome with open arms and a closed wallet. The answer is to look for areas that offer good deer, lots of public land, and affordable hunting, and my pick for three of the most overlooked whitetail states are Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The Bitteroot Mountains in Idaho and Montana are steep and rugged, and while they may be best known for producing elk and moose these areas have abundant whitetails. The animals feed on wet meadows and open clear cuts, and each year some really good deer come out of this area. It’s also worth checking out eastern Wyoming around the Black Hills, where whitetails are numerous (though public land is not as widely available). Be prepared, though, these areas demand serious preparation for a true wilderness hunt. It’s one of the few places that you might see grizzly tracks below your stand.
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There are still plenty of opportunities in this country to pursue abundant upland birds on public land, and with so many species to pursue—Huns, chukars, sharptails, pheasants, ruffed grouse, blue grouse, valley quail and more—you’ll have no shortage of different targets. But that doesn’t mean that finding birds on public land is easy—it will require a lot of walking and maybe even climbing or camping. Nobody wants to give up their best bird-hunting sports, but talking to locals and fish and game department professionals will get you on the right track. Also, a quick study of the bird’s ecology will also help narrow your search; valley quail, for instance, love cottonwood-choked drainages in the west, and chukars tend to hang below the snow line. A good dog is very handy and will up your odds of success, but even if you don’t have a four-legged friend these hunts are still fun—so long as you like to walk. Some of the best bets are the Lake of the Woods area in Minnesota for ruffed grouse and western North Dakota’s public lands for sharptails.
Everyone wants an elk, and big bulls are hard to come by on public land. That being said, if you know where to look there’s still a chance that you can find a nice bull and not have to pay a lot to do it, especially if you look in the remote wilderness areas in states like Montana and Idaho. A string of pack horses and a team of wranglers aren’t essentials to get your elk—just a little pre-season planning, a good forest service map and a pre-season training regiment that gets you in to shape. Idaho’s fish and game website in particular is one of the best for giving statistics on all of their different draw areas so you’ll have your chances of success laid out in black and white before you ever strap on your pack and lace up your boots. In some areas that were hit hard by wolves, particularly in the northern part of the state, elk populations are rebounding and there are still really good bulls in those areas—I’ve seen them. Forest Service access roads make getting to and from the wilderness easier so you can set up camp in areas where there are elk within walking distance. But before you set out to do a DIY elk hunt you need to know what you’re getting yourself into; mountain weather can change in a hurry and cut off access, there are very few resources immediately available if you need help, and you’ll have to deal with your downed animal yourself (and when you take a big elk that’s a lot of meat). The other option is to hire an outfitter, someone who will get you to and from your hunting area without actually guiding you. Having logistical support is beneficial, and depending on what they provide an outfitted elk hunt runs from about $1,500 up.
Turkey hunts are still relatively easy to come upon, and you may find access to property with good birds and not get charged (or at least charged an arm and a leg) to hunt there. This is thanks in large part to the efforts of forward-thinking landowners and conservation groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation who have worked to reverse the turkey declines of the mid-twentieth century. And turkeys offer some great public land hunts if you are willing to walk a bit and get off the beaten path. Tags are usually affordable and many states allow you to take two birds, and with both spring and fall seasons in many areas turkeys offer two seasons and lots of opportunities. Both the Land Between the Lakes area in Kentucky and Ohio’s large Shawnee National Forest are home to lots of birds, and with so much land to hunt there’s space to get away from the crowds and get your birds.
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Aoudad are one of my favorite animals to hunt because they offer the challenge of a true mountain hunt without the high price tag. Since their introduction in the American Southwest in the 1940’s and 50’s these animals have flourished here and now there are ample opportunities to take a really good ram in a free-range environment, but you’d better be prepared to do some walking, glassing and stalking, for the biggest rams are always wary and since most of the time you’ll be hunting herds there are a lot of eyes to detect danger. Look to the Big Bend area of Texas as a primary hunting destination for these animals and get ready to take a long shot. Aoudad are extremely tough and require a powerful bullet with solid construction. Shoot one of these animals badly and you’re in for a long tracking job in rough country. In addition, states like Texas don’t require a special tag for aoudad and there are liberal seasons.
Feral hogs have become an absolute nuisance in many areas and cost the nation’s farmers and ranchers millions in lost revenue, so there’s usually ample opportunity to hunt them. Texas in particular has been dealing with problem hogs for decades and the pig population there has skyrocketed. Other states like Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma are also dealing with problem hogs, so there’s probably a chance to hunt them in your neck of the woods. If you spend some time contacting ranchers you’ll probably land upon a low-cost hunt with a high chance of success. In dense areas the best way to hunt these pigs is over bait, but in more open areas you can glass and stalk them for a totally different hunting experience. Many states don’t require a tag for hogs and in some areas there are no closed seasons or bag limits, and you’ll be able to take home some fine table fare while helping native species that have been displaced by the growing number of pigs.
Black bear are abundant and their populations are growing in many areas of the United States. Western states like Washington, Idaho, and Montana offer affordable tags and are a good place for a spot-and-stalk hunt, and Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan, West Virginia and other eastern states also offer plenty of bears and an opportunity for a real bruiser. If trophy quality is what you are after then look to places like North Carolina and California where long growing seasons and lots of food allow bears to reach gargantuan proportions. You can also look across the border in Canada for an affordable bear hunt, many of which will cost less than $2,000.