By Michael Deming
Every year, I field hundreds of phone calls from loyal readers and followers about their valued preference/bonus points they have been accumulating. For those of you not familiar with these so-called points, its similar to a savings account for a future outdoor adventure. Every year you apply for an elk, deer, sheep, or moose tag and aren’t fortunate enough to be drawn, you get either a preference point or a bonus point. Depending on the state and their process will depend on what this point means. For simplicity matters, we will just say that the more points you have accumulated, the better your chance of drawing that coveted tag in the future. However, you could go a lifetime without ever drawing some of these tags.
With this being said, these points become like a savings account and the fear of blowing them on something that isn’t worthy becomes very real. This fear is what drives so many of these phone calls and conversations. I wanted to put general advice that I share with all of these people into an article since I’m sure a lot of people have the same questions and don’t know where to turn for answers.
The one misconception I hear most of the time and why people continue to build points instead of hunting; “I want one good quality animal at least once in my life and that is how to do it.” I want to assure everyone that just because you have 20-30 points and have waited half your life to draw doesn’t automatically assure you an opportunity at a trophy-quality animal. Sure, the limited number of tags might mean that this unit is managed for an older age class of animals; however, units like this are hunted hard each and every year by some of the very best hunters and outfitters this world has to offer. Guys and gals who have unlimited resources get to purchase these conservation tags and hire an army of people to help them find that giant. If you haven’t ever been in one of these units, like the Henry Mountains in Utah or the Arizona Strip, you are definitely in for a treat. If you think that you have waited 25-30 years for this coveted tag and now you are going to just do some deer shopping, you are in for a rude awaking. Nearly every buck you feel is worthy of your hard-earned points has a name, profile, and has been patterned during his every move for the past few years. If you are lucky enough to live near one of these units, you might already be aware of this issue. However, if you think you won’t be hiring an outfitter and you will just show up a few days before season and get it done on your own, you are sorely misinformed. Opening morning, you will be greeted with convoys of vehicles, hunters, guides, and outfitters all willing to hike every inch of the mountain to find "Sticker", "Kickers", "8-Ball", or whatever these big bucks have been named. With nearly every buck having a dozen plus people looking for them, you will likely see more pressure than a general season hunt in any unit across the board.
As if that isn’t enough to give you a good dose of reality, you also need to take into consideration the weather conditions, food sources, past drought conditions, winter kill, health of the herd, other ongoing seasons, and predation, just to name a few. All the guides and outfitters who hunt this unit with clients each and every year are in tune with all of these different things and how they will likely affect their hunters with the current season. They also know the habits of most of these animals because they have watched many of them grow up. Their knowledge-base and skill-set are so far above most of the average hunters, it’s like matching up a high school football team against that of the Super Bowl Champions.
I don’t tell everyone this information to scare them away from applying for these units. I share this information because it is the truth and when you see it turn into a reality, you will be a little more prepared. It might help you justify burning those hard-earned points and even hiring one of those professional outfitters to get the most out of your tag. After all, you waited a good portion of your life for this opportunity, shouldn’t you make the most of it by hiring a professional?
The next major issue I address every year is the “Analysis Paralysis” problem. This addresses those that have or are building points and each and every year, they dive into all of the data posted by the states or other third-party companies. Eastmans’ Journal and Epic Outdoors are both companies that do an excellent job of breaking down draw odds, success, trophy quality, and everything else that goes into this analysis. I know both of these companies extremely well and call them friends. I subscribe to both of these resources and value the information they provide. However, this is all just data that is on paper. There are a lot of things most people don’t take into consideration when looking at this data. Let’s take into consideration an elk unit that takes 2 decades to draw. Someone is going to take a tag of this quality a lot more seriously than one he/she can draw every year or every couple of years. They are more likely to have help or hire an outfitter which is likely going to equate to a higher success rate. They are less likely to eat their tag and shoot something just average on the last day, which also shows higher success rates. I’ve seen people shoot 2- to 3-year-old small elk on the last day of these hard to draw units who had anticipation of a 350” B&C or better bull. These are bulls they could harvest every year in states like Colorado or Idaho on over-the-counter tags.
Now let’s look at those easy-to-draw units in comparison. These are usually hunts that provide you an opportunity to get into the field if you don’t draw one of those premium tags. For some of you, it may be your annual vacation and opportunity to put meat on the table, but most in that category aren’t building points across the West. These units usually show significantly less success or trophy quality when analyzing data. What it doesn’t take into consideration in this analysis is that your brother or dad just drew a once in a lifetime bighorn sheep tag and it falls into the same dates. Your hunt just became secondary. You might only hunt a few days, or you might not hunt at all. This is obviously going to equate to lower success rate.
When you don’t live near these hunting areas, I do understand the need to analyze the data provided. I just want everyone to understand that the data is somewhat limiting, and nothing beats boots on the ground and data that you have generated personally.
There is nothing better than being in the field and gathering information yourself. I often spend time in units that I am considering hunting in the future even if I don’t have a tag. When you don’t have a tag in hand, it’s amazing how friendly some of the fellow hunters are and how much information they are willing to share. I’m always cognizant about not asking about specific areas or anything they may be cautious of sharing. I’m more interested in general information that helps me evaluate the unit. I often share information I’ve acquired and have helped some of these people harvest animals that I found while out scouting as well. I try to get names and phone numbers and see if it is okay that I follow up with them after the hunt. If I spend 3-5 days in a unit during the hunt, I will likely talk to a dozen or more people. Epic Outdoors will provide you a list of past members who have had the tag in your area as part of your $100 annual membership. This is just an added level of what I’m doing for my own personal data. This is a great resource and well worth the membership money alone. While I’m in the unit, I’m learning the road systems as well as good glassing areas and obviously concentrations of animals. I might find out about a new cow elk season that has put undue pressure in the area and isn’t something I was aware of in some initial analysis.
I take my points very seriously and so should you. Just because you build them, you aren’t entitled to a buck or bull of a lifetime. You are going to work very hard for them, period. My advice to all is find a unit or two that you can hunt every year or every couple of years. Learn the habits of the animals, road system, lookouts, etc. Learn what happens to the animals when they have drought, early snow, heavy pressure, rut, and all the aspects that will contribute to your success. During this same time, build points in places where you can. When the time comes, you will have built a skill-set that is very good and prepares you for that premium tag. You will have harvested a lot of animals and know their habits which will prepare you for that time when you do have that trophy of a lifetime in front of you. The anxiety will still be high, but hopefully it is manageable due to your past success.