Skip to main content

How to Move Up From Whitetail to Western Big Game

Joe Riekers

The transition to western big game requires some special gear to make the most of the hunt you’ve dreamed of.

If you’ve mastered the whitetails in your local area, and you’re thinking of taking the next step in your hunting journey, a western big game hunt is the natural progression.

Elk populations have doubled in the last 40 years to over 1 million animals with increased access and opportunity. Mule deer populations are stable thanks to a lot of conservation efforts of state agencies and conservation groups.

Western big game hunting can be on the desert plains or in high country forests. The commonly thought of states include Colorado, Montana,, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. However, Washington, Oregon and California are without a doubt “western” and have good populations of big game and a widespread hunting opportunities.

Photo by Joe Riekers
Joe Riekers

Take your chance

Most hunts in western states are awarded using a draw system, some use quotas that are first come, first served and others have over-the-counter opportunities available.

Guided western big game hunts are typically less than the cost of an outfitted whitetail deer hunt. Do-it-yourself hunts require a license or tag that is usually near the cost of a deer license or tag. There are also numerous programs where landowner tags can be transferred to an individual, in which case the landowner usually collects a fee (check the state regulations where you wish to hunt for program details).

Many hunters are intimidated by the associated cost of western big game hunting gear. The truth is you can get by with most of your deer hunting set-up as long as you make some common sense additions.

Gear you’ll need

The most expensive piece of equipment is likely to be your firearm or bow. Your deer hunting rifle or bow might work fine, depending on the circumstances. Much of the open plains and high country hunting presents long range shot opportunities. If you are hunting in these areas, you increase your odds of success if your firearm and your skill level can at least shoot out to 300 yards.

Bow hunters are somewhat limited by range, so your deer hunting archery gear will serve well in dark timber and forested areas where you can get a shot within range.

Photo by Joe Riekers
Joe Riekers

Make sure the set-up you use for deer hunting meets the state requirement for minimum draw weight and the broadheads conform to state regulations. A heavier arrow or broadhead or a more durable broadhead than is used for deer hunting is probably a good idea for the bigger bodied elk and mule deer most common in western big game hunting, not to mention the possible sheep and mountain goat opportunities. If you are after pronghorn antelope or mountain lion, your deer hunting rig will be fine.

Again, seek recommendations from licensed guides and outfitters or check with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Bow hunters too need to determine the effective range of their equipment and stay strictly within those limitations.

Clothes and boots

Camouflage can be important but concealing your movement, scent and reflections are paramount. If you deer hunt in red plaid wool, don’t be shy about using the same hunting outfit for a western big hunt as long as it is suitable for the weather conditions.

However, western big game hunting often requires long period of static scouting with an equal amount of time spend hiking and climbing. Dressing in layers is very important. Lightweight garments with modern materials will be most comfortable and will provide the most protection.

More from Wide Open Spaces

15 Questions to Ask Your Outfitter Before Booking a Hunt

How to Maintain Your Hunting Rifle Throughout the Season

8 High Tech Hunting Gadgets Worth the Money

An upgrade in boots in going to be essential. An investment in high quality boots will be worth the effort and expense. Boots need to be lightweight, flexible, supportive and dry to keep you comfortable and safe on a western big game hunt.

Pack to save your back

Another addition to your equipment line-up is a good pack. If you will be camping in the backcountry, you will need a durable frame pack to carry your gear in and out.

The right pack can also serve dual duty as a way to pack out your game after you are successful.

Lastly, a GPS and satellite phone should round out your gear list. Backcountry western big game hunts are in secluded areas with few roads. Prepare for survival and leave an itinerary with someone you trust.

With common sense and some dedicated gear, you can easily step up from whitetail hunting to western big game.

Isn’t it time you moved up from whitetails to western big game? What do you think?

you might also like

How to Move Up From Whitetail to Western Big Game