So You Drew a Hunting Tag. Here’s How To Prepare for Your Hunt.

As we sit here in the dead of a scorching summer, tag draws have long come and gone. You know, those lotteries we play that seal our fate for the fall? Hopefully, you didn’t get beat up too bad. With any luck, you pulled some tickets to the public land funhouse and are in the planning phase for the coming hunting season. The question some of you might be asking though is, “Now what?”

That planning phase can be quite overwhelming. Whether you’re slated to hunt brand new country or you’re new to hunting entirely, it can be a lot to swallow—especially if you’re trying to look at everything all at once. These things are best done in steps, knowing where to start and where to end up. I’m going to lay out how I personally go about preparing for not just a hunt, but one in a place I’ve never been.

E-Scouting

E-scouting really has changed the game with hunting. We are all so dang busy these days and many of us don’t have the time to actually be in the field scouting as much as we’d like. I’m one of those people, and e-scouting helps bridge the gap. So, right off of the bat, when I find out I’m heading to a new area, I immediately open up onX Hunt and turn on the Hunt Units Layer for the state I’m hunting as well as the Roads and Trails Layer. This outlines all of the units in the state and allows me to better home in on the country I’ve drawn a tag for. It also gives me a general idea of how to get around the joint and see access points into roadless country. I primarily backpack hunt, so this is important stuff for me. On that note, I’ll also turn on the Wilderness Area Layer.

Which Species and What Time of Year?

Figuring out potential areas to start hunting really comes down to a lesson in biology for the species you’re pursuing. It pays to know how an animal’s habits change throughout the year, such as what country they tend to gravitate to in the summer vs. winter and what feed, terrain features, and elevation they prefer. These are all things that can be learned through taking the time to read about whatever you’re hunting. Be it mule deer, elk, black bear, or pronghorn, the info is out there. Be a student and start studying.

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Knowing things like this about the animal really helps paint a better picture for me. From that picture, I’ll get a much better idea of where exactly to focus my attention. This is when I’ll start marking potential access points, glassing knobs, water sources, camp spots, feeding/bedding areas, and the list goes on. My digital maps usually look like a Christmas tree the closer I get to a hunt.

Make a Few Calls

Once I’ve essentially memorized the country I’ve been focusing on, it doesn’t hurt to try and get some local knowledge, and, more specifically, professional local knowledge. Making a quick call to the local biologist can do wonders. However, it’s not as easy as just saying, “Hey, I drew this tag, where are the best deer spots?” You’ll likely not get too far with that approach. Instead, I’ll bring my own research to the table and start laying out my plan to them. Mentioning specific pieces of country and how I plan on hunting it usually gets a passionate conversation started. These folks love details, so give them details. You’d be surprised at what they may divulge to you, even if it’s just reassuring you that you’re on the right track. That’s enough confidence for me to head in the field. Aside from that, I’ve also had them inform me of bad road conditions and better travel routes to reach my destination, a speedbump I then was able to entirely avoid and what could have cost me a few hour detour.

Boots on the Ground

There is absolutely nothing that can replace boots on the ground scouting. Being able to literally stand in the areas you’ve been e-scouting will take your knowledge of that country to a whole different level. It confirms or denies assumptions you had and will smooth the ride out even more come hunting season.

Things that I like to confirm on a scouting trip are the lay of the land, camping locations, reliable water sources, viability of glassing spots, and of course animal sign, particularly older animal sign from the previous year that reflects the time of year when I’ll be hunting. For instance, if I’ve got a rut deer hunt planned, looking for last year’s rub lines will indicate where bucks might be cruising through come the rut. That same tactic can be applied to elk hunting as well. Both species will usually return to these areas annually. Unless you’re scouting RIGHT before your hunt, don’t necessarily focus on where animals are but where they will be. What do they need that time of year and where are they getting it?

Shoot, Sweat, and Gear

Knowing where and how to hunt is one thing, but being prepared to carry out the task is another. Shooting, physical fitness(especially for the west), and testing gear are all things that need to be on your radar.

Getting in the field and using a piece of gear for the first time only to find out it’s faulty could throw a huge wrench in your plans. We need to know our gear is as ready and capable as we are. This is a huge confidence booster, and so is our fitness. Along with having the confidence that you can hike damn near anywhere and get an animal out safely, you’ll also just plain feel better. That helps with motivation and keeping one mentally in the game, a game that we all hope ends with us at full draw or looking through the crosshairs. That moment of truth can be intense, and you’re not going to feel like you do at the range. How I see it is this: the better you are at the range, the better you’ll be in the field. Close the gap and you’ll fill up your pack.

Closing

Drawing the tag is just the beginning of this whole shindig. It’s the green light, the confirmation of an adventure not yet had. Once that happens, the real work begins, especially if you’re scheduled to go somewhere new. A somewhat overwhelming beginning, yes, but an incredibly rewarding end whether you fill a tag or not. We leave those experiences better hunters.

In late 2021, I found out I drew an archery spring bear tag in my home state of Arizona. It took place in an area I had never hunted before, and I literally had to start from the ground up. I didn’t know the roads or where to set up camp, let alone where the bears were. While it sometimes felt like drinking water from a fire hose, everything I laid out in this article ended up leading me right to an opportunity on a great bear. Step by step, I walked out of that brand new country with a heavy pack. By making sure your ducks are in a row, you’ll be that much closer to doing the same.

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Josh Kirchner

Josh Kirchner is a passionate bowhunter that has been hunting with his family since he was a small boy. For the last eight years, he’s been eating, sleeping, and breathing the hunting hunting lifestyle. When he’s not chasing elk, deer, bear, and javelina though the diverse Arizona terrain, he spends time with his wide, two herding dogs, and mischievous cat.