It’s never too early to begin preparations for autumn hunting excursions. In fact, the earlier the better. Above all else, the purpose of any hunting outing should be to generate pleasant memories and life-long stories to pass along to the next generation of hunters. And defining your ideal hunting trip gets more complicated in light of recent news. Now more than ever, wildlife managers are battling the ever-present threat of disease potential. So, whether it’s a can’t-miss opening day you’ve made religiously for decades, or a once-in-a-lifetime dream hunting vacation on the other side of the globe, a successful trip is all about putting your expectations in line with the realistic opportunity.

Where to Go?

Let’s face it: Most hunters don’t enjoy coming home empty handed. A memorable outing is not just filling a limit; no matter how much fun you’ve had, a bird or a buck in hand is a sure-fire way to turn a grin into a smile. Most hunters prefer a combination of abundant game population and open access. Consequently, obtaining permits is easier and hunting opportunities are greater for small game and birds. On the other side we have big game trophy hunting, such as elk or bighorn sheep, often with restrictive access and very limited hunting opportunities. Here, just drawing a tag may be reason to celebrate.

Upland Game

If your preference is upland game, pheasants in particular, the heartland has traditionally provided the most abundant opportunity and harvest of birds in terms of sheer numbers. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa are the breadbasket of pheasant hunting. But bear in mind: In the hunting world, it’s a given that where game is most plentiful, hunters will target that area. And with dreams of many, many pheasants in the bag, hunters continue to target these states. So striking a balance between your expectations and what you’ll find in the field will require further investigation.

Here’s a tip: The states surrounding the “breadbasket” will provide ample opportunity, and odds are the raw number of hunters in the field will be less than in the prime pheasant hunting states. If a little less competition — accompanied by slightly fewer pheasants — suits you, pick an adjoining state. Montana, Wyoming, and South and North Dakota provide ample opportunity for upland game hunts for these quarry, other than rooster pheasants.

If you’re after a more relaxing personal experience and a “rooster in the bag” is more of an added bonus than a necessary foundation, perhaps shift your focus to other abundant small game. From sharp-tailed grouse to partridge, small game hunting opportunities are plentiful across the nation. Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri present ample opportunity for smaller quarry, including quail and dove. Even if you’re a seasoned hunter, you’ll appreciate the challenge of these not-so-easy-to-hit targets.

“Bird Flu” and Your Hunting Plans

Most recently, what’s commonly referred to as “bird flu” (the H5N1 virus) has made us all aware of the possible dangers and the potential of its spread within birds — waterfowl specifically. It’s predicted that bird flu in North America may be detected first in migrating waterfowl crossing over from the Alaskan corridor.  According to the Associated Press, federal scientists have begun testing migratory birds in Alaska for signs of the dangerous bird flu virus.  At this point, hunters are not being asked to do any more than stay aware and take standard precautions. But even if bird flu was not an issue, it’s best when handling birds to limit direct contact. So for now, a good pair of disposable latex gloves when field dressing birds, or any wild game for that matter, will do the trick.

Big Game

As a rule, West is best when planning for big game hunting. From white-tail and mule deer, to elk, moose, and caribou, it’s no secret: Crossing the Mississippi is more than just the gateway to the West. It’s the beginning of some of the best big game hunting you’ll ever experience.

However much time and energy you invest in planning an upland game trip, count on doubling and even tripling your preparation time for big game and trophy hunting. Here, available tags are limited, and hunter success rates are diminished. So it requires even more planning and research to meet your expectations.

For starters, look to the Rocky Mountain states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. These are traditional big game destinations. Keep in mind, regulations and tag availability vary from state to state, and within designated hunting units. Are you gunning for nothing but a trophy, wall-hanging-caliber elk? Some in-state units will allow nothing less than trophy class bull elk as legal game. In New Mexico, for example, in many units such as four, 16, and 34, hunters are limited to an antler point restriction — elk (APRE). In these units an elk must have five or more points of any length on at least one antler for an APRE hunt. A brow tine or eye guard counts as one point. A burr at the base of the antler does not count as a point. In nearly 90 units in Colorado, bull elk taken must have four points or more on one antler, or a brow tine at least five inches long for all seasons. But be prepared to either pay a higher fee in these places, or possibly wait through a number of years of unsuccessful drawing as supply dwarfs demand for big game hunting tags.

Other states provide cow or calf elk tags — ideal if your taste in elk hunting involves little more than peering through the spotting scope at a small herd of cow elk just out of shooting distance. In Colorado, non-residents can purchase a combination elk-deer tag over the counter at a reduced rate of $251, compared to a bull elk license which sells for $496.

It’s no secret: Crossing the Mississippi is more than just the gateway to the West. It’s the beginning of some of the best big game hunting you’ll ever experience.

In New Mexico an over-the-counter, bow-only tag can be issued to non-residents in units 12, 34, 37, 43, and 50. These tags are issued outside the rut, and make hunting very challenging. But here, your odds at drawing a tag will increase.

The Impact of CWD

In big game circles, chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been found in wild and domesticated elk, and deer herds. And CWD concerns have resulted in an array of hunting and transportation regulations for deer and elk.

Across the nation, 13 states have documented cases of CWD. Most are in traditional big game destinations such as New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah along with Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, West Virginia, and Illinois. If your autumn big game destination includes a hunt within a specific zone where CWD has been detected, be prepared to follow more stringent export regulations regarding head, hide, and meat. Many states are limiting the export of brain, bone, and other tissue. For example: In Colorado, only the following carcass parts may be transported out of the 19 infected units in northeastern Colorado or brought into any part of Colorado from infected areas in other states: 

  • Meat that is cut and wrapped (either commercially or privately).
  • Quarters or other portions of meat with no part of the spinal column or head attached.
  • Meat that has been boned out.
  • Hides with no heads attached.
  • Clean (no meat or tissue attached) skull plates with antlers attached.
  • Antlers with no meat or tissue attached.
  • Upper canine teeth, also known as "buglers," "whistler," or "ivories."
  • Finished taxidermied heads.

While actual hunting seasons are a couple turns of the calendar away, planning, preparation, and finalizing your next excursion should never take a back seat. The key is to plan ahead, and keep your expectations in line. By starting now you’ll ensure an enjoyable outing. Even better, working out the finer details will build an even stronger hunger to get outdoors.