Whether you’re an Eastern hunter that’s ready to branch out and try something new for the first time, or a newbie altogether, adventure abounds in our nation’s Western states. Endless prairies and towering mountain ridges await, and the big game starts to diversify. Thing is, rules and regulations start to get more stringent, too—tags can take years (or in the case of some legendary trophy units, a lifetime) to draw. If you’re coming to the game late, the thought of building up the points required to hunt in the West can appear daunting. But it doesn’t have to. There’s no shortage of over-the-counter opportunities throughout the West that you can enjoy every year. Here are five of our favorites. Note: To keep things simple, today we’re focusing on big game hunts in the Lower 48. No birds, no adventures in Alaska.
1. Colorado Elk
Colorado has more elk than any state in the country and, as such, opportunity can abound for a determined hunter. Over 90 of the state's elk units have over-the-counter tags available for the second and third rifle seasons. Walk into the Parks & Wildlife office, buy your elk tag and you’re good to go. You may not cross paths with a true Boone & Crockett bruiser, but you’ll have no shortage of options when it comes to picking a region of the state to hunt—whether you’re a public-land diehard, or hoping to gain permission on private property. Plan your hunt here.
2. Utah Deer and Elk
It is important to note that while Utah doesn’t call any of its tags “over-the-counter,” you are very much able to purchase any of the state’s remaining deer or elk permits on a first-come, first-served basis. When it comes to elk, there are typically extra permits available in both “Any-bull” and “Spike-only” units. The extra permits typically go on sale around mid-summer, after limited-entry drawings have been held. You must have a valid hunting license or a combination license to buy one of these permits. You can buy permits online and at license agent locations and DWR offices. Oh, and if anyone ever gives you flak about shooting a spike bull, remind them that your backstraps taste better. Plan your hunt here.
3. Montana Archery Elk
Like Utah, Montana typically has extra general elk tags available on a first-come, first-serve basis every year after the draw concludes. It’s important to note that these tags are usually in high demand, so you’ll have to act fast next year if you’re interested. Another key feature: the best tags that are available through the first-come, first-serve program are typically archery hunts. If you’re a rifle-only hunter at this point, you may want to look elsewhere—like the aforementioned opportunities in Utah or Colorado. If you’re ready to send a few arrows, Montana could be your ticket. Public land is readily available, especially in the western portion of the state. Plan your hunt here.
4. Idaho Black Bear
Not every big-game animal has horns. Black bear hunting can be a thrill, and there are few places in the continental United States better to do it than Idaho. If you’re looking to stay afield in the spring or early summer, this is the hunt for you. Ample public land and a generous bear population will provide you with the chance to spot and stalk (or legally bait, if you so choose) bears across Idaho’s diverse terrain. Color-phase bears are common in the Gem State, meaning you’ve got an above average chance of running into a cinnamon-, blonde- or chocolate-colored black bear. Plan your hunt here.
5. Oregon Blacktail
When it comes to big game, much of Oregon is draw-only. That said, on the western side of the Cascades, hunters are always invited to try their hand at chasing the elusive blacktail deer. The mature blacktail buck is one of the most difficult big-game species to hunt—and things are made even more challenging by the mountainous terrain they often call home. That said, tags are always available over-the-counter, and public (and publicly-accessible) land is commonplace. This is easily the most difficult hunt on this list, and maybe not the right one for a newbie. But if you fancy an adventure, chasing the legendary gray ghosts of the Pacific Northwest is it. Plan your hunt here.