The Poor Man’s Bucket List

By Earl Taylor

It is easy to get all juiced up about hunting out west after watching a half hour hunting show where a celebrity hunter whacks a monster bull, buck or ram. Just as in ancient mythology where the Sirens called out to Oedipus to come to their beautiful shores, the mountains lure us into applying for a tag for an elk, or a moose, or a mule deer. Pictures of Randy Ulmer’s trophy mule deer seduce us into believing we too could harvest such an animal.

We each create our bucket list; each is different from our buddy’s list. On nearly all bucket lists is the elk, followed by mule deer, moose, antelope, and bear. Most all hunters wish for an opportunity for a ram, a caribou, or a mountain goat. Understand the difference of having a bucket list that reads, “I want to go on an elk or mule deer hunt” and one that states, “I want to be successful in taking a list of animals.”

There is a huge difference between having a bucket list and a wish list; with the one, you work to make it happen, while the other you only dream and wish that the hunting fairy will drop a hunt of a lifetime in your lap, complete with guide, horses, food, and shelter. I am 62 years old, and the hunting fairies have not found me yet; and quite frankly, I have stopped looking for them. My reality is what I am capable of doing with the physical strength I have in my arms and legs and the financial ability to pay for my dream hunts.

After being proficient in shooting a few Iowa whitetails, I thought I was ready to try out my hand at a Colorado elk in 1983. I had the topo-maps, talked to DNR men about where they saw elk, and I was physically in great shape. However, due to being a young father, with six mouths to feed, my budget was meager. I settled for a do-it-yourself hunt in Colorado. Since that first trip as a 28-year-old, I have returned five more times for on-my-own western hunts. I finally arrowed a 5 x 5 bull in 2001.

I settled for these hunts. They were cheaper, fun, demanding, and I enjoyed hunting in different areas over the years. I had always imagined that I could afford the time and the money for a guided hunt complete with horses and the needed equipment being supplied by someone else, but that was not my reality. My reality said I needed to make this affordable so that my family did not have to go without so that I could try to satisfy my embedded longing to shoot another animal besides the whitetail.

Achieving any bucket list is not accomplished in just a few years; it is sought after and pursued over a lifetime. When one reaches 60 years of age, you will have both more time and money, but you will lack the stamina and the strength to do some of the hunts that you have dreamed about your entire life. Choose your hunts accordingly. Plan your most rugged hunts while you are young, and leave the antelope and bear hunts for later in life.

I recently returned from a mule deer hunt in South Dakota where the land is relatively easy to maneuver. While there, my brother and I began talking about another trip to Colorado for one last elk hunt. After a week of climbing the hills along the Missouri River, we both decided, that our mind was willing, but our bodies told us there would be no more self-packed-in elk hunts. We both knew our 60 plus-year-old, out of shape bodies could not do what we did in our forties; it is time to hire an outfitter to haul in our gear.

You’re young, you are eager, and you are full of testosterone that says you can climb mountains and endure rugged terrain. You have shot several good whitetails, and you think it is time to test your hunting skills on different animals. There is no better time than now to begin picking away at your bucket list.

However, hunting in Iowa and hunting out west are not the same. What you have learned in Iowa or on other Midwest animals will help you as you hunt, but unless you mentally prepare for the intensity and the ruggedness of the country, your trip will not meet your expectations. It is imperative that you understand reality.

In 2004, I had walked across Iowa from Minnesota to Missouri to raise funds for a new building we were building at the summer camp I directed. I was in great shape. I was 49 and had completed the 200-mile walk right before my last elk trip to Colorado. I struggled the entire time I hunted as I was attempting to climb over deadfalls and rocks. My body was in shape for flat, easy walking, but there is no flat in western Colorado.

Knowing your states and knowing how the state DNR functions are the first steps in beginning your dream hunts. If you choose Colorado, then know that hunting on public land will be frustrating. If you want to have a quality rifle hunt, choose Wyoming. However, be prepared not to draw a tag the first year. Accumulating preference points will eventually get you a tag for a particular zone with limited hunters. But also know that Wyoming has a peculiar licensing system that takes hours and hours to figure out. Get the wrong tag, and you may be stuck hunting in an area with limited amounts of suitable animals or public ground. If scouring and understanding different states game and fish websites exhaust you, you may need to use something like what Cabela’s offers-, which will help in procuring the right tag; their websites states: “WTA TAGS is the only full-service licensing program available to today’s sportsmen. Bottom line – we help sportsmen draw the very best, limited-entry, big-game tags in the country. We offer professional consultation on where to apply and then properly fill out and submit your applications to the state.”

Dollars drive decisions. If money is not an object, you are reading the wrong article. You need to go online and start researching who is the best outfitter and where in the United States is the best place to hunt. You have unlimited opportunities to hunt where and what you want. A certain percentage of issued tags are awarded to outfitters; if you are willing to pay, usually an outfitter will have the tag to fulfill your dreams.

Most readers of Iowa Sportsman are probably more like me. Mama and the kids eat up most of what you bring home every week. Braces, mortgages, car payments, soccer equipment, dance lessons and home repairs consume the rest. Up to this point, you have been able to scrape together enough money to purchase the Iowa tags available to you each year. But the thought of finding thousands of dollars in the budget to blow on a hunt is a big pill for your wife to swallow.

To drop sight unseen into an area is difficult. Though Google map gives you a good feel for the general lay of the land, it still is deficient in understanding how and why animals move in a certain area. Boots on the ground will be the only way to get this understanding. The more years you can return to the same area, the greater the chances of success. If you shoot something on your first trip to a new area, consider yourself lucky and not good. Consistently successful hunters return to the same mountaintop year after year.

Test drive isolation and the lack of regular food. It is hard to find such a spot in Iowa where you are cut off from humanity and highways. I highly recommend a camping/fishing trip out west first. Pack in your equipment on your back, eat and sleep as if you are hunting, and spend your days familiarizing yourself with the terrain you hope to hunt. During this “mock” hunting trip, see if you have what it takes to endure two weeks of the grind. In three days, you can determine if you are cut out to withstand the rigors of the wilderness. Adjust your hunting trip accordingly. You may need to camp next to your truck and make the daily walk into your hunting area.

There are two ways to approach a do-it-yourself hunt: you can camp near your truck and walk in every morning the three to five miles needed to separate yourself from the crowd, or you can establish a drop camp away from the comforts of cots, fires, real food, and coolers.
Spike camp wears on you. You filter all the water you drink through a pump filtering system. You will be eating freeze-dried food for late suppers. You will eat instant oatmeal and drink instant coffee for breakfast. You survive on jerky, granola mix and dried fruit for snacks and lunch. There is no warm campfire to sit around. The hunt is a constant grind.

Know your mental capabilities. I hunt as a loner in Iowa, so I want to hunt alone in the mountains. If you like the social atmosphere that surrounds many hunting camps, then a bare-bones spike camp would not be right for you. Know your limitations and don’t expect yourself to morph into something you are not back in Iowa; what you are and how you hunt is your reality. The wilderness is no place to pretend something that isn’t. Some hunters are wimpy and needy; others thrive on physical challenges and sparseness. Reality is what it is.

I recently visited with my friend Jim, who attempted his first elk hunt in Idaho. His first comment was, “I wish I would have prepared my mind better for the trip; I was in good physical shape, but I was not prepared for the intensity and the constant mental edge I needed to hunt for hours at a time and for day after day. I lacked the mental toughness. And to top it off, I had certain unrealistic expectations that I could not achieve.” And this is a hunter who had hired a guide and had an outfitter spike camp complete with a cook, cots, and a make-shift shower.

Lower your expectations: Iowa proficiency in shooting whitetails does not transfer to the mountains. A first-time hunt to the mountains will feel like your beginning days of whitetail hunting. Don’t skimp and buy the cheapest optics; make sure the scope, rangefinder, and binoculars are the best you can afford. Spend the money and have the GPS system that will allow you to navigate in a wilderness area. The smartphone App from will identify all public land but will also give your exact location in relationship to where public land ends and private land begins. It also identifies private land owner’s name. There is no limit to what a hunter can find online; every detail and every type of equipment needed to enhance your hunt is available for the diligent researcher.

As with our dreams, our hunts can turn out to be nightmares if you attempt the wrong type of hunt. Evaluate how you currently hunt and try to match the proper western hunt to your abilities. If you struggle to get up into a tree stand in Iowa, you are not going to be able to march up a mountain with thin air, and hundreds of yards of deadfall to find the herd. You may need to scale back the bucket list and stick close to the road; perhaps an antelope hunt is best for you.

Start today researching all options; it will take you many hours to comb through all the DNR websites, looking for options that will satisfy your interest; apply before spring. Begin now to accumulate preference points for future dream hunts. If you don’t draw in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming then hunt Colorado where your statewide tag can be picked up on your arrival in the fall. Expect to spend several years of hunting before you put your tag on the animal of your dreams. Whereas in Iowa, the success rate is nearly 50% for whitetail, many western states can only boast a success rate of 10 to 20% on most animals.

One of my favorite non-government websites is This site will allow you to look at the top western states zone by zone, breaking down archery, muzzleloader, and rifle success rates, number of tags, and number of points needed to draw a tag. If you are willing to put in the time, this site will give legs to your research and license application process.

There are two attributes needed to hunt the mountains: persistence and grit; the weak and the easily-discouraged need to stay on flat ground. Change your diet to give you consistent energy and stamina, exercise wearing your pack and hunting boots, and practice shooting excessively long shots.

Just don’t wait until you draw the perfect tag; you may be too old, too fat, or too busy to begin working on your bucket list. Start today in achieving your dreams.