Let's face it, that feeling of gazing at an empty freezer at the end of a long hunting season is devastating. It’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish upon even my worst enemy. But on a limited budget, putting enough wild meat & fish in the freezer to feed yourself, your family, and your friends, is no small task. But it’s definitely not impossible. Here are a few easy tips that can keep the cost of filling the freezer down and add a bit of variety to your wild meat diet.
For most hunters, wild ungulates like whitetails, mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and moose make up the majority of the wild meat in our freezers, and for good reason. They provide mountains of delicious meat, and there’s always at least one huntable species anywhere you go. And almost every state offers tags beyond just trophy bucks and bulls like management antlerless tags. Especially for resident hunters, it’s super affordable to buy multiple antlerless tags, and most can be used in the general season when most hunters are targeting bucks and bulls anyway.
For instance, an elk B tag in Montana costs residents just $10, and in Michigan, residents can buy up to 10 antlerless tags for just $20 each. Personally, for states offering early-season antlerless deer or elk tags, I’d first try to secure a “meat animal” for the freezer, to take the pressure off whilst chasing that big trophy animal of your dreams. But you can always leave your antlerless tags till the late season, especially when extended herd management and shoulder seasons are on offer.
For primarily private land hunters, buying management hunts on large hunting properties can be very affordable, especially because the success rates are so high. Most ranches in states like Texas will offer management whitetail doe and buck hunts, but others might offer exotic cull hunts for species like axis, nilgai, oryx, or even zebra, an extremely cost-effective way of filling the freezer. Here’s one such forum for Texan hunters to find cheap management hunts.
Regardless of the incredible adventure that out-of-state hunts provide, it’s almost always going to be more expensive, and unless you’ve hired a guide or have experience hunting in the area, success rates are likely to be lower. Instead, capitalizing on the wildlife in your home state is best, especially if filling the freezer is your main priority. The price for hunting licenses and tags for residents is often orders of magnitude more affordable, to the point where in some states like Montana, a resident elk tag costs just $20, whilst a non-resident one costs $971. Then you have to factor in the price of traveling there, accommodations, guides, and more.
By hunting in-state, you get reduced travel times which will help save on fuel costs, and arguably it creates more time for actual hunting. Rather than making one big trip for three or four days in a distant state, hunters can instead make several smaller trips throughout the season, increasing their chances of notching tags, rather than a steaming pot of tag soup.
For the budget-minded hunter, targeting those species that so many landowners don’t want on their properties is a great place to start. Invasive species, particularly wild hogs, carp, and rock pigeons are incredibly cheap to pursue throughout the year, with Fish and Game agencies and landowners encouraging hunters to harvest as many as they can. But for so many hunters, they’re overlooked regarding their eating quality, and wrongly so. Especially when young and healthy, wild pigs can be some of the best wild meat modern hunters can get their hands on, and arguably they offer the nation’s most economical hunting opportunities. With pigs in almost every state, and most states allowing unlimited harvest all year round, it’s an opportunity cost-minded hunters should jump on. Rock pigeons should be pursued with similar gusto because just like the more cherished mourning dove, they’re a delectable meaty treat from the sky. But unlike doves, they can be hunted year-round, with no bag limits or restrictions.
Invasive fish are often also equally accessible and cheap. Due to releases by bucket biologists across the country, fish are ending up in water bodies where they wreak havoc on native stocks, much to wildlife managers’ dismay. In response, most management agencies allow open seasons and incredibly liberal limits on these species, in the hopes that angler pressure can help curb population growth. The most common culprits in many states are non-native trout, carp species, or northern pike, but no state has more invasive fish than Florida. With over 40 non-natives like snakeheads, oscars, and tilapia outcompeting native species, it’s the perfect opportunity to help your local fishery out and fill the cooler with fillets in the process.
In terms of eating quality, so many non-game species get a really, really bad rap. So bad that despite their abundance, so many hunters turn their noses up at species like raccoons, beavers, woodchucks, jackrabbits, and more. But once you look behind these food biases and begin to experiment with them in the kitchen, many see that they’re great meat in their own right. And most importantly, they’re accessible to all hunters, no matter their budget. Along with being widespread and abundant with few harvest regulations (besides maybe a base hunting and trapping license), they don’t require any fancy hunting gear. A decent .22 LR, solid boots, and warm clothes are all you need.
Species to take particular notice of are rabbits and squirrels. Despite being cherished game animals with limited seasons in some states (particularly in the east), in states like Montana, they’re open for 10 to 12 months with liberal to no bag limits. Whilst you probably aren’t going to fill your chest freezer to the brim with rabbits and squirrels, every animal counts, and both species can be used in some delicious recipes, adding variety to your freezer.
The 697+ million acres of public land in America are indispensable to all hunters. But in terms of affordability, it really comes down to ease of accessibility for each individual. Many hunters live hours away from the nearest public land, and that spot may not necessarily have the animals they’re looking for. So the decision between public and private land should be more pragmatic than idealistic.
For instance, if you’re significantly more likely to harvest an animal in one private land trip an hour’s drive away than the public land spot four or five hours away, but you have to pay an access fee to do so, then it may be worth forking up the money. It’ll save you time (and money) in the long term, and free up more time to go on other hunts, or just spend more time with your family.
Maximizing success also just comes down to how well you know the land. Generally, I’d recommend getting to know one or two local spots, private or public, like the back of your hand. Spend time learning the habits of each species and know exactly when and where they’ll be each time you visit. Now this can take a lot of time to do, but it can pay off tenfold by the time hunting season comes around and can make that difference between an empty or a full freezer.
Filling the freezer with the meat you spent hours, maybe even days or weeks procuring is an incredibly satisfying experience, and it doesn’t need to be restricted by the size of your wallet. Yes, it takes a bit of planning, but ultimately, these tips should help you have a more successful season this year whilst staying within a limited budget.