Article and Photo by Ron Boggs

My lifelong neighbor drew the coveted 2018 Bighorn Sheep tag for the region around Holter Lake (yeah, the once-in-a-lifetime tag we all wish for). Because it’s a single tag per year the local landowners embrace the idea of helping the lucky hunter. So it’s a carte blanche open gate policy. He could hunt anywhere from Beaver Creek—below Hauser Dam—all the way almost to Cascade along the Missouri River blue ribbon trout zone. Yes, enviable to any serious hunter.

But my neighbor knew he didn’t want to utilize the ranchers’ hospitality. He lives adjacent to a National Forest and yearned to find his trophy ram on public ground. He could start from his driveway in the National Forest, tow his little yellow boat on dirt roads to launch from a sketchy ramp and motor to miles of public land accessible from Holter Reservoir… And harvest a Bighorn ram without ever touching paved roads. He’s likely on his hunt right now while you are reading this!

An exotic do-it-yourself hunt by anyone’s reckoning. But there’s another public land hunt that’s less exotic yet still worth doing. National Forests are readily accessible and huntable for all of us—just not for bighorns due to the near impossibility of drawing a tag. Sure, most of us relish opportunities to hunt private ranches, but there’s a certain appeal to telling the story of filling a big game tag on public land.

There’s a lesser known target for those hunting the National Forests. This target requires a tag that anyone can buy over the counter, and once harvested it tends to fill the back of a pickup with as much volume as a dead elk. But nope, it’s not big game. It’s a less mobile and less crafty quarry that you may want to consider on your public ground hunts—a Christmas tree!

If you aren’t aware of it, you need to know that the Forest Service sells Christmas tree permits for just $10, and you can get them at many FWP license agents around the state, as well as from most Forest Service offices. It adds a whole new dimension to hunting public lands, and my family has embraced this fun “added hunt” for decades.

As I’ve aged, climbing butt-burning slopes to reach ridgetops has become less important to me, while finding a nice grove of potential Christmas trees has become more important. So instead of following elk who seem to graze across the slopes at a pace that I can’t match, I’m apt to slow down, trudge at my middle-aged-man pace, and watch for Christmas trees and deer.

Just as my neighbor had to learn to field-judge bighorn rams, you’ll want to have some sort of criteria in mind for your tree. Our arid forests in the center of the state don’t grow perfect puffy trees like those on the west side of the divide so you’ll need to be fairly picky to avoid Charlie Brown trees. I generally try to find high altitude firs covered with cones. I got one last year with so many cones it didn’t need any decorations—a few strings of lights and voila! If it’s going to be placed against a wall, you can get away with a tree that has one “bad” side. If you are being selective and stalking a trophy tree, the hunt is more difficult than you would imagine (while gazing at miles and miles of tree-shrouded hills).

In our family, we try to have at least one unfilled big game tag for the last week of the season. Avoiding the little fork-horns and scraggly 3-points all season leaves you the chance to fill the tag with a nicer deer during that rutty late season. I’ve personally filled deer tags and tree permits simultaneously on the very last day of hunting season on several occasions (including the small 4-point in the photo).

Just like your hunt, be sure to follow all the regulations pertaining to Christmas trees. Permit-selling license agents and Forest Service offices have a brief handout on the rules. If you haven’t done the big game/Christmas tree combo, and even if you have, I’m a big advocate for this less serious method of plying the public lands during hunting season. Save the exotic hunt for the year you draw that elusive bighorn tag.