Which Western States Do You Hunt In?
The West is a challenge. There's no denying that. But there are certain things you can do to make it less so. Here are 10 tips to remember the next time you head afield chasing western big game animals.
Keeping your feet in good shape is pivotal to successful western big game hunting. Many expensive mountain mule deer or elk hunts are ruined by blisters or otherwise sore feet. Start by choosing boots that fit your feet well, breaking them in thoroughly during evening walks or by hiking weekends. This is exercise you'll likely need to make your hunt in rough western terrain successful. Wear thin and snug-fitting liner socks against your skin; a high-quality, cushioned-sole wool or fleece sock over. This allows the outer sock to rub against the liner sock and not your skin. During your hunt, work hard to keep your feet dry. And if you feel a "hotspot" developing, apply moleskin before it turns to a debilitating blister. Healthy feet allow you to hunt harder and longer and make the best of your long-awaited Western adventure.
Stalking Like a Cat
Spot-and-stalk ploys are typically the name of the game while hunting western big game. Once game is located with binoculars, learning to move quietly can be quite important to closing the last yards required for a killing shot -- especially with archery gear. Stalking like a cat requires practice, but a few beginning tips help you remain quiet. Plan your route well ahead while moving, avoiding patches of ground that make it impossible to step quietly. Avoid clothing materials that create noise of their own; fleece, wool and similar materials prove best. Stalking "slippers" or overboots are also a wise choice. Be patient, plan well, and use these tips and you, too, can stalk close to game.
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Pursuing western big game typically requires efficient use of optics. The West is extremely vast and rough, and game is often wide flung. Binoculars help trim such wild country to manageable size, cross deep canyons and steep mountainsides effortlessly. Choose large-objective, high-power models for steadiness and less eye strain, like glass in the 8x40- to 10x50-class. Learn to look with your binoculars instead of merely through them. This means holding glasses steady and moving your eyes about the field of view and guarantees you will see more game. Also, read terrain like a book, starting at the top, "reading" lines slowly left to right. When you finish one line, move down to the next, reading terrain slowly left to right again. You'll see more game and gain more enjoyment while hunting by using optics effectively.
Master Long Shots
Shots at eastern whitetails can be point blank. In the West, this is seldom true. To regularly succeed on western big game, make the best of limited opportunities and work to increase your maximum effective range. This doesn't mean recklessly attempting long shots without practice, but investing in practice that makes longer shots second nature. With rifles, start at the bench to better learn your rifle's long-range trajectory and learn which ammo brand assures increased accuracy from your weapon. Archers should strive to improve equipment tuning and shooting form. Start well ahead of the season, stretching until long shots begin to become comfortable. How far you're qualified to shoot at game is then entirely up to you, but stretching your effective range by even 10 or 100 yards opens a world of additional success opportunities.
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The Local Watering Hole
Early western bowhunting seasons (August and September) often arrive with awful heat, making big game animals understandably thirsty. Every bowhunter understands what water means to archery pronghorn success, but might not understand how effective water-hole hunting can be for mule deer and elk. Some of the top muley areas of the West include hot sagebrush wastes where scattered water-holes work magic to bring deer close. High-country deer and elk also come to springs to drink when it's hot. Even following rains, elk often arrive at such sites to wallow, offering a chance at ambush from a stand or blind. If hot weather makes deer or elk scarce, or stalking is simply not your bag, try sitting water for bowhunting success this season.
Humoring Your Horse
Many guided western hunts include long hours and miles of horseback riding. This can add a thrilling facet to a hunt, but comes with precautions. Horses and mules are large and powerful beasts and can hurt you in a hurry. A little horse sense goes a long way toward a safe horseback hunt. Always climb aboard your mount from the left side -- and avoid walking near their rear to avoid a painful kick. Don't make sudden movements or strange noises that might spook a mount, such as suddenly removing a daypack or opening a noisy food wrapper. Never put your rain gear on while riding atop your mount. Most importantly, pay close attention at all times to what is going on around you, and prod your mount when necessary to keep up with the group and avoid falling behind to invite a panicked gallop to rejoin the others.
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Backpacking for Bigger Game
Animals wearing the biggest antlers and skulls get that way by avoiding hunters and growing to a ripe old age. It's no secret that hunters who work the hardest and travel the farthest most often take the biggest game. Backpacking makes this easy. You may invest more effort initially, but it also means you roll out of bed each day amidst prime hunting country. Modern technology makes backpacking more pleasurable than ever. Visit a backpacking shop to discover the newest, most comfortable pack designs, cookware, stoves and sleeping goods that take pounds off your back, even dehydrated food to make mealtime effortless. Study Forest Service and topographical maps, looking for remote coverts well away from the crowds. Try backpacking this year to discover your "private" hunting hotspot and bigger game.
Take It Off
Bow-mounted arrow quivers are highly convenient, but the challenging shot opportunities encountered in the open West may not make them the most practical. Long-range shooting demands extra forgiveness and accuracy, something bow quivers can quickly erode. A loaded bow quiver can introduce torque that throws windage off at longer ranges, and all those exposed fletchings can catch wind typical on western hunts and also act as a game-spooking flag while stalking. To shoot a bow the way it was engineered to be shot -- and to boost accuracy -- try a back or hip quiver this season. These take the extra weight off your bow, eliminate wind- and attention-grabbing surfaces and allow for perfect bow balance. New back quiver designs include an incorporated daypack, something every western bowhunter needs.
Rest Up for Better Shooting
The West can provide extremely challenging shoot scenarios. Ranges tend to be longer than average, wind is sometimes a factor, and opportunities often occur unexpectedly. A solid rest assures killing shots. Avoid shooting off-hand at all costs, even the risk of shooting over a knee from a sitting position. Many Western hunters equip their rifles with a bipod to provide an instant rest from a sitting or prone position. Commercial or homemade shooting sticks provide steadiness when you are forced to stand to clear grass or vegetation. When possible, find a solid rock platform or log to lay your daypack over and provide a makeshift bench rest. Even a fence post can serve to steady a shot. When an important shot presents itself, always seek a solid rest to assure you get off the best shot possible and come home successful.
Come Home Alive
The vast and wild West can be highly unforgiving. Rough terrain can run you down and leave you far from camp after dark. Weather can change radically and unpredictably in a matter of hours. Be prepared for a worst-case scenario by always carrying essential survival gear in your hunting daypack. Think in terms of staying warm and dry should you be forced to spend the night out. An emergency space blanket weighs nothing but can save your life during a cold night. A 10-foot-by-10-foot sheet of plastic and 20 feet of parachute cord can provide a makeshift shelter in a downpour or snow flurry. And always carry a means of starting a fire under any condition. A 1-ounce, leak-proof bottle of charcoal lighter fluid, waterproof matches and lighter, plus fuel sticks can save your life in cold weather. Prepare for the worst and come home alive.
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Editor's Note: This was originally published February 16, 2007.
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