For most bowhunters, whitetails occupy our thoughts and dreams. For many others, it’s elk and mule deer. The problem is such seasons occupy relatively little space on our calendar. For hardcore bowhunters, a couple months of hunting a year really doesn’t provide the continued fix needed to keep us sane. I’m not referring to small game and bowfishing and 3-D, which are obvious avenues to keep the bowhunting flame burning bright, but by God, big-deal stuff — bowhunts that keep us awake at night scheming and planning. For those I offer these 10 off-season hunts for bowhunters:
TOUCH OF SALT
AMS Bowfishing co-owner Cindy Braun is an expert on everything bowfishing, putting her skills and gear to the ultimate test on this awesome Golden State sand shark.
Off-season bowfishing is all about fun under the sun -- saltwater bowfishing even more so. Stingrays make obvious targets as they're big, fast, stout and normally unprotected (unlike most saltwater species), though on some coasts game fish are legal (always consult regulations), including the ultimate ocean animal -- sharks (Louisiana and California). This is as easy as wading back bayous or as involved as launching boats. Action can prove fast and furious, and targets more robust than back forty carp!
Hotspots: Louisiana stands head and shoulders above other saltwater bowfishing destinations, because many game fish are legally taken (redfish and sharks for instance; check regulations for details). The Texas Gulf Coast is also a bowfishing wonderland, because there's so much of it and public access abounds. Stingrays and sheepshead offer action-packed shooting.
Essential Gear: Look to Muzzy Products (www.muzzy.com) and AMS Bowfishing for all your bowfishing needs big and small.
Best Seasons: The months of June, July and August are prime for saltwater action.
Texas has year-round hunting, and Arizona offers warmer late-winter weather. But Patrick Meitin has found that New Mexico provides the biggest javelinas, such as this impressive 60-pounder.
Javelina (aka collared peccary), of southern Arizona and New Mexico (with seasons running from January through March) and Texas (year-round), are custom made for bowhunters. Quite approachable but sporty targets, the 35-60-pound javelina is a high-odds proposition for diligent bowhunters. Cover lots of ground, seeking shredded prickly-pear cactus or freshly rooted areas, and the little tuskers won't be far behind.
Hotspots: Arizona is my pick because I prefer stalking, and the Grand Canyon State's desert environments are tops in that department. Archery tags include high-odds lottery drawings. Backup tags are available from the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache tribes on a first-come, first-served basis Looking for spot-and-stalk action and the largest javas? The Land of Enchantment is your winner. If you wish to hunt over bait, sitting stands, Texas is your choice.
Essential Gear: Give predator calling a try for hair-raising encounters! Quality binoculars are a must.
Best Seasons: January, February and March (check state regulations) get you out of northern cold.
CALLING ALL VARMINTS
Varmint calling is perfect for bowhunters seeking to extend their bowhunting enjoyment. Furbearers such as foxes, coyotes and bobcats make gorgeous additions to the trophy room and offer just as much challenge as any big-game animal. Predators are found in every state, and hunting seasons are nearly always generous.
Hotspots: Your favorite hunting hotspots also make great varmint calling areas, saving upland birds (fox), turkeys (bobcats), deer and pronghorn fawns (coyotes) from predation.
Essential Gear: Look to makers of your favorite big-game calls for cutting-edge predator calls (the most economical route), or look to high-tech electronic calls to save your lungs. The bowhunter benefits from motion decoys from companies such as Primos, Flambeau and Edge by Expedite to direct the sharp-eyed predators' focus away from archers drawing their bows.
Best Seasons: Prime pelts are had during cold winter months, while spring and summer varmint calling is productive for reducing predation in your deer area.
Field Editor Patrick Meitin (above) has long used late-summer wild boars as a tune-up for upcoming big-game seasons. A successful hunt boosts confidence and assures equipment is up to snuff for more serious bowhunting to come.
Wild hogs are currently found in 41 of 50 states, involve few formal regulations, are outrageously fun to hunt and taste darn good. Odds are you have feral pigs within a day's drive of home, most free-ranging, others behind high fence and available for a modest fee. The Deep South, Texas and California are strongholds, though agricultural escapees show up in the oddest places. The European natives aren't indigenous to America, typically despised by landowners, and make securing private-land permission easy and affordable.
Hotspots: Texas is numero uno in hogdom, harboring incredible hog numbers, no seasons or bag limits (though non-residents must purchase a $45"special hunting" license and highly-productive private-land hunting. California and Florida tie for second-place spots, as public-lands hunts are available but regulated (check proclamations for details). The best bowhunting is found on private lands.
Essential Gear: Any outfit used for whitetail deer is fine for hogs. Just add cut-on-contact broadheads for insurance against sturdy boars.
Best Seasons: Any time you have time!
Mountain lions are unequivocally the West's most elusive big game. Successfully stalking cougars is more than a "once-in-a-lifetime" accomplishment, as most Western residents roam prime habitat for decades without even seeing one. You achieve cougar success by employing the superior olfactory senses of hounds -- hunting long and hard to locate a "hot" track and setting out a pack to hopefully tree your prize after a spirited chase. It's one of the most wonderfully unique adventures in bowhunting.
Hotspots: Western Idaho (www.fishandgame.idaho.gov) has produced more record-book lions than any other region, and tags are offered over the counter. Outfitters such as Dale Denney (www.bearpawoutfitting.com) can make your dreams come true. Colorado is (www.wildlife.state.co.us) another top state for trophy mountain lions. Make Full Draw Outfitters (www.fulldrawoutfitters.com) your contact.
Essential Gear: You'll hunt more happily if you opt for an easily stashed takedown recurve, such as Hoyt's (www.hoyt.com) Buffalo.
Best Seasons: The most productive lion hunts occur when snow blankets the ground. December through February is most reliable.
Patrick Meitin hit the jackpot during his early-September South Florida gator hunt, tagging this 12 1/2-foot, 500-pound monster. He used an 85-pound compound bow and Muzzy’s Gator Getter Kit to get the job done.
Bowhunting American alligator is big-game adventure on a grand scale, but heavy-duty bowfishing gear ultimately secures your prize. Adventure comes via nighttime hunting hours (dictated by law in Florida), trophies measuring up to 12-feet long and weighing 500 pounds and spooky cypress trees and Spanish moss-draped swamps practically screaming with nocturnal wildlife. Arrive prepared to deliver heavy fishing arrows in complete darkness.
Hotspots: Florida is the hands-down winner for trophy alligators, offering public-land tags, the biggest gators around and experienced guides (such as Lewis Clanton, 772-201-1732) to make success nearly guaranteed. Next come Texas and Louisiana, which offer public alligator tags, but gators are normally caught on hook and line before dispatch, unlike "fair chase" hunts in Florida.
Essential Gear: You'll need Muzzy's Gator Getter Kit and a stout drawing compound bow (70 pounds minimum, more welcomed). Steel Force's Gator Head broadhead is state-of-the art in this arena. A powerful headlight, such as those from Cyclops, is highly welcomed on black nights.
Best Seasons: Florida public-land seasons occur in September, while private-land hunts occur year-round.
BEAR OF A SPRING
Spring black bear hunting is essentially history in the Lower 48, so western Canadian provinces are the big draw for intrepid bowhunters seeking spring adventure and pumpkin-headed bruins. These are baited affairs, though spot-and-stalk forays are accommodated. Pesky bugs aside, these are laid back, highly productive affairs. Bowhunters will witness more in-your-face bear action in a week than normally seen in a lifetime.
Hotspots: Alberta gets my nod simply because the province allows a two-bear bag, as well as regularly producing record-book trophies. You can't go wrong with Mike's Outfitting (www.mikesoutfitting.com). Also, the choice between Saskatchewan and Manitoba proves a toss-up, both providing top-notch trophy quality and quality hunting. My top recommendations there are Martineau River Outfitting (306-839-4402) in Saskatchewan and All Terrain Bear Hunts (www.atbh.ca) in Manitoba.
Best Season: May and June.
Patrick Meitin traveled to Zimbabwe to collect his zebra skin. While political unrest has made hunting cheaper there, many bowhunters don’t wish to deal with the added hassle and choose more stable countries such as South Africa and Namibia.
In the world of off-season adventures, an African safari is tops. This isn't Ernest Hemingway's Africa, but it's still a heck of an experience. Old Africa is gone, but its traditions remain, including large bags of intriguing game animals and unsurpassed hospitality. No, it isn't cheap. But in the bigger picture, African bowhunts are a steal. They're about the cost of a quality guided elk hunt, but with a bag of five to six animals.
Hotspots: Namibia is more pleasant, but the Republic South Africa wins through sheer variety. RSA simply harbors more species, and a longer history of hosting bowhunters. I recommend Maclaren Safaris. Game variety is more limited in Namibia, but the sexiest beasts (kudu and gemsbok) are big and plentiful. Give Onduno Safaris a try.
Essential Gear: You'll be hunting almost exclusively from dark blinds. Choose sight pins easily seen in the dark, and arrow/broadhead combinations built for penetration.
Best Seasons: When it's summer here, it's winter there. Accordingly, the most comfortable, driest periods occur June through August.
Muzzy’s Mark Land annually travels to southern Texas to shoot monstrous alligator gar and put the Muzzy bowfishing gear he’s in charge of through its paces. He scored on this brute while bowfishing Texas’ Choke Canyon Reservoir.
Bowfishing alligator gar assumes all the qualities of trophy big-game hunting -- seeking fleeting shots at prizes sometimes measured in hundreds of pounds. The biggest weigh 250-275 pounds and are longer than an average man, translating into world-class battles after a barbed arrow is driven home. The most productive gar hunting is conducted from special boats equipped with spotlights and shooting platforms -- indicating a guide -- though do-it-yourself, daytime forays are possible.
Hotspots: South Texas is gator-gar country with waters such as Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Choke Canyon, Amisted and Falcon tops for trophy gar. Louisiana's Mississippi Delta region also offers decent gar shooting.
Essential Gear: Behemoth gator gar are well beyond the capabilities of standard carp outfits, requiring heavy-duty gear and breakaway float rigs. Muzzy and AMS Bowfishing have what you need.
Best Seasons: Alligator gar spawn during spring high water, making April through June the best time to locate trophies.
Bowhunting exotic game often gets a bad rap, mostly from those who haven't experienced fair-chase ventures on well-run ranches. Sure, many of these deals include that dirty phrase, "high fence," but this doesn't automatically spell lack of sport. Be that as it may, bowhunting gorgeous animals such as axis deer and blackbuck antelope is simply fun.
Hotspots: No contest here -- Texas virtually invented exotic hunting. It's tailored to fit nearly any budget. Also, in a perfect world, every bowhunter could afford to bowhunt Hawaii. It's a vacationer's paradise, but also bowhunting nirvana, which includes public areas with free-ranging feral goats and sheep, hogs and axis deer.
Essential Gear: Arrive in Texas ready to deal with thorns, cacti and perhaps the odd rattlesnake. Knee-high leather boots and brush pants save the day.
Best Seasons: Spring months prove best in terms of weather.