Fill more tags by bunking with bucks and bulls.
For better than a quarter century, I've been bowhunting elk and mule deer on the public lands of our Western states. All my outings are of the do-it-yourself variety, and because of this, I've learned the hard way what works and what doesn't. Through the process of elimination, I've carefully refined my hunting tactics to a point where I'm able to enjoy nearly 100-percent success on these "self" hunts. Over the years, one of the most effective tactics has been hunting "off my back." As you'll soon see, heading afield with everything you need to spend the night not only allows you to access virgin territory but get the jump on the animals that live there.
Go Deep And Steep
A day earlier, I'd lead my mule 12 miles into a remote area of southwestern New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. Setting up a small camp, the vast solitude was overpowering, and more than a little intimidating. I'd come with one thing in mind -- unbothered, rutting bull elk. As evening settled in around me, I had big plans for the days ahead. Slipping into my sleeping bag, I drifted off to sleep as dreams of huge, ivory-tipped antlers floated through my head.
Rising at first light, I quickly loaded my backpack with gear and provisions and headed off into the trackless country around me. Following my topo map closely, I soon found the ridge that would lead me into country that promised good elk action. Spending the morning gaining 2,000 feet in elevation, I slowly still-hunted along, scouting for elk sign while listening for the sweet sound of a bugling bull elk. By noon, I was approaching a large, rolling mesa that offered an endless amount of excellent country ripe for exploration. Stopping for lunch and a nap, I lounged while awaiting evening's call. As the sun settled low in the west, I once again loaded my backpack and set forth.
Within a short while, the piercing bugle of a distant bull elk reached my ears. Preparing myself for the hunt, I moved forward. Soon, it became obvious I'd found a mother load of elk action. Many bulls were bugling and running through the area to and fro. Although I made a few stalks on a couple different bulls, the opportunity for a shot never presented itself. As dusk settled around me, frustration set in. It was clear that I wasn't going to "get'er done" this evening, and I was a long way from my base camp. Luckily, I had everything I needed for an overnighter on my back.
Darkness found me close to a large bull and very much disoriented. The previous two hours of intense stalking action had totally scrambled my internal compass. But with a GPS stashed in my pack, I had no need to worry about location. So, I backed quietly away from the nearby elk and rolled out my one-man tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag.
Crawling in for the night while gulping down some water and trail mix, I listened as the eerie whistling of rutting bulls continued in the distance. I had high hopes for the morning hunt.
Exiting my bivy the following morning as the eastern sky began to lighten, I'd gotten little sleep -- the rutting melee had remained nearby the entire night. Now, however, I was in the drivers seat -- smack dab in the middle of hot action at first light. Still-hunting forward, I soon spotted movement. Slipping out of my backpack, I quickly marked the spot with a small piece of flagging tape. I crawled forward, and in a few short minutes things began to come together fast. Chasing a cow, a big bull paralleled my location within bow range. Coming to full draw, I hurriedly settled my sight pin on the right spot, and let'er fly.
Later, as I sat beside the fallen monarch, the s night with them and harvested one with very little effort involved. Inside, I knew this kill would never have happened if I'd been tied to a base camp -- all the traveling back and forth in the dark would have been too much. Grabbing my knife from my backpack, I smiled smugly as I began to remove the meat from my bull. Sleeping with the enemy had paid off nicely once again!
Choose Hunting Areas Wisely
Whenever I pick a hunting area, I try to choose one that is big, remote and intimidating.
These factors exclude 90 percent of all other hunters -- objective number one accomplished. It's also a safe bet that such areas will hold good numbers of game animals, some of which will be an older age class -- objective number two accomplished. At this point of the game, I'm already well on my way to success.
Next, I choose a location somewhere within my hunting area that is centrally located for a base camp. Here, I want to be a long distance from roads, with a large amount of trackless country around me. From this location, I can hunt in numerous directions, for many consecutive days. Whenever I head into my remote base camp location -- whether I'm mule-packing, or simply backpacking -- I make sure to haul a good supply of food so I can stay up to a week if I find game plentiful.
Once I've established base camp, I start a daily routine that works on a 24-hour rotation, beginning and ending at noon of each day. My schedule goes something like this: Eat a large meal at midday, take a short nap and then load my backpack for an overnighter.
Toward early evening, I set out on a hunt that is totally open-ended -- no particular destination, schedule or return time is necessary (at this point, it's always a good idea to "save" base camp on a GPS). Thus prepared, I can hunt at whatever pace I choose, in whatever direction I choose, with no worry other than finding game. This provides for a very relaxed and effective hunt, since I've eliminated all the hiking associated with an evening return to base camp, which would inevitably occur well after dark. By spending the night where I'm hunting, I also save myself an early rise and another burdensome, confusing hike in pre-dawn darkness.
While camping right in the middle of the area that I'm hunting, I've often been clued in as to the whereabouts of -- and movement patterns of -- game that I'm after.
Furthermore, many times I've
a risen an hour or two before daylight, quickly stuffed my camp and set forth following the distant sound of a bull elk. With no worry about getting lost, I've often followed such vagrant bulls in the darkness (a full moon is a big help) while awaiting first light. More than a few times, I've been within sight of my quarry as shooting light arrived. Such an approach has put a lot of antlers on my wall over the years.
The ability to correctly read topographic maps, plus a reliable GPS unit, are necessary ingredients to success with backcountry hunting. Find remote areas with good habitat, then still-hunt through them, sleeping wherever darkness finds you.
To top it all off, there is a lot to be said about the feeling of independence and control such a hunting strategy offers. By living "off your back" in a completely self-sufficient manner such as this, you'll gain a wealth of outdoor savvy. This type of solo, wilderness existence will slowly morph you into a proverbial "lean, mean hunting machine" that rarely accepts -- or experiences -- failure of any kind.
Make It Happen
My friend Bob and I had packed deep into the Colorado wilderness on an elk hunt.
Riding two mules and packing two others, we'd established a comfortable base camp in a remote drainage that teemed with elk. Action was plentiful, with bulls passing within earshot of base camp on a regular basis. On the second day, Bob tagged a nice, 5x5 bull.
After we had de-boned the animal, Bob began packing the meat to the distant trailhead while I continued hunting on my own.
My first evening afield solo, while trekking a high alpine ridgeline, I spotted a group of mule deer bucks in a basin below. Upon closer inspection, it was clear a couple of bucks were sporting very nice antlers. Since I also possessed a deer tag, I quickly laid aside my elk hunting plans. The problem was, these animals lived in a place much too far from base camp to hunt effectively. Heading back to camp immediately, I grabbed my backpack, loaded it and quickly headed back to my new quarry. Throwing up a meager camp on the ridge, I began watching those bucks from my lofty perch.
For the next two days, I carefully studied the movement patterns of the bucks each morning and evening. I was able to do so from the comfort of my sleeping bag!
Accessing backcountry hotspots by means of a backpack doesn't mean you have to carry out your meat the same way. Consider all your options and make a plan before you make a kill.
Whenever the bucks bedded down for the day, I hiked back to base camp, ate a good meal, loaded my empty fanny pack with a few supplies and head back to my spike camp early evening. In every way imaginable, this "sleeping with the enemy" approach was working wonderfully.
At noon on the third day of my vigil, I stuffed camp into my pack and headed out. I was going to make something happen -- right or wrong -- the next morning. Heading out, I timed my arrival below the bucks as the evening thermals flowed steadily downhill.
Quickly setting up my bivy, I hurriedly glassed the bucks feeding steadily uphill far above me as the sun set behind the western peaks. Climbing into my sleeping bag, I psyched myself for the next morning's hunt.
As daylight flooded the basin the following morning, I was literally lying in wait directly below the bucks. Crawling out of my bag, I carefully made my way a short distance upslope to the stunted group of trees the bucks had used for bedding cover during the last two midday periods. Adrenaline surged through my veins as I watched the group slowly approach. When the moment I'd worked so hard for finally arrived, my shot was true, and the gig was up -- a great buck fell within 100 yards of my timberline camp.
Hiking down to my tent, I contentedly munched a candy bar as the warmth of the morning sun permeated my clothing. Soaking up the glory of the moment, my mind wandered. I'd made plans, made moves and earned a great prize. Inside, I knew there were few people who would put forth the kind of effort required by this hunt, which made me all the more happy. Life was very, very good.
Certainly, this type of hunting isn't for everyone. It's for a special breed of able-bodied, focused and extremely passionate individuals. Nevertheless, to fully experience bowhunting at one of it's highest levels, the full-tilt adventure such an outing offers must be experienced to be appreciated. Give this form of self-sufficient bowhunting a try.
You'll either become addicted or swear off it for life!