Hunting a new territory or species invariably involves a learning curve. Learning your way around can consume an entire season, while the intimacies of absorbing what type of micro habitat animals prefer within the bigger picture and how to hunt that country most efficiently may require even more time.
A lot of diligent work lay ahead if you're to beat the established odds and make the most of your hard-earned vacation time.
Desk Top Scouting
Home research shouldn't end there. The studious DIY hunter, after all, is looking to eliminate as many surprises as possible. Part of this is interviewing knowledgeable state game biologists, Forest Service rangers or other government employees for details about the unit you'll hunt. Networking through friends can also reveal others who have hunted the region and might be willing to share basic information.
Another interesting source of information is the Natural Resources Conservation Service
. This federal agency compiles data on flora and fauna across the West. This information is often accurate enough to easily pinpoint game feed down to specific hillsides or canyons, plus water sources and even specific animal populations.
Another fun and often profitable mode of scouting from home is using aerial photograph web sites that provide a bird's-eye view of remote areas. Look to TerraServer USA
; or US Geological Survey aerials
, as examples.
This is a great way to discover recent sites of forest fires, open meadows or clear-cuts that might not appear on maps, regenerating vegetation found in such places often acting as game magnets.
Shaping Up Mind & Body
Part of successful bowhunting is straight shooting. When visiting new territory or pursuing a new and coveted species, the stress and excitement of an encounter with trophy game can be overwhelming. You've invested a lot, after all, both mentally and financially. Prepare for that stress and certain spike in nervous energy by fine-tuning your shooting. Strive for quality over quantity.
Focus on performing a technically perfect shot each time you tug on a bowstring more than how many arrows you shoot daily or even how tight your arrow groups are. If you concentrate on the perfect shooting form and your mental discipline, accuracy will naturally follow. It can't be forced. Buy my book, 'A Bowhunters Guide To Better Shooting ' to learn more. You have a lot riding on this hunt. Don't blow it with a single muffed shot.
While you're at it, get your body in top physical conditioning. Jog, ride a bike, go to the gym. Twenty-three years of guiding taught me that physical conditioning was always the limiting factor of visiting bowhunters. They'd tell me they were too busy or didn't have the time to work out. This is no excuse. Forty-five minutes to an hour a day isn't a lot to ask of even a busy person to assure a more enjoyable DIY foray.
Concentrate on cardiovascular efficiency and muscle stamina and you'll not only arrive well ahead of the game; but you'll be capable of pushing farther and staying longer than the next guy. Physical conditioning is directly proportional to the success you will ultimately enjoy.
Pick A Species
The first step to any successful DIY bowhunt is setting a goal. This could constitute bigger whitetail bucks someplace like the Midwest, fulfilling that dream of witnessing firsthand the spine-tingling bugle of rutting elk, pursuing gorgeously-unique prairie pronghorn or even an Alaska caribou adventure. Each bowhunter's dream is his own. It could be something as simple and affordable as a Texas javelina/wild boar combo or as involved and expensive as a float-trip down a lonely river for Alaska-Yukon moose.
Yet dreams are dreams and reality is reality. The reality is that money separates pipe dreams from the conceivable. I've tossed a pile of gear in a truck and motored down to Kansas to successfully bowhunt big bucks on public walk-in areas for less than [imo-slideshow gallery=77],500. My Alaska caribou hunt — while a hunt of a lifetime resulting in two official Boone & Crockett bulls — cost me $3,600 — resulting in a full year of ballooning credit-card interest rates. I was obviously single and renting at the time. If you want something badly enough, start saving today.
Narrow Your Prospects
Once you've set some goals, begin gathering information. Let's say whitetails are your obsession. Whitetails obviously live across the entire continent, but what are your goals? Do you have hopes of possibly taking some Boone & Crockett antlers? Huge bag limits? A burly mountain buck? Trophy quality is easy to snoop out, consult record books and seek out current trends — but not what an area produced when Ronald Regan was president.
Rocky Mountain elk make a better example because they're found in limited states and not all of these are created equal. There are areas where big bulls are more common, but securing licenses is difficult; others where elk are numerous but trophy quality average; still others where elk are scarce or difficult to access but trophy quality exceptional. In some cases, New Mexico for instance, you might find all of these qualities inside a single border. Many hunters hear of all the trophy bulls killed in New Mexico's Gila region, for instance, and automatically believe the entire state is exceptional.
It's not. This is a matter of priority; normally trophy quality weighed against the opportunity to hunt at all. For most, the answer is somewhere in the middle; readily-available tags combined with a reasonable chance of killing, if not a monster, at least a representative animal. Develop priorities and research to find a state, county and unit mirroring those goals.
Learn The Rules
Next, determine if an area appearing perfect for your goals proves conducive to bowhunting during a timeframe compatible with your schedule, or rules allow you hunting in a manner you prefer. For instance, while trophy whitetail may be your goal, if a state sets bowhunting-only seasons well outside the rut, success will be much harder won.
There are rare instances when success is weather dependent. Snow may push animals from high country, rain can make stalking noisy ground possible, or you may find success when guarding water. Or perhaps you prefer hunting with crossbows but your chosen state doesn't allow them during regular archery season.
Each state sets its own rules pertaining to equipment parameters, like minimum draw weight, accessories such as lighted sights or nocks, tritium pins, mechanical broadheads and so on. Most of us are willing to make concessions when visiting other states, but if you're not, a particular state may not be a good fit.
Some states require bowhunters to pass a bowhunting education class, others do not. There are also differing rules pertaining to baiting, digging pit-blinds near water on public lands, use of scents, or what type of treestands or access steps you're allowed to attach to trees in timber or state-park areas. Know the rules before you hunt.
Secure A Tag
Rules and regulations also include procedures for securing a tag. Normally, the biggest tripping point is meeting application deadlines. Even in states offering nearly guaranteed tags you'll be required to submit an early application. Miss the deadline and you're not going to hunt. You'll also need to nail down your chosen hunt area or specific unit dates.
You may need to submit your application in paper form, but more states have switched to an online application. Various payment types are normally accepted. Some states charge an application fee and allow you to purchase the license after pulling a tag, others demand all their money up front and only reimburse you after an unsuccessful application. Budgeting money to assure it will be there when needed is highly important.
In many places tags are issued first come, first served with quotas. In these systems there's usually a start date when tags become available, so get in early. Still, other states sell archery tags over the counter. This assures a tag, but I still like to plan ahead and purchase the required licenses/permits online to assure I don't have to go in search of a license vender late at night in an unknown town. Beware, too, many states tack on additional fees easily missed but nonetheless important.
For example, New Mexico requires a $5.25 Habitat Improvement Stamp to hunt public lands (no one will remind you of this fact when purchasing tags). Fail to buy it and get checked and a $200 fine will follow. Other states have archery stamps, harvest cards and such.
Map It Out
My most memorable DIY adventures have involved far away lands I've never laid eyes on. But I always arrived with a decent idea of where I wanted to hunt and why because of the insight provided by maps. When scoping out new areas, I start with Forest Service or BLM maps. These provide a macro view of an area easily digestible but highly informative.
I'm first able to trace public roads to learn my way around. More specifically, gain a better understanding of areas without roads because game might gravitate there when pressured, and understand how access roads might influence public traffic. These wide-view maps also show basic water sources for concentrating game, land status (public verses private), county lines or other topography acting as unit boundaries, plus basic ridgelines, mountains and valleys. It's the best place to start in any new country.
After you've narrowed the prospects within your larger unit, you can then gain more detail by purchasing a 1:24,000-scale U.S. Geological Survey topographical map encompassing 49 to 64 square miles. Topographical maps provide virtual 3-D views of terrain via contour lines laid over landscape to reveal changes in elevation. Individual contour lines represent a single elevation as it weaves around canyon and creek heads, ridgelines or hillsides, or encircles points, knobs and mountains.
Each contour represents 40-foot changes in elevation. Wide spaces indicate gentler terrain such as meadows, parks, wide river bottoms and mesa tops, closely-spaced contours indicate steeper topography like ridge or mountain sides. They also reveal funneling saddles or gentler chutes cutting from cliffy terrain, hanging bedding benches or sloping bowls. Lastly, topographical maps also help traverse rough terrain more efficiently.
At some point, obviously, you're going to have to hit the ground and have a look around. This is the only way you're going to confirm hunches or eliminate places you thought held potential. For instance, you may discover a series of meadows considered a sure bet for elk activity is full of grazing cattle, encouraging elk to feed elsewhere. You may find the water hole you considered a sure bet for early-season success has already been claimed.
Or, you may discover an especially dry summer has dried up your water hole completely. An appealing ridgeline may have burned during the summer, leaving only ash and charcoal behind. Don't waste time obsessing about details. Cover as much ground as possible, looking for fresh sign (not last month's sign), spending prime hours on a vantage glassing for concentrations of game.
Now here's a bit of advice many will disagree with: Let's say you have a two-week vacation set aside for your hunt. Now, does it make more sense to arrive the night before the hunt and hunt blind the first week while learning your way around; or spend a week of that time scouting and the second hunting productively? An entire week may be a stretch, but you get the point.
If you have to eat a few days of vacation scouting before season opener, so be it. You'll be better off for it, hunting instead of scouting during open season. But understand that opening week may not be the most productive. Sometimes hunting gets better as the season progresses, with competing hunters thinning out and the rut kicking in, for instance.
Adapt To Conditions
Too many hunters hang all their hopes on preconceived notions. Let's take something like prairie pronghorn, for instance. You arrive with picks, shovels and a catalog of prospective watering sites, but heavy rains put a damper on festivities. In another case, you have your mind set that success will come from calling or not at all.
But a stint of unseasonably hot, dusty-dry weather clams bulls up. Are you going to pack it in because Plan A didn't work out? Hell no! You move on to Plans B and C, if needed. You can't be a one-trick pony and expect to regularly succeed in unfamiliar terrain.
You may have plans to experience the thrill of spot-and-stalk hunting, but arrive to find ultra-noisy ground requires stand hunting. You may have planned to hunt water, but find water's overly abundant and be forced to stalk. You may be depending on calling to bring bull elk closer, but find they're as shy of calling as cockroaches to daylight, requiring careful glassing and well-planned stalks.
Heat or hunting pressure may turn animals nocturnal, requiring still-hunting thick bedding cover. Every hunt in every new setting is different. If you don't or won't adapt, your chances of success dwindle considerably.
No Rest For The Weary
This is your big event. It's no time to get lazy. When you're not actively pursuing game during prime hours you should be scouting new territory and expanding your knowledge of the land. Trek into that bottomless canyon. You can take a quick nap and hunt your way back out come evening.
Check out a remote spring or stock pond you discovered on a map but haven't had time to investigate. Walk out to that snaking ridge and see if fresh sign can be found. Investigate the spot where you've seen animals run across the highway in the headlights several mornings. Take time to hang a stand or build a ground blind, just in case you wear yourself thin chasing bugling elk and need an easy evening to recharge.
While you're at it, tote your bow and an arrow or two holding Judu Points or rubber blunts. I've certainly bumped into animals during midday scouting trips. I recall a friend, during a grueling backpack hunt for monster elk, walking down to a pond at midday to filter needed water hearing trickling water and looking across the pond to see a monster bull drinking. He could only watch, as his bow was left in camp.
More importantly, enjoy some stump shooting along the way, directing arrows at soft stumps or rotten logs, sand banks or dried cow patties. This is the best kind of practice and keeps you sharp when there's little time for real target shooting. It's this kind of practice that leaves you better prepared when the trophy of a lifetime appears in your sights after all the hard work you've invested to this point.