Friday, July 15, 2011

The Hunters Paradox: making the best out of less than ideal situations

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” a phrase from Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, all too often describes many of our own hunts. As hunters the difference between the best hunt and a hunt gone bad, is how well we can adapt and make less than ideal conditions work in our favor.

Let’s face it; hunting conditions are not always optimal. If you have hunted enough you know there are thousands of factors on every hunt that can turn against you. You may have a great mule deer rut tag, but the week you are hunting a storm could limit your visibility. You may have a great waterhole picked out for an archery antelope hunt, but right before your hunt it starts to rain. You may be dying to chase elk this season but all you hear is how much damage the wolves have done on the populations. Fires in your area, hot weather when it should be winter, increased hunting pressure; we have all seen these common occurrences wreak havoc on hunts. However, your success as a hunter is not always how well you do during optimal conditions, but how well you can adapt to poor conditions and still come out on top.

I have taken some of the most common problems hunters often encounter and figured out how to still make the season a success. By slightly switching your tactics you can make the best of times, during the worst of times. The point is to show you that with a little strategic thinking, you can make non-ideal situations work in your favor, and oftentimes even provide you with an advantage.

The Hunt: Elk

The Worst of Times: Rising wolf populations negatively affecting elk populations.

The Best of Times: Of course wolves have damaged elk populations. Harm is being done in many areas across the west but this does not always spell doom and gloom like most people think. Now may actually be your best chance at harvesting an elk. My suggestion is to pick up a bow and head into the wolf infested woods! This may sound ludicrous and contrary to common belief, but there is some logic to the madness.

As wolf populations expand, elk populations have been on the decline. Many of the areas that have seen the highest rise in wolves previously had some of the highest elk populations. Now that the cow/ calf populations have dropped significantly nature must try to find a way to bolster this population.

As cow populations decrease, the bull to cow ratio increases. This may be obvious but it also has huge implications toward elk rutting activity. The harder it is for a bull to obtain cows, the more susceptible he is to being called into bow range. Both mature bulls and younger bulls will have a harder time acquiring cows and may be easily tricked by cow calls and bugles.

As fewer cows become available to breed, overtime, bulls will start to chase the cows earlier, trying to get a jump on the competition by rounding up a harem early. As more cows loose their calves to predators, like the wolves, they will again come into heat making more available cows to be breed. With a higher percentage of the available cows in a harem coming into heat than in the past, the duration of the rut lengthens and competition for fewer cows increases.

In the past few years I have personally seen the elk start bugling earlier and the rut stretch out over a longer period of time in many of the wolf infested areas of Idaho and Montana. Of course dwindling elk populations is not a good thing and you can’t call in elk that don’t exist, but despite this, there is still some great hunting to be had.

Even if you have never bow hunted before, this season could possibly be one of the best times to chase rutting elk across the west. It may sound crazy but it is true. There may be fewer elk in the woods but the ones that are around can be more susceptible to bugling and cow calls than in the past.

The Hunt: Mule deer during the rut

The Worst of Times: Late season fog or bad weather has cut down your visibility making it hard to effectively glass for deer.

The Best of Times: Rut hunts for mule deer can be one of the most productive and exciting hunts in the west. The only trouble is the time of year the hunt happens. In late November you want some weather but you never want to loose visibility. Unfortunately this is the time of year when hunters seem to see the most storms. I have experienced and heard stories from many other hunters who have been on late deer hunts where visibility is sparse for a whole week.

The solution? Try calling. Believe it or not, mule deer can be just as susceptible to rattling and grunting as whitetail deer. If glassing is not an option then setup and start calling. I like to use a combination of rattling, grunts, bleats, and even snort wheezes to entice big bucks to my location.

I have successfully called in countless big bucks when visibility has been limited. Most hunters don’t even think about trying to rattle in mule deer but it works.

A few years ago I was guiding the Montana mule deer super tag winner. Unfortunately the entire week he was hunting visibility was minimal and glassing was a rare occurrence so I decided to call to a good buck we knew was in the area. This turned out to be a good idea as the big buck came charging in and the hunter took him at point blank range.

Calling deer can also be effective at coaxing a big buck off of private property to a neighboring place where you can hunt. Just last season I called a monster buck in for a friend by rattling and grunting. The buck would not leave private property all week but when he heard a fight in his vicinity he was all too eager to jump the fence and stroll to a place where we could take him.

The Hunt: Archery Antelope

The Worst of Times: It is raining and now there is water everywhere for the animals to drink.

The Best of Times: Rain during an archery antelope hunt where you planned to sit on a waterhole can be devastating. You spent time setting up your blind and scouting good waterholes, but now the antelope have the option to drink out of hundreds of new puddles.

In this instance decoys can make the difference between getting a buck and going home disappointed. Antelope are curious and social by nature. If you are hunting early August outside of the rut, a few decoys at your waterhole may help entice the real animals to come drink where they normally do.

If the animals still won’t come in, try going to them. Spot and stalk in assistance with the decoy can be extremely effective. Try moving in as close as you can unseen, then set up the decoy so the antelope you are stalking can see it. This is often enough to draw the antelope you are hunting into bow range. I have in some cases even covered open terrain during the stalk while hidden behind the decoy. Although the decoys work best during the antelope rut they can be useful anytime of year.

If there are cattle in the area you are hunting, Montana Decoy Company ( makes a walk behind cattle silhouette they call the Moo Cow. This can help you stalk in over open expanses and may give you the edge you need. The Moo Cow can also be great at helping rifle hunters close the distance on weary antelope bucks out in the open.

The Hunt: Any big game animal.

The Worst of Times: A portion of your hunting area burns to the ground.

The Best of Times: Out west, wild fires are a force we have to live with. Any wildfire is a shame, and it is sad to see an area that you know well become ash. However, after the sting of the land’s smoldering past beauty wears away it should put a small smile on your face. Burns can be a great place to hunt and a great place for wildlife to flourish.

When looking at areas to hunt, I generally gravitate toward burns. The new forage fosters antler growth and the burn can add visibility to many heavily timbered areas. When hunting in a burn I like to look for pockets of unburned area surrounded by a burn. This could be a stand of timber in a canyon that for some reason did not get touched, or a sage and mahogany covered knob or ridgeline that was surrounded by the fire. These types of areas provide animals with needed cover while giving them quick access to the new grasses and abundant food that is a byproduct of the surrounding fire. Plus these types of areas can provide great glassing for hunters, making it easier to find your game.

The Hunt: Any big game animal.

The Worst of Times: It is abnormally hot for the time of year you are hunting.

The Best of Times: We have all at one point or another had a hunt where we were expecting winter-like conditions and ended up sweating all week in t-shirt weather. During times like this, game can seem almost non-existent. This is because most of the animals have already grown their winter coats and the unexpected heat has them hotter than they would like.

It is times like these when hunters who have spent time scouting during the summer can score big. Think back to the patterns and places you saw game during the summer and hunt accordingly. Summer scouting can play huge dividends during unexpected heat waves as the animals revert back to their summer behavior to beat the heat. If the conditions seem too hot for you, imagine wearing a heavy fur coat. Prolonged unexpected heat can sometimes be enough to send animals into thicker and higher country.

It is important to remember that just like us; animals consume more water when over- heated. Movement may be restricted to early morning and late evenings, but the animals are still somewhere during the day. Look for areas that contain shade and water in a close proximity. Adjusting your tactics may be necessary to be successful. If you normally glass, spend your time glassing potential bedding areas, or better yet, try still hunting through heavier cover than you would normally hunt.

The Hunt: Any game animal.

The Worst of Times: Hunters are crawling all over your hunting area.

The Best of Times: Whether it is regulation changes, popularity of an area because of hunting publications, or just bad timing, some places can all of the sudden get hammered with hunting pressure. However, other hunters do not have to be a bad thing if you can place yourself somewhere where their presence is at your advantage.

For some reason a place that I always archery hunt for mule deer in Nevada was the hot ticket item for the year. I had spent hundreds of days hunting the area in the past and never saw a single hunter. For some reason that year “my spot” was littered with people. At first it just flat out pissed me off. I decided that instead of battling for hunting grounds I would just have to hunt harder and deeper into the wilderness. It had appeared that the deer had the same plan as I found myself smack dab in the middle of where the deer wanted to be. If the pressure is enough to bother you, it will probably bother the animals as well. Look at the area critically and try to find a spot where the animals might go to also avoid the pressure. Sometimes this just means hunting harder than everyone else but the reward is always worth the extra effort.

Unfortunately I can’t list every problem hunters may face in the woods, but if you hunt smart you can always find an upside to the situation. As the law of nature goes, every action creates a reaction, by figuring out the reaction to less than perfect situations you can turn any circumstance around in your favor. Slightly adjusting your tactics can be a great way to actually take advantage of less than ideal conditions.

If you can think of more “worst of times” situations and need help turning it into an advantage, or have other solutions that have worked for you, post it to the Western Hunter Magazine Facebook Page.

For more hunting tips, hunting videos, or hunting articles visit me at and follow the hunt.


  1. The importance of a positive attitude cannot be overstated either. One friend that I regularly hunt with has a gift for seeing the worst of times as not so bad, frequently reminding me that even when we are not seeing game there are a lot worse things than hunting! Having good positive hunting partners can help make the worst of times the best of times!

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