Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Backcountry hunting, there has been a lot published about it in recent years and many of us live for it. It separates the men from the boys. Packing into a road-less wilderness area with everything you need either on a horse or on your back. But let’s be serious for a second, if the wilderness is considered the backcountry then what is everything else?
What is hunting that is near a system of roads either remote or near town. Hunting where your base camp is next to your truck but you are miles from civilization. Hunting where you don’t have to pack in your camp but there are plenty of big mountains, lots of game, and lots of places to get away from the crowds. I call it the front-country. It is the place that most hunters spend their fall and most record book animals are taken. A place, that can be just as physically challenging and rewarding as the backcountry, but far more accessible to the majority of hunters. The truth is that the majority of trophy animals across the west are not taken in backcountry wilderness areas.
I am not trying to discount the effectiveness of backcountry hunting or the experience of getting away in the wilderness. I am a huge proponent of backcountry hunts and find the experience unrivaled in the hunting world. Personally, I go on many backcountry hunts every year with great success and have taken the majority of my Pope and Young mule deer in wilderness areas. I am however, willing to offer up tips for being successful on hunts that don’t quite reach the backcountry areas, hunts that take place in the front-country.
Becoming a successful front-country hunter
The key to successful front-country hunting is a combination of hunting hard and hunting smart. This means doing what it takes to get away from the crowds while using the tools at your disposal. Just because you are not in a wilderness area does not mean that the hunt will be physically easy. Often a modest effort to leave the road will give you the space you need to get away from other hunters.
Please don’t confuse what I am calling front-country hunting with road hunting. The area may be accessed by a road but the most productive hunting is on foot. Frequently you will be hiking as hard and as far as you would on any backcountry hunt, but by basing your camp somewhere you don’t have to pack-in, you are able to use road systems to access a larger potential hunting area.
Where to Look
Aside from looking for the usual: food, water, and cover. I look for pockets that are generally between roads with no road going through the pocket. I look for places that require a lot of uphill hiking to get to them, followed by a steep down hill to hunt in them. What this amounts to is starting uphill from the truck then hiking uphill in order to get back to the truck. The uphill both ways seems to eliminate 95% of hunters. I look for places that could be nicknamed “the hole”, “hell”, or “a mother something” by anyone who has ventured there. I find that areas like these often have some of the best numbers of game as well as provide havens for trophy animals to reach maturity. Even in high pressure areas, pockets that are hard to reach, even if not a long distance from a road can be a honey-hole for trophy hunters.
The first 200 inch mule deer I was a part of harvesting was when I took a friend into a place I called “the hole”. It was infamous because in order to hunt “the hole” we had to start by hiking straight up from the truck. We then hunted into the bowl which was over 2,300 vertical feet down before continuing up the other side where the deer generally were. This meant that in order to hunt it there was a lot of uphill to get in and back out. The spot was nestled in-between two roads but invisible to the casual road hunter who did not want to work that hard. Of course we ended up taking the monster buck in one of the hardest places to get to in that drainage. This made for a long but rewarding uphill pack back to the top before we could drop down to the truck.
Trophy animals where people work the land
The adage “big deer are where you find them” is especially true in areas where humans share and alter the landscape. Many times we think of trophies hiding out in the most remote reaches of an area when in fact this is not always the case. When looking for trophy animals don’t discount benefits to habitat that people have created. Ranching, agriculture, and even some development can provide benefits to game animals that may not otherwise have been provided.
In the southwest, cattle ranchers have created water sources for their cattle in otherwise water sparse landscapes. This provides a place for not only stock to drink but game animals as well. In most of the free-range states you will find man-made water sources in extremely remote areas. Along with these man-made water sources comes road access so they can be maintained. Looking for areas with more interactions by people such as cattle ranches may actually be a better place to concentrate on hunting than an area completely void of human contact.
Crops and planted fields such as alfalfa can offer excellent food sources for game animals not found in wilderness conditions. Some of the largest trophy animals I have taken have been in the mountains on public land above alfalfa fields. Great feed in combination with great genetics grows great animals. If you are hunting in an area with good genetics, odds are the best deer or elk will grow near agriculture. It is because they have a high protein and nutrient rich diet easily available. A good diet is essential to helping game animals reach their maximum potential.
Today there are many maps available that can be downloaded onto a GPS that show property ownership. One of the best out there is from Montana Mapping Company www.huntinggpsmaps.com. The property ownership maps can be helpful in places like Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah where there is public land and private land intermixed. The GPS property maps can help you find access to areas you may not have known about as well as help assure you are hunting where you should be.
Using mobility to your benefit
The main benefit of front-country hunting is the ability to be mobile. If you are not seeing what you want where you are hunting, you can easily move. A road system may be one of the best tools for staying mobile and getting to where the animals are. You may have the ability to hunt several different ranges in a single day if needed. Camping and hunting in the front-country allows you access to a greater potential hunting area with less effort than if you were in a backcountry situation. There have been times when I have packed myself into the backcountry only to find that the animals were not there. This makes it a lot tougher to pick-up and move spots when you put in so much work to get there. When setting up a front-country camp keep mobility in mind and find a spot that allows you easy access to several different areas.
The caveat to being mobile is to not fall into the rut of driving around and considering it hunting. When hunting the front-country I hunt all day on foot, using a vehicle only to drive to access points. Just because you are driving through good country does not mean you are effectively hunting the country. Of course you may see game while traveling in a vehicle, but I wouldn’t make that my main source of attempting to find game. The more your boots are on the ground, the greater likelihood you have of finding a trophy.
Hiking allows you the best views of the land as well as promotes more active and quality glassing. Quality glassing in my opinion is the number one thing to consistently taking trophy animals.
Just because there is a road does not mean you have to drive on it. Throughout the west there are many areas littered with rough four-wheeler roads or even gated logging roads that are open to four-wheelers certain times of the year. When hunting I choose to walk these roads even if it may be legal to drive them. It is a hundred times more effective to walk the area and truly hunt it than it is to drive through it. Vehicles can ruin a lot of great opportunity. When hunters get in the habit of driving everywhere they limit their own success.
Last year my brother and I were archery hunting in a remote area of central Nevada. We were walking out after stalking a nice buck when we ran into a guy on a quad. We had seen him numerous times over the past few days driving around and assumed he was chasing the same bucks we were. When we asked how he was doing, he said that he had driven all over the area for three days and only seen a few does and a small buck. After a few minutes of talking it was very apparent he was not feeding us a line, he really had only seen a few deer. My brother and I just smiled and nodded because in the same area he was hunting we were seeing 30+ mature bucks a day. What’s the difference? We were out actively hunting and he was just taking his bow for a four-wheeler ride hoping to get lucky.
Every single year I run into hunters that hunt the same areas I do with completely opposite results. Just because you are not in the backcountry does not mean that you have to drive around and hope to stumble on to something. If you put forth the effort you can become consistently successful wherever you hunt.
The front-country can be one of the best places to take a trophy big game animal in the west. Hunting hard, staying mobile and sometimes actually getting closer to people and agriculture may be your key to being successful. Of course the backcountry has its appeal but there is plenty of great hunting to be had before you even reach the wilderness boundary.
If you would like to comment on the idea of front-country hunting or have found tactics that work for you, please feel free to post them on my blog www.followthehunt.com and on the Western Hunter Facebook page.