Hunting on public land has to be one of the most challenging and potentially rewarding experiences that I have ever had. There are so many challenges, ups and downs and lessons to learn along the way. When it comes to mistakes, I have made a lot of them and I am sure you have too! Successes and failures are the building blocks to becoming a successful western hunter. If you can look back on successes and failures in a critical way, you can learn a lot and find consistent success in the future. Here are six lessons that I learned the hard way and that you should avoid if you wish to come home with a meat-filled freezer instead of tag soup.
Hunt Hard, All Day, Every Day
When planning a western hunt, it is important to give yourself as much time as possible in the field. There are often challenges and unforeseen circumstances that affect where you find animals, how difficult they are to access, whether the conditions are correct and if you will get a shot opportunity. Yet, you cannot kill them from camp, so it’s essential to hunt hard every day, all day if you want to increase your chance of success. Since I live out West, it is often easy to get complacent and make excuses to be lazy. I might say I have rifle season in October or I have next weekend, too, so that I can sleep in today. These are the exact types of attitudes that keep you from being successful. Once you hike in, plan to stay in all day. You never know when a buck might stand up to switch beds or a bull might fire off a mid-day bugle. This hunting season, be in the mountains all day, every day and increase your success rate this fall.
Shoot Whatever Animal You Would Shoot on the Last Day, the First Day
Growing up, my dad always told me to make sure not to pass on a deer that I would shoot the last day unless I am prepared not to take a deer at all. This is a super important rule that I learned the hard way and will not be doing again for a long time, especially on public land. I suggest that unless you have unlimited time or are hunting a once-in-a-lifetime tag, you always should shoot the first quality animal you get an opportunity at. Of course, it is your option, but the older I get, the more I just want to be consistently successful and the less I worry about what is on the wall.
Always Be Ready
It took me a long time and a lot of mistakes to learn to always be ready. It doesn’t matter if you are a half-mile from the trailhead or ten miles from it; you can see and harvest an animal at any time. This means that your wind, speed of hiking, visibility and more all matter as soon as you leave the truck. Even in my 2020 archery elk season, I made this mistake. During at least two hikes, I bumped into elk less than a half-mile from the trailhead. I wasn’t paying attention to the wind or being quiet because I didn’t think I was hunting yet. My bow was on my back and I was on a mission to get “where the elk would be.” Low and behold: the elk were less than a mile from my truck! Give yourself some extra time, be quiet, pay attention to the wind and you never know what you might see on your way to your pre-selected spot.
Pack Emergency Gear and Essentials
Always pack emergency gear for your hunt — no matter how deep or how remote you are traveling. Emergency gear can easily be the difference between making it to the truck or not making it off the mountain. Essentials like a backup headlamp, batteries, a fire starting kit or a tarp are also just as important as your weapon. Anytime you are in the mountains, there are a lot of unpredictable things that could happen. You could fall down a sidehill, get stabbed with a branch, become the victim of a bear attack or just get caught in a torrential downpour and temperature swing that chills you to the bone. Be prepared and you will not have to leave the mountain early or not make it off the mountain at all.
Take Care of Your Meat
Having a plan for your meat is always a good idea, especially in warmer weather. Not only is it essential to get the meat off of the animal and into game bags, but it is also essential to know what you are going to do with it when you get back to the truck. I try to always have a cooler full of ice at the truck at all times. When I go into town, I fill it up and then it will slowly melt over the next two to three days before I go back into town for supplies and fill it up again. This is just my way of knowing that I always have a chilled cooler for my meat when I get back to camp. Many western towns have butcher shops that will store your meat for a small daily fee, so research that and figure that out before going hunting.
Always Have a Plan with Your Partner
The most critical failure that I have had that is quite scary is not having a plan with your hunting partner. Whenever I split up in the backcountry, it is important to tell someone — preferably your hunting partner — where you are going and when they should expect you back and then stick to it. In 2017, I was hunting four miles deep with a buddy of mine as the sun was setting. We both split up to stalk an elk without coming up with a plan on reconnecting or meeting at the truck. As it was getting towards last light, panic started to set in because I didn’t know if I was supposed to meet him back where we split up, at the last place I saw him or back at the truck. The last thing I wanted was him waiting for me while I was hiking out or vice versa. Luckily, we both went back to the place we split up, but it was an eye-opening experience. Now I always have a plan because of that day. Usually, I say that I will meet back at this spot unless it’s dark, then go to the truck.
Success on a western hunt can be hard to obtain consistently; however, it is possible. If you use your successes and failures to grow and to become a better hunter, you will be consistently more successful over time. Hunting hard, being ready at all times and shooting the first quality animal you get an opportunity at is part of finding success. Making sure you are prepared to survive the elements, get your meat off the mountains and having a plan with your partner are ways to make every hunt successful. Learning from your experiences allows you to have more fun in the mountains. Plus, you might just come home with a full cooler.