All photo credits: Brady Miller
All photo credits: Brady Miller
When people talk about elk and deer hunting, especially during archery season, it is very common to hear about the strategy of going deep to get away from people in order to find better hunting. Five to 10 years ago, hunters who hiked in over three miles would find bugling bulls and unpressured elk and deer; however, nowadays that is not the case. More and more, hunters are pushing their body to the max during the offseason, training in order to go deeper into the backcountry only to be disappointed when they reach the back of the basin and find other hunters who had the same thought process. Below are four strategies to get you in deep differently, which will hopefully result in running into fewer people and more game.
First and foremost, it is important to understand that unless you are hunting a private ranch or limited tag, you are hunting pressured elk and deer that do not behave the same as unpressured animals. Ultimately, the goal of every elk and deer hunter is to find elk or deer and then attempt to harvest them. During the summer days, these animals can and do live wherever they can stay cool in cover, find food and find water. Sometimes this is one mile or less from a trailhead or road, but sometimes it is farther. During the first week of archery season, as hunting activity increases, elk and deer are pushed further and further from the highest concentration of hunters. They go to areas of sanctuary where they feel safe from hunters. Finding these temporary sanctuaries is every hunter’s goal because in a sanctuary is more game and better odds. However, these sanctuaries can change and elk and deer can leave as hunters or predators figure out where they are. They can also come back in a day or two so do not be afraid to hunt a good spot multiple days.
In order to get into more elk and deer, it is important to think differently than the average hunter. Often, we get stuck inside the box thinking, “Let's get to the trailhead and we can figure it out from there depending on how many rigs are there.” Once we arrive and see four or five trucks, we become disappointed and are out of time so we hike in the same trail as everyone to a point picked out and marked on a GPS. Sure, sometimes we find elk or deer and try to make a move to kill one, but more often than not, another hunter is doing the same thing as you — even when you are four to five miles deep on the trail. I have had great luck looking at the maps and satellites differently and finding and hunting a ridge or valley on the way to the trailhead that looks promising. In general, most people drive right by spots like these on the way to the parking lot. Often, these spots require a vertical ascent right off the bat or a creek crossing, which most people are not looking to do. Trails are made for convenience, but elk and deer don’t stay in places that are convenient for hunters so don't use a trailhead unless you have a plan to get away from people.
In prior years, we used to have a lot of luck finding a trail that took us four or five miles to the back of a basin, finding elk and deer pressed up against the highest peak on the lookout for hunters coming up the valley or out the ridge. This was common because most hunters who were not on horseback only wanted to hike in one to two miles max, which meant going past them used to give you better opportunity. What I am often seeing now is that when I get back there, elk and deer are gone because I am not the only one willing to go that deep anymore. This baffled me the first dozen times because, after hiking miles to a spot, I expected to see at least one elk or small buck. I am doing the work, right? Why wouldn’t I see one? The answer is that a lot of people are catching the bug and are willing to work for elk and mule deer so it’s up to you to think differently. While hiking the four to five-mile valley trail, did you see any side basins that were difficult to access? If so, one of those is probably holding the elk or deer that normally live in that basin. This is the middle ground where hunters are finding more success than before. For a successful middle ground hunt, an elk or deer needs to feel safe, which typically means it is not super easy for you to access. If it looks hard to get to and is two to three miles deep it probably is holding some elk or deer.
Trails can help you cruise four to five miles deep in a few hours, but that goes for other hunters, too. You know who doesn’t need our trails? Elk and deer don’t need them! Find basins that don't have trails and you may find yourself in less pressured elk and deer territory and with fewer horseback hunters. Plan extra time to hike in because bushwhacking can take a long time and can be tiring. Most people do not enjoy bushwhacking, which is why you may find yourself alone. Try to remember that the nastier it is, the more blowdown you have to cross and the steeper the climb into that basin generally equates to fewer hunters wanting to hike in. It could also mean that a true bugling or rutting experience is awaiting you in that sanctuary basin. I also find high success looking at the basins on the other side of the ridge from my truck. Something about hiking over the top and dropping in a new basin on the other side has gotten me on numerous bulls and put me on top of some great bucks.
Thinking outside of the box will allow you to be a better hunter overall in today's over-the-counter (OTC) hunting experience we tend to participate in. Often, I find myself marking elk or deer spots on maps and then crossing them off because if I found them in a short amount of time, which means that other people can, too. Then, I look for the spots that pressured elk and deer might go and decide if they are worth checking out. Thinking outside the box allows me to look at obstacles as pathways. For example, hunting near rivers is good because it provides a water source for elk and deer. Find the spots that are hard to cross and bring in a canoe or raft to help you get back and forth. Using a river to get deeper into a wilderness area quickly can also be an option that has proven fruitful. When there is a trail up the valley, find the way to get to the ridge and hike the ridge. Elk and deer tend to bed uphill from their feed and being above them will allow the afternoon thermals to be in your favor while other hunters are on that bottom trail. For higher success, the overall thought process is to think like a hunter, then to understand that others think that way and figure out where the pressured animals will go.
In my experience, going deep down a trail to the back of a basin has proven less and less productive over the past five to ten years. I used to only compete with horseback hunters; however, now the YouTube public hunting world is showing hunters what experiences they can have on public land if they simply push in farther for a better adventure. As a hunter that is used to pushing my body to the limits, it’s nice to see so many people getting after it and going hard, but it can be a frustrating experience. Above are some strategies that have proven effective for me to find elk and deer in even some of the most pressured situations. I am sure there are other techniques to find unpressured bulls and deer so please share in the comments below. Remember going deep doesn’t need to be on a trail or from a trailhead.