Is Western hunting the sole domain of the wealthy elite? Hell No!
Hunting the West, a lifelong goal and soul gripping dream for many living in the East and Midwest. To experience the grandeur of the mountains, explore new territory while chasing animals outside of the realm of whitetail deer can become a fixation.
By Jason Reid
But to take the dream of tagging a bull or big mule deer and making it happen is quite another story. There are layers upon layers of concerns when embarking on an adventure in which you can pour thousands of dollars into and end up just feeling plain lost without even as much as an animal sighting. You are up against time, logistics, money and animals many of us have never laid eyes on in person. When we boil this base-line reality down, it turns many hopefuls away with more questions than answers. But in an effort to show how successful western hunting is obtainable for the non western hunter, I spoke with several regular hunters in order to learn what it really takes to go West and come back East with a cooler full of meat and antlers.
By the time you read this, photos of successful Western hunts will be rolling through social media which might give you just a twinge of jealousy. Now is the time to start planning for next year, a year in advance to make the time and money worth the investment. Yes, the purchasing of gear, tags and your vacation time is an investment in the pursuit of something greater. There is anxiety which comes along with preparing for a trip to the unknown, but known writer Al Quackenbush says, “Go for it! Save some money and jump that hurdle. The sooner you do it, the faster you will realize that a hunt out West isn’t just for the elite.”
The first steps to a successful hunt are to deal with the logistics, anxiety and fear on paper. If you can create a sound plan of action to get to the West, much of your initial fear and anxiety should be lifted. Quackenbush said, “The entire thought of hunting the West was a complete 180 degree flip from what I was used to in New York. I had connections to farmland to hunt my entire life. Most of the farmers wanted you to come thin out the deer population to save their crops.” Quackenbush moved to California when he got married and told me his challenge when he moved to California was finding land to hunt while figuring out the rules and regulations. Regardless if you are moving to a new area or are planning a week long trip, much like Quackenbush says, “The first step is to find a place to hunt.”
Although it sounds cliche, research is the name of the game and entire articles are written on research alone. To break the subject down briefly, my younger brother, Austen, a biology student who tagged 305 inch P&Y bull elk at age 17, suggests first time western hunters look into the numbers. “Look at the previous few years harvest statistics for over the counter units, it is like reading the stock market. Don't go to the area that got crushed the last few years, but look for the units on the rise.” Quackenbush says he began networking after moving to California although he reported most people stayed fairly quiet. “Most people were hush-hush or they thought it would be funny to point me in the wrong direction. I bought some arrows from a guy (Steve), struck up a conversation, and the next thing you know I am hunting with him and learning some new spots. I owe a lot to Steve.
It all happened by talking and really listening to what he had to say.” While interpersonal interactions are not a realistic option for us stuck in the East, we can learn from Quackenbush through networking, and no secret using the internet is our best option. My father, Pete, an easterner, and DIY elk veteran of over 15 years says, “I highly recommend you try to find someone who knows what they are doing, or you will end up lost and frustrated. Getting to the mountains is one thing, finding game and learning how to hunt a new animal is another story, I owe a lot to my hunting partner for paying it forward and teaching me.” However, if you cannot find people to learn directly from, make sure to answer these questions to narrow down an area.
- What Kind of hunt do I want?
- High or low elevation?
- Where are there access points and pack trails to reference and build a plan?
- Will I want to camp at the road or be backpacking in?
- What information do local biologists have to share about local game movement?
Each of the answers to these questions will provide more questions. Don’t shy away from more questions but stay focused and organized in answering each question.
If you do not understand even the basics of reading a topographical map, start working on learning those skills ASAP and identify the following. Mark Heulsing, writer of the popular SoleAdventure blog has learned elk hunting through talking with experienced elk hunters, but has been figuring things out the hard way, by getting into the mountains. Helusing advised to “Look for food, water, and cover. These three essentials that will determine where elk hang out.” Food and water are simple to figure out, but learning find good cover is another story. Elk are not evenly spread out across mountains. Deep pockets of cool timber are gold mines in the mountain. Simply put, identify on your map the North facing slopes. Northern slopes do not take direct sunlight and if you are an 800 pound animal, relief from direct sun light is a must. Heulsing says “I’m always keeping these aspects in mind when analyzing maps and researching new areas.” In terms of topographic features, I look for saddles that might funnel elk movement, as well as benches on slopes that can be used as bedding areas.” Quackenbush echoes Heulsing’s tips by saying, “If I am hunting in California it is water and valleys as far away from roads as I can hike. Water can be hard to find on the maps, so I tend to focus more on areas that look difficult to get to and then I have a good starting point. It is simple, but it works.”
Mark Kenyon, the founder of Wired to Hunt, a whitetail addict and elk junkie convert says the biggest challenge in learning to hunt these terrains and animals came in the form of compartmentalizing whitetails and elk. “The biggest challenge for me in transitioning from being a treestand hunter to hunting the West was being way too tentative, as I was stuck in the stealth mindset that is so important when hunting whitetails.” Kenyon isn't alone, every whitetail hunter is wired to be hyper cautious. After a few blown stalks, you pick up quickly what you can get away with and where the edge of aggressiveness lies. Kenyon commented, “Eventually I learned that elk are used to lots of commotion, and that the best way to get close to elk during the rut is to embrace that commotion, make lots of noise, move fast and be aggressive while closing in. Pete has found success in recent year by identifying the deep timber and other areas of interest and still hunting through them when the bugling action is slow. “After years of quite literally abusing my knees running the mountains, I have had to adjust my game. Elk hunting is not static, it is a constant ebb and flow you must adjust to. I have figured out how to adjust and have had success.”
On paper, you can plan the perfect hunt, pick out the most remote canyons and pockets of timber, away from the crowds but there are inevitably lessons you will have to learn through old fashion trial and error. But in order to help you avoid future blunders, the guys shared several pieces of advice. One big question is about overall physical, mental and gear preparation, Kenyon says he learned the hard way on his 2014 Idaho bull. He says “I wish I'd been warned of the importance of testing your pack with extreme loads of weight. I'd loaded my pack up before with 30-50lbs. and hiked around a little. But I'd never really tested what it might feel like with 80-100lbs, which was what I eventually had to carry when I packed out my bull. The end result of not having known this ahead of time, was that I had to pack out way more weight than can be comfortably carried in the pack I brought in 2014, I paid dearly in pain and misery.” Testing gear and relying on the input of fellow hunters is so valuable before you head west mixed with general physical preparation everyone agreed makes tough hunts just a bit more bearable.
Helusing commented on the importance of choosing a good hunting partner. “Having a good partner will not only dramatically increase your odds of success when hunting out West, it’ll exponentially increase the enjoyment of the adventure. You can hunt solo, of course, but I wouldn’t recommend it for most new hunters.” That said, a bad partner can ruin a hunt, and I’d rather hunt solo than hunt with someone that isn’t prepared, committed, optimistic, and has a balance of being serious about the pursuit, yet lightheaded enough to remember to enjoy the process.” Pete agreed with this statement saying, “You are spending ten or so days stuck in the wilderness with someone else, there had better be synergy between both of you that is willing to go the extra mile while not getting upset over little things.”
Quackenbush advises western rookies to save the money and invest in good optics. “I came out West with probably the worst pair of binoculars ever and I suffered miserably for a couple years before I figured out that I needed to change tactics. I now have a pair that I can see for miles and glass all day. It has made the difference in my approach out here.”
Going West takes preparation, commitment and focus. The hard truth is, you will hit slow times, it might take years to learn and feel like it was a wasted allocation of resources. It is a bit of a cliff to jump from but Kenyon says, “Spending time out west and hunting while you're there, is an experience that every hunter should have. It will push you in new ways as a hunter and person, reawakening instincts buried deep in your subconscious, and it will leave you with stories for a lifetime.” Don’t stay home out of fear, channel it into positive focus, do the research and start working towards punching your first western tag.