Did You Hunt Well?

By Rob Shaul

Backcountry bowhunting seemed impossible at first. 

Prior to picking up a bow my big game hunting had been all rifle, and late October – when first snow on the ground made it easy to spot and kill migrating deer and elk. 

But bowhunting is in warm September, and I quickly found my knowledge of animal patterns, woodsmanship, and basic hunting fundamentals severely lacking. 

As well, unlike many sports where steady improvement equals success, when it comes to backcountry bowhunting, the hunter can do everything right but still fail. I’ve had deer I was stalking flushed by a black bear. Sage grouse spook antelope, and a sudden change in breeze carry my stink to a bull elk, sending him thundering through the timber. 

You don’t decide. Nature does. 

My first season I was a baby. Full of whine and self pitty, I embarassingly gave up. I actually quit mid-season. 

It took me two more years of ass kickings to learn the basics, and finally have things come together. 

Along the way the path to becoming a good hunter showed itself:

  • Time in the field. 
  • Focus on the fundamentals.
  • Constant vigilance – things can change in an instant.
  • Prioitize Learning.
  • Take what the Mountain gives you. 
Time in the Field

There is no shortcut to reps. Reading, watching and listening help, but time on the mountain is irreplaceable. Dialing in your gear, clothing systems and nutrition, dealing with the elements, getting comfortable sleeping on the ground, finding water sources, folds in terrain, animal movement patterns – you can’t do this looking at a screen. This learning only happens in the mountains.. 

Prior to backcountry hunting, June and July were spent fishing, with an occasional backpacking trip or peak backing effort thrown in. No longer. My fishing rod was cast aside and I spent summer weekends fastpacking to scout different drainages, glassing ridgetops, testing gear, clothing and nutrition, and building my “mountain sense.” 

I also needed “hardening.” Mountain toughness is like any other type of mental or physical toughness – it steadily declines when don’t train. This isn’t limited to physical fitness but also joint connective tissue strength, feet toughening, rock hopping balance, efficient camp set up and take down, route finding, dealing with hot and cold, and overall mental toughening. 

No matter how fit I am for the first summer scouting trip or how “tough” I think I am, the mountain always kicks my ass. I’m detrained. 

Excellence in the Fundamentals

Pronghorn antelope have binocular eyes. They live in the open country and use sight as their prime defense against prredators.  Without contant vigilence using terrain and slow movement to hide from these binoculars you’ll never get within bow range. 

Many times I belly crawled 400+ yards through sage brush only to glance up and see the buck standing another 400 yards away looking at me. I’m moved too fast and he’s seen the movement. 

Many times I crested the tiniest hill too quickly, only to see a group of antelope speeding away. 

Early on I learned that I could never move too slow. I could never be too cautious, and I could never afford not to use every terrain element available to my advantage. 

The more I hunted, the slower I moved. I’d bake in the sun creeping through brush in hopes of a shot. Take a step at a time cresting a hill, using my binoculars to try and spot antelope ears through gray-green sagebrush branches just over the rise. 

Human trails follow ridgetops. Game trails don’t – but are just below the ridge top, in the timber. Why? Because silhouetted game are easy for predators to spot … just as silhoutted hunters walking the ridgtop trail are easy for game to spot. Excellence in the fundamentals pushes the hunter to think more and more like the game, and adjust accordingly. This means no more hiking the easy ridgetop trail and instead fighting through the brush and timber just below.

Elk live in the timber and use their nose. Hunting elk, binos stay in their case and in my hand is a wind checker. I quickly learned the link between air temperature and air movement up and down the slope. I learned that stalking or approaching elk upwind is hopeless and how to position myself for the shot knowing the bull will come to my call downind. 

Fundamentals applied to gear, too. A cold night sleeping in wet merino caused me to switch to synthetic baselayers. A week hunting in rainy weather and soaked-through heavy leather boots caused me to switch to synthetic light footwear. Broken arrow quivers, bowsights and faulty mechanical broadheads impressed upon me that in the field, simple and bomber is always best. Too much gear and heavy gear led to unneccariy fatigue and I learned to pair down to the essentials and spend money to save weight. 

Constant Vigilance

I once read a scientific study which found that the fishermen who thought they were going to catch fish, actually caught more fish. Why? They were more vigilant and would see bites and changes that the fishermen who didn’t think they were going to catch fish, missed. 

In hunting, like fishing, things can change in an instant, and constant vigilance is rewarded. Daydreaming, internal complaining, or otherwise not being mountain aware costs shot opportunities. You’ll miss the little changes that matter, or make a fundamental mistake. 

Constant vigilance is necessary and intense.

Prioitize Learning

Once I shifted to a learning mindset, I realize the only way I could lose in hunting was to quit. 

No matter how bad the weather, how few animals, or how shitty the hunting, I could always learn something – even if it was the micro geography of the drainage I was in. 

Prioritize learning and you’ll always have success.

Take What the Mountain Gives You

Things never go your way. You’ll locate the animals in the  the perfect drainage pre-season, only find the basin full of other hunters on opening day. 

Camp in the perfect spot to climb the slope early for first lite glassing, only to find it’s littered with deafall and slow passage gets you to the glassing spot too late. 

Take what the Mountain gives you means you quickly quickly pivot to the next best thing. You pack up camp, and hustle to another drainage in time for the evening hunt. You find a waterhole, match the wind, and set up in a downind position in case something comes in. 

Setbacks aren’t setbacks. They are just signals to quickly and nonjudginly pivot to plan B. No big deal. 

Did you hunt well?

This is the only question that matters. Not did you harvest … in fact you can harvest and not hunt well. You can just get lucky. 

Were you excellent in the fundamentals? Were you constantly vigilant? Did you learn something? Did you quit early? Did you take what the Mountain gave you and make the best of it? 

At the end of the day, when you stumble back to camp or get back to your truck, this is the only question to ask yourself.

Did I hunt that well?

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