Tag Archives: stalking

Hunt Like a Cougar

Who is the greatest mule deer hunter in the world? That’s right, it’s Mr. Cougar (aka mountain lion). Out West an adult cougar kills a mule deer every 10-14 days. That’s 30 deer per year!

Why do we care? Because the average western hunter is lucky to kill just one mule deer in a year. At that rate how can anyone expect to improve their skills, especially when hunting with primitive weapons? Perhaps we can learn a few things from our feline friends…

Cougars are actually similar to humans in many ways. For instance, we’re both predators and meat-eaters with forward-placed eyes designed to catch fast motion. We’re similar in size and even color: a cougar is tan/orange just like a human before he dons some fancy camo pattern. And just like cougars, we love to hunt mule deer!

A few years ago I started comparing my own hunting style with that of a cougar. I found this to be a surprisingly helpful way to hone my hunting skills and make decisions afield.

Below I’ve listed several traits that make a cougar such an efficient mule deer hunter, and how we can learn from them:

• Cougars stalk very close: Killing is done eye to eye, paw to hoof. Survival means stalking very close and remaining completely undetected. Deer can’t see super-slow motion or fine detail, so the cougar capitalizes on those weaknesses. Stalks can last several hours, and even then, most stalks end in failure. But the cougar persists and eventually eats. The two greatest virtues a hunter can glean from cougars are patience and persistence.

• Cougars are light on their feet: Have you ever seen an obese cougar? Heck no. Mature males typically weigh 125 to 220 pounds, and they only eat as much food as is necessary to survive. Cougars also eat 100% organic, lean meat and avoid processed food and carbs. Instinctually, cougars know that over-eating will slow them down and make them inefficient killers. What can we learn? It’s pretty obvious: stay trim.

• Cougars hunt alone: Cougars rarely hang out in packs, and when they do it’s usually a young family or juvenile group. Adult cougars live and hunt on their own. There’s no reason in the world they would hunt in a group. Hunting in a group increases visibility, doubles their scent, and slows them down. A cougar doesn’t get home sick or lonely either, which makes him mentally tough and distraction-free. For all these reasons, bowhunters can benefit greatly by hunting alone too.

• Cougars cover lots of ground: A cougar’s home range is anywhere from 10 to 300 square miles, and he often travels hundreds of miles in search of game. He’s constantly mobile. If a cougar keeps hunting the same mountainside every day, he’ll eventually run out of food and starve. Human hunters might consider doing the same. If you aren’t finding deer where you have in the past, it might be time to move on. Being flexible enough to explore new areas (or new units) could be the ticket to success this season. More importantly is being physically able to cover lots of rugged country once you’re out there.

• Cougars don’t carry extra weight: Killing is done using powerful fangs and claws, not heavy, cumbersome weapons and a pack-load of gear. The cougar travels light, carrying only the basic necessities to live full-time in the wild. Sure, humans have different physical needs, but how different are we, really? We have a coat, the cougar has fur; we have a tent, he has a den; we have shoes, he has footpads, etc. Is a GPS, binos, cell phone, or camera really necessary to kill one mule deer? As for weapons, there are a myriad of lightweight options available. Many bow manufacturers make compound bows weighing less than three pounds, and traditional bows weighing less than one pound!

• Cougars minimize scent: There’s no question that cats are clean animals, and the cougar is no exception. Unlike pack hunters (wolves and coyotes) the cougar hunts alone. Thus, he incorporates daily tongue baths and carefully buries his stinky treasures, all for the sake of reducing his presence afield. For us humans, vigilant scent reduction increases your overall success by reducing your footprint in the woods. Of course 100% scent elimination is impossible, but there are a number of ways to reduce scent without going overboard. I am a big proponent of field baths as well as scent-eliminating sprays, deodorants, and detergents.

Conclusion:

Down through the ages cougars have used their innate and learned hunting skills to locate and kill more mule deer than any other animal on earth. This perfectly adapted predator doesn’t require fancy gadgetry, technology, apps, or upgrades to be successful. The next time you’re thinking about making changes to your hunting routine, ask yourself, “What would Mr. Cougar do?”

Final Note: If you ever get a chance, buy a tag and shoot a cougar. They are tasty, but more importantly we really don’t need the competition.

Happy Hunting!

Three Pillars of Bow Hunting Success

While bow hunting last year, it occurred to me that success can be divided into three equally important pillars. To put it in perspective, I created the diagram below:

Think back to your last hunt. Were you successful? If not, which pillar did you fall short on? Since each step is equally important, it should be easy to pinpoint where you need improvement.

Let’s break it down:

The first step, locating a buck, is something you can start doing right now. The best way to locate more bucks is to study their behavior, habitat, and ecology. You can also research harvest data and biologist’s reports on the unit you are planning to hunt. Then later, the scouting begins.

The second step, stalking a buck, is not always intuitive. Getting close to big bucks is the hardest step to master because, unlike shooting, it’s something we rarely get to practice. What it really boils down to patience: knowing when and how fast to move depending on conditions such as wind and cover.

Finally, shot execution. Almost everyone I talk to is pro-class shooter…until their arrow flies wide of an unsuspecting buck. Bowhunters are lucky just to get one or two shot opportunities in a season, so it’s very important to prepare for real-life hunting scenarios in advance. The best way to do this is to practice shooting in different positions, unknown yardages, around objects, and in adverse conditions such as wind.

I’ll certainly keep this “wheel of success” in mind when going into the next hunting season. I call it a ‘wheel’ because it just keeps on turning, year after year. After completing all three steps in a season, it begins again the following year. The goal is to keep the wheel from going in REVERSE, which only happens when you blow a stalk or botch a shot.

Good luck on a great buck this year!

The Future of Hunting: Part 2

This is Part 2 of 2 articles addressing changes in hunting in the future. In Part 1 we examined possible changes in the animals we hunt simply through the natural processes of adaptation and evolution. Not only are these animals getting smarter, but are capable of quickly adapting to new technology and modern hunting methods. What some modern-day hunters don’t realize–especially us older hunters–is that we must adapt just as quickly to our prey.

edu

Future hunters will either do what it takes to get a buck or fail most of the time. In nearly three decades of big game hunting I’ve observed a split–or chasm–developing between traditional deer hunters and the new super-hunters. In the future, hunters will be divided into two camps based on their willingness to adapt to modern animals. These two camps are: a) Extreme wilderness athletes (super-hunters) willing to spend tremendous resources for trophy-class animals, or b) Fair-weather hunters who spend little time afield, hunt mostly for fun rather than food, hunt mostly on weekends, and are happy with any size animal or even no animal.

The following items will separate the new hunter from the traditional hunter:

-The future belongs to the EWAs!
(EWAs = Extreme Wilderness Athletes)
EWAs find time each day to work on their health via diet and physical training. It’s might not be critical to be “extreme,” but you’ll still need to be a wilderness athlete (WA). Being a WA simply means getting yourself to the animals no matter where they are. The bigger the buck, the harder you’ll have to work for it. The biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful hunters is physical fitness. Out-of-shape hunters simply can’t drag their butts up the mountain to where the deer are. Today’s superdeer rely on hunters to only make it so far, and where the hunter stops the deer begins. I know it’s pretty obvious, but the guy riding around on the four-wheeler will have far less luck than the guy burning boot leather in the steep stuff all day.

video_Still_003

– EWAs scout more days than they hunt. Scouting isn’t optional; scouting IS hunting. With fewer trophy opportunities in the future, you’ll need to locate prime areas ahead of the hunting season. Scouting not only means locating game, but devising a Plan B, C, and D as well.

– EWAs don’t have to worry where the deer falls; they can always get it out. In the past, many of us refused to go too far into the mountain because we figured we couldn’t get the animal out if we got one. Not anymore. Wilderness athletes train hard enough to get anything out. And if it isn’t possible for one person, then they’ll enlist help from their friends, or have horses available. I spend about 20 – 25 day hunting deer each year. As much as I love so many days afield, I’d much rather drag a deer out after just 1 day! Whenever I catch myself making excuses for not going deep and steep, I remind myself of that it’s FAR easier (both mentally and physically) to spend a couple days dragging a superbuck out of some hell-hole than it is to hunt for days on end without success.

cougar1

– Go LIGHT! Future hunters hunt like cougars. In the cougar hath nature created the perfect deer killer. An adult cougar must kill a deer every 7-10 days to survive. No other animal kills more deer than a cougar. Whenever I want to improve my hunting skills, I look to this animal for advice. The first thing I notice is that cougars don’t carry any gear; well, aside from their powerful forearms, fangs, and razor-sharp claws. This goes hand-in-hand with my anti-gear mentality. Less gear = less weight = success. Simply put, the lighter your load the farther you can travel, and with less fatigue. Now, to survive as humans we need to carry a few basic necessities (fire, water, weapons, clothing, etc.), but there’s always room to cut weight. In places where water is abundant, I’ll carry a water filter instead of water bottles. One of the best ways to cut weight and reduce fatigue is to wear lighter footwear. Also, most bow manufacturers offer super-light bow options. In almost every crevice of your daypack you’ll find a way to reduce weight.

– Future hunters will rely on skill rather than equipment. For quite some time I’ve been warning people of the phenomenon known as “equipment-bandade-syndrome,” or EBS. EBS can occur in both men and women who suffer from prolonged hunting failure, or PHF. To conquer PHF, hunters often attempt to buy their way out by purchasing some hot, new piece of equipment to solve some inadequacy. The reasoning is simple: It’s far easier to change your gear than it is to change yourself. Unfortunately there’s a million items out there to buy, whether it’s some high-tech camo, a new speed bow, or $3000 optics. ATVs are my favorite! Not too long ago ATVs became a requisite for hunting; every serious hunter suddenly needed an ATV. I don’t own one but I love ATVs because ATV-people rarely travel very far from their machines. This keeps the competition down in the woods. People with EBS need to focus on HOW they hunt, not the equipment they hunt with.

IMG_9752

– Future hunters have no fear. The woods belong to the brave. All hunters–men, women, and children–must enter the woods without fear of being killed or maimed. Fear is more common than many think, and the problem with being afraid of the woods is it interferes with your focus. To be successful, 100% of your focus needs to be on the vast subtleties of your prey and the environment around you. If you’re scared of the boogie-man or a bear around every bend, then you’ll miss subtle clues such as tracks, rubs, sounds, etc., which will lead you to your prey. The woods are especially spooky when you stay out after dark. But if you wait to enter the woods when it’s light, or return to camp before dark, then your missing your best opportunity.

– Future hunters spend more days afield! To be successful you must be willing to put in the time. It used to be that one weekend was enough to get the job done. For me it was about four days. When I became serious about big bucks it stretched to a week, then two, and now it seems I’m constantly fighting free up every single day of the season. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, it’s going to take many days to locate a decent buck and come up with a viable strategy to take it. These aren’t the same animals our grandpa hunted. We need to incorporate a more dedicated strategy if we are to be successful.

video_Still_008

– Future hunters are invisible. We discussed this last month, but as a recap being invisible means entering the woods in a way that you aren’t detected by the deer. This means using the wind to control scent, not leaving scent in the woods for the deer to discover at night, and avoiding audible and visible clues as you move through the woods. All of this is necessary because today’s big bucks hardly ever give you a second chance. If they detect any sort of danger they’ll flee the area and your hunt is over.

Another facet of being invisible is being invisible to the public’s eyes. Each year hunting becomes increasingly frowned upon by the ignorant, general public. To protect our livelihoods, it’s sometimes necessary to keep our hunting aspirations secret. More importantly is to keep your hunting locations a secret from other hunters! It seems that every time I disclose anything about my new hunting or fishing spots, a bunch of so-called friends and family follows me into the woods and blows up the area. In today’s hunting world there’s just way too much competition. At the same time there are far less areas that hold good deer.

The first law of nature dictates that “Quantity always destroys Quality.” Our population in Utah grows by more than 40,000 people each year, yet we have a fixed amount of natural resources; a fixed amount of deer, fish, habitat, and public land. From this crux brews desperation, meaning more and more people are eager to blatantly intrude upon our secret-sacred areas. Some of the best hunters I know are reluctant to even share field photos/stories with anyone in order to protect their dwindling honey-holes. I suggest you do the same. Like many hunters, I used to put hunting stickers on my truck. After having my tires slashed in the woods, I no longer announce myself as a hunter. If anything I might put pro-Hillary or PETA stickers on my truck just to protect my vehicle and my camp from anti-hunter terrorists, or even worse, competitive hunters with no moral scruples.

Conclusion

For all of evolution, both predator and prey were forced to adapt to each other in order to survive. In today’s world, finding and harvesting a trophy animal is getting more difficult. Today’s deer are ingenious survivors capable of quickly adapting to us and evading us no matter what we throw at them.

In the near future I foresee a divide between hunting camps, and the formation of two distinctly different hunter types: a) traditional hunters hunting yesterday’s ghosts and rarely having success, and b) modern super-hunters continually adapting to their prey, dedicating their lives and livelihoods this greatest passion, and having consistent success on quality bucks.

Deer Hunting: Five Levels of Alertness

mule-deer-1

Beginning hunters think there’s two kinds of deer: spooked deer and un-spooked deer. What they learn over time is that there are many different levels of spookiness, or alertness.

When you encounter a feeding or bedded buck–which hasn’t detected your presence–you’ll immediately notice his relaxed appearance; ears low, eyes calm, head low, etc. When you encounter a buck that has busted you, it’s the opposite. All you’ll see is “dust and butts.” But somewhere in-between these two opposites is where most bucks reside.

The reality is that when the hunt starts, 99% of all bucks know it! They’ve heard the trucks and ATVs roll in, they’ve smelled the hunting camps, and more importantly they’ve been alerted well in advance simply by the angle of the sun and it’s relationship to the buck’s internal clock that sounds the alertness bell (right around mid-August in Utah). Also, if you’re hunting an area that has lots predators, the buck will be somewhat alert most of the time, even at night.

My few encounters with big bucks last year got me thinking about this. What I concluded was that in high-pressured public lands all big bucks live a daily life of alertness. The only times they aren’t on high alert is at night, or pre- and post- hunting season. Why is this important to know? Because your method of approach/stalk must be based on your accurate assessment of the buck’s level of alertness. For example, if the buck is bedded AND alert, then your approach will be much slower than if the buck is bedded and dozing off.

Based on this knowledge, I’ve developed a level of alertness system. It ranged from 0 to 5. Level ‘0’ means the buck is carefree and happy, there’s little predator presence, and there’s no hunt going on. Level ‘5’ means he’s turned inside out and running for his life! Your job as a hunter is to estimate which level the buck is at, and then adjust your approach accordingly. The following is a breakdown of levels:

Level 0:
-The rare state of big bucks indeed. Only occurs pre- or post- season, like during scouting trips. (As described above.)

Level 1:
-The hunting season has begun, but the buck is bedded in a secure area with the wind at his back. His eyes are closed, ears pinned back, and chewing his cud. Or maybe he’s sleeping with his chin on the ground. Otherwise, he’s up and feeding, alone or with a small group, and has his head buried in the bush for long periods of time. Or perhaps he’s rubbing a tree low to the ground without stopping to look around.

Level 2:
-The buck is bedded but his head is up and looking around. He may have heard or smelled something, but not 100% sure. Or maybe he’s feeding sporadically, often lifting his head to scan the scene. Also, a buck on the move–like when he’s looking for a bedding or feeding area–will always be at level 2 or above because they’re always alert when moving from one point to another.

Level 3:
-The buck has heard, smelled, or seen something out of the ordinary. He’s staring in a particular direction for a prolonged period of time. This is often the case when a squirrel fires up, when forest birds go silent, or when there’s increased road noise in the area. Maybe he suddenly stood up in his bed. This is an alert buck scanning for danger. His head is high and his muscles are tense. In his mind he’s planning the safest possible escape route. However, if the threat never materializes, he may go back bed or feed.

Level 4:
-The buck is tense and ready to bolt. His eyes are wide, head is high, and ears are pinned forward. Sky-lining yourself, even at great distances, almost always triggers a level 4. Otherwise, he’s probably caught some of your movement or scent, or heard a non-natural sound, i.e. clanking of an arrow or breaking of a twig. Either way you are pinned down and he won’t stick around much longer. You either have a shot or he’s gone.

Level 5:
-It’s over; dust and butts! You are busted; the threat has been verified. You probably won’t see this buck again this year. This happened to me three times last year, and no, I did not see the big bucks again.

In future encounters with bucks I urge you to practice assigning levels of alertness. It’s a fun and handy tool, especially when hunting with other people. For example, when hunting with my wife I often cite the current assessment level of the situation. She may think I’m some kind of obsessive buck-nut, but she also knows what I’m talking about and will apply it to the stalk-situation at hand.

Over- and Under-Estimating Big Bucks

muledeer_011
(Photo courtesy of Utah DWR)

This post is dedicated to the properly estimating your chances at big bucks:

Any seasoned hunter will tell you, “NEVER underestimate big deer!” I agree, but experience also tells me that ‘NEVER’ really means ‘SOMETIMES.’

I have spent up to 7 hours stalking big bucks, and other times, I’ve barreled right in on the animal, either because I was losing light or he was distracted by something.

I’ve also watched hunters (hold on, I’m trying not to laugh, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.. sorry…) walk directly at a deer or elk, in plain view, thinking he’s invisible because he’s wearing camouflage! I’m not joking! You should’ve seen the look on the animal’s face just before it jumped up and ran away.

What it boils down to is that every situation is different. You can’t judge the current situation on the last situation, whether it worked out or not. In bowhunting there are way too many variables.

Big bucks are extremely wary…most of the time. On very rare occasion you’ll catch a buck being lazy or carelessly feeding, allowing a hunter to run in on him. MOST of the time, you can’t get within 60 yards–which happens to be bow range–without extreme caution. This is sometimes referred to as the 60-yard bubble. Within this bubble, the buck’s senses are exceptionally acute. This is where critical decisions make or break your hunt.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of situations that either causes me to speed up my approach, or sloooooow way down:

When to speed up your stalk:

  1. It’s getting dark. Fortunately when it gets dark, it’s gonna get light again…in the morning. Unless the buck is on the move, or in a rare situation, you have the option of pulling out and trying again in the morning. If morning isn’t an option, you better roll the dice and make your move.
  2. The buck is about to unbed. A bedded buck is a Godsend. Assuming he just bedded down for the day, you know where he’ll be for several hours at least, and you have all day to plan your approach. However, if he’s about to un-bed, you better make a decision. Can you get close enough for a shot before he stands? Because when he stands, it will be far more difficult to get closer.
  3. The wind is about to change. If the wind is in your face, your odds of success go up. But everyone knows that wind shifts. Wind shifts a) when the weather changes (i.e. before and after a storm, and b) when the thermals change. In the evening and early morning, the wind blows downhill with the cooling air. In the late morning and afternoon, the wind blows uphill with the warming air. These are called thermals, and the conscientious hunter always plans his attack based on this. Wind is the most important factor when getting close to big game. Noise is a close second.
  4. There is cover noise. I’ve used every possible noise for cover including blowing wind, flying grasshoppers, squirrels barking, jets flying, buck fights, etc. Anything that makes noise–other than you–will help you get closer faster.
  5. The buck is feeding into thick timber. When a buck heads into the thick stuff, it can sometimes be easier to get closer, but if it’s too thick–like a stand of willows–you may never get close enough, not even five yards, without busting him out. Make your move before he gets swallowed up.
  6. The buck is distracted. Distractions range from bucks fights to squirrel chatter but include anything that gets the buck to look the other way. The best distraction is when they rake trees with their antlers. This is especially common with elk. They are nearly blind with their face buried in a fur tree.

When to sloooooow down your stalk:

  1. When the buck beds down for the day. Again, you have several hours to get close. Take your time!
  2. The wind is steady. If you’re lucky enough to be hunting during a stretch of steady weather, you can use predictable wind to keep your stalk slow and methodical.
  3. The ground is noisy. Try sneaking to twenty yards with a forest floor covered in dry pinecones, gravel, scree, or pine needles. Dry conditions are a nightmare, especially in thick cover. Sometimes, it is simply impossible to get close enough. Fortunately, there are a couple things that can help you. First, take your boots off and stalk-in-socks. Second, wait for cover noise. Dry, hot conditions often bring flying grasshoppers to life. Their loud, short-burst flying often provides valuable cover noise to get a step closer.
  4. The buck is facing you. If you’re trying to stalk close to a buck that’s facing you, you shouldn’t be moving at all! However, if the buck’s face is hidden from view, and you’re unable to circle around him (wind, terrain, etc.), then a super-slow-motion stalk is Don’t think so? Try it sometime. A couple years ago, I spent 3 hours stalking toward close to a cow elk bedded on a ledge in plain view. Unfortunately, it got dark and the elk unbedded at 30 yards, but I didn’t have a clear shot. If you understand anything about deer eyes, you know they have a hard time seeing fine detail and slow motion.  If you can move slow enough–and without blinking–you can literally walk right towards buck without him seeing you. The trick is moving extremely slow. When you finally get too close, say 30 yards, he will see you. Unless you have cover, I don’t recommend trying this.

These are just a few examples of when to speed up or slow down. What it really boils down to is common sense and experience. Most importantly, spend time observing and studying your prey. What are their strengths and weaknesses? The more you understand your prey, the better you’ll understand yourself as a predator.

Stealth in Hunting

video_Still_008

As bowhunters soon learn, the deer’s few disadvantages are greatly outweighed by its many advantages, particularly in terms of its super-sensory abilities. Now, assuming you’ve finally located a deer undetected, how does the novice hunter close the distance—that very small gap required to get within bow range? Of all the skills a bowhunter must learn, stealth is probably the most important and difficult to master.

During my early bowhunting career I climbed clumsily through the woods, snapping twigs and crunching pinecones as I went. Meanwhile, all the forest creatures sat staring my way in horror. Eventually, you get tired of busting all the deer out before you see them and learn to slow way down, becoming painfully aware of each step which is carefully placed around endless twigs, pinecones, brush, and crunchy pebbles. You become obsessed with wind direction which is your best friend or worst enemy. You must diligently adjust your approach against the breeze which carries your human scent back and away from you. Not only can you use wind direction for scent control, but the rustling leaves and howling wind can work wonders to camouflage the inevitable noises you do make. But hunting in high winds has its drawbacks too. Like most prey species, deer are extra wary on a windy day because it’s difficult for them to hear predators approaching. If you observe a buck feeding on a windy day, you’ll see his head up and looking around a lot more than usual. They also tend to stay bedded longer.

Besides using the wind to mask my noise, I try to keep my movements to a minimum. You’re obviously going to have to move to find deer; ambush plans don’t always work. When you find yourself hunting midday, for example, and it’s dreadfully hot and the deer aren’t moving, then you must move. Otherwise, you are here and the deer are there and you never meet in-between. But you can still optimize your approach. For example, I rarely take more than eight or ten steps before stopping to listen and glass over the ever-changing landscape. Many years ago I developed a game to help me with stealth. Whenever I snapped a twig I would force myself to stop and sit down in that very spot for fifteen minutes and just listen. I found that unless I continued making noise, the deer would eventually go back to what they were doing. But if I continued moving, the deer would confirm the danger and leave. A single noise in a forest full of other wildlife is eventually discarded by the deer. Countless times I’ve watched deer turn and stare in the direction of a noise with eternal patience, but if the sound wasn’t repeated, they’d eventually go back to their normal routine.

Every track, rub, bed, and sign you encounter, along with other factors such as wind, terrain, and forage, will dictate your direction of travel. The hardest part is moving undetected. It was during one of these early lessons that I had my first encounter with a bull elk. It was my third archery deer hunt and I had just spent much of the day ghosting along slowly and quietly, like a puff of smoke through the dense timber. Suddenly, a patch of tan fur caught my eye only ten yards ahead of me. I crouched down and observed a giant six-point elk standing in a thicket of pines, completely oblivious to my presence. I didn’t have an elk tag so I just sat and watched him while he stood and watched the woods. At that moment, I knew my lesson in stealth was complete.