Tag Archives: techniques

All the Fish in Utah: A Reel Life Goal

21-pound brown trout taken in 2012 from Causey Reservoir, Utah.

Preface:  Yeah, I know this is a bowhunting blog, but fishing is hunting–underwater hunting to be exact–and many of the same hunting concepts apply.

Every Fish in Utah

Way back before video games and cell phones, when I was a little kid growing up in Northern Utah, we farm kids wiled away our time in the outdoors. Some of my earliest memories were time spent trout fishing with my  family. My love for fishing continued strong into my teenage years and pretty soon I was dodging work to go fishing any time I could.

It wasn’t long before I began exploring new waters with exciting, new fish species ranging from bass, to sunfish, and weird stuff like arctic grayling and tiger musky. I guess variety truly is the spice of life because I loved catching a new fish way more than the same old boring trout.

Somewhere along my angling path I picked up a DWR fish regulation booklet in which was printed dozens of full color fish pictures. I was pleasantly surprised at just how many fish species we had living in Utah, due primarily to the wide range of temperatures and elevations this state affords. In a nanosecond I decided to catch every single fish before I died; it was my life’s goal. As an aside, I had no interest in catching the wide variety of trash fish (carp, suckers, and chubs) so I left them out.

Throughout my troublesome twenties, I systematically checked off fish after fish. It was quite the adventure. Some fish, like the white bass, pike, and tiger musky, existed in only one or two lakes, which forced me to make several surgical strikes along the way. Not only did I end up exploring countless new waters, but I was learning all about specific fish behaviors and special techniques for catching them. I talked to dozens of fish shop owners and DWR officers over the years and found the whole process to be fascinating.

Only Five to Go

As I neared my thirties, my list of remaining species had shrunk to only five species: walleye, whitefish, striped bass, and northern pike. This is where things got complicated. The DWR, in their infinite wisdom and biological prowess, began cross-breeding several species to produce entirely new species of sterile hybrids. These included tiger trout, splake, and wiper bass. It seemed that every time I crossed a fish off my list, they added a new one. It was frustrating, but fun!

The tiger trout was the craziest fish I ever met. The first one I hooked actually took of “running,” or skipping, across the lake surface. I lost several before finally landing one. There’s something about crossing a brown trout with a brook trout that brings out the crazy.

Tiger trout, Birch Creek Reservoir.

The toughest fish was the elusive walleye. This silver-eyed, nocturnal bottom-hunter exists in just a few Utah lakes, the closest being Willard Bay. For five long years I researched walleye, bought piles of walleye-specific lures, and beat the waters to death trying to catch one. I fantasized about punching the walleye in the snout if I ever did catch one. Finally, one cool and dark evening on the shores of Willard bay in 2000, I landed an 18-incher on a white curly tail jig. I didn’t punch it, but made a delicious walleye dinner instead.

Finally, a walleye! Willard Bay, 2000.

The whitefish–an ugly, bottom-feeding fish resembling a cross between a trout and a carp–fell next to my fly rod on the Weber River. One freezing, winter afternoon I bounced a nymph along the bottom and BOOM, caught and photographed a whitefish, then tossed it back. Only two fish left!

The Lowly Burbot

Nope, make that three…  Around this time, some ass-clown, bucket-biologist tossed a ling cod (aka burbot) into Flaming Gorge and it just took off. This ugly fish, which resembles a cross between a snake and a living turd, exploded in the vast waters of the Gorge and now threatens to wreck the entire fishery. Nonetheless, it was placed on my hit list. In the winter of 2011 I signed up for the Burbot Bash Fish Derby and caught an ugly burbot the first night out. I almost didn’t want to touch it, but man was it delicious!

Ling cod (burbot) from Flaming Gorge, 2011.

Only Two Left

In spring of 2011 I made a solo trip 400 miles to Lake Powell to target striped bass from shore. I’d amassed a huge pile of striper data over the years…none of which really helped me, that is, except for chumming. Shad lures were the purported ticket: buy a bunch of white and silver lures and throw ’em till you catch a striper. I chummed the water with a pile of cut-up shad pieces and then casted and reeled and casted and reeled to no avail.

My secret weapon. DO NOT SHARE! ;>)

An hour later, with nary a bite, I was rummaging desperately through my tackle box when I spotted my secret weapon: a 4-inch, green tube jig with red flakes. This unsuspecting lure had caught more fish than any lure I own. In no time I was fighting a big ‘ol striper bass to shore…and then 12 more! Amazing! Only one more fish to go: the northern pike.

My first striped bass. Lake Powell, 2011.

Pike occur in abundance at Yuba Lake in Central Utah, which just happened to be on my way home from Powell. Could I actually do it???

Nope. Runoff was high that year, and the lake was flooded and freezing cold. I wandered all over the limited public access shoreline while tossing everything I had into the water to no avail. Then I went home empty-handed.

2012 was a great year, not because the world didn’t end, but rather I got several days off with my wife for a second round at the northern pike. My goal was simple: Fish all day, every day, and NEVER come home till I’d accomplished my life’s goal.

It was a warm and calm day, the 22nd of May, 2012. We loaded the old green canoe on the roof of my truck and headed south. (NOTE: You definitely need a boat when fishing Yuba. A canoe will work.) We canoed around while tossing spinners into likely pike areas…I think…though I’d never actually seen a pike in reel life. ANYHOO, I got good tug, set the hook, and reeled in a small pike, but a pike nonetheless.

Mission Accompished

I was ecstatic! Well, I was ecstatic for about 2 minutes. After taking pictures however, a deep emptiness set in. It caught me off guard. All I could think was, “Now what!?” I guess I didn’t believe it would actually happen. Now what?

Mission accomplished!!! Northern pike at Yuba Reservoir, 2012.

After 30 years, I’d fallen in love with the chase even more than the fish. Each new species was an exciting new adventure. Countless nights I’d stayed up late studying fish behavior and learning new tactics. Each new fish was accompanied by an adrenaline surge and a great sense of accomplishment. And now it was over.

Such is life.

Now What?

I have since set newer, bigger outdoor goals. I probably won’t live long enough to reach them all, but I now understand that it’s the pursuit I love most. Moreover, it’s the people who support your goals and accompany you on your crazy adventures. (Special thanks to my wife, Esther, who supported me whole-hardheartedly through my mad, mad life.)

Without goals we flounder through life and get lazy. Mediocrity sets in. Give me adventure, give me passion, give me conquest, or give me death!

Conclusion – The Art of Zen Fishing

The most valuable single piece of information I gained from my quest is fish Zen. No matter where I fish, I can pretty quickly get a feel for when, where, and what the fish are biting on. As my lure moves through the water I can almost visualize where the fish are and how they’ll respond to it. Infinite knowledge and experience is archived in my subconscious and conscious mind. I make my next cast and retrieve based not on speculation, but infinite data points, some of which I’m not even conscious of. What does it all mean? I’ll never starve. There’s a simple, primal, and invaluable confidence in knowing that you’ll never starve.

Now It’s Your Turn

Now it’s your turn, if you so desire. Utah has 30 game fish species strewn all over the state, and I’ve never met another person who’s caught them all. Close, maybe. So why not try it yourself! Send me any questions you may have and I’ll be glad to help you out. Truthfully, I’m sitting on way too much fishing information to just take it to my grave.

Happy Fishing!

Advanced Archery Technique: The Relaxed State

The Advanced Archery Technique

All suffering is caused by desire.  -Buddha

Over the past several years I’ve taught hundreds of people basic archery. Of all these students, only a handful are what you might call “naturals.” They follow instructions carefully, excel immediately, and break through to the next level at an astonishing pace.

But even these “naturals” eventually hit a wall: their accuracy plateaus, they fatigue out and eventually falter. At this point they often turn to me and ask, “What now? I’ve mastered the basics, but how can I hit closer to the bullseye?”

As their intrepid instructor, it’s my duty to guide these students to the next level. The problem I had early on–and what my students didn’t know–was that I too was wondering the same thing! When you’ve mastered the basics–that is, when you’re executing the shot sequence flawlessly and still coming up short–how do you increase accuracy?

Eventually I passed this question along to a famous national archer. When he didn’t respond I had no choice but to break down my own shot sequence to see where potential weaknesses could set in. Here’s what I discovered.

The Problem

The thing that gets between the bow and the target isn’t the arrow,  it’s you! Every archer, no matter how advanced, goes through slumps. A few missed shots can quickly erode confidence by allowing negative factors such as fatigue, discouragement, and desperation into the shot sequence. It’s a vicious cycle: the harder you try, the worse you do.

The Fatigue Factor

Physical fatigue is the greatest negative factor, especially for the beginner who hasn’t yet developed his back muscles. Just as he begins hitting close to the bullseye, he fatigues out. But there’s also mental fatigue, caused by trying to over-aim the arrow into the bullseye over and over again. Finally there’s spiritual fatigue, the byproduct of chronic misses. In the end, all this fatigue erodes confidence and creates a downward spiral.

Zen in Archery

From the Zen perspective, all suffering comes from desire. Desire, of course, is healthy and even necessary for any activity. But when desire turns into obsession, that’s when we suffer.

In archery you suffer from your very first shot. You strain physically under the weight of bow while your mind strains to aim the arrow. And when your arrow falls short of the bullseye, your spirit strains from the pangs of failure, resulting in desperation.  In short order, your whole being–mind, body, and spirit–is strained!

I see this all the time. The student grasps another arrow, and another, faster and faster while simultaneously grasping for the bullseye which is rapidly becoming an impossible target. Very quickly he creates the bad habit of high-stress archery, and this can take a long time to fix.

So, what’s the fix? It’s simple.

Instead of drawing the bow to a state of high tension, we need to learn how to draw to a relaxed state. Drawing to a relaxed state removes your self from the shot by eliminating negative influences over the arrow. Hence, your bow shoots itself. In Zen archery, eliminating your “self” removes desire, which in turn removes stress and suffering.

The Relaxed State Exercise

  1. Bring only one arrow with you on this exercise.
  2. Set up five paces from a large, blank target.
  3. Load the arrow.
  4. Stand up straight and spread your weight evenly between your feet.
  5. Grasp the string firmly and draw to your face while taking a deep, deep breath.
  6. At full draw, look up and away from the bow. Look at the sky and the clouds and the trees. Breathe out, and back in again. Feel the strength of your body as it overpowers the scrawny bow. Forget the bullseye; no one cares if you hit it anyway! Say to yourself, “I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been in my life.”
  7. Now let down the draw smoothly; don’t shoot the arrow.
  8. Catch your breath.
  9. Repeat the process, only this time, when you’ve reached your highest  state of relaxation, release the arrow. Don’t aim at the target. Just relax your shooting hand until the shot goes off. This is what a relaxed arrow feels like.
  10. Maintain this relaxed state as you walk to the target and pull your arrow. Repeat these relaxed shots over and over until it becomes habit.

That’s all there is to it. You are now drawing the bow to a state of high relaxation rather than a state of high stress. You’ve turned a bad habit into a good habit.

Real Life Example

One day I approached a talented young student who was literally drawing a circle around the bullseye with errant arrows. Wide-eyed and desperate, he turned to me and pleaded, “What am I doing wrong?!” I watched him fling yet another arrow just outside of the bullseye. I told him, “You’re trying to hard.” I went on to explain that missing the target wasn’t the end of the world; that his passion for archery–the whole meditative process–was far more important than a single bullseye. I had him breathe deeply and look around at the beautiful mountains. A moment later he calmly drew his bow and sank the next arrow into the bullseye. His face lit up and he hugged me. Years later he still talks about his enlightening experience.

Conclusion

Your bow is designed to shoot a perfect arrow every time. The arrow only misses when you let yourself get in the way.

For every student that asks, How can I shoot more accurately?, there are a few others who comment on how meditative archery is; how it relaxes and focuses the mind. These students typically aren’t the best archers at first, because to them the process outweighs the result. I view these students as the real naturals, and they even prove it when, eventually, their arrow finds the bullseye with seemingly little effort.

Shooting in a relaxed state is the secret to Zen archery. On a grander scale, you might say that living in a relaxed state is the secret to a Zen life!

How to Keep Your Honey Hole a Secret

Secrecy in Hunting

A long time ago I read a quote that always stuck with me:

Never make a liar out of a man by asking him where he hunts.  (author unknown)

Do you have a hunting honey hole? Hopefully you do, but if you flap your gums about it, I guarantee you’ll lose it.

For twenty-five years I hunted Utah from top to bottom. I started at the top, and now I hunt the bottom. Meanwhile I’ve lost some amazing areas. Some areas were affected by drought and poaching, but most were lost to kindness. How does this happen???

How we lose our honey holes

Humans–by nature–are kind and sharing creatures. When someone asks us where we hunt, we get excited and start spewing information beginning with, “Promise you won’t tell anyone…” Worse yet, we take a “trusted” friend or family member out to our secret area. In either case, that person inevitably extends the same privilege to someone else, and so on, and in a few short years your “secret” area is swarming with hunters and lost forever.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating total selfishness here. As veteran hunters it’s our moral responsibility to help other hunters, especially youths and beginners. I take great pride in steering my fellow hunters towards success. But there’s no harm in keeping a little piece of the woods to yourself once in a while.

How to keep your honey hole a secret

A few years ago I missed a shot on a real monster-buck who was living a secret life on a steep mountainside in a nearby unit. When the season ended, dozens of family and friends asked me, a) how my hunt went, b) what I saw, and c) where I planned to hunt next season. My reply was: No, I didn’t see anything worth shooting, there’s no way I’m going back to that unit again, and no, I haven’t decided where to hunt next year.

I knew that the greatest threat to my future success at that buck wasn’t cougars, winter kill, or poachers. It was me and my big mouth! So I kept it shut.

What are best ways to keep your area a secret? Here are the three most effective strategies when dealing with prying questions:

  1. Lie:  I hate liars, honestly. But if you lie to me about your secret honey hole, believe me, I’ll understand. Tactless as it may be, people are going to ask you where you hunt. It’s sad, but sometimes lying is your only option. On the topic of lying, when you finally shoot a real trophy and enter it into the record books (Pope & Young or Boone & Crockett) they’re going to record what county you took the animal in. This is yet another area to consider changing the truth. But what if you’re just too honest to lie? The next best option is to be a politician, and deflect…
  2. Deflect:  If a friend asks me where I hunt, I’ll say Southern Utah (rather than the actual unit). If someone asks whether I saw anything decent, I’ll say No, not really. They might not realize that, to me, decent means 200+ inches. Now, if the questions just keep-a-coming, I’ll revert back to step 1. But what if lying AND deflection aren’t your thing? Consider being honest…at your own peril…
  3. Be Honest: By honest, I mean just say NO. “No, I won’t tell you where I hunt because it’s a secret and I’m keeping it all to myself.” Yeah, that’ll go over well with your best friend, or your mom. Honestly, honesty isn’t always the best solution. All kidding aside, a close friend shouldn’t be asking you where you hunt in the first place. Instead, they should understand why you’re keeping it a secret. If not, you might ask yourself whether you’d rather lose your honey hole, or lose your friend. Tough, I know, but just remember, you can always find more friends, but there’s only one honey hole!

Other Considerations

Before we wrap it up, there are two other ways you can still jeopardize your honey hole without saying a word:

  1. Photos/Video:  As photography, videography, and Facebook become more popular, it’s imperative that you leave recognizable landmarks out of your photos. One example is the Beaver Unit (in Utah) with it’s distinct mountain peaks. It looks awesome to have those peaks in the background of your trophy photo, but it’ll also give away your location. The best way to avoid background elements in your shot is to zoom in on your subject. By shooting tighter, you can greatly reduce the background size.
  2. GPS Metadata:  As an added feature, many cell phone cameras record your GPS location, and then attach it to the metadata of your image. TURN THIS FEATURE OFF! I stumbled upon this years ago while reading an online story from a local hunter. I was real curious about where the dude was finding such huge deer, so I clicked on a pic and brought it into my photo editing software which displays metadata information. Sure enough, the precise GPS location of his “secret honey hole” was pinpointed ONLINE for the world to see. Note: I believe honey holes are sacred, so I left his area alone. But what about thousands of other desperate hunters?

Conclusion

Here in the far-flung future, where an exponentially exploding population of all-consuming humans are decimating our finite and already-dwindling natural resources (aka game animals), secrecy in hunting can make all the difference between having grass-fed-organic, sacred venison on our tables, or resorting to caustic, mass-produced, over-priced store meat.

Sadly, when it comes to hunting we’re living in cutthroat times.  I don’t know about you, but that’s enough reason to keep my trap shut. It’s high time we hunters band together to save the endangered honey hole!

Always Pull Another Arrow

Always Pull Another Arrow

This is one little–but all-too-important–hunting skill that bow hunters should be practicing. It might seem intuitive that, immediately after your first shot, you should be pulling and loading another arrow. But it’s not.

The wait-and-see approach can make all the difference between success and failure. This is why you hear guides on hunting shows always pleading, “Shoot again, shoot again!”

Bow hunting is different than gun hunting insomuch that the animal often doesn’t realize you’ve shot, especially at longer distance where he doesn’t hear the shot. Sometimes the animal doesn’t even know he’s been hit, which can afford you a follow up shot!

Hit or miss, your non-bow hand should be immediately grasping and loading another arrow. It’s one of those skills that’s acquired over time through real-life hunting experiences, but rarely practiced.

Now, I don’t want to pick on my wonderful bowhunting wife, but here’s a classic example:

On our first archery turkey hunt, we called up a group of mature toms. Forever they gobbled while cautiously circling us, so we moved in on them. When the biggest tom broke the treeline, I whispered the yardage and Esther let an arrow fly…and missed. The tom jumped, then meandered off. Desperately I whispered, “Shoot, SHOOT!”, but when I turned around, I saw that Esther hadn’t loaded another arrow. What seemed intuitive to me was not intuitive to a newbie-hunter.

Practice Makes Perfect

To avoid this mistake I recommend incorporating a simple shoot-and-pull technique into your regular practice routine. Note: It’s best to use a real-life 3D animal target to help train your brain for real-life scenarios. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Shoot your first arrow. Hit or miss, you have five seconds to…
  2. Pull, load, and shoot a second arrow.
  3. Repeat.

Pretty simple, huh? Given enough time afield, I guarantee that practicing this technique will one day save your hunt. Hit or miss, having a second arrow ready can make all the difference between success and failure.

Stop-Rot: Saving Your Hide!

What is Stop-Rot and why do I need it?

Stop-Rot is an anti-bacterial liquid preservative that “extends the work time of a fresh hide by slowing down or stopping decomposition,” thus saving your trophy hide from decay and hair loss.

Stop-Rot was developed by taxidermist/chemist, Glen Conley, specifically for saving hides from hair slippage ahead of the tanning process. It has been used widely in the taxidermy industry for many years, and now hunters are starting to use it too.

After killing your trophy animal, bacteria begins to multiply all over the animal, especially around wet and bloody areas. In a relatively short period of time, bacteria starts attacking the skin and hair follicles, thus leading to hair slippage and a ruined hide. A good taxidermist can fix almost anything, but very little can be done to save a hide with hair falling out.

Hair Slippage: This hide was ruined by bacteria before it even arrived at my shop.

Because bacteria thrives in warm temperatures, Stop-Rot is especially useful during early-season hunts that occur in August and September. Traditionally salt was used to preserve hides afield. However, salt dries out the hide and makes it virtually impossible to flesh properly before going into the tanning process.

How to Use Stop-Rot

Stop-Rot can be used on both the flesh side of the hide and the hair side. The instructions say to “apply Stop-Rot as soon as possible after the animal has been skinned.” For this reason I always keep a bottle of Stop-Rot back at camp. I’ll spray it on any bloody spots or short-haired areas like the face and ears. I just spray it on and massage it in. Be sure to spray a light coating over the entire flesh side of the hide.

Applying stop-rot to a freshly-skinned hide.
Apply Stop-Rot to facial areas including eyes, ears, mouth, and nose.

Where Can I Buy Stop-Rot?

Stop-Rot costs about $22 a quart and is only available through taxidermy supply companies like Van Dykes or Trufitt. To avoid paying shipping, request a bottle from your taxidermist. Note: If you live it Utah, you can buy Stop-Rot at Trufitt’s physical store at 1744 South Redwood in Salt Lake City.

Conclusion

Stop-Rot should be used when hunting in warm conditions or any time you can’t get your hide to a freezer or taxidermist in a timely manner. Although I’m constantly touting the benefits of Stop-Rot, I don’t receive any sort of commission. My taxidermy business, however, relies on working with usable hides. More importantly is the preservation of your hard-won trophy.

Stop-Rot: use it or lose it!

Best Pre-Hunt Preparation: The 3D Archery Range

Preparing for the Hunt at the 3D Archery Range

With the Utah archery hunt only a few weeks away, it’s time to get serious about pre-hunt preparation. Over the years we’ve discussed several ways to prepare for the hunt; things like exercise, scouting, mediation, and shot execution. But I would argue that nothing gets you ready like hitting the 3D archery range.

What is a 3D range?

A 3D range is simply a series of life-size, foam animal targets set up in a natural environment. The targets are roughly the same size and color as the real animal. Just like regular square targets, 3D targets have a series of concentric circles overlaying the vitals, but are nearly impossible to see at any distance. This aids in proper shot placement, yet allows for scoring your shot.

Fun for the whole family:
Russell and his son harvest some foam.

How is a 3D range beneficial?

How is it NOT!? A good outdoor range is set up in a life-like manner so that some shots are uphill/downhill, often through brush and trees, and at various random yardages. Add to that odd angles, wind, bugs buzzing around your head, uneven terrain, sun in your eyes, back lit targets, and sweltering heat…well it’s a recipe for a real-life hunting experience! And that’s why it’s so crucial to try it at least once before the season starts. Besides, it’s a ton of fun for everyone.

Jerry missed high and right…

What can I expect to learn at the 3D range?

A lot! Right away you’ll be disappointed at your lack of skills; and that’s the point. Most people start the summer by shooting in their backyard on flat ground, all while shooting square targets with brightly colored bullseyes. That might be great for sighting in your bow, but over time it does more harm than good because you’re training your mind to shoot under very predictable circumstances. The 3D range–on the other hand–mimics the adverse conditions you’ll certainly find in the woods, and really trains the mind to expect the unexpected, a skill that’ll prove invaluable afield.

Esther nails a 55 yard bison bullseye.

How can I maximize my 3D experience?

I’m glad you asked. The most effective way to practice is to shoot two arrows per target: the first arrow is shot without using a rangefinder, and the second is shot after ranging the target. This really helps to train your eye to judge distances for situations where there’s no time to range the animal before the shot.

Next, you’ll want to shoot in various body positions: standing, kneeling, or even squatting to keep your arrow from hitting an overhanging branch.

For the best possible experience, hit the range with a buddy or two, and be sure to keep score. After teaching archery for four years, I’ve found the best way to tighten up an arrow grouping is to engage in a little competition. Pride is usually enough, but toss in a few bucks and watch the competition soar.

Splitting arrows on a wolf target.

Conclusion

No matter what state you live in there’s likely a 3D range nearby. (Just google it). If you don’t have a range, you can always purchase 3D targets from any outdoor retailer. Unfortunately 3D targets are quite expensive, but having one or two will prove invaluable if you apply the aforementioned regimen.

I suggest visiting a few different ranges, and then concentrate on the most challenging one. For best results bring some friends and really push yourself. Shooting the 3D range is the most effective way I’ve found to improve your shooting skills before entering the woods. And believe me, golf will never be the same.

Spot-and-Stalk Black Bear Hunting Top 10 Tips

Spot-and-Stalk Black Bear Hunting

Spring black bear season is fast approaching, so today I’d like to offer my top 10 tips for bagging a black bear spot-and-stalk style.

Full Disclosure: I am NOT a professional black bear hunter. I bow hunted bears in Idaho on two separate occasions (2012 and 2016), and last year was my first successful hunt. That being said, I spoke to two different biologists in advance of each hunt and studied everything I could find on black bear hunting, habitat, and behavior. Still, it took many days to finally get the job done.

Interestingly, much of the theoretic data I collected in the preseason proved wrong. For instance, one article stated that early morning was the least productive time to spot bears. But in my experience I saw just as many bears early as later. One biologist mentioned that bears absolutely hate the rain, but I ended up shooting my bear in a steady rain storm. Go figure.

Ultimately, spot-and-stalk success comes from boots on the ground and relentless time in the field; in other words, real-life experience. Now let’s get on with my tips.

Spot and Stalk Black Bear Top 10 Tips:

1. Food is Everything: Someone once said that black bears are just big hairy pigs. They eat, dig, and root around constantly, rarely holding still for very long. Since they’re so distracted, it should make them easy to hunt, right? Kinda. Like deer, bears feed for a while, then bed down for a few hours and repeat. The good news is that bears are easy to spot and generally found out in the open.

Bear feeding on south-facing open slope near old-growth forest.

Spring bears primarily feed on new grass shoots, wild onions, clover, dandelions, and other spring offerings. It is imperative to talk to your regional biologist to find out what the bears are primarily feeding on in your area.

Bears in western Idaho feed heavily on yellow flowers called “arrow-leaved balsamroot”.

As for time of day, my advice is to hunt bears like deer: Get to a high lookout before first light and start glassing steep, grassy, south-facing slopes adjacent to old-growth forest (used for bedding). Of the nine bears I encountered last year, most were spotted in the early morning or late afternoon.

Even in the best units, you’ll likely glass many miles before actually laying eyes on a bear. If you can’t glass up a bear, keep moving. Get away from the roads, explore remote canyons, and cover as much ground as possible. Bears are solitary animals and are spread out across their range. This leads to tip #2.

2. Look for Sign: If glassing fails, the next step is to locate an area that looks “beary” and look for sign. You’re looking for large piles of black or green dropping, claw marks on trees, tree trunks rubbed smooth with hair attached, diggings, tracks in mud, turned over items, and dug-in tracks (see photo below). I’ll break these things down separately as we go, but basically you’re just looking for concentrations of bear sign and focusing your efforts there.

The most common sign you’ll encounter is droppings, aka scat. Droppings come out wet and green, then quickly oxidize to black (within 24-hours in warm weather). If you’re not finding droppings, keep moving.

Fresh green bear droppings.

3. Examine the Trees: An area dense with claw-marked trees is a good indication of a likely bear hang-out. Black bears–especially cubs–like to climb trees which leaves claw marks in the bark.

Claw marks.

Bears also rub on trees just like deer, and they always have their favorite rub tree. Rub trees occur near trails or beds and are generally conifers with easily identifiable smooth spots with hair stuck to it.

Rub tree located on a saddle crossing.

4. Watch for Tracks: Unlike deer, bear leave few tracks because their foot pads are wide and soft which spreads their weight out. Most bear tracks are found in snow, mud, or soft dirt.

Rear foot track in mud.

Another strange phenomon I found was “dug-in” tracks. Dug-in tracks are frequently found near bedding areas. Rather than soft tracks, these are trails that bears uses every single day while traveling from feed to bed. Because they step in the exact same spots each day, it creates staggered depressions in the ground. (see photo below)

Dug-in tracks.

Bear tracks will help you judge the size of a bear. Basically the main pad (front or back) of a mature bear (sow or boar) will be 4.5 inches or wider. Sow tracks generally don’t get bigger than 4.5″, but a big boar will stretch up to five or six inches.

Five-inch wide front track made by a boar.

5. Locate Bedding Areas: Bear beds are similar to deer beds and are usually located in thick stands of trees not far from feeding areas. Bear beds often look like large nests, whereas the bear pushes branches and ground cover out to the edges of the bed. Bears also like to bed on the cool, dark north-face near the tops of ridges. Also, just about every bed I found had multiple piles of scat nearby.

6. Watch for Items Turned Over: What the heck does this mean? Rocks, logs, and cow pies turned upside-down. This is something I never read about before, but everywhere I found bears or bear sign I found multiple items turned upside down. A rock lying next to a depression in the ground where it previously lied is most common. In springtime bears are primarily herbivores, but they really love protein from insects, grubs, mice, and other animals hiding underground. You’ll also encounter occasional diggings. Diggings consist of a random two or three-foot holes dug into the dirt where the bear went after a squirrel or other animal.

7. The Triple “S” of Bear Behavior: Secretive, Shy, and Slippery: Assuming you’ve found a good feeding area with lots of bear sign, there’s still no guarantee you’ll find a bear. On several of my hunts I found areas littered with bear sign, but no bears anywhere. Slippery: Bears have a bad habit of disappearing right in front of you. They mosey behind a tree and they’re suddenly gone from the world. They are such quiet animals and chronically secretive. They are very shy and simply don’t want to be found.

Being patient is the key to bear success. When a bear finds a good feeding area/hillside, he’ll likely stay on it for several days. If you’re in a good location, or if you glassed up the bear earlier in the day, he’ll likely re-appear sooner or later in the same general area.

8. Watch the Nose: Bear hunting is technically easier than deer hunting because unlike deer, bears have relatively poor hearing and eyesight. However, the bear’s nose is equal to or better than a deer’s nose. Simply put, if he smells you it’s game over, so hunting according to wind direction is critical. Be sure to use a windicator when searching for or stalking bears.

Note: Bears have short attention spans. If a bear sees or hears you, hold very still and he’ll likely forget you were there.

9. Watch the Weather: Just like deer, bears avoid heavy rain or snow. However, a light or sporadic rain doesn’t seem to bother them. Hungry bears will happily brave the elements, and bears are always hungry! In my experience rain was not a factor, but snow and freezing temps were real bad news.

On two separate occasions I spotted a bear one day, and when the snow moved in the next day it disappeared from the mountain. This is especially a problem in the early season (April and May) when the bears are living close to their dens. When the snow flies, they head back to their dens and won’t emerge again until the weather is better. It’s much easier for them to just go back to bed and wait for brighter days.

10. Know the Anatomy: Unlike hooved animals, bears carry their vitals (heart/lungs) further forward in their chest. When a bear is broadside the front shoulder blocks the vitals. Therefore, you must time your shot for when the front leg is moving forward. I learned this the hard way by trying to squeeze my arrow too tight to the shoulder. My arrow hit the bear’s big, powerful shoulder which stopped my arrow short of the vitals. Fortunately he swung around to face me and my second arrow sailed under it’s chin and into the chest. He didn’t go too far, but I was lucky. Fortunately bears don’t react the same way as deer; they’re more likely to stay put after a poor shot instead of instinctively sprinting away.

Conclusion

I hope you found these tips helpful for your spot-and-stalk bear hunt. I realize that the majority of bear hunters prefer using dogs and/or bait, but in my experience there’s nothing more exciting. challenging, or rewarding than getting it done on the ground the old-fashioned way.

My 2016 spot-and-stalk black bear.

Good luck, and be careful out there!

Hunt Like a Cougar

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.

How to Hunt Like a Cougar

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

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!

Whatever it Takes Bowhunting

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Doing Whatever it Takes to Succeed

During last year’s bowhunt I missed a 50-yard shot at a pretty decent buck. Since then, I’ve pondered the miss hundreds of times in effort to pin-point exactly what went wrong.

There were many factors to consider: steepness of angle, a crappy rangefinder, holding the wrong pin, buck fever, etc.

By the time I patterned the buck, the season was over and the buck had disappeared. In order to avoid making the same mistake(s), I’ve addressed every possible variable:

  1. I replaced my old rangefinder with one that calculates angles AND can actually see through brush to avoid false readings.

  2. I switched to a single pin sight in order to eliminate wrong pin selection and pin-gapping issues under pressure.

  3. I dialed up my bow poundage in order to get a flatter arrow trajectory.

  4. I began shooting steeper angles.

My summer schedule is a consummate nightmare, so rarely can I go to the mountains and shoot angles. So I found the highest point in my yard (my rooftop) and began shooting from there.

There’s an old saying: “What a fool does in the end, the wise man does in the beginning.” At this point, I implore you to anticipate the worst possible shot scenario and practice for it. Do whatever it takes, because big bucks rarely give you a second chance.