All varieties of North American big game are special for one reason or another. But they certainly are not created equal. And, no two bowhunters I know will rank the 29 species recognized by Pope and Young exactly the same. But I have definite opinions about which are more difficult to hunt than others.
Stand hunting is certainly easier in some respects than stalking or still-hunting. The archer who waits for game has every advantage, provided that person is quiet and well-concealed. For that reason, I do not regard largely stand-hunted species like whitetails, black bears, and pronghorns as unusually hard to bowhunt.
That being said, a whitetail is one of our toughest critters to bowhunt on foot. There is no more “switched-on” animal in the woods. Likewise pronghorns, with their incredible eyesight, can be a challenge to stalk, but I have shot many by sneaking across broken terrain. From an enclosed blind near water, the pronghorn is one of our easiest archery animals.
Bears have poor eyesight and only average hearing. Their noses are superb, but a bear of any variety is a slam-dunk if you have the wind right. I have shot all four types of North American bears with a bow, and they are certainly nifty animals. But all in all, they are not that difficult to hunt with a bow.
The cougar was the final animal in my 1990 archery Super Slam. It was also the only one of the 27 species then recognized by P&Y that required me to go on more than one hunt. I shot my lion on my fourth attempt, and between dry ground, poor outfitter hounds, nighttime snowstorms, and other conditional problems, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see a cat in a tree. But from a pure hunting and shooting perspective, cougars are seldom that difficult to bag.
As I’ve written before in this column, I believe that wild sheep are overrated. Sure, they are glamorous, and sure they are expensive, but my experience with wild sheep has been underwhelming. I shot my entire four-sheep Grand Slam in 14 elapsed days of hunting, and I took the Dall, Stone, and desert varieties in only five total days. The bighorn was the hardest because of severe November weather, but the sheep itself was a typically gorgeous dummy. If you are in good physical condition and know how to hit an eight-inch circle with your bow out to 40 or 50 yards, the wild sheep should be fairly easy for you.
On the flip side, a mountain goat is underrated. He’s not glamorous because his horns are so small, but he lives in terrain that would scare a wild sheep half to death. In my experience, goats are not any warier than sheep, but their habitat makes them harder to hunt.
The muskox is an odd duck because the hunting method is highly dependent on time of year. My November muskox required me to hike and shoot at –68 degrees, but that animal was bayed on the ice by sled dogs — not especially hard to approach. By comparison, my August muskox required a long stalk over rolling tundra in fairly warm weather. Either way, the remote habitat of the muskox makes hunting him more of an ordeal than a genuine challenge.
By comparison, America’s other bovine, the bison, is one of our most difficult and most overlooked trophies. Unlike a game-farm buffalo, a truly wild and free-ranging bison from Pink Mountain in B.C., the Henry Mountains in Utah, the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, or Teton County, Wyoming, is very hard to find, stalk, and bring down. I have personally taken six fair-chase P&Y bison, and every one required hard hunting.
In general, I hold antlered varieties of game in high regard. Caribou tend to be the easiest, regardless of variety, in part because they are usually on the move and lend themselves to being ambushed.
Moose are a step up in difficulty. Before and after the rut, a bull moose can be difficult to find in his normally dense habitat. And even during the rut, cow moose tend to make shooting a bull a less-than-easy event.
In my mind, the elk is a supreme animal to bowhunt. Sure, a rutting bull can be foolish, but not usually a big, old rutting bull. Hard-hunted elk of any variety tend to be call-shy and alert. The spine-tingling bugles and grunts, the beautiful terrain, and the excellent meat all make elk special. But so do the elk’s razor-keen senses and innate ability to survive.
Like elk, mule deer are often underrated by Eastern whitetail hunters. The problem here is the age of animals that are most often encountered. A young raghorn bull elk or 3×3 muley buck can be easy to call or stalk. But a seven-year-old bull, or a five-year-old buck, tends to act like a whole ‘nother species. I have stalked dozens of trophy elk and mule deer, and these animals are difficult. Elk are magnificent and alert, but a gnarly old mule deer is even more switched on to danger.
I love to bowhunt both varieties of blacktail deer, but Columbian blacktails are more difficult than Sitka blacktails. When I cut my bowhunting teeth on Columbian blacktails in California as a kid, the archery success rate was less than five percent. It isn’t much higher now. By comparison, almost every bowhunter who hunts Sitka deer bags at least one. Nonetheless, the physical demands and rotten weather often encountered on Sitka hunts can make these deer quite a test.
The Coues deer, in my mind, ranks as the single-hardest North American animal. This small, desert-dwelling whitetail is preyed upon by mountain lions a lot, and lives in incredibly dry and noisy terrain. If you can find a waterhole in arid Arizona, New Mexico, or Old Mexico, you might be able to ambush this wily deer. But more often, you will blow stalk after stalk before getting a shot at this alert and nimble animal. As America’s top “string-jumper,” the next question is, will he still be there when my arrow arrives?
For the ultimate in hair-pulling frustration and fun, try the Coues deer!