November 07, 2016
By Fred Eichler
In my July 2016 column, I touched on some challenging hunts, and since then I've had quite a few people ask me for more details on the subject. So here are a few of my top picks for extremely difficult hunts, and what made them such a challenge for me.
Out of the five species of deer recognized by Pope and Young, I have to give the award for "most difficult" to the diminutive Coues deer. To hunt these small deer in the U.S., you have to go to either Arizona, which has the largest population of Coues deer, or to select areas in southern New Mexico.
I killed my first Coues deer on public land in Arizona, where a buddy and I hiked into the backcountry and camped in the desert. The daytime temperatures were above 100 degrees, and at night I thought I was going to freeze to death.
It took many all-day sits at a waterhole for me to finally kill a Coues deer, and although he wasn't big by trophy standards, he was a monster to me.
The pack in and out with a lot of gear on public land, combined with drastic daytime/nighttime temperature swings, are what made this an extremely challenging hunt.
I have had tough hunts for whitetails, mule deer, and Sitka and Columbian blacktails as well, but for me, the Coues deer is at the top of my list of physically and mentally challenging hunts.
I have to include sheep on my list of tough hunts. Although there are four different species here in North America, I can't choose one over the other. The bighorn, Stone, Dall, and desert bighorn sheep are all found in difficult country to access without wearing out some boot leather.
They are also usually found above timberline, or in relatively open areas with limited cover, making stalking to within traditional bow range an extremely difficult undertaking.
Backpacking into remote areas, and long hikes and stalks make this a top-tier physical hunt. Mentally, if you're hunting without a guide on public land, just figuring out the draw information for different states and which areas have the best odds of successfully drawing a tag and hold the highest sheep numbers can be challenging as well.
If you opt for a guided hunt, figuring out how to come up with that much money and which credit card to put it on can be a mental nightmare, too.
I thought sheep hunts were physically draining, and then I went goat hunting. I often heard that you have to climb above where the sheep live to get into goat country, and there is a lot of truth in that.
To find a goat, all you have to do is find the steepest, roughest country that looks impossible to get to (and often is), and that is where goats call home. I have almost gone off cliffs and slid off the side of a mountain more times on goat hunts than any other type of hunt.
It is one of the few hunts where I often find myself questioning my own sanity. I also often find myself in bad situations where it is no one's fault but my own that I got into those situations in the first place.
If you're lucky enough to kill a goat, sometimes the recovery alone can be more dangerous than everything that led up to it because of the treacherous country where these cloud-dwellers live.
Most people don't think of pronghorns as a physically and mentally demanding hunt, but I definitely do. First off, the physical discomfort of sitting in a hot blind, where temperatures are commonly over 100 degrees, is taxing.
Do this for 12 to 14 hours a day, for several days in a row, and you are now looking at a form of torture that's actually used in some countries. For me, the mental challenge of pronghorns comes from watching a buck I want to shoot slowly work his way toward me (sometimes for hours) across the wide-open terrain.
Let's just say that more often than not, I am usually a certifiable basketcase by the time an antelope is in range.
I would be remiss if I didn't include elk in this column. Elk are smart animals that are usually found in rough country, in remote locations.
Admittedly, I am a little spoiled on elk, because we have them behind our house in Colorado where I've killed a few "easy" ones. But I have also harvested a lot of elk on tough backpack hunts on public land.
Fact is, most elk hunts take place in rugged country, and most elk are killed from the ground, so packing out is not for the faint of heart. Because of all this, elk are right up there on the toughest-hunts list as far as I'm concerned.
Grizzly & Brown Bears
In my opinion, out of the four species of bears, these two are the most difficult. Hunts for both take place in remote locations, and just getting to where they call home can be a chore.
Bowhunting grizzly and brown bears also usually requires camping out in these remote locations, and involves a lot of hiking and glassing to find a bear in a good location for slipping to within stickbow range. If the physical strains of these hunts — often in inclement weather — isn't enough, there is also the whole mental aspect of being extremely close to an apex predator.
Yes, I know that black bears attack more people than grizzly or brown bears, but there are also a lot more black bears in North America. I am also a lot more intimidated by a grizzly or brown bear than I am by a black bear. Maybe it's because I have been charged a few times and I'm a tad gun-shy of them. Or would that be bow-shy?
Hunts for any big game animal can be tough, and I've had some very challenging ones for species not mentioned here. In general though, this is my list based on my experiences.