April 28, 2016
People often ask me, what are the hardest animals to hunt with a bow? The easiest? Well, I don't know that anyone can definitively answer these questions because the variables are too great. And one person's "easy" might be another's "impossible."
Still, since people have asked, I'll give it a shot. Over the past 45 years, I've taken 23 species of North American game, and I have hunted three others — without success. My opinions related to bowhunting come strictly from personal experience, not from any science, surveys, data, or opinions of other hunters.
Everyone has his or her own background, and many people with more experience than me probably would disagree with some or all of my conclusions. But this is my story, and I'm sticking with it.
Easiest To Bowhunt
Most of the easiest animals are those that have an Achilles heel that favors bowhunters. For black bears, that would be their stomachs. Hunted over bait in the spring, they can be downright easy. For that reason they make the perfect beginner's archery quarry.
The same can be said for pronghorn antelope. Their weakness is water. During hot summer days, they WILL come to water. So a blind on a waterhole is virtually a sure thing.
That being said, these can also be two very tough animals. I've spent enough 14-hour days in antelope blinds, and long, silent evenings in bear stands to know hunting offers no guarantees. And stalking bears and antelope eyeball to eyeball can prove close to impossible. The pronghorn's 10X eyesight and the bear's 10X nose and ears can defy the best efforts of any bowhunter.
For me, mountain goats have been one of the easiest species to bowhunt. In the Lower 48, of course, all goat tags are issued by drawing, so the hard part is getting a tag. But having drawn tags in Montana and Idaho, I have hunted a total of three days and killed two billies. With their white coats, they're relatively easy to see, even on snow.
If you can get above and sneak down on them, they seem almost oblivious, as if they just do not believe a predator would have the guts or ability to climb up there. So they do not panic. Of course, the caveat here is "if you can get above them."
Frequently, goats live in places where a human being cannot (or should not) go. More than once, I've scared myself silly trying to reach a specific goat, and have had to back off and admit defeat. But on the ones I've reached, I have had close, easy shots.
In this category, I would include most of the mainline big game animals — deer, elk, moose, caribou. The term "deer" is so broad, and the variables in hunting them so great, no one can make a universal statement about deer hunting. How can anyone compare the difficulty of stalking Coues deer in Arizona with stand hunting for whitetails in Iowa with backpacking for Sitka deer in Alaska with hunting over bait in Texas or Saskatchewan?
Well, the answer is no one. Still, I would maintain that wherever they're found, deer are deer. They're generally abundant, so you can count on finding animals, and they have similar senses — good eyes, good ears, and fantastic noses. And like other big game, all deer have an Achilles heel — the rut — and that almost always gives hunters an advantage. In short, deer generally present enough of a challenge to give successful bowhunters huge satisfaction, yet they're easy (read, abundant) enough to give bowhunters constant hope.
While elk are relatively abundant throughout the West, two things separate them from deer: 1) They generally live in more remote country and require more of an expedition to hunt them, and 2) They live in isolated pockets, which makes them harder to locate.
In terms of senses and wariness, I think bowhunting elk and deer are about the same, and they both have that Achilles heel — the rut. For bowhunters, the elk rut is a huge advantage, because bugling bulls are far easier to locate than silent bulls. And the bugling season adds a fun dimension absent from much other big game hunting.
"One bowhunter's 'easy' might be another's 'impossible.' "
Moose take the size element another step beyond elk. In a recent story, I said that moose were my favorite big game because they're big and aggressive, they live in remote wilderness, and they can be really hard to bowhunt — or really easy. When you average out the really hard and easy aspects, I guess that equals medium difficulty. However you look at it, moose are great bow animals that every bowhunter should pursue at least once in a lifetime.
The animal many bowhunters seem to "graduate" to after hunting deer and elk seems to be caribou, and why not? Nothing compares to the magical sight of sweeping caribou antlers streaming over a distant horizon. I have hunted caribou from Alaska to Newfoundland, and even though the record books break them down into five categories, they're all similar. For U.S. citizens, of course, the barren ground caribou of Alaska offer the only do-it-yourself option.
Caribou populations fluctuate greatly, so always research thoroughly to make sure you're hunting in a currently good area. I don't recommend hunting during the rut, which takes place in early October. Caribou are some of the finest eating animals — my favorite — but rutting bulls are nearly inedible.
Hardest To Bowhunt
Mountain caribou have proved my nemesis. That doesn't necessarily mean they're inherently the toughest animals to hunt, but they've certainly proved hard for me. Mountain caribou are the caribou that live in the mountains of northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories.
While I have killed the other four categories of caribou, the mountain variety has eluded me. I have been on five major hunts covering more than 50 days — two in B.C., two in the Yukon, and one in NWT — and have not released an arrow at a mountain caribou.
I can't explain my futility, except to say that on my last three hunts I did not see a single mature bull. Perhaps the moral of this story is: Research areas and outfitters to ensure a good fit. Just because an outfitter says he has caribou, doesn't mean he has great hunting. Like all caribou, mountain caribou travel constantly, and they may simply not be in the areas you're hunting. Whatever the case, I personally put mountain caribou among the toughest animals to hunt.
As I wrote recently in Bowhunter's Pure Bowhunting column, I have spent 86 days over seven hunts pursuing brown bears with no kill. In terms of time spent in the field versus tags filled, brown bears have proved the most difficult for me. I think that's due partly to the nature of big bears. By nature, they are solitary animals with sparse populations. On average, you might see a half-dozen bears on a 10-day hunt — or you might see none. They also have incredible ears and noses, the ingredients for tough stalking.
Despite my history of futility on big bears, I still would not rank them as the toughest to bowhunt. I would reserve that honor for bighorn sheep. Since 1988, I have taken five bighorn hunts — three in Idaho, one in Wyoming, and one in Colorado. In 74 total days of hunting, I have killed one average ram — in Colorado in 1993.
Just drawing a tag equates to winning the lottery, and then getting to the sheep often requires a major expedition. Also, sheep densities are low and the animals live in isolated, often timbered pockets, where just spotting a ram could take days of glassing.
Not least, their legendary eyesight is, well, legendary. They will spot your head poking over a ridgetop from a mile away, and they will not ignore it. When they see something out of place, they get out of Dodge. Now, I have talked to hunters in Montana who have shot 190-inch rams virtually off the road, and they almost dismiss it as easy. And I have killed Dall sheep in Canada, where they were fairly easy to spot and stalk. But bighorns are a different story. In the areas I have hunted, they have kicked my tail. That's why I consider bighorn sheep the toughest animals to bowhunt.