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Hunting the Wide-Open West

Keep these tips in mind for a successful stalk.

Hunting the Wide-Open West

Successful crossbow hunting in the open expanses of the West requires extreme caution and patience, especially as you close in for the shot. (Author photo)

The morning started at a relaxed pace as we drove to our prime area as the sun started to rise. Normally, the hunt would begin well before legal shooting light, but covering large expanses of land trying to find nomadic critters meant that seeing them first was the best strategy.

We parked on the highest hill and started breaking down the landscape with good optics. We could see for miles, and it didn’t take long to find several groups of elk.

A spotting scope was used to look over the bulls and devise a plan for getting closer. The goal was to find a target bull, stalk closer and wait until the elk bedded to move in tight. Western game species know how to use the lay of the land, and thinking like an elk or deer helps to put you in their bedroom when they least expect it.

The bulls fed across a grassy face and started working their way into a coulee. The sun often dictates what the animals will do, and the early season temperatures meant they would bed in low, moist areas to avoid heat. The bulls we were after did exactly that and moved into some buckbrush to settle in for the morning and chew some cud.

You need to watch two things as a western hunter — the sun and the wind. Tracking the sun across the sky makes it easy to determine where the shadows will provide the animals with some cover from the midday sun and heat. The wild card is always the wind, often shifting as the atmosphere warms. The bulls were in a good place, but we knew there were only a few hours before the wind would change and ruin our plan.

Bedded Is Best

We watched the bulls from a mile away and followed them as they snuck into their daytime bedding area. Experience has proven that an aggressive stalk while the elk are still on their feet usually fails. The plan is to keep tabs on them until they bed down and then sneak in tight for a shot.

Many years of hunting mule deer and elk in open country has provided insight to this weakness of our prey. It isn’t hard to understand — when a critter has a full belly and the temperatures start to rise, it's time for a nap. But just because the animals are bedded, tired and relaxed does not mean they have let their guard down. You’ll usually have lots of time to get set up for the shot, so use it to your advantage — the stalk is normally over if they see, hear or smell you.

When making a stalk, use the relief of the land to sneak in close. Crawl, slither on your belly or tiptoe through taller grass or brush to close the distance. Keep the wind on your nose and pay attention to changing directions of wind currents going uphill, downhill or in areas where the landscape can cause it to swirl.

Tough Lessons

On one hunt, I closed the distance on a big mule deer buck on a steep riverbank. The wind was blowing into the bank and was deflected and pushed in different directions. The swirling wind busted me as I got close and didn’t pay attention to changing conditions in the final stages of the stalk. I have little doubt the buck bedded tight to that bank knowing the wind gave him a significant advantage in staying safe.

It’s an excellent idea to watch the grass and other wind indicators. A wind checker with scent-free powder will swirl and dance in the wind, showing changing directions, so use it often.

Get Ready, Get Set

Closing the distance and getting near enough to hear a bull or buck regurgitate its cud is exciting. The hunt quickly becomes a mental game in which the hunter needs to stay focused. It’s important to get close, but not too close. A 30- to 40-yard shot is ideal, giving the animal space and preventing slight changes in the wind from foiling your plan. This also provides enough space so you are not obvious to the animal if it stands and looks in your direction.

It’s exciting to stalk in extremely close; however, experience has proven that staying undetected in the final stages of the hunt is challenging. Do not try to get the animal to stand before it is good and ready — no throwing rocks, calling or creating attention grabbers. Animals that rise from their bed alarmed often do so on the run. If they stand to look, they are on full alert and can jump the string or find you with their eyes. The secret is to let them stand on their own, stretch, yawn and stay relaxed. Remember, there is no rush.

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Occasionally, an animal will rise and provide the perfect shot angle. If it doesn’t, do not despair; stay patient and focused. If you did your homework, you will have ranged different objects while waiting. Hence, if the animal starts to walk and feed, you’ll still have time for an informed shot opportunity.

Give Yourself Advantages

When stalking on an animal, use a rest to support your crossbow in the shooting position. It isn’t always possible, but reducing movement and being able to engage the scope quickly can increase the odds of success. Take the first shot opportunity, but make sure it is the right one.

One thing a crossbow hunter really needs to practice is taking the safety off to shoot. A hard push with a single finger often creates a loud click that will alarm game when you’re in tight. Pressing the safety firmly and slowly moving it to the shooting position allows you to do so silently. Practice this process on the range with every shot, and it will become second nature when hunting.

If you can afford it, having a laser-rangefinding optic such as the Burris Oracle X or Garmin X1i compensates for angles and provides exact aiming points for immediate response times. Reducing movement, generating known shooting distances and having the ability to aim confidently are huge advantages when trying to seal the deal.

Archery hunters know it’s challenging when you are up close and personal with an animal, and not every situation ends with positive results. But, if you use each experience as a learning tool, there will be fewer disappointing moments in the future. Remember, the hunt is always the reward; a freezer full of venison and antlers on the wall are the bonuses.

My elk stalk I mentioned at the start of this column was perfect, and the execution put me within good range of the bull. However, one of the smaller bulls ruined the party, serving as a prime example of the importance of considering every factor when you are closing in. The good news is, that lesson has prevented me from making the same mistake again!




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