April 24, 2013
The nice 5x5 mule deer appeared suddenly just before sundown. I was hunkered in a brush blind near a waterhole in Montana. My main objective was elk, but I had seen the buck the evening before and hoped he might wander in for a drink. I had never shot a muley or elk over water, but the hot September day seemed a perfect time to try.
When push comes to shove, I prefer to bowhunt on foot. The buck was nibbling low bushes below a dinosaur spine of rock, the wind direction was right, and he was obviously not interested in water. I backed out of my blind and ducked in a brushy ravine. The deer was less than 400 yards away.
Successful stalks often happen fast. This one certainly did. I slipped behind a ridge, hustled uphill, and peeked beyond the top of the granite crest. Elapsed time was less than 10 minutes.
The buck's antlers were bobbing at close range. I snapped a reading on the rack with my Bushnell ARC rangefinder — 35 yards. I drew low, rose cautiously, and took one more step up the slope. The buck never knew what hit him. My Easton arrow drove deep from the 75-pound Hoyt bow, knocking the deer off his feet as it smashed the far shoulder. A rifle would not have done a more spectacular job.
The vast majority of bowhunters wait for game in a treestand or ground blind. Most are after whitetail deer. Black bear and pronghorns are also hunted from ambush most of the time. Over bait or near a waterhole, such tactics are deadly on bruins and antelope.
But day in and day out, foot hunting with a bow is more versatile and more deadly. Of the 29 North American big game varieties recognized by Pope and Young, only the three I just mentioned are vulnerable to stand hunting a majority of the time. All others, including elk and mule deer, are less predictable and more likely to be shot by a truly sneaky bowhunter.
Foot hunting, when properly done, is very effective and it also raises the level of challenge. I enjoy hunting from a treestand or ground blind as much as anyone, but I also know the difference between waiting and actively pursuing game. Sitting in ambush is checkers, and stalking critters is chess.
Every type of bowhunting turns me on, but I especially enjoy the intricate challenge of foot hunting game like a coyote after a rabbit.
Most bowhunters underestimate their ability to weasel close to animals. But I am here to tell you some amazing things can be accomplished. One of my best-ever stalks occurred on public land in Montana a few years ago. Unlike the Montana mule deer I stalked from the waterhole, the pronghorn on that fateful day presented an almost impossible challenge. But I had stalked and shot several antelope in the past, and knew anything could happen with patient sneaking and good luck.
It had been a dismal bowhunt until I spotted the big buck near the end of my trip. He was bedded along a slight prairie rise with a harem of does. Those eight-power eyeballs were peering in every direction, including toward me. I risked a quick look from my Toyota pickup, felt my heart jump as I sized up the buck's very high horns, and continued driving out of sight into a dry wash half a mile from the "goats."
I crawled to the edge of the draw and glassed again through a fringe of sage. Like most pronghorns, these did not concern themselves with the distant vehicle. They were still lying with heads up and eyes peeled.
I am a firm believer in camouflage clothing. My faded Realtree outfit was the same one I wore to shoot the mule deer described earlier in this column. But camo alone cannot fool a wary critter's eyes — especially those of the open-country antelope.
At its best, stalking is all about angle management. You study contours of the land and plan an approach that keeps you below solid dirt, rock, or foliage. If you need to belly-crawl to achieve this, so be it. Staying one inch below where your quarry can see is all you need to succeed.
In the case of the mule deer described earlier, angle management was easy. I hiked behind a ridge and shot over the top. But the big pronghorn was more difficult. As I studied the terrain, I realized I would have to make a giant circle, crawl along a shallow cut, and hug the base of the hill where the antelope were resting. Like most stalks, there was no telling in advance whether terrain angles would let me wiggle close. The antelope might not even be there when I arrived. I would have to try it and see what developed.
Hours later, with knees and elbows full of cactus spines, I slithered across one last stretch of dry wash and peeked through a bush. The afternoon breeze was fanning my face — a must even with average-nosed animals like antelope. I do not believe anyone can mask their human odor from game as they hike or crawl and perspire. If the breeze blows from you to your quarry, chances of success are nil.
The ears and noggin of a doe pronghorn broke the horizon barely 20 yards above me. Another set of ears flicked flies a few yards to her right. The buck was nowhere to be seen, but I knew he was there.
Then another antelope appeared, literally out of left field. This female angled toward me, growing larger and larger until she stood less than five yards away. She looked uphill, over my head, and then stared down into my face.
The doe's eyeballs seemed to double in size as she recognized my horizontal human form. She snorted, whirled, and galloped back through the herd.
In an instant, the buck's big horns rose into the sky some 30 yards away. I rolled to my knees and drew the bow as he stared directly away from me. Only from this angle was I hidden from his view. If you can see an animal's eye, that animal can surely see you.
Thirty yards, I thought as the sights lifted toward the antelope's orange-brown ribcage. He turned slightly, and I dumped the string. The arrow hit a split-second later with a watermelon plunk! The buck vanished over the rise in a cloud of red prairie dust, but I knew he was mine.
My Montana antelope was terrific, with handsome forward-thrusting beams that measured a touch over 16 inches on each side. Prongs and mass were average, but the horns still green-scored over 75 record-book points. Even on animals traditionally hunted from a blind, a careful stalk can sometimes get the job done!