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Tips for Western Big Game

by Tayler Michels from Passion for the Hunt TV

The opportunity to hunt big game out west is on many hunters’ bucket list.  Western big game brings some incredible elements that include not only breathtaking scenery and wide open vistas but also a unique distribution of opportunities that rewards perseverance and effort.  With the sheer amount of public land that is available in many of the western States, there are opportunities for hunters who are willing to put in the effort.  Yes, there can be a lot of hunters on many public land parcels but because of the sheer size of this terrain, it is possible to out maneuver other hunters and don’t kid yourself… massive elk and mule deer get harvested on public land each season.

As a hunting guide in North Eastern Montana, I get many questions about what it takes to be successful hunting out west.  I’ve narrowed down a few important tips to know before you plan your next trip out west.

For starters, the best advice I could give anyone is to be optimistic each day of any hunt you ever decide to participate in.  Stay positive that at any moment you will find that big trophy buck and get that shot of a lifetime.  This sounds simple but the size of this Country can be intimidating.  What also adds to the drain on mental toughness is the overall fatigue.  When you are tired, sore and uncomfortable, staying mentally prepared and optimistic can be challenging but it is the simplest task that separates great hunters from people who come up short.

As great as tagging out of the first day of a hunt can be, I can tell you for sure that doesn’t happen very often.  On a large majority of the hunts I have guided or been hunting myself, the back half of the hunt is often most successful.  A hunt is far from over after the first couple of days.  There will be physical, mental, and emotional adversity on every hunt and far too often I see my clients react negatively to this pressure instead of embracing it and keeping a positive attitude as the hunt grinds on.  This grind adds to the incredible emotions of a successful hunt where your sense of accomplishment and gratitude is heightened because of the fatigue and strain.  

 The amount of glassing and hiking it takes to get on a bruiser mule deer buck in the open sage covered canyons can be tremendous. Staying positive is important when you are faced with such daunting tasks.  After a few long days of glassing and hiking, it is easy to give in to the fatigue and lose focus.  

Another tip that can pay dividends on a western big game hunt is your choice of clothing. It is imperative that you understand what the elements can bring and a poor choice of outerwear can make for a miserable week of hunting.  In Montana’s Missouri River Breaks, this part of Montana’s deer rifle season runs from late October through Thanksgiving in November.  We see average temps below freezing with wind speeds daily above 15 mph.  Frigid cold can sometimes hang below zero degrees for multiple days.  

In effort to stay positive and motivated while hunting in cold and windy conditions, I’ve found the Heat Echo Light Pant/Jacket combo from Arctic Shield to be a great choice for an outer shell.  These rugged clothes protect you from the elements and give you the option to dress in layers for all day warmth. This system also keeps you flexible and quiet which is essential in the final moments of any stalk.  Wool base layers and compression shorts are a must along with fresh socks for each day of hunt.  Personal hygiene is often understated for not only keeping warm but comfortable.  Use mole skin to combat hot spots and blisters on your feet.  At least once a day, wipe yourself down with wet wipes particularly in your crotch and armpits if you don’t have a shower available.  Always have extra socks in your pack and change out frequently.  Take most of your clothes off when you climb into your sleeping bag at night.  A week of hard hunting can take a toll on your body but what can make the experience even more unbearable is when you can’t stand being around yourself.

Plan to hunt in the worst conditions.  Days with harsh weather often see some of the best deer movement throughout the day. 

Besides dressing for success, a GPS is another must have piece of equipment. Obviously, a GPS keeps you from getting lost or from trespassing on private property in which you don’t have permission but there are other advantages.  Technology has come a long way in recent years, with advances in GPS software and topography mapping capabilities I believe a GPS provides valuable information that can be used when planning a stalk.   Accurate contour maps let you gauge distances, allows for careful stalking routes and reveals crevices, ridges and terrain features for planning a stalk that might not be noticeable from the perspective when first spotting an animal. 

Planning the stalk is often the most important element of a hunt besides the obvious of finding the animal in the first place.  When observing the area, look for land formations that you can identify with topography lines on your GPS, this will allow you to accurately narrow down the specific spot that buck is occupying before you make a move.  Use the topo lines to better understand the hills, slopes and coulees that surround the area.  With that information, you can be confident planning an effective stalk.  

As a guide, I hunt expansive country.  I could walk the area every day for the rest of my life and not learn every nook and cranny.  With GPS capabilities, I can confidently hike through deep canyons, cross creeks and move fast through other rough country without losing track of where the buck is and I can expect what the distances to be when I get in position.  

Rangefinders and optics are also crucial pieces of equipment for any western hunt.  Good rangefinders that can read out to at least six hundred yards are crucial not just for accurate shooting by adjusting your scope turret but also for fine tuning stalks as you close the distance.  A good spotting scope and tripod is obvious but even with good optics, I feel that many hunters have the tendency to move too fast.  Set up over good areas with good visibility and be methodical.  Be patient. Look at the terrain in front of you as a grid and slowly work through each square on the grid so that you can look over everything good.  

Early in the day when we expect deer to be on the move, you can pan through areas fast but during midday when deer bed down, slow down and pick through every bush, ever juniper and simply look for deer.  Mule deer are seldom alone and where there is one deer, there are usually more in the vicinity to slow down and look for antlers.  Good spotting is paramount.  If you miss deer, not only do you miss a potential stalk but you will bump deer as you move through the area.  Bumped mule deer will pick up more deer as they vacate and one running deer might be joined by a dozen other deer you were unaware of a half mile over the hill.   

Western big game hunting does take some good equipment to increase success.  A good attitude and physical endurance is also required but what makes this hunting so special is that western big game hunting is something anybody can do because anybody can find access somewhere whether you choose to hunt BLM, National Forest or other large public parcels.  As a rule of thumb, you start seeing a big increase in game about three miles in from any road or trail.  The harder you are willing to work to get away from access points and pack an animal out, the more of a chance you have of finding that “mature” elk or mule deer.