How To Plan A Successful Big-Game Bowhunt
Step-By-Step Guidelines And Advice
From A Bowhunting Master
By Fred Bear
The object of any big-game hunting trip is a thrilling and rewarding adventure in the great outdoors. Every hunter hopes to come back from a trip with meat and trophies, and certainly these add fulfillment. But even without these end results a hunting expedition can be the highlight of your year.
It is impossible to guarantee results on such an outing, regardless of how plentiful the game. The vagaries of weather and the innumerable small adventures that can plague the bowhunter are completely beyond prediction. Yet some of the best hunts I’ve ever had were nonproductive in terms of trophies, but made enjoyable by good companions, a comfortable camp and interesting encounters with wildlife in pristine surroundings.
Careful preparation is the best guarantee for a successful hunt. The factors I consider most important are: a wise choice of companion(s); a productive hunting area; careful selection of a guide, if needed; proper preparations for food and shelter; plans made well ahead of time; and physical conditioning.
Your hunting companions may be of entirely different social and financial status than yourself, but their likes and interests should be the same. You should know them well enough to be assured they are dependable as sportsman, not easily discouraged, willing to do their share and capable of accepting mishaps without complaint. Nothing can ruin a hunt more completely than a hunter who is lazy argumentative or complains with little provocation.
For short hunts not involving wilderness country or pack trips, a party of two is ideal. Each can hunt alone (the most productive method), yet share the companionship of the evening campfire and the chores of cooking and keeping the camp in order. In addition, if one suffers an accident or onset of sickness, help is there.
On wilderness hunts, four hunters make a good group. Each has a partner, and partners can alternate as desired. The hunting territory can be covered more effectively and camp labors involved in an extended trip are lightened.
Your planned hunt may be into a neighboring state, one of the Canadian Provinces, or Alaska. The basic consideration is the game sought. Never plan a hunt around the hope of getting a great variety of trophies. Determine what species you want most and pick a region where it is prevalent. Any other species should be considered as a lucky bonus. Often, of course, one region will offer excellent chances for more than one species, examples being a combined elk and mule deer hunt in the Rockies, a moos and caribou hunt in Alaska, or a mountain sheep and mountain goat hunt in British Columbia or Alberta.
If such exotic game as Dall or Stone sheep, grizzly, or mountain caribou is the object, a fairly costly trip into a wilderness area may be less expensive in the long run than several trips into more heavily hunted regions where the chances are slimmer.
How do you pick the right area for the species sought? One of the best sources for such information is the United States Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. It publishes state-by-state game census figures, a brief study of which can give the nonresident hunter a good idea of where the species is most abundant. Other good sources are the various state fish and game departments, or in the case of Canada, the Provincial Lands and Forests Departments. The major hunting and fishing magazines often have special sections devoted to regional reporting on game abundance and the annuals published by both firearms and archery magazines, such as this one, contain useful information. A state-by-state list of bowhunting seasons, for example, can be found elsewhere in this publication.
If it is meat on the table and the enjoyment of a successful hunt you have in mind, then concentrate on states with high game population and hunter-success ratios. If a trophy specimen is your aim, however, be selective as to the area you choose. Excellent sources for this information are the books, Bowhunting Big Game Records of North America, from the Pope and Young Club, Route 1, Box 147, Salmon Idaho 83467 ($17.50), and North American Big Game (seventh edition), from the Boone and Crockett Club, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213 ($25).
When writing state of provincial departments for general information, be sure to request data on licenses, hunting regulations and a listing of approved, licensed guides. An excellent additional aid is the Denali Directory, issued by the National Rifleman’s Association, 1600 Rhode Island Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20036 ($2.50). It contains hunting information and guide listings for each state along with season dates and license fees.
Many Western states, Alaska and Canadian provinces require nonresident hunters to have a guide. Such a service is considered necessary to prevent game-law violations and to keep those hunters unfamiliar with the country from becoming lost.
Even when not required by law, it often is a good idea to use the services of a guide in country new to you. He knows the region, where the game is and the best way to get it . Just as important, he does much of the routine camp work such as tending horses, cutting wood and cooking, thus leaving the hunters more time to concentrate on hunting.
Write the guides you select, requesting types of hunts, services available, and rates. Be sure to start this program well before your tentative hunting date. Many of the best guides and outfitters are booked well in advance, often over a year. In addition, many nonresident hunting licenses and game tags are sold out early in the year on a first-come, first-served basis.
Printed or photocopied form letters sent out “blanket”-style to all the outfitters you can find is not a wise policy. Such coverage may do more harm than good, leaving a bad impression with the more reliable sources. Be somewhat selective and write individual, personalized letters. This will convince the recipients that you are serious in your interest. In these contacts, be sure to state our hunting preferences and ask for a list of references. Any reputable outfitter or guide will be entirely cooperative in supplying names of previous clients. Contact these hunters by phone or letter for first-hand evaluation.
After narrowing the choice down to two or three outfitters, contact each one again, by telephone whenever possible. Find out how much time will be devoted to the actual hunt, how many hunters per guide, what equipment you are required to bring. If your party is small, will you be thrown in with other hunters? Is the area accessible to the public? And what weather conditions may be expected?
Be sure to spell out your bowhunting requirements. The majority of outfitters have had no experience in guiding bowhunters and thus may not realize how you wish to operate once the game is found. Some may not even wish to guide you when they find that you hunt with the bow, possibly in the belief that the lower trophy-success ratio that is accepted by bowhunters will not help their promotional records.
No matter how small your question may be, it is best to ask it in advance. If the outfitter is slow to answer, or can’t answer, mark him off your list.
Having accomplished this, you are prepared to hunt the game of your choice in the best area available with a person or persons thoroughly familiar with the region. This alone will give you a great feeling of confidence. But give and take between an outfitter and client is a two-way street, with trust and teamwork being absolutely necessary for a good hunt. When all’s said and done, there is still some trial and error to be undergone in picking an outfitter. If you book a guide and have a good hunt then you think he is great. But another hunter may not be successful in getting the trophy he wants despite the best efforts of a competent guide, and may be bitter about the whole trip and about the guide as a result.
An example of what can occur, even to highly experienced wilderness travelers, happened to be a friend, Raoy Torrey of Salmon, Idaho. Torrey is a director of the Pope and Young Club, born and bred to the woods, and is himself a qualified big-game outfitter and guide.
A few years ago, Torrey and a companion, also an experienced guide, were contemplating a trip into the far north for a Dall sheep hunt. They happened to run into a fellow in a taxidermy shop who was a registered guide in the Mackenzie District of the Northwest Territories. He impressed them with his accounts of the country and after extended conversation they decided to book a hunt with him.
When the time came, they flew from Idaho to the settlement of Norman Wells, a jumping-off place for access to the northern Mackenzie Mountains. After they had waited there 2 ½ days for their outfitter to get organized, he finally rented the services of a local bush pilot to fly the two hunters some one hundred miles north to an unnamed wilderness lake, where he said he had a camp. He stated that he would come in himself on a second flight.
To shorten a trying tale, the hunters were dropped off on the lake shore but found no signs of a camp. Furthermore, scouting revealed the entire area to be completely devoid of game and the lake without fish. They spent 2 ½ weeks waiting for their guide, who never showed up.
Two things kept them going. Torrey had packed a mountain tent and small Primus-type stove in his duffle, and when rations got low they hiked many miles to another area where they succeeded in killing a small sheep. Finally, a passing plane spotted the HELP sign spelled out in plastic letters alongside their orange tent and got them out.
This incident could easily have been tragic if the hunters involved had been less experienced and cool-headed. As it was, they were out a substantial deposit apiece and fortunate to get out while still in good physical condition.
And what happened to the outfitter? Nothing. Torrey and his friend would have had to stay in Canada for an extended period in order to locate and bring the miscreant to justice, which just wasn’t practical for them as they both had jobs to get back to. They learned later that although the guide involved had been reliable at one time, they happened to tie up with him just as he was going out of business. He shunted them off just to get rid of them, then disappeared, neglecting to tell anyone else of their whereabouts.
So you see, bad experiences with guides can happen to anyone. And it has happened to me, although under circumstances much less critical than in Torrey’s case.
These good friends, a well-known outdoor writer and two other experienced woodsmen, invited me to accompany them on a spring bear hunt in Ontario. One purpose of the week’s trip was to obtain promotional material for a motor company’s all-terrain vehicles.
The outdoor writer had an outfitter lined up for us. As it turned out, he had made several inquiries of guides for the proposed hunting region, from advertisements in outdoor magazines. One of the answers he received was written with pencil on an of piece of butcher’s paper. Aha, he thought, this fellow must be a real old backwoods type who seldom gets out of the bush, and proceeded to make final arrangements with him.
Upon arriving in the village of Temagami, we found the “outfitter” to be a town dweller who knew little about the territory beyond it’s limits. He had hired a couple of local Indians to do the guiding for us. Well, there are woods Indians and there are town tavern Indians. Our guides soon proved to be of the latter strain.
One of them took us many miles up lake Temagami to a recently vacated lumber camp where black bear were supposed to be numerous. There must have been a large celebration of some type the night before. Our guide was in such bad shape that we had to run the boat for him. After two fruitless days at that location, the guide said he’d take us to another lumber camp where he’d seen “plenty bear” just a week previously. To get there we drove miles over a rough bush road, only to be stopped a few miles short of our goal by a heavy chain across the road. Our guide couldn’t understand this sudden blockage, although a brief inspection of the lock and chain plainly revealed that it had been firmly in place for more than a season.
One member of the party was dropped off in the afternoon on an isolated island in the lake – another great bear haunt and a good spot for an evening’s watch, according to guide.
The evening turned into a black night, the atmosphere turned into pouring rain, and the island turned into an R&R area for mosquitoes. The guide became involved in another celebration and forgot to pick up the hunter until the next morning.
We finally called a halt to such proceedings and fired the outfitter, losing, of course, the one-third down payment in the process. His final magnanimous offer was to sell us a couple of long-defunct bear from the town cooler – purchased no doubt from local hunters for that purpose.
We were fortunate enough to make other arrangements that turned our trip into a successful one, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that we had really been taken in. It can happen despite precautions. I believe the most workable preventative is to plan a hunt early enough to obtain and thoroughly check out the outfitter’s references.
If the plan is to hunt with an outfitter in a wilderness area, all of the major equipment such as horses, packs, tents, stoves, cooking gear and food, as well as a horse wrangler and cook, is gernerally furnished. Sometimes the outfitter also furnishes sleeping bags, but it is best to take your own if you have one. Your list will also include proper clothing, hunting tackle, binoculars and spotting scope, camera and film, toilet articles and a ditty bag with first-aid items, extra compass, waterproof match case, small notebook and pencil, and mending material for both clothing and tackle.
Fundamental equipment for off-the-track big-game hunting, where the services of an outfitter or guide are not required, includes clothing, personal items, camp gear and food, a compass and map of the area, hunting tackle and a method of transporting it all.
The tendency of beginning hunter is to take along many unnecessary items. The veteran hunter goes light but right. It is axiomatic that if a hunter can keep warm, dry and well-fed, the chances of his hunt being successful are increased.
The modern hunter camping on his own or with companions uses one of the several excellent brands of rigid pack frames for carrying his equipment. The old scale of thirty-five pounds for the average man is a good one, with then pounds less for a woman or youth. The backpacking bowhunter who is actually living in the bush will carry roughly two-thirds of his load in equipment and one third in food.
Just a few years ago, food supplies either had to be fresh or canned, with three to four pounds of food and cooking gear needed per man per meal. The new processed foods shrink this to one pound per man per day. One man in a party of four can carry all the food necessary for the entire group for a week without strain. One man can carry dehydrated or freeze-dried foods that would be equivalent to packhorse load of canned and fresh foods, and with absolutely no danger of spoilage. And, if the approximate balance of meat, fruit and vegetables eaten at home is maintained, the diet won’t be lopsided in any direction.
In addition, of course, would be the hand-carried bow and arrows, a sturdy belt knife and small hatchet. Late in the season when bad weather is likely, a small tent should be substituted for the plastic sheet. And in some circumstances, depending upon season and terrain, a canteen and halazone tablets would be necessary.
By all means take along a camera and notebook. They may seem superfluous at first thought, but there is absolutely nothing like having a few photographs and field notes to later help recall the details of a hunt.
The related subjects of making up menus, preparing foods, choosing campsites, proper clothing and footgear balance, map reading and emergency procedures are all important, but obviously cannot be covered in an article of this length. Suffice it to say that all are important in planning for a hunt. There are many excellent books that can be purchased or borrowed from a library covering all such details. A few volumes I can recommend are Camping & Woodcraft, by Denise Van Lear (a Sierra Club book); Skills for Taming the Wild, by Bradford Angier; Complete Book of Hunting, by Clyde Ormond; Outdoor Encyclopedia, edited by Vin T. Sparano (an Outdoor Life book); Lure of the Open, edited by Joe Godfrey, Jr. and Frank Dufresne (a Sportsman’s Club of America book); and Backpacker’s Digest, by C.R. Learn and Mike O’Neal. Additional sources of backpacking information are, “The Art& Science of Backpacking” from Himalayan Industries, 807Ocen View Avenue, Monterey, California, and “Enjoyable Backpacking” from Gerry Mountain Sports, Incorporated, Box 910, Boulder, Colorado. Both are free for the asking.
There remains one important aspect: physical conditioning. If you re planning to hunt at higher altitudes than you are used to, or in particularly rugged terrain, this could well be the most important factor in the success or failure of your hunt. Being in the best shape possible can be more important than skill with your bow, because if you can’t get to where the trophy animals live then you certainly can’t hit them. Doing lots of climbing up hills or stairs, jogging in your hunting boots, working with wights, calisthenics and just plain running are all good conditioners.
These are the basics. There are few wilderness hunts that in retrospect can be said to be absolutely perfect in all details, even when the desired trophies are secured. However, proper great experience afield and of smoothing off at least some of the otherwise rough edges in the process.