Hunting skill priorities for this offseason
Like a lot of you, I’m always searching and analyzing how I can get better at hunting. There are so many parts and pieces that go into a successful hunt: researching where to apply, where to scout, what gear to use, how can I shoot better, stay out longer, get to where I need to be quicker, where to hunt and how can I make the shot count when it presents itself—the list goes on and on. People’s strengths and interests vary and it’s easy to do the things that come easily to you. I’m certainly guilty of that. I love shooting my bow and I always seem to make time to shoot my bow for an hour or so every day. On the flip side, I have some holes in other areas that may be more important when it boils down to the actual hunt. The point is, it takes a lot of parts and pieces to find success and I would encourage you to think about where can you improve. It’s also had me thinking about what the most important pieces are for being successful. If you had to rank the elements of a consistently successful hunter, what would that look like? For me, my personal thoughts on it would look like this.
1. Application and tag strategy
(You can’t hunt if you don’t have a tag and you can’t kill a mature animal if none exist within the area you plan to hunt.) Some time spent researching up front will definitely pay dividends on the back end. I can't say it enough, but goHUNT's INSIDER research has truly changed the game.
2. Game knowledge and scouting
Knowledge of the game you hunt and scouting go hand in hand and are the second most important factors to me especially if you are trying to harvest a mature animal. Scouting can be tricky, but there are some details worth considering before you even get started. Knowledge of the game you are hunting is critical. Elk, deer, and even antelope have different behaviors, diets and habitat needs depending on the time of year you are hunting. We could get into the nitty-gritty and, perhaps, that is another article in itself, but before you blindly go scouting, spend some real time thinking about the behavior of the animal you are hunting and what types of needs have to be met during the time of year when you will be hunting.
Scouting is something I personally want to improve on this year and that, essentially, boils down to is making more time for it. The people that spend the most time scouting are the most successful hunters I know. Time is a sensitive subject and there are people making millions teaching other people how to manage it, but the cold hard truth is that if you want to find success you have to manage and find time to scout. Scouting does not mean you necessarily have to get boots on the ground. It certainly helps a ton, but there are a lot of hunters that get it done every year in areas they have never hunted. Scout. Use Google Earth. Read unit profiles, talk to biologists, game wardens, taxidermists, post on forums, and pour over maps to find the best areas to hunt prior to showing up. Keep detailed notes and have several areas picked out prior to your hunt.
Another key aspect of successful hunters that fits within this box is that they seem to be connected. By connected, I mean that they tend to have a network of hunting contacts that they utilize to get information. Information is everything. I can recall a number of times when a tip from a hunting buddy or forum changed the course of my hunt. Reach out, ask questions and get connected.
3. Methods and tactics—glassing, calling, ambush, spot and stalk
Number three and four are closely related and patience and persistence is a key piece of most hunting tactics. Another tactic or skill that sits at the core of all methods—whether it’s calling or spot and stalk—is an understanding of thermals and learning to play the wind. I can’t express how important thermals and reading the wind is to your success. Glassing technique is also extremely important in the more open mountainous and desert terrain. I remember talking to a fellow hunter a year ago that stated he had covered over 25 miles on foot over the past two days hunting spot and stalk mule deer in an area that is very conducive to glassing. Although I was impressed at his efforts, he’d seen very few deer and I wasn’t surprised. Use what the terrain gives you and, if it’s glassable, a good pair of tripod-mounted binoculars, good glassing technique and hours of persistent glassing are critical to finding and killing consistently. Calling is another area I am working to improve. As I have more opportunity to hunt in other states like Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho or Colorado that have rut archery elk hunts, I am trying to add those tools to my skill set. Finally, whether it’s spot and stalk, ambush hunting or calling, patience is so important—important enough that I think it requires its own bullet point below.
4. Patience and persistence
When I think of patience and how it applies to hunting it’s most often associated with slowing down, sticking it out and putting the time in. I have a vivid memory of a 180” class buck blowing out of his bed at 24 yards after I had thrown a rock over him in an attempt to get him out of his bed. I had sat there for three hours when I decide to throw the rock; I was hot, uncomfortable, and weak minded. Had I continued to sit, waiting until he stood on his own, I’m positive I would have harvested that buck. The best hunters I know are mentally tough, which is what it takes to stay engaged every day of a hunt. Hunting is hard. It’s like I told my wife last year during her first hunt: if you want to be successful you’re going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Stay persistent and be patient when it counts
5. Physical fitness
I’m not on the fitness bandwagon to the point that I’m going to tell you that if you can’t run sub-seven-minute miles for five miles and squat 350 lbs that there is no way you can be a successful hunter every year. Being in the best physical shape you can be in will increase the number of chances you’ll get to be successful though. The biggest difference I’ve observed is that a physically fit individual won’t hesitate to try a stalk or make a play on an animal even if they know that it’s likely they will be unsuccessful and have a long hike back out. It takes chances to harvest and the more chances you can give yourself, the better you will do.
Is hunting equipment all that important? Without hesitation, I would say that it is. It could even be farther up the list perhaps. It’ll be interesting to see what you all think. I regularly tell people that if you have a dollar to spend beyond your hunting license and your weapon, spend it on optics. In my opinion, good glass isn’t important—it’s essential for western hunting. There have been real advancements in hunting gear technology—a lot of which will increase your opportunities and improve your chances of success. A few off the top of my head that make a tremendous difference: rangefinders, GPS with layers, technical mountaineering clothing, lightweight durable backpacks and lightweight backpacking equipment (tents, sleeping bags, pads, food). All of these items in some way allows you to be more efficient whether that’s being able to stay out longer or make the shot that much more accurate when you take it. Hunting equipment continues to evolve and, all ethical arguments aside, good gear will help you be more successful.
7. Proficiency with your weapon
This is one I have thought about quite a lot. It would seem that proficiency with your weapon would be much higher on the list because when it boils right down to it, the shot itself is what kills the animal. The reality is that the best hunters I know are not world class shooters. Sure, they are good enough and they practice with their weapon, but if they had a choice between spending a Saturday in July scouting or shooting a local 3D, undoubtedly, they are out glassing and getting to know their hunt area. Shoot as much as you can, but, if your primary goal is to harvest a trophy buck or bull, finding one and knowing as much as you can about it is more important.
There are probably a few more, but the bulk of what I believe it takes to be successful are wrapped up in those seven keys. If I were to sum it up in a couple sentences I would say: do the research, get a license, scout and make connections. Study your game, work on your methodology, build persistence and patience. Get in shape, which is a great way to build mental toughness and persistence. Get the best gear you can afford and practice with it. Become proficient with it, but don’t forget about and forego the other steps required in lieu of what’s enjoyable or easy. Finally, have some fun. Enjoy the moments and highs and lows along the way. Now, let’s see what your list looks like?