White-tailed deer are the most popular big-game animal to hunt in North America. In many states, an overwhelming majority of bowhunters report using an elevated stand to hunt whitetails. I’ve been a big-game hunter for 20 years, but I never used a treestand to hunt whitetails until last year. That’s not because I don’t hunt whitetails in my home state of Montana. It’s because western hunting tactics are often different than those used in other areas of the country.
I’ve only lived and hunted out West. My skills are rooted in spot-and-stalk, public-land hunting. However, because proportionally fewer hunters live out West, many people are unfamiliar with this style of hunting. Here’s an insider’s look.
The West is home to a variety of game animals that are hunted in many different ways. Elk, turkeys, pronghorns, mule deer, black bears, mountain lions and white-tailed deer are just a few of the species hunters get to pursue. These tags are available to most resident hunters over the counter, unless it’s a special unit that contains a limited number of tags. State wildlife agencies set tag limits in order to cut down on the number of hunters in areas that may hold fewer wildlife or attract too many hunters due to the trophy quality of the species in the area. In many states, nonresident tags for these species are more limited. For this reason, nonresidents typically must apply for tags. While the system for drawing a tag can vary by state, some draws are more lottery-like while others are based on the number of points accrued by applying for several years. Special draws like this also allow a few lucky hunters to chase bison, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
The variety of wildlife across the West is part of the reason hunters don’t stick to a single style of hunting. These animals live across a variety of terrain and have distinct behaviors. Bowhunters must tailor their tactics to the individual situation.
Spot-and-stalk hunting means sneaking up on the animal and getting into a position for a shot. Spot-and-stalk bowhunting is tough. It requires extreme stealth, the right wind, the perfect path and some luck. It can be frustrating, but it’s a lot of fun. Bowhunters often spot-and-stalk hunt for antelope and mule deer. Those animals frequent open areas, so hanging a treestand isn’t usually an option. They also have larger home ranges and can be tougher to pattern than whitetails.
The “spot” portion of spot-and-stalk is often done through binoculars. Using binoculars to “glass” for game is a commonly used hunting tactic out West. Hunters frequently hike to high ridgetops, where there’s a good vantage point, in order to look for wildlife. It’s common for bowhunters to spend hours behind binoculars or spotting scopes in hopes of catching a glimpse of a game animal. Once the game is spotted, then it’s time to make a plan to stalk in on the animal for a shot.
Bowhunters spot and stalk elk as well, but many also use calling to locate elk and draw them in close. Bowhunters have the opportunity to hunt elk while they’re rutting and most susceptible to calls that mimic cows in estrus or other bulls.
None of this is to say that western bowhunters don’t utilize other tactics. While it’s less common, some elk hunters find success hunting from treestands, and waiting in a ground blind near a water hole can be particularly effective for antelope and early-season mule deer.
From the rolling prairies to the alpine mountains and the dusty deserts to the thick forests, the West has a variety of terrain. The region covers a large area roughly defined as Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
Still, many envision mountains when they think of western hunting. Elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats can live in steep, mountainous terrain. Some hunts require backpacking several miles and camping in the mountains. This type of hunting is more comfortable when people have the physical capabilities to carry heavy packs up steep landscapes for several miles. Due to the physical nature of these types of hunts, people often train in preparation. Such training can involve cardio, hiking and carrying weights.
The federal government owns about 640 million acres of land, according to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. Individual states also own land open to hunting. The majority of this public land is located in the West, and it provides plenty of bowhunting opportunities. To find public land, look at maps through federal or state agencies, or use digital map applications like OnX and GoHunt.
While there is ample public land access, bowhunters also hunt private land out West. It might be on land they own, on property owned by a friend, on a hunting lease or through permission from a landowner. If you’re looking to hunt private land, here are some tips for asking for permission. Some western states have partnership programs between state agencies and private landowners. For example, in Montana, this program is called Block Management. Landowners voluntarily sign up for state agencies to manage hunter access on their land. These types of programs give hunters free access to thousands of acres.
One of the biggest struggles in hunting out West is narrowing down where to hunt. With so much land access, it can be tough to pinpoint where to go. Most western states are divided into hunting units. The tag in your pocket sometimes dictates which unit you can hunt. Scouting is essential to success. Many use a combination of digital scouting, boots on the ground and trail cameras.
E-scouting allows hunters to review aerial maps from the comfort of the couch and potentially find features like forests, clear-cuts, creek beds, recent burns and other areas with high potential of holding wildlife. Here are some tips for finding potential hunt areas.
Physically scouting an area helps hunters look for important wildlife sign like sheds, rubs, scat, scrapes, game trails and bedding areas. This will alert you to wildlife in the area. The final step for some is to hang trail cameras in areas with a lot of sign. However, before you take this step, it’s important to check the state’s trail cam regulations, since they’re illegal in some places.
Hunting the West can be an amazing experience filled with big adventures, a variety of animals and exciting opportunities. If you have any questions about hunting a certain area, local bow shops are a great resource. If you’re not located in the area you plan to hunt, look up a local shop and give them a call.