When I started hunting big game on public land back in the 1960s there was no GPS, no cellphones, no trail cameras, no aerial photos – just a map and compass. There was no cable television, so there weren’t several hundred mediocre hunting shows or videos to watch. Heck, there was no Internet, so we read about hunting and fishing in Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and Sports Afield, and the pages were filled with tales of adventure and equipment information, along with a few tips.
If you wanted to learn how to hunt, you learned from family and friends, or you did as I did – stumble around the mountains, blind as a baby, learning from the bazillion mistakes you made every trip. If you wanted to figure out where the best public-land hunting spots were, you had to find them yourself, something that often took years, or even decades. Or, if you were lucky, somebody honored you by showing you one of their secret spots.
Over the years the question of “Whose spot is it?” has come up many times. After all, it is public land. Just because somebody found the spot and then showed it to you doesn’t make it theirs, does it?
To some people, it makes no difference at all. To me, it makes all the difference in the world. For some it is a gray area, but to me it’s as black and white as a skunk’s back. To be blunt about it, I would never, ever go back to a public-land spot someone else showed me, with the following two exceptions: they asked me to go back with them, or I asked them if it would be OK and they concurred. Even then, I would think long and hard before asking their permission.
It’s all about respect. Despite the fact that America is blessed with millions and millions of public-land acres open to hunting, within that vast acreage there really are very few places that consistently produce quality hunting. That’s all about habitat, private-land boundaries, hunting pressure, and seasonal effects like fire, weather and predation, among others. Locating those sweet spots is never easy, nor does it happen overnight. Hunters that have “secret spots” usually have paid their sweat equity dues many times over. Not only have they spent countless years in the woods, they have spent a lifetime learning how to read the lay of the land, decipher sign and know why it all comes together through the school of hard knocks.
When I first started hunting the Rocky Mountain West, the elk herds were nothing like they are today, and the mule deer hunting was just beginning to decline from its apex in the 1950s and early 1960s. Also, backpacking was not yet “hip,” and few hunters had figured out that if you backpacked just a mile or three from easy access the hunting quickly improved. It wasn’t all that difficult to pack in and find some really good big-game hunting with little, if any, competition if you were willing to hump it.
Today that’s about done. Improvements in equipment plus the Internet age has made both locating quality backcountry hunting areas, then getting back and staying there for several days, much more commonplace. There are more roads today, too. The secret spots are shrinking.
An example is the elk hunt I did in Arizona in 2012 – the first time I had ever drawn one of these coveted limited-entry tags. Despite doing tons of research and scouting, once the season opened there were other hunters and their buddies everywhere. Still, the “sweet spot” in the area I was hunting was small, a travel route between water and thick cedar bedding cover the elk used twice a day. I killed a big bull there and have been back scouting the area since that time in anticipation of drawing another tag one day. Think I’ll tell every Tom, Dick and Harry what I found?
It’s not just big game, either. My good friend Duwane Adams (www.azbiggamehunting.com; email email@example.com) has been successfully guiding deer, elk and quail hunters in Arizona for more than 30 years. I enjoy spending time with Duwane simply because he is one of the finest men I know. Often I tag along when he takes clients quail hunting, something I dearly love to do. In the process Duwane has showed me some places that have produced great bird shooting for decades, even in drought years when quail numbers are down. It’s all public-land stuff, too. But I would never even consider taking other people hunting in those spots without him. To me that would be the ultimate sign of disrespect.
This might be hard to understand for people who don’t live and breathe hunting. Even people in my industry who like to hunt, but who are not living and breathing it 24/7/365 the way I, and a handful of us, do, really don’t understand that these little sweet spots are as rare as the proverbial four-leaf clover, or how difficult it is to find them. Once found, they have to be carefully nurtured or they’ll die on the vine. They don’t understand that it’s not just the great hunting they offer, but the chance to enjoy something you discovered without worrying about some other yahoo spoiling the solitude.
I’ve seen lifelong friendships disintegrate over this issue. I’d love to know what you think. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.