Bowhunting the West’s Big 3

Are you planning a bowhunt for one of the most popular western big game animals – elk, mule deer or pronghorn? Here’s how they’re the same, only different.

Bowhunting the West’s Big 3

For those who’ve never hunted out West, be forewarned: bowhunting elk, mule deer and pronghorn – the West’s Big 3 – presents a world of challenges. Each species is unique in its size, habits, and how you have to hunt them successfully. At the same time, there are some similarities that can be incorporated into hunting all three.

 

Basic Traits and Tactics

Elk and mule deer have a terrific sense of smell, we all know that. But did you know that pronghorn also have excellent noses? You have to respect their sense of smell, too. Pronghorn are famous for their exceptional eyesight — I think the only critter I’ve hunted that rivals them in this regard is the wild turkey — but elk and muleys also have very good eyesight. You must take great care to stay out of sight at all times. Mule deer have big ears for a reason: They hear really, really well. But so do elk. And pronghorn. Keep quiet.

It’s hard to discuss living habits without talking about terrain features. Elk and mule deer can be found from the highest elevations to the lowest river-bottom farm country. In some places they don’t move much during the course of the year, while in others they migrate up and down, depending on the time of year and the weather, from steep timbered mountain country down to flat crop lands and open sagebrush country. How you hunt them is greatly dependent upon where you find them. Pronghorn, for the most part, are flat-ground animals that avoid the high country and timbered areas. Their first line of defense is their amazing eyesight, so they stay where they can see danger coming from a long way off.

Like all big game animals, a basic hunt plan revolves around food, water and bedding areas. Where, and what, do they eat? Where, and how often, do they seek water? Where do they bed? When you know these simple, yet sometimes complex, facts, you can establish a game plan that will allow you to set up an ambush between the two. Because one thing that’s common to all big game bowhunting: The moving hunter is at a distinct disadvantage to the stationary one.

Elk are very vocal and very callable, while pronghorn and mule deer are not nearly as much.
Elk are very vocal and very callable, while pronghorn and mule deer are not nearly as much.

Just the Same, Only Different

Elk are grazers, while mule deer and pronghorn are browsers. Therefore, elk prefer grassy meadows and hayfields, but muleys and pronghorn subsist on literally hundreds of types of browse.

The hotter the weather, the more important water becomes. During the September elk rut, with warm days and mild nights, bull elk need a lot of water. I’ve had great success locating hidden springs, seeps and wallows inside thick forested areas, setting up a blind, then waiting. This is a  great tactic when you know the elk are there, but they are not talking much. Early season mule deer can also be ambushed on a water source. And the very best way in the world to bowhunt pronghorn during early archery seasons is sitting a waterhole.

Bowhunters should always pack a pop-up blind when heading West. A blind set up near a waterhole is especially effective on pronghorns.
Bowhunters should always pack a pop-up blind when heading West. A blind set up near a waterhole is especially effective on pronghorns.

I’ve not had much success decoying elk or mule deer, but during the rut, pronghorn bucks will often come to challenge a buck decoy. It is one of the most exciting ways to hunt them, with bucks sometimes racing as fast as they can run from up to a half-mile away.

Putting a mule deer buck to bed, or glassing one up in his bed, then stalking him, is the classic way to bowhunt muleys. It’s not easy, and often quite frustrating, but it is always fun. I’ve also had success stalking bedded bull elk, though this can be really tough when they’re bedded with a bunch of other elk. Often it’s better to find them bedded, then try and anticipate which way they’ll move to feed late in the day and then set up along that route. And stalking pronghorn? Done it several times – but it can be about as easy as sneaking the sunrise past a rooster. In all cases, having terrain features you can hide behind is the key. No cover? Best back off and wait.

Bull elk can be called, we all know that. But there are times – especially in places where hunting pressure is high – when all you do blowing an elk call is scarify them. Today I may bugle to locate, but then only use a variety of cow calls to try and get the bull to come to me. Pronghorn are also quite vocal during their rut, and while there are some pronghorn calls on the market, I don’t rely on one (though they can work at times.) I don’t know anyone who tries and use vocal calls on mature mule deer bucks (though a doe bleat can work during the rut) – but they can be susceptible to rattling at times.

When you spook elk, they can easily run many miles in a hurry — even in tough mountain terrain — and often move into another drainage. Mule deer, on the other hand, are homebodies, and like staying close to where you find them. They’ll move around, but when spooked will more than likely hunker down and hide, or go nocturnal, than leave the country like elk will. The same is true for pronghorn. They may race off like a scalded dog when spooked, but rarely leave the county. I’ve spooked pronghorn bucks during a stalk, watched them race off, then found them again within a mile or so of where the dance started.

Debra Bradbury with a mature muley buck taken with a crossbow after waiting patiently in a ground blind.
Debra Bradbury with a mature muley buck taken with a crossbow after waiting patiently in a ground blind.

Common Mistakes

A lot of novice western bowhunters have no patience, which I find interesting, since many spend a lot of time sitting for days in a treestand or ground blind waiting for something to happen. Out West, there are times when you need to aggressively move quickly, but for the most part, sitting patiently and glassing, or waiting in a blind or treestand near water or along a travel corridor, will pay big dividends. The worst thing you can do is to stumble blindly about, making noise, leaving a scent trail, and showing yourself, which will only spook everything in the neighborhood.

It’s amazing how far sound carries over vast distances on a calm day out West. It is especially important to keep your voice to a whisper, and take care to walk softly, even if it means going slower than you want to.

Some folks are just afraid of hiking in the dark, which is another problem. You need to be on your glassing station before the sun kisses the sky, and stay until you can’t see, so you can find animals that move on the cusp of daylight. In the evening, that often means finding a critter to hunt tomorrow, but that’s all part of the game.

While bowhunting is by nature a close-range game, out West odds are you’re going to have to be able to make shots well beyond the 30 yards or less most stand hunting for whitetails entails. Stretch your own MESR (Maximum Effective Shooting Range) and your chances of success will increase exponentially. An example is when you’re stalking a bedded buck or bull. I learned the hard way that you can get so close that any little movement or sound you make will be instantly detected. This is especially true on calm, quiet days. Now, if I can get to 35-40 yards, I stop; that’s close enough. And, you have to be able to shoot from your knees, so practice this position. A lot.

When stalking a bedded buck or bull, remember what I always tell myself when my heart is racing and palms sweaty: Why am I in such a hurry to blow this stalk? If an animal has bedded for the day, you have hours to creep into range. Take your time, watch every footfall, constantly check the wind (if it gets iffy, back out, now!), pretend you’re a cat stalking a backyard bird. Once you get into range, if the animal is screened by brush, don’t force it. Nock an arrow, get ready, but be prepared to wait for hours until he stands and gives you a clear shot.

Picking the wrong hunt type for you is another issue, regardless of species. For example, hiking and climbing the steep, high-elevation mountain ranges of the West requires a reasonable level of physical fitness many just don’t have. A better choice for many is to hunt easier terrain at lower elevation.

There’s no substitution for experience. Accept the fact that when bowhunting elk, mule deer and pronghorn, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, and terrify a lot of critters. That’s part of the learning curve. There will be times when you do everything right, and it still doesn’t work out. But when it all comes together, no feeling is sweeter.

Sidebar: How Do You Obtain Tags?

In many respects — unless you have pockets deep enough to buy pricey landowner tags — the toughest part of the western hunting equation is drawing a tag. Competition is fierce for the best tags, with OTC (Over The Counter) options dwindling. This creates several problems. For one thing, not being able to hunt the same area year in and year out makes it impossible to learn the lay of the land and the nuances of how the game uses the country, which is so very important. Also, the more you hunt a specific species, the more you learn, and the better you get at it.

So, two recommendations. First, develop a long-term game plan for hunting the West. For example, do you really care if you hunt elk in a specific state, as long as you go elk hunting? Understanding you’ll need to accumulate preference/bonus points for years, set up a budget and start applying. I like using a tag application service such as WTA TAGS (www.worldwidetrophyadventures.com), which stays abreast of the ever-changing landscape, will help you map out your game plan, make sure your apps are submitted correctly and on time, and then when you draw, can help you line up a top-notch outfitter if you want to use one — though you’re not obligated to do so.

Part of your game plan is a simple choice: Do you want to go hunting, or wait a decade or more to try and draw a tag for a unit that offers the best odds at a huge buck or bull? One example is my 2019 Wyoming elk hunt. I had four preference points, and had a choice — apply for a unit that essentially was a guaranteed draw with that point total, or wait another 5-6 years until I had 10 points, with which I could have drawn an adjacent unit with much better trophy potential. I drew the easier draw unit, hunted with my friends at Table Mountain Outfitters (www.tablemountainoutfitters.com), and killed a mature 5x5 bull the morning of day two after seeing hundreds of elk and dozens of bulls. At the same time, in 2020 I have eight elk points in Arizona and 16 elk points in Colorado, and am now applying for units with great trophy potential.

Second, there are ways to bowhunt the West every year. Many pronghorn units in Wyoming, for example, are virtually a guaranteed draw with no points. There are public land areas in states such as Colorado and Idaho that offer OTC tags for elk, though the public land hunting is tough. So, while you’re accumulating points in the draw system, you can still go hunting, gain invaluable experience, and learn the area over time, which ups your odds for success.

If you have a larger budget, you can work with a booking agent or the folks at WTA TAGS (www.worldwidetrophyadventures.com) and get on the cancellation list, where hunters who have booked a guided hunt cancel out, leaving their deposit, which can cut the cost of the hunt significantly. I have booked several cancellation hunts over the years, and always found it to be a great deal.

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