feature By: Jack Ballard | July, 18
It seemed a good idea at the time. My family’s penchant for pronghorn in the shape of succulent grilled loins, juicy burger and spicy Italian sausage had been thwarted for three seasons by our failure to draw tags in our home state. A leftover doe/fawn license was available for purchase in Wyoming – in a hunting district adjacent to an older brother’s home in Gillette – for a price just eclipsing that of a large pizza. The online purchase of two tags, one for me and another for my wife, was completed quickly and without incident.
I announced the romantic getaway at the dinner table with equivalent fanfare to a suitor presenting his beloved with a dozen fragrant roses. “Lisa darling,” I said with a flourish while serving the meatloaf, “we’re going antelope hunting in Wyoming.”
We arrived at brother Jon’s residence on September 30, the evening before October’s debut on the calendar and the opening day of pronghorn season. He was heading out before dawn to hunt elk but showed us several blocks of public land on a map not far from town where we’d likely find herds of antelope. “Sunrise” proved a misguided moniker for the feeble illumination of a dark world the next morning. I eased the Expedition gingerly into a pullout adjacent to our public hunting destination in a foggy downpour. Despite the most dismal conditions for hunting, at least another 20 rigs puttered down the mist-shrouded backcountry byway before we headed elsewhere an hour after legal shooting light.
The fog cleared, the rain stopped, and the sun vanquished the clouds by midmorning. But the day proved unpleasant nonetheless, at least from the standpoint of hunting pressure. The presence of other hunters who have the same right to recreate on public land as my family is an expectation on easily accessed acres. But when it seemed like the entire population of the county showed up, it created a situation where the primary challenge of the day involved outwitting other people, not the pronghorn.
I finally killed a doe with a long shot on the very backside of a parcel of public land, necessitating a drag of 1.5 miles. As we slid the carcass the final 100 yards to the vehicle, affable road-hunters from multiple parties honked, waved or stopped to offer their congratulations. Wrists, elbows and shoulders smarting from the burden, I wasn’t sure if we should enact a posture proud or pitiful.
One of the nearly inevitable realities of hunting on public land is how to manage the presence of other hunters. Each year I undertake a handful of backcountry hunts where encountering other humans is highly unlikely. But most of the time, a comprehensive public-land hunting strategy must take into account fellow hunters as well as the weather, habitat characteristics and the movements of game animals. In relation to “crowd control,” peak-pressure days and preferred points of entry greatly determine how many other outdoorsmen will be sharing your hunting grounds.
Our Wyoming pronghorn hunt was crowded not only because it was opening day of the season. A more careful analysis of the hunting regulations would have revealed that fateful October morning as the dawn of deer and elk seasons in the hunting district as well, putting even more hunters in the field in a region where habitat for the three species frequently overlaps. No matter the quarry or location, opening day and the first few days thereafter (especially if it falls on a weekend) usually account for the most intense hunting pressure of the season. Activity afield also crests on weekends for obvious reasons. The closing days also typically see extra pressure as those hunters anxious to fill their tags make a “final hurrah” before the closing bell.
There are some distinct advantages of hunting on a season’s opening day, mostly due to the fact that animals haven’t yet been displaced from their normal routines by hunters. Hunters targeting a specific animal with known whereabouts (think an outsized mule deer buck discovered and patterned with pre-season scouting) are also wise to position themselves for the shot at the first possible opportunity.
Should we make a return trip to Gillette to bum my brother’s guest room and garner another pronghorn doe or two for the freezer, though, we’ll hunt during the week. The animals will be spookier, to be sure, but their numbers are high, and we won’t be confronting a situation where every square mile of easy-to-reach public land is awash in hunters and abandoned by pronghorn.
Evaluating peak pressure’s effect on a hunt isn’t merely about sharing an area with fewer hunters; although that may substantially improve the quality of the experience for many. Hunting after periods of peak pressure may also play an important role in success. For several decades my family has scheduled our annual elk hunt to coincide with the opening weekend of Montana’s general big-game season. Pressure is always intense for the first two days of the hunt, which begins on a Saturday. It remains steady for another three days then tapers off before another bump the following weekend.
On a couple of occasions, I’ve had to abandon the traditional schedule to begin the seven-day hunt on the second weekend instead of the first. If the experience was strictly about killing an elk versus spending time with extended family, I’d opt for the later time frame. Ten days of hunting pressure inevitably moves elk into known, predictable swaths of habitat where they hole up to avoid humans. The variable location of animals on opening day is determined to a very large measure by weather and forage conditions. Two weeks later, those are far less of a factor than hunting pressure. A considerable expanse of dark timber on a north-facing slope, adjacent to interspersed patches of grass and sagebrush on the south side of the ridge, lies a 4-mile horseback ride from our camp. This location may hold elk on opening weekend. It always harbors wapiti 10 days into the season. Local knowledge of how human presence affects game distribution allows the astute hunter to turn pressure peaks to a positive end.
Had we braved the rain and fog to set out on our Wyoming pronghorn hunt before dawn on opening day, we’d have doubtlessly encountered precious few other hunters until the weather cleared. Neither of us thought it worth the discomfort. However, hunters willing to deal with unpleasant weather encounter far fewer human competitors afield. I’ve killed numerous elk and mule deer during periods of moderate to heavy snowfall, enough to keep other hunters at home or lounging about a hunting camp. Intense cold is also a deterrent for most people. My first elk came on a very cold, snowy day that found an older brother and me in sole possession of thousands of acres of habitat. Three seasons ago I killed a 6x6 bull on a frigid morning in a well-used hunting area close to home without seeing another hunter. Properly equipped, hunting in snow or temperatures on the negative side of the Fahrenheit scale isn’t notably dangerous or uncomfortable. The same goes for a drizzle, but a personal aversion for recreating in the rain normally finds me among the homebodies.
Preferred Points of Entry
How many people slide into a spot on the off side of an airport parking lot when there’s an available space up front? How many take the stairs to the second floor of the terminal when there’s an adjacent escalator? When it comes to personal locomotion, normal folks opt for what’s easy and efficient, just like our ancestors did when they hopped from two legs to horseback and began improving natural trails into roads.
The typical American outdoorsman takes a similar approach to hunting. Most will drive a vehicle as far as possible into a public hunting area before venturing farther on foot. Once on the ground, travel typically proceeds on established trails before veering cross country. Free from the path, most will choose the kindest contours of the landscape for human travel. Some will hike on a trail in the dark; few will venture off-trail before dawn. In mountainous or rugged terrain, it’s the exceptional hunter who penetrates more than 2 miles into habitat from his point of entry in a single day. Those realities allow the enterprising woodsman to turn hunting pressure into an ally versus an adversary, the more so as his familiarity with a particular destination increases.
Should we choose to hunt pronghorn on opening day in the same Wyoming district in the future as our previously described outing, the lightening of the eastern sky will greet us where I killed the doe – at the backside, northeastern corner of a 1.5-mile (north to south) by 2-mile (east to west) parcel of public land. An eastern boundary fence leads from a well-traveled county road on its southern side, offering a straightforward, cross-country route to follow in the dark. If I was a betting man, I’d confidently wager the price of surf and turf for two in the county’s finest steakhouse that pronghorn would approach our position within shooting range by midmorning. At first light, a phalanx of hunters will converge on the public parcel from the south at various points on the county road, forming the western border where a two-track trail wanders along another fenceline. Predicting the precise movements of pronghorn is as iffy as the notion of herding housecats, but if humans are swarming from the south and the west, their general direction of escape will assuredly take them to the northeast.
The movements of elk, on the other hand, can be remarkably consistent in reference to hunting pressure. Sticking with a good elk area for a period of years makes it even better for a number of reasons, one of the foremost being the capability to understand when and where the brown forest denizens travel to escape invading humans. Elk often used heavily-trodden trails when moving through timber in response to disturbance. Setting up along such routes in advance of hunting pressure is a good tactic for catching wapiti on the move. When they’re pushed to traverse open areas between drainages or hiding cover, they favor corridors that leave them exposed for the least amount of time.
Last season a cousin, my daughter and I spaced ourselves along a ridge elk frequently crossed on opening day in response to hunting pressure. Large, scattered fir trees provide a modicum of security from the bottom of a draw to the point of the divide on one end. Animals normally take a route through the firs before sprinting across a couple hundred yards of meadow to timber on the opposite side. That’s where Zoe and I chose to sit.
The other end of the ridge harbors a shallow bowl overhanging heavy, dark timber at a lower elevation. The dished portion is punctuated with a few massive evergreens, several small stands of aspens and a carpet of tall sagebrush. From the upper terminus of the bowl, it’s a quick dash to dense forest on the yonder side of the ridge. My cousin Doug took a position in this area.
Just before noon, a large, tawny body detached itself from the timber on Doug’s end and moved quickly through the sage. We watched in agony as the 6x6 bull angled upslope and galloped across the opening, not 100 yards behind the hunter whose attention was distracted by a spate of commotion from our three saddlehorses tied nearby. “I guess he wasn’t big enough for you,” I ribbed Doug when we rendezvoused back at the horses. “Huh?” was his response.
Only after I pointed out the bull’s tracks in a ribbon of crusty snow at timber’s edge did he believe our account of a bull sneaking past his backside. Though the opportunity was lost, our plan worked to perfection. Hunting pressure from a trailhead on the far side of the drainage had nudged the animal right past his post.
In most areas, hunting on public land inevitably involves dealing with other humans. Knowing when pressure peaks, and how the flow of hunters from preferred entry points affects game movements, can make “crowd control” an asset instead of an annoyance.