August 12, 2021
You've decided to come West and try your hand at a new game species. Perfect. Few things in the bowhunting world are as fun or rewarding as a road-trip adventure to a far-flung locale.
Naturally, a hunt for any western big-game critter will be an adjustment, but don't abandon your years of whitetail tactics and knowledge. Instead, use this knowledge to stay in your comfort zone and notch that tag.
The Ground Blind Game
Sit-and-wait hunters are good at, well, sitting and waiting for game to wander into bow range. Long hours in a treestand or blind are nothing new to you, and chances are time in the whitetail woods prospecting for trail intersections, rubs, scrapes, and the like has taught you where you need to strike. Good news: this is precisely the attitude and knowledge you need to pull off a waterhole dupe on a pronghorn.
Upon arrival to your hunt area, investigate pre-marked water sources and pay close attention to tracks around stock tanks and ponds. In addition, like whitetails, pronghorn like to follow trails and take the path of least resistance. The only difference is most speed goats use cattle trails, and you'll want to take a stroll down each trail that leads to the water source. Pay attention to the direction of the tracks, as some routes will be for entrance and some for an exit, just like savvy bucks using an early-season food source back home. If you can locate where pronghorn are coming from and the trails they're using to access the water, you'll have a better idea of where to put your ground blind.
My time on the pronghorn plains, which has been extensive, has shown me Midwest and Eastern whitetail hunters do a way better job at using every ounce of cover available to blend in a ground blind. I highly recommend this. It has been noted by many, especially those that hunt herds on private dirt, that pronghorn will ignore a hub-style blind set 20 yards over water. This won't be the case on public land. Use every ounce of available cover as well as old tractor parts, windmill parts, and the like to disguise your hide.
Lastly, stay put. Pretend it's the whitetail rut, and bucks are cruising all day long. Get in your blind before the break of day and stay put until the western horizon swallows the sun. Nothing ups your odds of water kill like time in the blind. Just like whitetail hunting, those that pull all-days sits and stay the course will find success.
Get Close & Stay Patient
As you're doing your western research, you've probably read you need to be ready to stretch your range and make a distant shot, especially when it comes to spot-and-stalk mule deer. I don't disagree with this, and you should spend time before your hunt sending carbon at distances between 60 and 100 yards. However, killing whitetails inside 40 yards is your wheelhouse, and you shouldn't abandon this goal. Closer is always better, and if you pick landmarks and keep the wind right, getting inside of 40 yards on a bedded mule deer — in an unsullied alpine basin or a sage-dotted flat — is very doable.
Too many western hunters get to the 60- or 70-yard mark and take a distant shot. Remember, punching holes in a mule deer is different than punching holes in foam. Your heart will be racing, and there will be, even if you're a master at controlling it, a bit of anxiety leading up to the shot. Do you. If the buck is oblivious to your presence, keep moving forward.
When you get within range, once again, go into whitetail mode. You've spent hours 20-feet up hardwoods and know precisely when to draw on a buck. You'll need this knowledge when you get in close on a mule deer. If the buck is bedded, wait for him to stand unless you've gotten super-close and have a clear shot at his vitals. Stay patient, just like you would when waiting on a whitetail to give you the perfect shot angle. Don't try and get the buck up. Control your breathing and let him stand on his own. Pay attention to the buck's head and body language. A still head and a relaxed body tell you he is comfortable, but a head that starts to move back and forth along with a body posture that’s tense and seems to rise slightly as the buck lifts his head, tells you to prepare for the shot.
Sometimes, for no reason at all, a buck will stand, turn, and face you just as you get ready to draw. Don't panic. Use your Yoda-like whitetail powers to hold statue-still. This is no different than a buck picking you off in a tree. Often, if you stay still, control your breathing and relax your body, the buck will forget about you just long enough to get an arrow off.
Back To Your Roots For Big Bulls
Chasing bugling bulls with a stick and string is one of the biggest draws to western bowhunting, and when it works, it's a fantastic experience. As a whitetail hunter, you're used to calling, and if you opt to try and bring a rutting bull bowhunting close, take the time to master reed-style calls. Learn to make realistic cow sounds as well as a solid bugle.
With the above noted, don't be afraid to head West during the early season and find a well-used waterhole, trail, or food source elk are using and climb a pine. Elk, especially during the early season before the rut ramps up, can be very predictable. Use your whitetail savvy and scout your area thoroughly. I recommend arriving a few days before the opener and hanging a trail camera or three on pounded trails and waterholes. Also, if you're in an elk-rich area, spend time glassing small, isolated-in-the-timber meadows during the evening just like you would a green field in late July or August. If elk aren't pressured, bulls and cows will typically emerge from the timber before dark to feed. Identify entrance and exit routes, and just like whitetail, if you're worried about elk not hitting the groceries until after dark, follow identified routes into the timber and set an ambush.
You'll need to keep wind direction in mind, and you're no stranger to this. Just like hunting whitetails, stay out of holes and bottoms where the wind can swirl, and pay close attention to mountain thermals. Thermals travel up during the morning and evening, which is a bonus as these are key kill times. You're used to finding the when and where for whitetails. Put this to practice, and put an early-season bull on the ground.
If you stick to what you’re good at and don’t abandon every technique you know just because you’re in new terrain chasing a new animal, you up the odds of coming home with a cooler full of tasty meat and set of horns for the wall.