September 26, 2002
It was an ideal spot on an ideal morning. Cold and bright and the Wyoming February wind had finally stilled. Big Western coyotes were in the offing. As pro-caller Kelly Glause skulked out a few yards to place the FoxPro call, I hunkered down into a cluster of sage on the side of the snow-covered sand dune and tried to blend in. My suppressed AR-15 and shooting sticks set for action, I scanned my surroundings. To my surprise, my assigned hunting partner for the day had chosen to climb to the top of the dune and perch there. Yep, skylined like a buzzard in a skeleton-bare tree.
All my anticipation crashed into disappointment. My body slumped into its position—I was let down. The hunting had been hard, and this was—or, rather, had been—a very promising location. I watched as Kelly turned around and registered the brief flash of amazement on his face before he concealed it. The other hunter was a well-known journalist from the East Coast and had allegedly shot hundreds of coyotes and foxes in his time. Kelly dutifully called for 20 minutes, and then we picked up and moved on. Next setup, he managed to diplomatically suggest a spot for the other hunter to sit, where he’d be well concealed in brush.
I’m still not sure what to attribute that hunter’s naïveté to, but I’m guessing that he was used to hunting pancake-flat country and liked the top-of-the-world feeling—and enhanced field of fire—he found atop the sand dune. Perhaps, in his home areas, skylining oneself was impossible, so he was unaccustomed to worrying about it. Unfortunately, that great field of fire he’d discovered was useless, since no self-respecting coyote would ever approach a skylined hunter.
Skylining is one of the most common of all the mistakes hunters make. Where terrain offers a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding country, it’s natural to want to climb high and look around. However, as natural as it may feel, skylining yourself is one of the surest ways to screw up good glassing country or a good stalk opportunity.
Correcting the tendency is simple: keep off the tippy-top and make a point of maintaining a background of vegetation or brush or rocks—whatever—behind you. Blending into that backdrop, you’ll stay concealed from the penetrating eyes of wary game.
Don’t cross ridges in the wide open. Don’t climb tall rocks to look around. Always—always—use cover to break up your outline, whether glassing, or stalking, or just setting up a discreet spike camp in the middle of good hunting country.
Another common Western condition that Eastern hunters often find difficult to process are the eternally varying winds. Unlike those areas of vast, flat country, you can’t get up in the dawn and check your computer for the predominant wind direction and plan which stand to hunt around it.
Instead, recognize that terrain and temperature cause wind to eddy and swirl. Morning thermals usually cause an uphill breeze. If you hunt the east side of a ridge, the wind will likely be rising up in a westerly direction. Hop over the top of the ridge to the west side, and it will be the opposite.
Big canyons usually have a morning uphill flow much like water in reverse, with finger canyons each sucking eddies off the main current. Plan stalks accordingly, by getting up high early and sneaking down on game from above.
Midday breezes can be unpredictable. Scattered clouds and sunshine can cause wind to switch directions every few minutes. Then, as evening cools the air atop the ridges, thermals reverse, and air currents flow downhill. Usually. Sometimes.
So how do you deal with capricious winds? By being constantly vigilant and immediately adaptable. And by learning to read terrain and predict how it will affect airflow. As an aside, the latter skill also can be an invaluable asset in compensating for wind drift during cross-canyon shots.
RAISE A RACKET
Depending on the species you’re hunting, you may need to be perfectly quiet as you stalk. Unexpected sounds make mule deer, whitetails, Coues deer, pronghorn antelope, and bears nervous. Elk and moose, however, are a different story. Noisy animals themselves, elk pay little attention to thuds, cracking branches, and so forth. Moose, well, they can be brought to full amorous fervor by the sound of water trickling into a pond (ostensibly a cow moose urinating nearby). However, unnatural sounds, such as the metallic whisk of a zipper or the crackle of a plastic water bottle, are taboo.
When stalking elk and moose, don’t worry about making a bit of natural sound. If the game gets nervous, cow-call mildly or rake a nearby sapling without much aggression and they’ll likely relax and go back to whatever they were doing. On the subject of calling, mix simulated hoof thuds, twigs cracking and earth scraping in with your elk or moose vocalizations. Big bulls aren’t dummies, and they’ll catch on pretty quick when there’s nothing but a plasticky-sounding cow elk squeal ricocheting at regular intervals off the aspen trees.
SPEED VS. PATIENCE
One skill that Eastern hunters are usually good at is patience. Typically, they can sit still and be quiet much longer than Western hunters, who are accustomed to always being on the go, covering ground while spot-and-stalk hunting. And sometimes that patience pays big dividends.
On the flip side, they regularly have difficulty learning to move aggressively when called for—and aggressive stalking is often necessary in the West. Unlike hunting in the East, where if the situation isn’t just right you can back off and try again another day, elk and other Western species usually won’t give you another chance on another day. When you find a big buck or bull, you must give your stalk attempt everything you’ve got, because you’ll likely never see it again.
So when you’ve got to cross a yawning canyon or make a mad dash up a long ridge in an effort to beat the threatening dusk, just accept that you’ll make some noise and go for it. Sliding earth, cracking twigs, and the occasional rolling stone usually won’t blow an elk herd out of an alpine basin.
Likewise, if an elk herd is on the move, covering country quickly enough that you can’t keep up quietly, forget extreme stealth and do what it takes, even crashing through pine thickets and spiderwebbed deadfalls if need be. Often, the herd bull will assume a cow has been left behind and will come trotting back to prod her into line. So be ready.
In the West, it’s not unusual for more than one species to be on the hunt menu. I’ve hunted deep in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Area with elk, deer, bear, and wolf tags in my pocket and in Alaska with black bear, caribou, moose, and wolf tags. On such hunts, hunters need to be prepared to shift gears instantly and transition from techniques for one species to techniques for another.
To emphasize that point, I once shot pronghorn antelope and black bear on consecutive hunting days in the same area. One evening I was hunkered on a canyonside ledge, throwing dying rabbit calls into the brushy bottoms below. My opportunity, when it came, was on a salivating boar that leaped to within 18 yards. The next day, with bear blood still under my fingernails, I glassed a big pronghorn buck from a nearby knob, belly-crawled over a mile across the windswept flats, and dropped that buck with a 430-yard shot.
We don’t have room here to address the taxonomy, habitat, habits, and hunting methods for all the various game animals of the West, but before a mixed-bag hunt, you’ll want to study every species you’ll be hunting and be prepared to change focus and techniques at a moment’s notice if a surprise opportunity presents itself.
In the East, when snow and cold comes, you add layers and perhaps change your camp pattern. In the West, snow changes everything. It jump-starts migrations. It makes game (and you) easier to spot. It muffles sound, which makes stalking easier. It clogs narrow draws and turns steep slopes into avalanche candidates.
During spot-and-stalk hunts, it slows hunter progress. Be prepared to move less and to spend more time. If you don’t have snow camo, stay in dark trees if possible or dust yourself with fresh snow so you don’t look like a black dot lumbering around the countryside. Move deliberately and be aware that snow, while beautiful and often advantageous to your hunt, is unpredictable and can be dangerous.
The West in autumn is a welcoming yet unpredictable mistress. Be prepared to adapt and mold to her moods, and you’ll find your hunts to be more succesful.