Standing halfway up a steep, barren, winter-yellow slope in the Owyhee Mountains of southern Idaho I had to ask myself an obvious question — was this grueling hunt worthwhile?
I was chasing chukar (quite literally chasing them — I would see them high on a ridge, move after them, and find that they had suddenly gained even higher ground), and these were the same birds that I could kill on any number of game preserves in the eastern U.S. without nearly as much effort as I was expending to shoot a wild one.
But killing chukars wasn't the sole purpose of this hunt, and thank goodness it wasn't because I never did catch them. Instead, it was the challenge of hunting them in the wild that made this trip worthwhile.
For many hunters, myself included, the most desirable hunts are those that demand the most from us. We like to be tested, like to be challenged physically and mentally. Failure is a relative term on these hunts — I succeeded in the Owyhees not because I killed a chukar, but because the chukar hunt didn't kill me.
Up To The Challange
So it goes with many other North American hunts. These aren't trips for everyone, and as easy as it is to become enthralled by the notion of climbing over boulders and facing bitter mountain winds, the reality is that these hunts are enough to reduce even someone of reasonable fitness to a weak-kneed, broken-hearted puddle if you aren't aware of the challenges inherent to these hunts.
And don't think it's all about big game, either; my vote for the toughest, most demanding hunt in North America will take you in search of an Asian bird that's only slightly larger than a chicken.
That's not to say that whitetails, turkeys, and coyotes aren't hard to hunt. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find three more wary species anywhere on the planet. It's only that hunting them doesn't always require deep treks into remote and rugged country. But if leg-burning hikes in rugged and remote country is your thing these eight hunts might be just what you're after.
1. Mountain Goat
It's been said that sheep country ends where mountain goat country begins, and in many cases that's true. If you want a goat you'll have to follow them wherever they go, and that usually means steep country at high elevations.
Nimble and superbly adapted to the vertical terrain they call home, goats will require you to pick your way through some really rough stuff just to get into their neighborhood. At these high elevations weather is often a factor, and that means you might be camped out in a dome tent on a bed of rocks for a day or more waiting for harsh weather to pass.
Goats tend to stand out on gray rock faces, but when a blanket of snow covers their mountain haunts finding them gets exponentially tougher. These sturdy animals are also notoriously tough, and if you don't make a good first shot with a magnum cartridge plan on a nasty tracking job in sheer mountains. Pack only what you absolutely need for this hunt; you'll feel every ounce of weight in the pack by the time you reach goat country.
2. Coues Deer
If big antlers flip your switch then the Coues deer of the desert southwest probably doesn't appeal to you. Resembling a slight, gray whitetail, bucks rarely grow more than 130 inches of antler. But the real draw to hunting Coues deer is the challenge of pursuing them in the rough country where they thrive.
All whitetail are adept at disappearing into cover, but the delicate Coues deer is a master at using the scant thorn and cactus vegetation in their desert homes to stay hidden. If you get a shot in these wild and rugged canyons there's a good chance it will be far and you'll have to act quickly.
These slight gray shadows don't offer a large target and won't give you much time for a shot, especially since they are primarily on the move in the dim light of dawn and dusk. But a good Coues buck is a fantastic trophy simply because there's no easy way to get one. Plus, the meat is excellent.
3. Mountain Lion with Hounds
There's a notion shared by many — including some hunters — that pursuing game with hounds is easy. Rest assured that the people perpetuating this rumor have never hunted with hounds. When these agile dogs — blueticks, redbones, black-and-tans, Plotts, Walkers or English — strike a hot track they will follow it wherever it leads, which is usually into the most God-awful, remote wilderness around.
And if you want your trophy that means you have to follow these dogs wherever they go.
Hunting both bears or mountain lions with dogs is tough, but since lion hunting means breaking through snow while climbing, it's oftentimes the tougher of the two.
Once you're at the tree harvesting the cat isn't hard, but that's a bit of a misnomer since the walk to the baying hounds might be the toughest climb of your entire life. And, if the cat is small or decides to jump and run congratulations, you get to start all over.
Many people say that mountain lion meat isn't good. That's nonsense. In fact, it was considered a delicacy by early settlers, and the light meat has a flavor like pork.
These birds were imported from the desert mountains of Asia, and they have adapted well to the equally rough mountain habitat in the United States. Named for their distinct call (which echoes down the mountains like a taunt from an opposing athletic team when you hunt them), chukars are capable of running for cover or flying as needed.
Coveys hide near the steep stone cliffs of desert mountains and, when flushed, dive straight downhill, buzzing along with the contours of the land. In case you've never tried to shoot a bird zig-zagging downhill and away from your gun at a high rate of speed let me assure you that it's extremely difficult.
If you're hunting on foot it's best to get above the birds and work down, for chasing a covey uphill is largely a waste of time. Sentry birds will keep the covey alert to your presence and they'll always remain just ahead of you — and just out of range.
I hunt chukar with Tom Loy of Tallgrass Gordon Setters, and his dogs are long and lean, a product of the exercise regimen these dogs are exposed to on daily basis. Lesser dogs simply can't handle the heat and rocky terrain, so if you have a dog introduce them to chukar gradually and keep water on hand. You'll need plenty of hydration yourself, too. If you manage to down a few birds chukar are among the most delicious of all wild birds.
5. Wild Sheep
Sheep hunts are tough in a variety of ways. It's tough to draw a tag, tough to get into sheep country, and tough to locate a good ram and get in range. But that's the appeal of sheep hunting — it's a personal challenge that requires a hunter to dedicate time, effort and resources if they want to have any chance of success.
If you are lucky enough to draw a tag and want to hunt your sheep without a guide you'll need to spend plenty of time in the high country, and that means lots of climbing and hiking. If you hire a guide you'll need to make certain you are in sheep shape when the hunt commences. Just one day crossing shale slides and climbing steep inclines will leave your legs burning and can quickly turn your dream trip into a painful nightmare. But there's no place else like sheep country, and breathing in the thin air while you glass barren hillsides for big rams is well worth the effort.
6. Wilderness Elk
Everyone, it seems, wants to hunt elk in the wilderness. The idea of pulling yourself into the saddle and riding out with a string of stock into wild country is certainly romantic, but there are a number of hunters every year who find out rather quickly that they've bitten off more than they can chew.
These wilderness hunts mean long rides into and out of camp (been on a horse lately?), long hours of glassing in wind and rain and hot sunlight, and coming home to relatively spartan accommodations each night.
If you are fortunate enough to get an elk you need to be able to field dress the animal and care for the meat, which will likely require hiking quarters back to camp. Oh, and you need to be sure to hang that meat high enough and far enough away from camp that a roving grizzly or black bear with a taste for red meat doesn't crash your party.
Introduced to the desert southwest from the Barbary Coast of Africa in the years following World War II, aoudad are stocky, dusty-brown sheep with flowing manes of blonde hair on their chest and heavy, crescent-shaped horns.
Since they are an exotic (and are being eradicated in some areas to make room for desert bighorns) free-range aoudad are relatively cheap to hunt. But that doesn't mean they're easy to pursue, and many hunters consider chasing them in the rugged mountains along the Mexican border to be one of the toughest hunts in North America, on par with sheep and goat hunts farther north.
There are no tags to apply for (in most cases) and you can be in aoudad country from anywhere in the Lower 48 States in just a few hours. Seasons generally run year-round, but the summer months are so unbearably hot that very few hunters are willing to chase sheep during that time of year.
These sheep or very tough, and a 7mm or even a .300 magnum are sound choices. Aoudad can absorb a lot of lead, and you don't want to chase a wounded one through steep canyon country.
8. Himalayan Snow Cock
The Himalayan snow cock is virtually unknown to most hunters. These somewhat drab chicken-sized partridges were introduced from Asia and now survive in the high elevations of the Ruby Mountains of Nevada.
Secretive and shy, finding a snow cock is a real challenge, and killing one is just short of a miracle. There are more stories about failures experienced in the pursuit of these birds than successes. One hunter purportedly climbed to the 7,000+ foot peaks where they live, jumped a bird after miles of hiking and climbing in deadly steep terrain, and when he shot it the snow cock sailed down several hundred feet to a rock bed below — and was almost immediately snatched up by a mountain lion and lost forever.
Another hunter that I know followed these birds for a month and never got any more than a photo.
There's a good chance you're wondering why, after reading these tales, anyone would ever want to chase these birds. But if you want to hunt North America's toughest animal, well, this diminutive bird gets my vote. They taste good, but don't invite your guests to dinner until the bird is in the bag.