How to Hunt Big Country

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Whether you want to bowhunt big country for deer, elk, bears, moose or caribou, one thing’s for sure: You must learn the land if you hope to succeed.

Patrick Durkin, a freelance magazine writer, syndicated newspaper columnist, and contributing editor/writer for ArcheryTrade.org, is well-versed in hunting the big woods of the northern Great Lakes region and the roadless backcountry of Western states. He said it’s mentally and physically demanding, but the rewards are worth the challenges.

Here are Durkin’s seven tips for hunting big country.

Learn to Navigate/Survive

Learn to read a compass and map before you go into the deep woods. Photo Credit: AIM Adventure U

You’ve probably heard stories about hunters or hikers who disappeared forever into the mountains. Some got lost and others got injured. Either way, they disappeared and died. Although these stories are real, they’re also rare and easily avoided with preparation.

“Scary things can happen [if you get lost,] but today it’s easier than ever to navigate the woods safely,” Durkin said.

If you want to hunt big animals, you must go into big country. Learn how to read a map and compass, carry a GPS unit, dial in your smartphone apps, and know how to survive, should you become stranded for days. Durkin suggests practicing your newfound skills to ensure you know what you’re doing. And if you do find yourself in peril, make sure you’re packing a personal locator beacon, which can summon rescuers by satellite communication.

Ditch the Roads

Durkin suggests looking for secluded areas that are difficult to access as part of your pre-trip electronic scouting strategy. He uses maps, hunting apps, and online resources to find big chunks of national forest and other public lands. Then he zeroes in on areas without roads, and lands that forbid motorized vehicles on trails.

“I look for places that other hunters have a hard time getting into,” Durkin said. “Once you make guys start walking, especially uphill, you’ll dump a lot of people.”

In short, the farther you travel from roads, or the more obstacles you place between your hunting area and roads, the greater your chances of success. You’ll then find fewer people, less competition, and more animals.

Do your research to narrow your options. You should also browse agency websites to learn regulations, season dates, tag availability and application deadlines. The more prep work you do, the better off you’ll be when you start hunting.

Get Fit

Hunting big country is easier when you’re physically fit. You’ll likely encounter gullies, ridges, valleys, mountains and thin air, assuming you’re hunting the West. Those terrains challenge your legs and push your lungs to the limits.

You’ll need strength and stamina. Durkin often walks a mile and a half (with significant elevation gains) each morning to reach his hunting locations on Western elk hunts and northern Minnesota deer hunts. Then, depending on how the day unfolds, he expects to walk anywhere from 2 to 10 miles before sunset. He said it’s physically demanding, which is why it’s important to remain fit year-round.

Luckily, Bowhunting 360 has many tips and exercise routines to help you stay in shape. Read these articles for more information:

Bowhunting Skills: Staying Fit for the Season

Get Fit Now to Maximize Your Spot-and-Stalk Bowhunts

Wild Game for a Healthy Lifestyle

Find the Right Partner

Make sure you choose a hunter partner that matches your physical ability. Photo Credit: ATA

Durkin encourages hunters to choose their partners wisely for backcountry bowhunts.

“If you have a bad hunting partner, or someone who’s just not into it, they can suck the energy out of your group,” Durkin said.

Hunting with the wrong person can be mentally and physically draining. You won’t want to carry someone else’s backpack. Nor will you want to reassure someone every few steps that “it will work out.”

Find someone who is upbeat, dedicated, physically fit and, above all, tenacious. You want someone who can handle what Mother Nature throws at them, whether it’s pouring rain or 90-degree heat. You also want someone who is physically prepared, and ready to climb mountains, cross creeks, and pack out meat.

Invest in Gear

Although you might have a pair of boots, Durkin recommends investing in a pair of rugged hunting boots. “It all starts with your feet,” he said. “If you don’t have good, solid, comfortable boots, you’ll be miserable. You can’t walk anywhere if your feet are messed up.” If you need new boots, breaking them in before your trip is mandatory.

Other essential items include good packable rainwear and a solid, comfortable backpack. High-quality gear is likely expensive, so save accordingly. Water-resistant clothing helps, but bring a lightweight, waterproof jacket and pants you can pull out and slip on when rain rolls in. Your backpack must be big enough to carry food, water, extra layers, a survival kit and hunting items on day trips. But don’t stop there. Be sure you backpack can expand to carry out that first load of meat when you connect. Make sure it adjusts easily and fits properly, especially at your hips, and has a solid frame to support heavy weights.

Don’t forget binoculars, a rangefinder and game bags, which are durable and keep meat clean. They’re also breathable to prevent meat from spoiling as you pack it out on warm days.

Use Your Senses

Tap into all your senses when hunting, not just one. Photo Credit: ATA

Big-game animals use their eyes, ears and noses to evade hunters. You must use yours to find them.

“It’s always important to use your senses, no matter where you are and what you’re hunting, but when hunting elk, you’ll learn quickly how important your senses are,” Durkin said.

To underscore that point, Durkin, 63, isn’t ashamed to say he recently got hearing aids because his hunting buddies often heard things he didn’t. “If you have bad to so-so hearing, you’re at a disadvantage,” he said. “I was handicapping myself.”

Good hearing helps pinpoint distant animal calls or nearby animals walking and browsing through the woods. You must also have good eyesight to spot animals in brush, on hillsides, and down valleys. Durkin said you can often smell elk, and even rutting bucks, when downwind.

Keep your senses on high alert as you move through big country. As the predator, you must use your senses to defeat your prey’s defenses.

Make Long-Term Plans

Durkin said you can learn a lot about an area through electronic scouting, but you won’t know the area that well until you’re on the ground, walking and hunting, day after day. Then, you’ll see how animals use the land, habitats and topography to their advantage, and you can calculate when and where you need to be.

Durkin thinks long-term for sustained success. “Whenever I hunt a new area, I figure it’s going to take five years before I really know the country and where things are, especially with Northwoods whitetails,” he said. “It’s hard to be successful on those five-day hunts most of us make. The first year or two can end up being glorified scouting trips. Don’t get discouraged. It pays off if you keep coming back.”

Durkin believes hunters should look at out-of-state hunting trips in big country as long-term investments. Be patient and learn as much as you can each year to put yourself in a better position the next year. Each year you’ll become more strategic in your hunting.

That said, don’t make assumptions, either.

“Respect [the hunt],” Durkin said. “Don’t assume everything will be the way it was the previous year. You must accept the fact that things change.”

Visit an archery shop for gear and more information. Most employees are eager to help beginners.


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