There is an advantage to being a relative new-comer to bow hunting. The lessons I have learned in my relatively short ‘career’ are still vivid in my mind and memory. The basic instincts and awareness that seasoned veterans may take for granted, I still consciously account for each time in the mountains during elk season, in the tree stand waiting for wary whitetails, or patiently stalking late season mule deer.
This September, I will embark on only my 7th big game hunting season with stick and string. The memories of that very first elk hunt; walking up the drainage at dawn, moving slowly, brushing the heavy dew off of my pants, and listening to my very first elk bugle still make the back of my neck tingle like it did that crisp autumn morning. It is this clarity that gives me an advantage in relating some of my hard-earned lessons to those starting out or anyone looking for an edge.
As clear as my memories are of that maiden hunt with my good buddy Jason, the knowledge that I was completely clueless are even more pronounced. Other than a few close calls, probably more like blind luck, our efforts were pretty futile that year. However, it was the lessons of that season and the next few that built the foundation for whatever hunting prowess I now have (or don’t have in some cases).
One of the most important lessons that I have learned, and continue to learn is to listen to what the animals are telling me even when they are not there. What clues did they leave? Some are easy to spot, some are much more subtle but they are there nonetheless. ‘What were they doing when they were here?’ ‘Have they been here more than once?’ ‘How long has it been since they were right here?’ Examples of these clues are elk wallows, whitetail rubs and scrapes, bear marking trees, creek crossings, etc.
One of the best examples of this took place several years ago when one of my hunting buddies and I started seriously hunting whitetails here in southern Idaho. After elk season, we talked nonstop about setting up some trail cameras and hanging some tree stands, but we continued to procrastinate well into October. Finally, one day, I decided to take my Labrador out to look for some pheasants in the same area we planned to chase the whitetails later in the season. Combing through the brush and crossing the creek, I began to see deer tracks everywhere and lots of potential choke points to hang some cameras. I began to get excited.
I quickly packed up my dog and started the hour plus long drive back to my house. As I was driving I called Doug and told him to leave work early and meet me at my house, we were going to do some scouting work. He debated for a minute or two and then agreed. As it was already late afternoon, we hustled as fast as we could to our destination. Frantically, we loaded our gear and disappeared into the tangle of river bottom foliage. As we traveled through the same area I scouted earlier, Doug began to point out to me all of the things that my inexperience and excitement hid from my eyes earlier.
“Look at this rub!” He exclaimed. “And this scrape here, there is a lot of buck activity in this area!”
As he showed me some of these signs, it felt like the blinders were removed from my eyes. I started to slow down, look harder and–surprise–see more. I knew what each piece of sign was I just wasn’t looking hard enough. I was only seeing the surface, not what the clues were telling about what was going on below the surface. It was a matter of
knowing what to look for and where to look, but most importantly to just be aware of all of it.
I can think of countless scenarios before and since that point to the importance of paying attention to these clues. Several years ago, while hunting elk here in my home state, I took off after an unsuccessful morning glassing session. In a meadow not far above our camp I noticed a cluster of elk tracks that appeared to be extremely fresh because the dry, cocoa colored dirt was still pressed down solid in spite of little moisture. In an area like ours, there are a lot of tracks so telling fresh and old apart is a much needed skill.
Again, Doug was with me so I motioned for him to come and check out my find. “Those are really fresh,” he acknowledged. We quickly made a plan. We would move down the drainage, alternating calling sessions with one guy as a ‘shooter’ and the other as the ‘caller’. I volunteered to call first, nothing. We moved down 100 yards and he started calling, nothing. We moved again…nothing. Less than an hour after seeing the tracks and on our fourth session, Doug called up a nice 5-point bull that I arrowed at 16 yards. You have to love when a plan comes together.
Sometimes it is more than visual clues that tell us the habits and whereabouts of our quarry. Learning to pay attention to the sounds and smells of the outdoors is a skill to be honed like any other. Most hunters are aware that elk have a very distinct odor and hunting into the wind can help lead you in the direction of the herd if you are paying attention to your senses. Some people like to charge through the forest, a lot like we did during that maiden season. A ‘hunter’ has the discipline to slow down and be aware of all of his senses and surroundings.
The year before the elk hunt mentioned earlier, I was probably still in that class of hunter–charging through the mountains, mostly oblivious to my surroundings. However, curiosity was something that I had in spades. So, much to my best friend Jason’s dismay, I scrambled off of our intended path to investigate a strange sound I had heard on the finger ridge above us. Several minutes later, and only two hours into our week-long adventure, I had arrowed my first bull elk, a nice 6-point Idaho monarch. To this day, Jason swears that it was a bird squawking and not any sound an elk would make that drew me up the hill that evening.
Paying attention to my surroundings paid off that day as it has many times since. It doesn’t always lead to harvesting an animal but all of it contributes to my education and knowledge bank. Again, sometimes it is a familiar smell or a nearly inaudible sound that leads us in a direction. Sometimes it is the way the grass is still folded over in a peculiar way. Other times it is a splash of water from hooves or paws leaving a stream. All of these things tell us something, even in the absence of game. It’s how we process and use this information that makes the difference.
I have been lucky enough to have mentors that have showed me some of these things, which definitely expedites the learning curve, and that is what I hope to do for others by sharing my experiences. I have had opportunities to take a few young hunters with me on an adventure or two and passing this knowledge on is highly rewarding. Seeing the light bulb flicker on when you show them some of these tell-tale signs can be just as much fun as the hunting itself.