3 Keys to Western High Country Hunting Success
Want to harvest a big mule deer or bull elk out west? Then follow the lead of Marc Smith, a western big game hunter with plenty of antlers hanging on his wall
When it comes to hunting success out West, Marc Smith – Muley Slayer as many know him by way of his social media handle – says that success is earned, not given.
Smith, a 40-something mountain hunter who lived in the Colorado Springs area for years before returning to his native Texas, should know more than most, having spent the last 20-plus years building a hunting resume that is the envy of many.
Along the way, as he has tagged big mule deer bucks at nosebleed levels and even bigger bull elk on the edge of timberline, Smith has figured out a system that works, one that has three key components.
According to Smith, the mind is the most critical component for success in the mountains.
"Conditioning the body is important," said Smith. "But more (important) is the condition of your heart and I'm not just talking (about) the physical one."
For all of the adrenaline charged moments of drawing back a bow or settling the crosshairs on the buck or bull of a lifetime, Smith said it's the downtime that most often short circuits high country success.
"(Your) mind will drift off to things going on back home," said Smith, a husband, father, grandfather and business executive with a multitude of responsibilities on his plate.
"Did you send that report to the big boss that he was waiting for before you left?" he continued. "The last conversation with your brother didn't set so well, you wished you would have apologized. Maybe you chose to go to the archery range one more time and dial in those long distance sight pins instead of going to your little girl's soccer game."
If it sounds like Smith has been there, done that, got the t-shirt to prove it, well, he has.
"We hunters are a passionate bunch," he said. "We put a lot of time and effort into our craft and we desire success above almost all else.
"Take it from a guy that has had to learn a few things the hard way – sew up the loose ends and pay attention to the details in life prior to the hunt," he added.
"Nothing will sabotage a great backcountry hunt quicker than a guilty heart."
To be able to successfully punch a tag way up in the high country, Marc Smith says that there's no way around developing a big supply of mental toughness. (Mark Smith photo)
If mental toughness is vital to backcountry success, so too is a foundation of proper physical conditioning.
"The altitude, in conjunction with the dry, arid, steep country of the mountains, is hard on anyone," said Smith. "To enjoy greater success, one must condition the body before embarking on a western backcountry adventure."
For Smith, that means intense cardiovascular exercise three times a week, every other day.
"I like to do 10 minutes on the Stair Master at level 12," he said. "Then I do a series of mobility exercises incorporating weights such as 35-pound dumbbell snatches, three sets of 10 with each arm. I also like to row 300 meters as fast as I can, then jump off the rowing machine and do 10 burpees with pushups, then 10 box jumps, followed by 30 jumping jacks."
And as the saying goes, "That's one!"
Before he's done with the cardio work, Smith will put in three full sets of this, plus extended stamina building time on the treadmill with increasingly difficult speeds and incline settings.
On the days between cardio work, Smith alternates working on his legs and upper body strength by training with weights.
"I also do plenty of core exercises every day," he said. "Various crunches and sit ups, I also like to do Russian twists. I've discovered getting on the floor and working from a sitting and kneeling position helps a lot."
If all of this seems like a bit much at home, it never will up on the hill.
"Let's face it, we sit in our comfy chair at home, our comfy chair at work, we drive our comfy trucks to work," he said. "Rarely do we have to get on the ground and move around."
Since a backcountry hunt consists of plenty of uncomfortable moments, Smith tries to train his body for that too.
"Prior to the hunt, start putting on your shoes from a sitting position on the floor of your bedroom rather than the edge of the bed," he said. "On weekends or on a day at your at home when it's feasible, eat a meal from your knees or while sitting on the floor.
"Start conditioning for discomfort well before the hunt so you're not struck with misery on a trip that's supposed to be fun!"
In Smith's mind, there is no such thing as too much practice with a bow, rifle or muzzleloader.
"Get to the range as often as possible," said Smith. "Shoot from standing and kneeling positions – if your range will allow it – because you're not going to have a bench rest on the mountain.
"If nothing else, shoot over your pack full of clothes rather than sand bags. Trust me, there's a difference!"
For bowhunting practice, Smith said to shoot at targets from unknown and uneven distances.
"Don't just stand there and pound your bag target at 20, 30 and 40 yards," he said. "Practice out to 80 yards at your local field target range. Learning to shoot good groups at 80 yards makes those 40- and 50-yard shots cake."
Smith also urges hunters to practice with their rangefinder.
"Practice ranging and shooting quickly," he said. "A quality rangefinder with built in angle calculating technology is priceless on a steep western bowhunt. And as always remember to pick a spot!"
By pushing himself in this three-pronged system of western hunting success, Smith finds that he's eliminated everything but hunter's luck from the equation, something that helps him have more fun up on the mountain.
"We've all heard the term 'It's all mental,' (well) nothing is truer than that statement in terms of bowhunting western big game," said Smith. "Mental toughness comes from preparedness, expecting success but (also) planning for failure.
"On a backcountry hunt for western big game such as mule deer, elk, sheep, etc, successes and failures can each come day by day, hour by hour, or even minute by minute."
And that's why the Muley Slayer puts in so much physical, mental and weapons training time back home.
Because when it's time for Smith to try and cash a hunting check way up in the backcountry, he never wants to be told that there are insufficient funds remaining in his high altitude bank account.