Bowhunting in the Desert?

What at first may sound like an absurd proposition makes a whole lot of sense if you truly want to hunt in solitude.

Aaron Arnell's 2001 mulie netted 182 6/8 Pope and Young Club points. Yes, it's a hog mule deer, and yes, it was taken by bow. Photo by Mike's Outfitting.

By Justin Karnopp

When I first started bowhunting, I was thrilled with the experience. First of all, the season was nearly a month long, and I took full advantage of my lack of "real job" responsibility at the time. I would hunt the timber for the first 10 days of the season and every weekend thereafter. I saw few hunters and abundant animals those first few seasons. I had some great opportunities at deer and elk, some I was able to take advantage of, and some I wasn't.

Every year since, I have seen more and more hunters and less game in our national forests. It seems as though the woods have become just as crowded during archery season as during controlled rifle hunts. I changed hunting units three times to escape the crowds, and eventually the end result was the same. It was time to do something different.

As with most hunters, finding the time to devote to archery hunting is a challenge. I now own my own business and fall is my busy season, so I no longer have the luxury of taking September off to hunt.

Rather than hunting deer one weekend, elk the next and antelope yet another (as if there would be enough time even if I could draw a tag), I need to be someplace where I can take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself. The answer that I'd been looking for had been there all along: I'd hunted the high desert with a gun for most of my life, and last year I took my bow to rifle country.

Tim and I hid in the high sagebrush, studying the four bulls that were grazing at the head of a deep gorge. Here it was opening day of archery season, and a mere 80 yards away was our golden opportunity.

The elk were indifferent to cow calls, and Tim's bugle caused them only to lift their heads and sniff the dry desert air. The wind wasn't right, and with eight eyes covering every direction, a stalk was impossible.

Regrettably, we left the bulls where they were with plans to return in the morning. The following dawn, as the sun lit the barren landscape, we glassed the draw with anticipation, but the elk were nowhere to be found. They had vanished in a seemingly empty landscape.

Upon further inspection, we were surprised to find an oasis of aspen in the depths of that hole, complete with lush springs and grasses. "This would be a fine place to be an elk," I thought.

We were even more surprised to bump into the 6-point bull that ignored the noon heat as he fed on bitterbrush. He was a mere 50 yards away when I caught a glimpse of his antler tip as he worked up a side draw. The wind was in our favor this time, and he hadn't detected our presence. When I popped over the rise, his head was buried in a shrub, and after a short waiting game, I had a perfect 35-yard shot quartering away. The bull ran 100 yards and fell over dead.

Three days later, Mike Ukrainetz and I took a morning drive near some alfalfa fields that had held some decent bucks the evening before. We glassed the sage from a small knob, hoping to intercept one of the boys working his way back to a bed. "Deer! It's a buck! Three bucks!" Mike said, peering through his binoculars.

Nearly a mile away from us, the bucks meandered across the flat. There was a decent 4-pointer in the group.

Through some incredible luck (similar to the fortune that had graced Tim and I three days prior), we eventually found ourselves crouched down, 17 paces away from the bucks. They were alert but not yet startled by our presence. They turned their heads away, and I began to ease back the bowstring when I heard an unwelcome sound. A rancher's diesel pickup - the second rig we'd seen all day - tore down the road behind us, and the deer took off running.

The following weekend, I watched a small mulie buck and a few does snoozing underneath a lone juniper. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and slowly turned to see a nice antelope strolling by within spitting distance. The buck sported 15-inch horns. If only I had a tag in my pocket!

All of this took place in the high desert of eastern Oregon, on public property, during the 2002 archery season. The elk was the lone kill, and an awesome trophy for me, but the hunting experience is not always about filling tags. For me it's about seeing game, being among good company, and first and foremost, about being out, away from any concentration of people. The only other hunters I saw last year were the ones I shared a camp with.

One of the real advantages of hunting the high desert is the abundance of public land. Hundreds of thousands of acres are managed by the BLM. Of course, not all of this is productive big-game habitat, and locating a good area takes a commitment to scouting.

I've found rifle deer and antelope hunters to be a great source of information. Most of these guys don't see a bowhunter as much of a threat (some may blatantly laugh at you!) and are liberal with their secret holes. Talk to avid chukar hunters. These guys are out there all the time, through fall and winter, and have provided me with some good leads.

Locating animals is less of a challenge in open country simply because such a large area can be seen from a given vantage point, and there is less cover for critters to hide in. I feel more confident if I can see some game and know that I'm in a spot where the animals are. It's this hope that keeps me hunting hard until Lady Luck reveals herself.

Glassing take patience and is critical to success. I can sit on a knob with my eyes pinned to a set of binoculars for hours on end. In contrast, I've never been very good at sitting on stands. I simply love to glass. A good set of binoculars is key, and a spotting scope is necessary for judging antlers and dissecting topography.

As always in bowhunting, your own scent is your worst enemy. This problem is multiplied when temperatures reach 90 degrees, as is often the case in the desert. If a water source is not available, then make sure to bring enough water to spare some for a bath or two. I've found that cover scents are ineffective unless you are clean to begin with. As Mike Ukrainetz says, "You just smell like a human covered with elk piss."

Desert mule deer are wary animals, and many hunters believe that taking a la

rge mule deer with bow and arrow is one of the biggest challenges in North American hunting. My personal experience reinforces this. Ukrainetz, owner of Mike's Outfitting (, has spent the last 10 years guiding archers into trophy mule deer in the open plains of Alberta. He has bowhunted prairie mulies his entire life and has a number of bucks listed with the Pope and Young Club. While the numbers of mature bucks are significantly better in Alberta and the terrain differs some from the high deserts of the Western U.S., the system he uses to get within archery range of these bucks applies to any open-country situation.

One oft-suggested technique for bowhunting desert mulies is to climb to the highest peak at the crack of dawn and glass for bucks. Once a buck is spotted, wait and let him bed down. Sneak into bow range and wait for the buck to get up, or throw a rock to make him jump out of his bed, providing a shot.

There are drawbacks to this tactic, of course. "Half the time you expose yourself to deer on the way to your vantage point," Ukrainetz said. "These bucks are used to looking for danger two to three miles away. In the open prairies where I hunt, it is especially bad to be out of the truck first thing in the morning, when the bucks are feeding and active. If they see you at this time, they will really vacate the country.

"I start by glassing in the morning from the truck or at least at very long distances in likely feeding areas and watch where the bucks go to bed down for the day. I then hike through the hills in the heat of the day. If they do spot you, they are more likely to stay put and hope you don't see them, or get up and travel a short distance because of the heat.

"Once I find a buck, I take a long look at the spot he's in. Does it look secure and is there adequate shade? I need to find out if he will stay in that spot until I get over there. The wind is my next and biggest concern. I'm amazed at how few hunters understand how wind carries across the land. Wind will flow like water down a valley, eddying and making turns. Old bucks know this and will pick bedding spots where the wind swirls, warning them of danger from several directions," Ukrainetz said.

"I have to plan a route to get to the buck. First, I look for other deer bedded nearby that might blow the stalk, and then I pick out some landmarks for marking a travel route to the buck. I also like to find a point halfway between the buck and me where I can sneak a peek to make sure he hasn't moved. Once you have the route and wind figured out, it's simply a matter of sneaking within bow range and letting the buck stand up on his own.

Ukrainetz says throwing a rock to get a buck to stand up is just as useful as yelling at them. He gets into a position where he's half-hidden and can watch the tips of the buck's antlers. If his antlers tip down, the buck is standing up.

"Once he is up, I wait, crouched over," Ukrainetz added. "If he isn't wise to you, he will eventually start nibbling on bushes or turn around to scratch out his bed. When he is looking away, I draw back and shoot."

What if you can't see the antlers? Ukrainetz has a solution: "If a buck isn't in a position where I feel I can peek at his antlers or the wind swirls, I will use a pop-up-and-shoot method," he said. "You have to be able to draw your bow completely sideways for this to work."

From a crouched position, Ukrainetz draws his bow sideways and then pops up in front of the buck at full draw.

"If they are caught off guard, they will freeze in their beds for about three seconds, enough time to shoot. It works. I have killed several bucks this way," Ukrainetz said.

Ukrainetz recommends a rest called the "whisker biscuit" for the sideways drawing procedure and for keeping your arrow in place while crawling or walking. "A bow quiver is best; hip quivers are too noisy," he said. "I shoot carbon arrows with plastic vanes; feathers are too noisy. A bedded buck can hear feathers hit a bush from 40 yards away."

Rocky Mountain elk lived on the plains before humans ran them to the hills. It is still difficult for many of us to equate sagebrush and juniper with elk, but the animals are making a strong return to their native range in the wide-open spaces of the West.

Much of the desert remains almost uncomfortably warm well into October, and the rut often takes place past the closing of archery season.

The desert bull that I took in 2002 was simply a matter of good luck: being in the right place at the right time. However, my experience with desert elk has shown me that spot-and-stalk techniques can be quite effective. Many bulls don't seem to be as elusive as mule deer, and they can often be found grazing in the open or bedded underneath a juniper atop a knoll. However, an elk's nose will bust you every time if you let your guard down or disregard the inevitable desert wind.

Walt Ramage of the Primos pro staff hunts the desert for the same reasons I do: He likes the solitude and abundant game. He says hunting waterholes is an extremely effective method for chasing desert elk.

"Elk are big animals and generally need to water twice a day, especially when it's hot," Ramage said. "With that said, find and sit water holes, a lot!"

Cow calling will get the attention of elk any time of year, especially when the rut is near. Once you begin calling, elk are then looking for your position, and in open country you can get busted easily.

Many hunters rely on elk decoys to conceal themselves. "If you are going to try to call bulls in open country during the rut, a decoy can be a big help," Ramage said. "If a bull can hear you and there is not enough terrain or cover to hide yourself or another elk, he will eventually get nervous. But, if you have a sexy cow elk propped up in the sage, he might just close the gap and present a shot."

Safety is always an issue when using decoys, especially since cows are legal game for most archery seasons. However, there is not nearly the risk of being shot by another archer in open country as there might be in forested areas. You likely will see few hunters, and will probably be aware of their presence long before they get into bow range.

In contrast to rifle permits, archery antelope tags are very easy to obtain. For instance, in Oregon, most archery tags can be drawn with one or two preference points. Many of these tags will coincide with general archery season, allowing one to pursue all three species on the same hunt.

Antelope have extremely good vision and generally stay in the most open of country, making spot-and-stalk a real challenge. This doesn't mean that they are impossible to get with a bow, quite the contrary. It just may be nece

ssary to rely upon other tactics. "Up here in Alberta, antelope are probably the easiest game to get in Pope and Young," Ukrainetz said.

Many hunters do their homework by scouting and finding waterholes frequented by "speed goats." "If you are sitting a waterhole, patience is the key," Ramage offers. "Designate yardage around the blind prior to setting up. Stay still when antelope approach water. They normally are very skittish."

Antelope decoys can also be very effective. One weakness antelope have is curiosity. I've had them run right to me by my waving a white hat in the air. In many cases, they will go out of their way to explore a decoy.

Camouflage is absolutely critical in open-country hunting. Try to match the color of your camo to your hunt area.

Many shots in open country will be from 40 yards-plus. We all have our individual comfort range, and some archers routinely take game at 50 yards. Whatever you feel entirely comfortable with is the right distance to shoot. This range is determined through diligent practice at the shooting range, a requirement for anyone who shoots a bow at big game.

This year I will head east with all three tags, though I will make an antelope my top priority. Who knows, whether it will be possible to fill all three? One thing is for sure: I won't have to worry about my hunt being spoiled by crowds . . . not where I'm going.

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