Rifle seasons are kicking off throughout the west and for many of us that means a focus on spot-and-stalk hunting. When the elk rut is over, it brings an end to calling tactics in most cases. And whether you’re after elk or mule deer this fall, spot-and-stalk is one of the most effective ways to pursue big game in big country.
And this country is big! Even with a rifle, getting within shooting range of a mature bull elk or mule deer buck is no easy task. It takes hard work, patience and persistence in equal measures.
As you approach your spot-and-stalk western hunts this season, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Maximize Your Time Glassing
On any spot-and-stalk rifle hunt in big mountain country, spending time behind the glass is a huge key to success. So make sure to maximize your time in the field. The less time you spend at camp, messing around with gear, or any other non-glassing and non-hunting activities, the more opportunities you’ll have.
On rifle elk and mule deer hunts, I like to be in my glassing spot at least 15 minutes before daylight in the mornings. Those first few minutes of daylight might be critical to spotting your target. So don’t waste them doing anything other than looking through your binoculars.
To aid in that effort, do all your prep each night before the next day’s hunt. Load all your food for the day, fill your water bottles and make sure your daypack is ready. The next morning, you’ll be ready to hike to your glassing spot without any delay.
The other thing I like to do is carry a compact stove in my daypack. If there’s a mid-morning lull while glassing, I can make myself a hot cup of coffee. Then during the afternoon if things are slow, I can make a hot Mountain House or Peak Refuel meal. This helps keep my focus up and keeps me going strong so that I can keep glassing until very last light.
If you’re not sitting behind your binoculars glassing at the very first hint of daylight in the morning and through the very last moments of light in the evening, you could be missing opportunities.
Get Comfortable Behind the Glass
In order to keep glassing all day, you’ll need to be comfortable. In addition to hot coffee and meals to keep you fuelled, make sure you have a few other creature comforts.
First, pack layers that will keep you comfortable while you’re stationary. There’s nothing like a puffy down jacket to stay warm. A warm hat, neck gaiter and gloves will also help. When temperatures are very cold, I’ll even bring a pair of puffy pants. And finally, don’t forget your rain gear. Even if it’s bone-dry, remember that Gore-Tex and most rain gear materials are also wind-proof. When you’re glassing on a windy ridge for hours, that rain gear will block the wind and keep you comfortable.
Next, bring a glassing pad to sit on. Something like the Thermarest Z-Seat is perfect because it weighs almost nothing, yet keeps your rear end warm and cushioned from the ground.
In situations when you need shade or shelter from rain or snow, pack a Caribou Gear Hunter’s Tarp. You can pitch it with trekking poles or tree limbs to create a perfect glassing shelter.
And whatever you do, don’t forget the tripod. When glassing for any long period of time, a tripod is absolutely essential. When you mount your binoculars on a tripod, you’ll notice a world of difference versus hand holding them.
Be The Most Stubborn Creature on the Mountain
Successfully spotting game on a mountain hunt can take serious persistence. And remember that things can change in a moment. Glass, glass and then glass some more. Do not give up. Are you more stubborn than the elk or the deer? You’ll have to prove it.
After the rut, big bull elk move off by themselves or in small bachelor groups. And mule deer bucks have an uncanny ability to hide in seemingly open country. You might have glassed all day long without seeing a thing. Then suddenly, you’ll see what you’re looking for.
Often times, the best thing you can do on a tough hunt is to stay persistent, stay positive and don’t give up.
Be Patient and Smart In Your Approach
When you finally spot your target, don’t go rushing off after it. Be patient, think through your strategy, and carefully plan your approach. Sometimes, that means waiting for the right opportunity.
Study the terrain. Things always look different from across the mountain or through binoculars. So pick out distinct landmarks to guide you along your stalk. Also plan an approach that uses terrain features to conceal your movements. But on the other side of that coin, think about lines of sight when it comes to getting a shot. If the buck is on a bench that will conceal him from below, then you’ll need to approach from a different angle that allows you to get a shot.
Check the wind and re-check it constantly. Carry a bottle of powder wind detector and keep it on hand throughout the stalk. Keep in mind that the wind might be completely different when you get over to his side of the mountain. If that’s the case, be ready to re-route your stalk accordingly.
In an ideal scenario, wait until the bull or the buck beds down before you begin your stalk. Then, you can make a play to his fixed position. If that’s not possible and you need to stalk an animal that’s on the move, you’ll need to do a little guess work. Create an angle and stalk to a point where you think he is going, rather than where you first see him.
Stay Alert for the Cow Elk and Mule Deer Does
It’s easy to get tunnel vision and to focus entirely on the one with the antlers. But it’s usually their antlerless companions that will bust you first. Pay close attention and make every effort to avoid blowing out other animals along your way to the target. This becomes a real issue when hunting mule deer close to the rut.
Know When to Run and When to Crawl
In western spot-and-stalk hunting there are often just two speeds – really fast and really slow. And there’s not much in between.
When the terrain allows you to drop behind a ridge or a stand of timber, you can really cover ground. This is especially important if the animal is moving. Take the opportunity while they can’t see you to hustle into position.
Then, there are times when you’ll be forced to move at an extremely slow pace. When cover is lacking, you may have to belly crawl or move only when the animal has its head down feeding. This pace can seem painful at times. But with patience, you can get there.
Whatever you do, stay off the skyline. And whenever possible, use shade and a backdrop of brush or trees to conceal your outline. Some stalks can take hours, so be prepared for that.
Capitalize on the Final Moments
The last bit of a stalk can be the most exhilarating and stressful. As you approach your target, make sure you’re ready to capitalize on the opportunity.
Slow down and get your breathing under control. If you’ve been running to get into position, this will take some time. As you focus on lowering your heart rate, really slow down. Watch where you place your feet to make sure you don’t make any loud noises. These are the critical moments. Make them count!
By Ryan McSparran
Ryan is an elk hunting guide based in Colorado, and is proud to be a part of the team at Caribou Gear.