The bighorn ram was slowly walking and feeding up a parallel ridge my wife and I were standing on. Because the law required his horns to be 3/4 curl I couldn’t get a good look because he never offered a decent profile. We climbed as the ram climbed, but he wasn’t cooperating. Finally he lifted his head and offered a perfect profile. He was legal, no question about it. I rested my rifle on my shooting sticks and placed the crosshairs just behind the shoulder. I told my wife to protect her ears and initiated the trigger squeeze.
Suddenly a shot rang out far below me. Another hunter, at least 600 yards away, shot at the ram offhand, sending it into a draw and out of sight. His shot hit the dirt two feet below the ram. This was before the days of long-range shooting. He told me he made a Hail Mary shot and simply held high. Evidently not nearly high enough.
I couldn’t believe it. The guy had to have seen my wife and me. We were on an open ridge wearing orange. His shot was within a millisecond of me squeezing the trigger. The guy apologized and walked over to see if there was any blood in case the bullet ricocheted into the animal. There was none and he searched for several hours later.
What were the odds of that happening? In my mind that was the mother of all stories about competition between hunters.
All of us that hunt are keenly aware of rivalry that exists in the woods. Everywhere, even on private land where hunter numbers are controlled. Competition is much more prevalent on public lands where hunters can roam at will. In Colorado, the state with most elk hunters, 13 million acres of national forest lands and huge areas of BLM lands are available to the public. It’s free. That may sound fantastic to a nonresident who comes from a state with limited public lands, but in reality, prime country in those federal lands are heavily hunted, especially close to good access roads and ATV trails. These areas with scores of hunters are often called a “pumpkin patch”, (with tongue in cheek) referring to the orange-clad hunters who are everywhere.
Some hunters will go to great lengths to reduce or eliminate competition. On an elk hunt in New Mexico, my buddy and I were surprised to see more campers than normal on a national forest where we hunted for years. Three of our favorite canyons each had a tent pitched in it. We figured those canyons were being hunted so we went somewhere else. We were hiking up a trail when we met up with a hunter carrying an elk quarter on his back. We made small talk and we told him about the increase in hunters. He laughed and said those were all empty “decoy” tents — put up so hunters would go elsewhere. It worked on us, and I was amazed at the ingenuity of those guys. That was a clever move.
When you think about it, competition occurs in every aspect of hunting, from doves to moose. Once, I accompanied my buddy on a Colorado moose hunt. He had the very highly prized tag which took him years to draw. One late afternoon before opening day I spotted a moose bedded in a willow thicket. All I saw were his antlers. He was well hidden. My buddy and I backed off slowly. We didn’t want to disturb him since we hoped he’d be in that area on the opener. The next morning we eased in to the spot just before legal shooting hours. When we spotted someone shining a flashlight up ahead we stopped and waited. As soon as it was legal to shoot we heard a shot. A hunter killed that bull 50 yards away from where we’d spotted him the day before.
On another Colorado moose hunt I had a tag and spotted an absolutely giant bull in a willow patch walking slowly up a trail. It was the day before hunting season. That bull was so big I vowed not to pull the trigger on any bull during the five-day season unless it was the big boy. As it turned out I passed on 7 bulls the first four days. I told myself I’d shoot any bull on the last day. You guessed it. I never saw a bull. Later that year I met a hunter at the Denver Sportsman’s Show who showed me a picture of a huge bull moose he’d killed in the unit next to mine. It was “my” bull. I could tell because there were a couple very distinctive antler tines. He shot the moose on opening day not far from where I’d spotted it. For four days I was hunting a ghost- a moose that no longer existed. That bull ended up being one of the biggest ever taken in Colorado.
When I lived in northern Utah I often hunted locally for elk. When I drove up the mountain I could see dozens of taillights on the road ahead of me. It seemed like half the town was hunting the mountain. Anyone who got an elk was a local hero.
Competition also exists for small and upland game. I know of a rabbit hotspot in an oilfield that always contains cottontails. It’s where the workers dump their junk pipes and all manner of clean trash. I call this place “rabitat.” Bunnies can be seen basking in the sun where they’re close to old culverts and sheets of aluminum roofing. It’s a perfect spot to hunt them with a scope-sighted .22. Because the area only covers a couple acres it would be easy to overhunt it and wipe out a significant part of the population. That being the case, I’ve never invited a local to hunt with me. That may sound selfish but I’ve seen too many times where friends will bring other friends. Soon, my little bunny spot would be reduced to just another place in the sagebrush.
Dove shoots typically involve numerous people. It seems like a few hunters get most of the shots. That’s because they’ve located a small flyway where doves travel the same route. Some hunters go home with limits and some have only a few or none.
Waterfowl hunters live with plenty of competition. You might have a perfect goose decoy setup in a field but the geese you’re hunting pitch in to other decoys a few fields away. Same with ducks in a marsh.
As long as there is hunting there will be competition. Every one of us deals with it. There are ways to beat it and in fact make that competition work for you. Look for that information in another blog.