Tips & Tactics - Dealing with Hunting Pressure
By Dan Pickar
It is very rare these days to hunt a public land unit that has little or no hunting pressure. Hunting pressure is discouraging, overwhelming and downright hard to deal with. As you can imagine general units are the worst but even most limited entry areas can be bad too. Big game animals are very savvy to hunting pressure and are accustomed to it and the young ones that aren’t learn quickly or are harvested! I you’ve hunted enough I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “Man, it’s like they know when opening day is!” Ain’t that the truth! There are many ways to deal with pressure and some of it can even be planned for even before you apply for the tag.
Not all good hunting takes place in the backcountry or miles and miles from the nearest road. Maybe you can’t hike very far and have no desire to wander into the backcountry. There’s nothing wrong with that and I have a suggestion that may help you out. A couple things I have noticed over the last several seasons is areas that don’t have a ton of roads and have little to no recreation opportunities in the summer hold animals that are affected the worst by the opening day rush of hunters. These animals are not used to human activity and react the most to people infiltrating their areas pushing them the furthest from the road. On the other end of the spectrum I find the animals in areas that are heavily roaded, limited entry, but have ample recreation and human activity all summer are affected the least when opening day hunting pressure arrives. These animals are used to people and the noise of side-by-sides and dirt bikes and are affected very little. They can be compared to “town deer” Many places in the West we have mule deer populations that live in town and are practically tame because they are so used to the noise, lights, cars, and have been adaptable to living in those conditions. Perhaps before you apply for you next deer or elk license, visit your prospective hunting area the summer before and observe what recreation and summer activities people are taking part in. Worst case, call the local Forest Service office and ask them what kind of recreation is going on if you can’t make it out to your unit. The moral of the story is there are some great hunting out there that is close to the road and harvesting your animal within a mile from a road is a trophy in itself!
Dealing with hunting pressure in general is hard in itself. You may find yourself overwhelmed on your hunt and need to get away from the crowds. Where the animals go varies from unit to unit depending on the terrain, land cover, and property ownership. In Montana, most animals end up on private property refuges as soon as they experience some hunting pressure or a weather change. The morning of a rainstorm and fog or a snow storm with low visibility is going to make deer and elk feel safer and they move about the landscape more freely, much how they act during the nighttime hours.
As a whole, the name of the game is just being in the unit and hunting. Watching the public areas around private where the animals are will pay dividends when they slip up and cross the wrong fence or get pushed from private. This type of animal movement is impossible to predict so the largest factor a hunter can have in their favor is spending the time out there. If you have more time than most other hunters to watch the animal movement you’ll probably get a crack at them.
Another tactic that has been talked about over and over again is getting away from roads. The farther away from the road or trailhead you can get the better. That is true, but not in every case. If there is no private land or agriculture attracting animals in your unit then yes, it’s probably a good bet. I will say, just because you hiked 10 miles away from the road doesn’t mean there will be a jackpot of animals back there because of hunting pressure. If the habitat isn’t right and those bucks or bulls don’t have good feed, water, and thick cover, they probably won’t be there. That brings me to my next point. Most big game is going to seek thick cover if hunting pressure is high. They feel secure and safe in thick cover and are almost unkillable to most hunters. They only venture into the open to feed under the cover of darkness and make them very tough to harvest. Some things I do in high pressure areas are look for sign. If I can kind tracks or poop from animals entering or exiting thick cover then my play is going to post up the edge of that cover at the first and last flicker of legal shooting light and I can catch them. If that isn’t working I’ll get up on a master vantage with the same tactic in mind. I will concentrate on glassing the first and last flicker of light medium to very far distances. This is when you will see the necessity for using quality optics during these low light scenarios. I will look for pocket parks in a sea of timber and try to get a vantage point where I can see in there. I glass meticulously around thick cover from those bucks or bulls that stay tight to the edges until it’s pitch black out. Most hunters don’t do this as the dinner menu and that evening cocktail with the buddies often pulls hunters from the field before the last flicker of daylight. But I mean, who likes to hike out of their hunting area in the dark in grizzly country anyway!
The last couple tactics I like to use are to hunt during the weekdays and use other hunters to your advantage. Hunting during weekdays will alleviate most of the hunting local hunting pressure but areas that have a high number of nonresidents or aren’t close to town this won’t affect the hunting pressure much. As you can imagine, nonresidents have no other place to go when they travel across state lines to hunt, they have those days set aside a block of days to hunt. Same thing goes for an area like the Missouri Breaks in Montana. It’s a journey for residents and nonresidents to hunt these areas and there are few population centers or amenities nearby so don’t expect to see less hunting pressure on the weekends compared to a Wednesday or Thursday. Places that will see much less places during the weekdays are units close to town and have few nonresident tags. Many times you will have the area to yourself if you are out there on a Wednesday morning.
Using other hunters to your advantage is another great tactic. Especially if you’ve spotted a herd that has a target buck or bull. Position yourself where you think the hunter that is approaching the animals will spook them too and be ready to move and cut the herd off and make the shot. This is easier said than done but it’s worth a try especially antelope or elk hunting when you are dealing with a large herd. Of course though, keep hunter ethics in mind and let hunters that are on the animals first pursue the stock. There is nothing more frustrating than having someone blow up your stalk on purpose after you were on those animals first.
Hike into grizzly bear country to hunt public land elk with Ike Eastman. Dan Pickar is behind the call on this action packed episode of Beyond the Grid by Eastmans’. The country is thick with elk during bow hunting season, but it all comes together on a herd bull in October. It becomes a game of yards, but Ike’s shot placement anchors a mature public land bull.