Bowhunting Javelina is the Perfect Wintertime Hunt
Posted on May 11, 2011
By Nate Treadwell
It’s winter. Across most of the country, deer seasons are closed and a snow shovel might find its way into your hand more often than your favorite bow. It’s a time that leaves us longing for warmer climes and a continuance of hunting season.Fortunately, there is an easy cure for the hunter’s wintertime blues. It comes in the form of a rugged land. It sticks, pokes, pricks and bites; but once experienced, its pull is strong. It’s the cat claw tugging on your pant leg. It’s the cholla clinging to your boots and the Saguaro pointing heavenward. It’s the Sonoran Desert and the javelina that call its mountains, washes and canyons home.
Although commonly referred to as such, the javelina is not a pig. They may bear a resemblance, but are actually a collared peccary. Their namesake is derived from a ring of light-colored hair around the neck, back and shoulders. They are indigenous to the desert-Southwest region of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Javelina are be found at various elevations, from the desert floor on up to the 6,000- to 7,000-foot range. Strictly herbivorous, javelina subsist on a wide variety of desert plants, roots and succulents.
Javelina were made for the bowhunter. While they have a sense of smell as acute as any deer and their hearing is quite good too, their sight is their Achilles’ heel. It’s the easiest sense for an archer to exploit. Don’t kid yourself though, they can, and will, catch movement, and your skylined silhouette will send them running into the next canyon. Like anything else, a slow go with the wind in your face is your only hope for success.
Javelina are largely territorial. If undisturbed, they will often not move more than a few-hundred yards throughout the day. Even from year to year, javelina herds will usually stay in the same general area, given consistent food, water and cover. This gives the archer an advantage, since resident herds can be hunted over and over on return visits.
Spot and stalk is the most widely used method to hunt javelina. Usually the spotting is more difficult than the stalking. Finding a herd is often the hardest part. Extensive glassing is key. Hours are often spent behind the glasses, picking apart every bush, cactus and rock pile within view. Javelina have a natural camouflage that blends in perfectly with the gray hues of the native cat claw and mesquite–not to mention their propensity to remain hidden in the shadows. Due to their short stature they can also be difficult to spot as they root around under overhanging brush. In my experience, javelina are, without a doubt, the most difficult of all Western game to glass up.
Quality optics are an absolute must. The local hunters of southern Arizona pioneered the art of glassing using high-powered (usually 15X) binoculars mounted on tripods. This is an incredibly effective method that allows the hunter to catch the small details that may uncover a herd of javelina. A nose twitch, a single hoof, a protruding ear, an eye peering through the brush; uncovering these clues can often mean the difference between success and an unfilled tag.
The tripod is the secret to this system. You simply cannot hold these high-powered binoculars still enough without one. It is also challenging to remain comfortable for long periods of time while handholding your binos. Don’t think a tripod is only for the big glasses, either. Due to the stable platform, even your average 8- and 10-power binoculars will be far more useful when mounted on a tripod. You’ll pick up game that you never would have seen while handholding your glasses. Include a good three-way panhead on your tripod, and you are on your way to a good glassing system. A foam butt pad to sit on completes the package.
Javelina are like the snowbirds of the upper Midwest. They prefer it warm. Keeping this in mind, glass the south-facing slopes that catch the first rays of morning sun. Herds can often be found basking and soaking up the warmth. As it heats up throughout mid-morning, they will eventually head for the heavy cover of the canyon bottoms and washes to bed down for the day. A cold wind is also bothersome to javelina. If it’s breezy, glass the leeward hillsides where herds will seek refuge.
Still-hunting can sometimes be effective, too. Hunt areas with fresh sign. Look for rooting and digging at the base of plants. Javelina love to eat the roots, bulbs and shoots of a variety of desert vegetation. Examine the prickly-pear leaves. Prickly-pear cactus is a staple of the javelina’s diet. The sign is tell-tale. Find the stringy, fibrous strands of what was once a prickly-pear leaf, and you’ll know that javelina have been in the area. They will bite into a prickly-pear leaf with their namesake javelin-like teeth and pull backward, stripping the leaf of its meat, much like the way we eat an artichoke. Find this type of sign that is still moist, and you know you are in their neighborhood.
The ubiquitous desert wash is also a great place to still-hunt javelina. Walk the sandy stretches looking for tracks. Javelina tracks are about the size of a half dollar and are a bit less pointed than deer. Since they usually travel in large, familial herds, you will usually find several sets of tracks together. Bisect a pathway of fresh tracks crossing a wash, and the javelina may not be far behind.
The most exciting way to hunt these desert dwellers is to appeal to their instinct to attack. While javelina do not normally possess a penchant for violence, they will not shy away from a fight if you can fool them into thinking one of their own is being attacked. This works especially well with a herd complete with boars, sows and shoats. Some will round up and protect the little ones, while the more dominant animals will come running back into the call to fight. I used to think it was only the boars that would come charging into the call until just recently, when my friend, Zeke Bass, shot a large sow at mere inches as it came racing in. They come in woofing, popping teeth, and with bristled hair. They mean business! It’s pure excitement and an intense shot of adrenaline.
The call is made with a typical predator distress call, the more raspy sounding the better. There are commercially available javelina calls, but most predator calls designed for coyotes will work, too. Wail on the call, imparting lots of action. Open and close your hand as you blow. Breathe in short, choppy breaths, and generally try to make it sound like something fighting for its life. Be enthusiastic about it.
Calling generally works best when the herd is spotted first. It’s a great tactic if the javelina are in an area where they cannot be stalked effectively. It can also work after a blown stalk, or even a missed shot, often pulling them back into range. While still-hunting, keep your call handy, since it could be your saving grace if you unexpectedly bump a herd. It doesn’t work all the time but, when it does, it’s about the most fun you can have with a bow in your hand.
Logistically, this is an easy hunt that can be orchestrated from anywhere in the country. If out of driving distance, flights can be had to either Tucson or Phoenix. With a rented truck or SUV, you can be hunting within minutes of either airport. There’s an abundance of inexpensive motels, restaurants, and campsites abound for the more adventurous.
The javelina tag must be drawn and the application deadline is around the beginning of October for the following January. Archery tags are easy to draw. Many units are often even undersubscribed, leaving left over tags. Contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department (GFD) for its list of leftover tags. A license must be purchased before or at the time of applying, and can be done through the mail.
The Arizona GFD has one of the best websites in the country (www.azgfd.gov). It is very informative and user-friendly. In addition to finding the needed applications to acquire a license and tag, peruse the information pages for the state’s big-game species. You will find a wealth of information on javelina. Click on the link for hunting unit reports, and you will find that a lot of the homework is done for you. Yes, that is correct, the Arizona GFD will even tell you where to hunt. Pick a unit, and you will find specific recommendations on where you can typically find javelina.
Deer tags in southern Arizona can be purchased over the counter if a combo hunt sounds enticing. The archery deer season takes place during the rut in January, greatly increasing the bowhunter’s odds of success. Both Coues whitetail deer and mule deer are plentiful, making one not want for variety. Look for the mule deer at lower elevations in the foothills and flats of the desert floor. Look for Coues deer at higher elevations in the mountains. Javelina can be found co-habitating with both of these species.
If you would like a little more help or a bit of a head start, consider a scouting package from Desert Bull Scouting Service (www.desertbull.com). For a modest fee, Desert Bull will scout an area, provide you with maps, GPS coordinates, and recommendations on places to hunt and camp; it’s a great resource.
This is also a hunt that is great for kids. There is usually lots of action, and the shot distances are relatively short. I recently learned of a youngster who had nine shots on javelina in a week’s time. Now that is fast action! This is also a hunt tailor-made for traditional archers. Javelina rarely stop moving for more than a second or two, putting an instinctive shooter at a great advantage. Coupled with shots often being 20 yards and less, they are the perfect challenge.
With January temperatures in the 60s and 70s, and where sunscreen will get more use than your favorite wool stocking cap, a trip to southern Arizona might be just what the doctor ordered to cure those snow-shovel blues. With plentiful game, available tags, and a wealth of information at a hunter’s disposal, it is a hunt that should certainly be on your to-do list. It truly is fun in the sun, a rare commodity in the dead of winter.