Bowhunting the High Country

Posted on April 14, 2011

By Joe Bell

elk hunting

Every bowhunter desires a certain type of hunt. For some, the perfect getaway may involve close-to-home hunting or visiting a far-away destination for an exotic species. It could involve lots of companionship or total seclusion. Some bowhunters want to be where there’s an abundant supply of animals, while others want nothing but maximum trophy potential. Some like mild-weather hunting, whereas others prefer it chilly and crisp.

Some bowhunters require comfortable lodge-type amenities, while some want no-frills conditions. Some prefer hunting out of tree-stands or ground blinds, while others must be “on the go” all the time and stalking game. Some like short hunting trips, while some want long, epic adventures. The perfect bowhunt is simply different for everyone.

Personally, when I think of the perfect bowhunt, I think of hunting mule deer somewhere in the high country, at or above timberline. Here the terrain is fairly open, where you’ll usually find more rock and scrub than actual tree cover. It’s also a place where a bowhunter can go to find total privacy, void of any worldly distractions.

In the last few years, I’ve been more and more drawn to this type of adventure, perhaps because it does such a great job of “filling me up” as a bowhunter. Hunting the high country brings me back to the basics bowhunting, just the way I remembered when I first took up the sport.

Last season I was back in the high mountains of Nevada. It all started with intense spring and summer planning and gear preparation. My friend Angelo and I use a horse wrangler to take in all our camping gear to a remote basin. From there, we either hunt directly out of base camp, or as needed, we spike out for a few days to access more and more country.

The hunt starts on August 1, so it’s extremely warm once you leave the trailhead, which begins amid bleak-covered sage flats. But thankfully this warmth gives way to the mild breezes flowing off the jagged, snow-capped ridgelines.

After a three-hour horseback trek through a winding, river canyon, we arrived in base camp. This year we packed more luxuries than usual and brought a lighter base-camp tent. Truly tired of freeze-dried grub, Angelo and I brought a small cooler of steaks, hot-link sausages, chicken, and some fresh produce to spice things up. What a pleasure it was for a change, eating restaurant-style food among the aura of the alpine.

At nearly 9,000 feet, the altitude can have some effect on you, and we always like showing up a day or two before the deer opener. This gives us time to acclimate and to scout.

That evening, from a good observation spot, we began looking for game on all the high ridgelines above camp. Three seasons prior, this is where we found most of the deer.

It didn’t take long before big, fuzzy racks began filling the view of our optics. We admired each deer’s character, hoping for a crack at some of the larger boys.

The next day was all about refining camp and getting hunting gear ready. It was simply living at its best. No electronics, no scouting tools, no civilized amenities – only the core necessities. It was actually refreshing for a change. Also, you quickly begin appreciating all those things you normally take for granted in everyday life – you know, like running water, a toilet seat, refrigerator, and so on. It all makes you approach life more positively once you return home.

Opening day found my partner and I on the 11,000-foot ridge above camp, looking for the supply of bucks we saw during our scouting observations. But things started off slow and we had only spotted a few small bucks.

At noon, we called each other on the radio. My friend had spotted a great buck resting in the crags of the mountain. He would try a stalk. I would stay within a mile or so, just in case he needed help, at least for a few hours before continuing down the ridgeline, which is where I wanted to be come evening time.

So I sat and sat, checking the radio every couple hours, awaiting my friend’s encouraging response. But the radio never crackled. For a guy like me, sitting still in a place like this proved a true torture. The country seemed to be calling me out – to be explored, not waited on.

But deep inside I knew better. The high country simply runs on a different clock. There is no set schedule up here. The deer feed and move unpredictably. Things are delivered just as they were meant to be.

Bowhunting this country can teach you more about life than you know. The trick, I’ve learned, is to absorb every part of the experience, and to always give thanks for just being here. Then let God and nature do the rest.

I hunkered beneath the cover of an ancient bristlecone pine and wondered if any other hunter once sat in this very spot. I was told about a large Indian cave, which was supposed to be somewhere in the basin. I was told it was up high in the cliffs, overlooking the basin’s landscape.

Perhaps one of these past native American hunters sat on this very rock and shot a big buck using nothing more than a simple, hand-crafted bow and arrow set. Equipped with such crude archery gear, these bowhunters must have had incredible skill to consistently kill. I tried to grasp what it was like being an archer back then, and raising a family among the harshness of the mountains.

Thinking about these past hunters for a few moments really calmed my spirit. I felt more at peace and more patient to just wait.

However, after several hours of sitting, I could barely take another minute. I tried my friend on the radio but never got a response. It was time to hunt, the way I wanted to. I gathered my gear and continued down the ridgeline, heading further up the basin.

Forty-five minutes later, I came to narrow passageway through the steep, cliff-like terrain. Here, the urge to sit came over me again.

I began glassing around when all of the sudden I noticed a deer heading in my direction. I sneaked down 30 yards or so, guessing the buck would pass through a small strip of pines just below me.

Thirty minutes later, I could see the buck’s big rack bobbing above the alpine grasses. He was definitely drawing closer, and my heart began to accelerate.

Quickly the deer was inside 40 yards, moving sharply below. I drew smoothly when I saw his head pass behind a patch of evergreens. After the launch of the arrow, I heard the arrow “slap,” and then the unmistakable clatter sound of a complete pass through.

Bagging that buck on opening day was something I would’ve never expected. I later found out that it was the same buck my buddy had stalked but bumped after things went haywire.

This time I tagged out early. But next time, maybe it’ll be different – isn’t it always? Regardless of the outcome, I’ll do my best to stay on the high country’s clock and not mine. After all, it always seem to work out better that way.

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