Hill-Country Hurdles: Tough Terrain
Posted on May 8, 2013
Putting your tag on a big-timber buck means overcoming these three obstacles. This post will cover the challenges of especially tough terrain. Keep checking back as we cover the other major hurdles you may face out there.
Day five finds me braving the elements once again. Navigating the rock-strewn trail, I struggle to see beyond the blinding glare of snow as it dances through the beaming headlights of my ATV. Up to this point I have endured many long, uneventful hours in the stand, including one ambitious “dawn to dusk” effort. All in the hopes of getting just <one> glimpse at a shooter buck. As I near my destination, I can’t help but wonder if today will be the day.
Cutting the engine, I pause for a moment as my eyes adjust to the merging image of an ink black sky and a snow-white forest. The surrounding timber is as quiet as death, so much so, I can almost hear the flakes of snowfall as they whisper past my ears. Stepping off of the now lifeless machine, I quickly begin to brush away the half-inch or so of powder that has secretly gathered on my chest during the long drive up the mountain. Shouldering my backpack I anxiously reach for my bow and head out along the cold, lonely trail toward my stand. With each muffled step my excitement level swells. Not at the thought of another lingering day; without as much as a single deer sighting. But, because deep down I know this day, a day when most have chosen to stay within the confines of a warm, cozy bed, is really just another obstacle I must overcome in order to fill my tag. With that thought in mind, I press on, soon reaching my perch.
While I won’t argue the fact that we all face certain dilemmas while trying to arrow a good buck, pursuing whitetails in a mountain setting presents its own collection of unique challenges. However, consistent success is hardly unattainable in such an environment. After many years of trial and error, I have come to realize the key to bagging a big-timber trophy most often revolves around three distinct obstacles, and more accurately, the ability to recognize and ultimately overcome them. Conquer these hurdles, and you’ll be well on your way to putting your tag on a hill-country buck.
Complications of Tough Terrain
Without a doubt, the most obvious obstacle the “mountain” whitetail hunter faces is the terrain. Steep, rugged country offers little sympathy for the bowhunter who shows up out of shape and ill-prepared. In order to tackle this unpredictable territory day in and day out, you’ve got to possess a certain amount of physical stamina—more so than that required while hunting from a stand overlooking a field edge, or somewhere along a strip of timber running through an equally subtle location. When hunting in a mountain backdrop, the degree in which the landscape influences the outcome of the hunt is directly linked to your physical fitness. If you’re in top shape, you will concentrate more on what you must do to fill your tag, and less on the hellish terrain that seems to enjoy watching you suffer. Certainly, the more energy and focus you can devote to actually hunting, instead of just surviving, the more successful you will be.
The unpredictable and ever changing nature of mountain topography can also make something as simple as hanging a stand somewhat of an ordeal at times. The problem stems from the fact that on one side of the tree you might be 15 feet above the deer’s line of sight, and on the other side of the tree you might be eye level (in certain directions).
To remedy this situation, you have to do two things:
1) conduct your treestand prep in the post season.
2) be more concerned with how well you are hidden, rather than how high your stand is.
Prepping your stand site in the post season provides ample opportunity to do things right. With no worries about spooking game, you can take your time, find the best tree, and then prepare it accordingly, paying particular attention to things such as background cover and position of the sun. Both of which can be used to fool the eyes of a suspicious buck. And, forget what you’ve read about the need to get a “certain” distance off of the ground. I have routinely taken hill-country bucks from stands hung 12 feet high or less. If I bought into the popular notion that I should be 20’ off the ground, or risk spooking game, I would feasibly be cutting my shooting area in half. Simply because I would likely be 30 to 40 feet in the air on the downhill side of the tree! Taking shots from that extreme height presents its own set of problems; ones I would much rather avoid. Therefore, keep in mind that an ambush point that conceals your outline and hides your movement is a deadly set-up; regardless of how high or low you set your stand.
Another curveball that mountain terrain typically throws at a bowhunter involves the actual shot itself. What I mean is a lot of guys I know practice at ground level all summer in preparation for opening day; big mistake. When fall finally arrives and it’s time to hunt, they find themselves facing a multitude of “unfamiliar” shooting scenarios from an elevated treestand position. In hill country, shooting situations run the gamut. Therefore, your practice sessions should mirror that fact. Uphill, downhill, side-hill, and even eye-level shots are all common from a treestand and must be given equal attention.
Also, bear in mind the distance and angle to the animal constantly changes with the slope of the mountain; presenting even more shooting concerns. You simply can’t experience these unique scenarios by merely practicing on the back lawn. What you need is a steady dose of what I like to call “situational practice”. In other words, prepare for the season by practicing exclusively from a treestand, preferably hung in an area similar to what you’ll face in the field. It truly is the only way to train for elevated hill-country bowshots.
Finally, there are the ever-present retrieving problems that go hand-in-hand with steep terrain. For instance, how are you going to get your trophy back to the truck or ATV? In hill country, getting your buck “out”, once it hits the ground, is most often the toughest part of the hunt. As a result, the nastiest, most abrupt terrain is usually passed-over for more trouble-free landscape and easier hunting. Unfortunately, big, mature, mountain bucks like to call those ghastly places home. If you never go near them, you’re only lowering your odds of success.
To overcome this stumbling block, you need to be prepared physically (tough terrain won’t intimidate you), and you need a plan-of-attack for hauling out your prize buck. Depending on where you left your means of transportation, you can either go down hill or up-hill. Down hill isn’t so bad. The tough part is keeping your own trophy from dragging you down the mountain. Up-hill is the gut busting, back breaker. No matter how much help you have, the job will be a difficult one. However you and your hunting partners can make things much easier if you do one thing: Free-up both of your hands. To do this, you need a quality backpack capable of securely hauling your bow-rig while you concentrate on “tugging” those large antlers over logs, stumps and rocks. I’ve often found myself holding onto to the antlers with one hand and digging and clawing my way up-hill with the other. Two hands are obviously better than one in that situation.
Check back as we cover more hill-country hurdles that you’ll want to be prepared for.
Text and Photos by Steve Flores