7 Amazing North American Hunts That Need to be On Your Bucket List
Here’s Your Bucket List of Amazing North American Hunts
“Don’t look up or down!” — was the directive from my guide as we side-hilled along a high plains desert mountain in Idaho. Looking down might cause me to seize with panic since the slope was so steep. Especially for eastern hunters like myself more accustomed to flat ground. Looking up the mountain would only serve as a source of discouragement. My pack would seem heavier, your legs more jellied. Just stare down in front of you, my guide instructed, and keep moving along the narrow game trail. Drink water. Stay tough. And above all, remember why you were out here.
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If that experience sounds like something you’d enjoy, I’m going to venture a guess that you’re relatively young, in excellent shape or insane. Or you’re all three. That elk hunt was one of the toughest I’ve been on, and while it seemed like a great idea in my 20s it seemed less romantic in my 30s and as I approach 40 I think I’d rather just shoot a few passing doves at the edge of a sunflower field.
There are certain hunts, by their very nature, demand a high level of physical fitness. As a general rule, the toughest hunts occur in mountainous terrain far from infrastructure, which means you’ll have to do a lot of hiking in some rough terrain. These tough hunts are ideal for the toughest hunters, and while being young isn’t synonymous with being in shape, these are hunts that favor the well-prepared. To expect to be successful you’ll need strong knees, a strong back, and a strong resolve. So whether you’re 17 or 70, these are the bucket list hunts you need to do while you’re still in shape to enjoy them.
Aoudad, or Barbary sheep, are native to the deserts of North Africa. In the mid-nineteenth century, a band of aoudad was released on a ranch in New Mexico and, as is so often the case with introduced species, they escaped their confines and began thriving in the desert hills of the southwest. But they also represented a potential ecological tragedy, since non-native aoudad can transmit diseases to native bighorns they are viewed as pests state governments welcomed hunters to pursue them.
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Don’t be fooled into thinking because aoudad are exotics they are easy to hunt. Sure, there are places where they can be hunted on relatively small acreage and on flat ground, but free-ranging aoudad prefer steep, rocky country where they can use their eyesight and climbing ability to evade predators. The Big Bend country of South Texas is prime aoudad habitat, and although the season is open year-round you’ll likely want to plan a hunt during the cooler months. Expect hard climbing, a lot of glassing, and long shots if you want to bring home one of these magnificent animals. On the bright side, aoudad offer a chance to hunt true mountain sheep at a very affordable price. A great reason for this hunt to be on our North American hunts bucket list.
Wild Chukar and Huns
When I’m at a trade show or meeting and hunters ask about the most difficult species to hunt they’re always a bit taken back when I say chukar. Perhaps they have visions of crossing a shale slide in search of a full-curl ram or hiking down from high elevation with an elk rack on their pack. And while both of those hunts are rigorous and exciting I’d say chukar hunting can be every bit as hard on the legs. These compact, dull tan birds are native to the Middle East and are about the size of an underfed yard bird but they flush like torpedoes. In addition, chukar are experts at hugging the terrain when they fly. Rather than a pheasant or quail that will angle upward and then level off, chukar tend to stay low which makes shooting them very difficult.
The closely related Hungarian partridge does not, in my opinion, flush as hard or fly as low as the chukar, but they live in many of the same areas and demand the same long hours of hiking and expert shooting. A good dog is a huge help, both in finding birds and retrieving them, but take extra care with your canine companions in the rough country where chukars live. Dogs need plenty of water in big country and you’ll need to periodically check for signs of exhaustion and foot injuries as they run over rocky ground. I’ve known a lot of bird hunters but I can count the number of dedicated Hun and chukar hunters I know on one hand — and count them among the toughest hunters I’ve ever met.
Mountain Lions with Hounds
Many people — including some hunters — have a misunderstanding of what big game hunting with hounds is really like. Lion hunters enjoy working with their dogs and kill far fewer cats than they tree, and listening to a pack of well-trained hounds work out a cold lion track on a winter morning is one of the most underrated experiences in all of hunting. But when those hounds finally bay or tree the cat you’ll have some serious hiking ahead of you. Oh, sure, I suppose there are occasionally lay-ups where the dogs catch up to the cat in short order and close to a highway, but that’s certainly the exception to the rule. There’s a much greater chance the cat will choose some treacherous rimrock canyon or a big pine in dense forest to stand its ground, and that means a lot of walking for the hunter.
There’s also a good chance that the first cat you tree (or the second, or the third) won’t be the mature tom your guide wants. If so, you’ll leash the hounds and head off in search of another track — and, subsequently, you’ll have to hike in again. Before you book a cougar hunt be certain you are physically and mentally prepared for long, tough hikes in rough country — and if the cat isn’t the one you’re after be ready to start all over again. In addition, lion meat is not only edible but can be quite good — so long as you don’t take issue with the fact that you’re eating a cat.
Dall sheep live in some of the most beautiful, rugged, remote corners of North America. Spending time in the high mountain haunts where they choose to live is its own reward, but if, like most hunters, you’ve come to that country seeking a full-curl ram and you want to earn it, you’ll have your work cut out for you. A good guide will put you in sheep country, but you’ll need to be prepared to hike across shale slides, glass in rain and snowstorms, tote a pack, and give up some of the conveniences of life down below. Want to brush your teeth? Fine, if you must, but cut the handle off your toothbrush — you’ll need to shave weight for all that hiking.
In addition to your physical and mental conditioning, your gear will also be put to the test. Boots that don’t fit well will rub and leave painful blisters. Boots that aren’t built well will simply unravel under the strain of all-day hiking on rocks. The food won’t be great, the sleeping accommodations will be spartan, and your success or failure will be tied to the fickle mountain weather. Are you still interested after reading all this? Well, you might just have what it takes to be a sheep hunter after all.
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There’s an old saying that’s oft-repeated in literature on hunting mountain goats — where sheep country ends goat country begins. I don’t know if that’s always true, but I do know goats are extremely tough to hunt because they are capable of not only surviving but thriving in country that’s so barren and so steep it would make the average hunter call for a rescue helicopter. Not all goat country is so inaccessible, but these animals are so well suited to the harshest mountain environs there’s a good chance the only way you’ll ever fill your goat tag is to go up and up and up. It’s leg-burning, low-oxygen country to be certain, but a big Billy is a reward few hunters can claim.
In the Lower 48, there are some truly great goat hunts available and there’s actually a chance you’ll be able to land a tag in a state lottery. Montana produces some bruiser goats, and Utah’s Wasatch Range is another hotspot. One of the best — and least-known — goat hotspots in the country is Idaho’s Heaven’s Gate area which features Alpine lakes, stunning mountain views, and some really big goats. Southern Alaska is also fantastic, as are parts of western Canada.
Let me be clear — not all elk hunts are created equal. That’s good because neither are all elk hunters. And while so many hunters dream of venturing off into the wilderness on horseback in search of bugling bulls you really, really need to ask yourself some tough questions before you saddle up and drop several thousand dollars on your “dream” hunt. First, can you handle a horse and spend several hours a day in the saddle? Are you willing to make do with the austere conditions in a remote elk camp? (To be wet, to be cold, to hike up and down in steep country?)
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I’ve made mention of the mental toughness required to succeed on these hunts because a hunter’s mind is just as likely to fail as his legs on many of these hunts, and that’s especially true of wilderness elk hunting. Spend a few fruitless days in the rain or cold riding a sometimes cantankerous horse without seeing or hearing any elk and some hunters are ready to give up. In addition to the money you’re going to invest in an elk hunt, you also need to invest time spent getting in shape, and that requires more than simply walking a few laps around the neighborhood. Climb stairs, run with a pack, lift weights, strengthen your core, change your diet, and improve your flexibility and learn to ride a horse and get in saddle shape — by doing trail rides. Physical preparation will help improve mental toughness. If you think this all sounds a bit over the top then think twice before booking a wilderness elk hunt. There are places to hunt elk that are more accessible, offer more comfortable accommodations and demand less physical exertion. You won’t have the wilderness experience but you’re likely to enjoy yourself far more.
As with elk, not all moose hunts are created equal. You can bust a bull with a bow on the outskirts of Fairbanks or get lucky and find your moose on the road in Maine, but for the most part, pursuing the world’s largest deer species is not for the faint of heart. In the east, places like Maine and Newfoundland, you’ll hike long miles through dense forests and over swampy ground, and if you draw in the Rockies you’ll likely have to climb steep mountains as I did when helping scout for bulls in Idaho after a friend drew a once-in-a-lifetime tag. And if there’s any more genuine hunting adventure than a remote fly-in DIY moose camp in the Alaskan bush far from roads, stores, or human help I’ve yet to encounter it. Finding the moose is just part of the battle — when the bull is down you’ll have to pack hundreds of pounds of meat out or bag it up and wait for the bush plane to arrive. It can be hard going indeed, but there are few trophies more impressive — or hard-won — than a bull moose.