Elk NetworkThink Small to Score Big

Bugle | December 5, 2017

Scout rifles. Indian scouts. Boy and Girl Scouts. Even the word scout is cool. When I started hunting, I was enraptured by the idea of scouting. It almost felt like the days before the season were more important than hunting season itself. While scouting I was master of my domain—learning the terrain, reading the sign, considering a hundred different possibilities and visualizing big game glory in the upcoming season.

Then on opening day it would usually all fall apart. There would be fresh boot tracks leading to the place I’d scouted so carefully. The wind would be blowing in precisely the wrong direction to even approach the place where I’d seen animals. Year after year I went out on opening day to find that I would have done just as well without scouting at all. Maybe I’m just a lousy scout.

For a decade I only hunted big game, usually with a bow. I did okay, but not great. I tried hard, sometimes hunting every day of the four-week archery season. Then something changed; I didn’t try as hard and my success rates improved. The breakthrough was a two-part process. The first was becoming a father, which forced me to remove my big game blinders and think small. With time limited by the demands of fatherhood, I chose to give up scouting and instead use my time for hunting.

To put a little extra family-time currency in the bank, in the days and weeks leading up to opening day, I started taking my twin son and daughter on little hikes in the woods. We’d leave the trail immediately and, for all practical purposes, go hunting. We hunted mushrooms, cool sticks, huckleberries, sky-blue robin egg shells—anything and everything big and small. We saw bears, elk, deer and moose as well as grouse, rabbits and turkeys. After a few seasons of kiddie hunting in place of scouting, I realized my success rates, rather than suffering from a lack of scouting, had actually increased.

The second breakthrough came from a very unlikely place: hunting waterfowl. My brother-in-law took me duck hunting one season and I had so much fun I felt a bit guilty. It was almost as if I was cheating on my one true love, which was hunting elk. Watching deer come in to drink from the pond where our decoys floated, hearing the rush of wings through the air, learning to hit a moving target, developing an eye for assessing range in a second or two—I soon learned waterfowl hunting was spectacular.

After discovering the discipline and focus needed for bird hunting, but without good waterfowl hunting in my home area, I went upland. I bought a small game license and started chasing grouse and rabbits. I learned that blue grouse almost always fly downhill when flushed. I learned a 12-gauge isn’t such a good choice for harvesting snowshoe hares if you want to eat them. When the snow grew deep and the big game seasons ended, I bought a takedown .22 rifle that would fit inside my pack, broke out my cross-country skis, and went after snowshoe hares in a rewarding hybrid game of hunting and skiing powder. The hares gave me a master class in tracking and sweetened the winter crock pot. My kids decided grouse was their favorite game meat. My hunting world expanded exponentially.

Upland bird, small game and mushroom hunting opened my eyes and mind to a whole new world that greatly enhanced my understanding of how animals behave, big and small. It was as if I had been looking through a telephoto lens at a single tree glowing red with a Rocky Mountain sunrise, and then switched to wide angle view and for the first time took in the whole breathtaking scene.

While hunting mushrooms with my family, we came across fresh elk sign and discovered ripe wallows in the most unlikely places. Grouse season taught me how much snow would push the deer and elk to lower elevations and the kind of places they hide when pursued by hunters. Passing near a small herd of mule deer with my bright orange vest and shotgun in hand, I learned that closing the distance on them while pretending not to notice them is a viable strategy. The next season I harvested a deer by simply walking past without looking directly at it until I was presented with a clean, close shot.

One early October day in the grouse woods, I came across a herd of elk going mad with their last desperate days of the rut. Having just finished an unsuccessful archery season, I wanted to at least experience the electric energy of a herd of rutting elk even if I couldn’t harvest one. I sneaked to within 100 yards of them and stopped, watching the cows run around, strutting satellite bulls prowl the edges and the herd bull—a heavy non-typical with shoveled-out antlers—running himself ragged trying to keep every cow to himself. Had I been hunting elk, I would have immediately tried to close the gap to within bow range and likely would have blown my cover. With no reason to get closer, I simply stood still and watched.

After a few minutes, I realized the herd was moving closer. After another 20 minutes, their rutting antics had shifted to within 50 yards, and an occasional satellite bull passed within 20. Eventually, one of the bigger bulls saw me. He was in mid-bugle when his eyes locked onto mine. He stopped cold, his scream cut short in his throat. Something about his aborted bugle got the attention of the entire herd, and in a few heartbeats they all disappeared in a rumble of hooves and concussions of antlers knocking against aspen branches.

Thanks to that encounter, when I spot elk now, rather than immediately moving on them, I wait to see which direction they are heading before making a plan of approach. I’ve now been able to harvest a few elk without calling during archery season—something that at one time seemed impossible.

A few years later, I had a chance to test my hunt-small-to-score-big strategy with a rifle buck tag in an area far from my home. I had already killed a nice bull during archery season, so there was no pressure to fill the freezer. A decade earlier, I would have arrived a couple of days early and pounded the hills to fulfill the all-important scouting mission. This time, however, I opted to arrive the day before the season opened, and instead of hitting the hills with everyone else, start the season with some small game hunting.

On opening day, I spent the morning on a duck pond and put four green-headed mallards in the cooler. After a mid-morning coffee, I went jackrabbit hunting along the wide open south facing slopes where I was fairly certain there would be no deer to scare during the mid-day hours. I took my bow rather than a gun so I could take a quiet shot if given the opportunity. I didn’t even see a rabbit, but the focus on small game put me in the right mindset to hunt well.

As the shadows lengthened, a few does began grazing on the shady slopes, and I crept back to my truck. The next day, I again met sunrise wearing waders and holding a shotgun. I took a couple more birds, but that afternoon I found a spot where I could watch the same hillsides where the deer had appeared the day before. Just before sunset, I harvested a young buck, as I was more interested in tender steaks than putting more antlers on the wall. It was, by far, the most relaxing hunt I’d ever experienced. Returning home with a cooler full of venison, garnished with a half-dozen duck breasts, I made the family happy indeed.

Since then, I’ve tried to include a small game hunt before elk or deer season, which is, in all honesty, a scouting mission in disguise. Better hunters than me can leave the city, enter the woods and click into their best hunting mindset in the blink of an eye. I can’t. For me, small game hunting sets me up perfectly for big game. Aside from providing a fun scouting mission, small game hunting calms my mind and quiets my nerves. Of course, I don’t use a firearm for small game hunting in the same area where I’m planning to hunt deer or elk, as the sound of a shot can send smart animals packing just when you want them to stick around. There’s a chance I could scare the bigger animals away while chasing smaller ones, but any scouting aside from sitting in the truck carries the same risk. I am always more attuned to my surroundings while hunting than while scouting anyway.

Thanks to hunting smaller game, I’m a better shot, far more patient, step more quietly and am more at ease in the woods. And the best part? My hunting season has been extended by a factor of 10. I used to dread the last day of the season—filled tags or not. Now, thanks to the little things, I just change clothes and weapons and head right back out there.

Topher Donahue lives and hunts with his family in Colorado.