Big game hunting away from home costs money–sometimes lots of money.
On the low end, a hunter can load up his trusty 4×4 and drive a thousand miles to some western state, set up a tent and hunt public land (along with everyone else) for probably $1,000 to $2,000 give or take.
That’s including licenses, tags, food, and gas. The price can be lowered somewhat, depending on how many hunting buddies are willing to cram into the truck.
The beauty of such a hunt is the relatively low price and the chance to pursue game not found in the midwestern, southern and eastern states where most hunters live.
Sportsmen who’ve never hunted farther away from home than the next county will find this type of hunt to be an excellent choice.
On the downside, success can be low and hunting pressure high, and someone will have to spend time to research the intended hunting area, plan the logistics and organize the “safari”–not a big deal if that someone has the time and the desire to do so.
The next lowest-price option is probably a self-guided hunt in Alaska or Quebec. These hunts will cost a touch more, generally in the $2,000 to $3,500 range.
On the positive side, these hunts are legitimate northern wilderness hunts for truly exotic big game, usually Alaska-Yukon moose or caribou, and the chances of tagging an animal or two are usually good.
On the downside, the price usually can’t be lowered much by bringing more hunting buddies along; many of the costs–a flight to Anchorage, say, and the air charter into camp–can’t really be split.
Odds are, the “guide” (yourself) will be inexperienced, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but can cause trouble in a camp where some of the crew might measure success in the number of animals killed.
Then there are fully guided hunts, the ones where the hunter has only to pack the right gear and get to the nearest airport.
Today, more and more hunters are choosing this option. The biggest stumbling block is the price.
On the low end, say for a baited black bear hunt in Saskatchewan, the price can be as low as $2,500, including airfare and tags. On the high end, it can cost as much as $65,000 for desert sheep in Mexico, not including airfare and tags. Ouch.
Please don’t shoot me–I’m just the messenger. Believe me, I understand that, for most of us, just coming up with enough cash to hunt locally hurts, let alone coughing up an amount of money equivalent to what it costs to send a kid to college for a year.
That said, indications are that increasing numbers of hunters are booking the all-inclusive, fully guided trips.
But as we reach deep into our pockets to pay for big hunts, we have to ask, Are we spending the money wisely, relatively speaking?
And once we ask that question, the next logical one is, What hunts offer the best bang for the buck? Here’s my take on it.
In my opinion, the best value in North America right now is a moose hunt. Moose are big, exotic and sport the largest antlers of any of the “deer.”
They live in the forests of North America from coast to coast, and hunting success rates in many areas run quite high. Moose can be aggressive during the rut, and at this time the hunter can be pro-active–calling a bull in for heart-stopping action.
Then there’s the added bonus of the 500 pounds of the best wild game meat ever to grace the inside of a freezer.
Deciding where to go can be tough, but you can narrow it down by focusing on which subspecies you’d prefer to hunt.
The smallest, the Shiras moose (also known as Wyoming moose), lives south of the U.S./Canada border. Unfortunately, Shiras moose tags are difficult to come by and are usually available on a draw-only basis.
The other methods of getting a license (buying a tag at auction, for example) are too expensive.
The Alaska-Yukon moose is the largest of the moose subspecies, and it can be hunted on a self-guided basis–although that can be a difficult proposition for a nonresident. And for a fully guided jaunt, you’ll pay up to up to $12,000 for the most expensive hunts.
That leaves the Canada moose, still big by every measurement except price. Expect to pay in the $6,000 range (including airfare) for a good hunt where the chance to take a big bull is reasonable and the possibility to kill a good, representative bull is excellent.
I’d head to the northern mountains of British Columbia. Book a hunt far enough north, and a bull might be an expensive Alaska-Yukon moose in the summer but an affordable Canada moose once it migrates a few miles south for the winter. The boundary separating the two moose subspecies is a line on a map–not an actual physical boundary.
The best moose hunting will normally require a floatplane trip and some horseback hunting, possibly boat hunting as well, and the best time to hunt will normally be late September when the rut is in full swing.
If you can afford it, save up a few extra dollars to pay trophy fees for “incidental” animals you might bump into during your moose hunt. Grizzly bears and caribou can be common in British Columbia moose country.
Caribou are about as affordable as fully guided hunts get.
Figure $4,000 to $6,000 depending on the quality and quantity of the animals the outfitter has in his territory and the number of caribou you want to kill.
Most hunters look to the Quebec-Labrador caribou, and sportsmen by the thousands flock to the French-speaking section of Canada to participate in all the guided-hunt variations found there.
But in my opinion, this subspecies doesn’t offer the most value in terms of a fully guided hunt. Neither would I choose the smallest in antler and least expensive to hunt (the woodland caribou of Newfoundland) nor the largest-bodied and most expensive to hunt (mountain caribou).
It’s a close call between the remaining two subspecies–the barren ground caribou of Alaska and the central Canada barren ground caribou found in the Northwest Territories.
I choose the latter.
There are hundreds of thousands of central Canada barren ground caribou hanging out around the Arctic Circle, and although they are the fourth-largest in terms of antler size, they arguably have the largest antler size relative to body size of any of the caribou. In other words, they look great.
The outfitting industry servicing the demand for these animals is less than 20 years old, and new opportunities and areas are opening up yearly.
Quebec in its heyday produced many monster caribou, and I feel that the largest central Canada barren ground caribou haven’t been taken yet.
Some outfitter will find a pocket of exceptional animals that will rewrite the record books.
The hunt is certainly an adventure, and the Arctic tundra in autumn is spectacular. Most of the hunting is done from boats or quads these days, and access to the main camps is generally by charter bush plane.
The best advice I can give is to be sure to book with a reputable outfitter who has good references. Some of the new operators are good and cheaper, but not all are entirely professional. Because the industry is so young, the chaff hasn’t yet separated from the wheat.
Sheep hunting is the most expensive proposition in North America. At the high end, a 10-day desert sheep hunt in Mexico will cost the equivalent of a full-blown luxury car, and even a middle-of-the-road hunt for Stone’s sheep or Rocky Mountain bighorn will cost half that.
That leaves Dall’s sheep hunting–the one and only “affordable” sheep hunt (and I use the term loosely). These beautiful white creatures are not only considered by many to be the most attractive of the North American sheep subspecies, but they also live in some of the most remote country left on the continent.
Cheapest or not, a Dall’s sheep hunt will still set the hunter back a pretty penny–$7,500 to more than $12,000. So why do I consider these sheep, expensive as they are, a top-five value?
The reason has more to do with what I see happening in the future of sheep hunting than it does the price. First off, there won’t be more sheep hunting opportunities for nonresidents in the future. The supply will likely diminish, the demand will grow, and prices will skyrocket as a result.
That’s simple: Alaska or bust. The Yukon and the Northwest Territories have big Dall’s, but the prices are climbing quickly. Alaska still has good hunting, prices are decent and outfitters are legion. My advice is to do your homework carefully.
It’s one thing to book with the wrong outfitter when there’s not much money involved, but the investment alone means you should choose carefully when you’re paying for a Dall’s sheep hunt.
Black bear hunting has always been a bargain, no matter how you slice it. They have the widest range of any big game animal in North America and are arguably the second most sought-after big game animal on the continent.
They can be hunted from coast to coast and from Arizona to the Arctic. There are hunts of every flavor available for every taste: over bait, with hounds, and through spot-and-stalk. Best of all, prices are the least expensive of all fully guided big game hunts.
A black bear rug is a wonderful thing, and bear meat, handled properly–meaning fat and bones removed–is excellent (unless the bear is a “dump” bear feeding on human garbage.) For the first-time traveling hunter, a black bear hunt is a good choice.
It’s not too expensive, not high pressure, not time-consuming and, best of all, the added element of danger makes black bear hunting plain old fun. There isn’t anything quite like sneaking up on a huge animal that has been known to eat people.
You get what you pay for; the cheaper the hunt, the lower the odds of bringing back a trophy boar. Right now there are some huge bears being taken in western Canada and Alaska.
Alberta is the cheapest of the best places to hunt really big black bears, and a hunter can take two if so desired, but the hunts are for the most part baited hunts. I have nothing against baiting. I own a baited black bear operation in Saskatchewan, but, in my opinion, sitting doesn’t compare to sneaking.
So that leaves Alaska and British Columbia if you’re looking for trophy bears. Alaska is fine; it has big bears but is fairly expensive to get to–especially when the destination is along the coast, where most of the largest black bears live.
British Columbia, on the other hand, is filled with black bears from top to bottom, and you can take two if you want. Baiting is not allowed, and black bear densities are among the highest in the world.
Oddly, many British Columbia outfitters are so caught up in chasing the glamour species they don’t realize there is a demand for spot-and-stalk black bear hunts and therefore still offer relatively low prices. Expect to pay $3,500 and up for a British Columbia black bear hunt.
These shaggy leftovers from the Ice Age live in one of the most godforsaken, windswept but strangely beautiful places in the world.
For the money, the hunt is hard to beat–not only for the exotic nature of the quarry but also for the sheer adventure. The Inuit culture is fascinating, and without muskox hunting there just wouldn’t be any way for a hunter to interact with these hardy people.
Basically, a muskox hunt is the poor man’s polar bear hunt; it has almost all the adventure at a fraction of the price. Granted, a muskox won’t eat you, but a provoked muskox bull is a formidable and dangerous animal.
Not only that but any time a hunter ventures so far from civilization, there is always the chance of something going haywire. That’s the adventure part–good fear value for the money.
Such a hunt will set a hunter back about $6,000, and the odds of successfully tagging up on a good bull muskox are nearly 100 percent for reputable outfitters.
The “guaranteed to make your friends envious, National Geographic style” photos you’ll take serve to elevate muskox hunting to my personal top five list. Head for Nunavut Territory for the biggest bulls and best hunting.
Scrambling hard and fast, I’d managed to get ahead of the bear, and now he was slowly making his way in my direction. Cover and terrain hid him from me for long seconds, and my palms sweated as I gripped the rifle, waiting.
Then he was there. Not just close enough, but too close. I raised the rifle, saw little more than fur in the scope, and squeezed the trigger . . .
We’re missing some details.
What kind of bear? What was the terrain like? Was it a big bear?
The scenario above has happened to me three or four times. Once it was with a large brown bear in snow-covered alders; several other times this has happened with black bears in areas as diverse as North Carolina and Alaska.
Let’s try again.
The bear was feeding in a little clearing on a brushy hillside. We’d glassed him from afar and had the drop on him, but the brush and terrain were such that a 200-yard shot was the best we could do. I set up my daypack over a handy boulder, laid the rifle across it and took some deep breaths while I waited for the bear to turn. When the shot looked right, I squeezed the trigger.
This second scenario has repeated itself with Alaskan brown bears, mountain grizzlies and quite a number of black bears. For various reasons, a steady, deliberate shot at 200 yards seemed the right thing to do.
There are two important points here. The main one is that, regardless of which bear you are hunting or where you are hunting him, it is difficult to predict exactly what kind of shot you will draw. You need to be ready for anything from a fast shot at bayonet range to a precise, deliberate shot at something beyond 200 yards–or anything in between. The other important thing is that, with minor variations, the two opposite scenarios described above accurately describe circumstances under which I’ve taken two coastal brown bears, two grizzlies and at least eight black bears. In other words, the prospective bear hunter should be prepared for either extreme.
These two scenarios combine genuine incidents with about a dozen different bears, and in all cases I was successful. Not all resulted in one-shot kills, but in no case did we have to chase a wounded bear. I have also taken a lot of bears in the “middle ground” between, say, 50 and 175 yards–and in that middle ground I have screwed up, sometimes badly. But at the two extremes, very close and much farther out, I have been quite successful. This suggests I have used rifles and cartridges that would handle any shot I might encounter, and that’s really what selecting guns and loads for game is all about.
BIG BEAR, BIG BULLET
We tend to dwell on foot-pounds when considering a cartridge’s suitability for game. But bears, like Cape buffalo, don’t understand foot-pounds of energy and aren’t particularly impressed by them. Any bear, is an extremely powerful animal whose vitals are well-shielded by tough hide, corded muscles and heavy bones. The problem multiplies exponentially as bears get bigger, so you must use bullets that are tough and will penetrate without fail. The only way to kill a bear is to place the shot so that it will do extensive and irreparable damage to the heart, lungs, spine or brain.
Because of this, I believe in fairly large bore diameters and heavy-for-caliber bullets. If I were to quantify “bear medicine” in terms of foot-pounds, I would rate black bears about the same as elk: I want a good 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. On the largest bears, 3,000 ft.-lbs. is a good number–provided you place your shot and use a proper bullet.
I’m still haunted by the handful of lost-game incidents I’ve experienced in my career, even though a couple of instances go back 30 years or more. I can relate two instances of wounded and lost bears. One was not mine; the rifle was a .270, the bullet a 150-grain conventional softpoint. The presentation was straight broadside, and through the binoculars I saw the impact on the shoulder. From the bear’s reaction, and the trail we followed until it ran out, the only possible conclusion is that the bullet failed to penetrate the heavy shoulder bones.
The second instance was mine. I shot a huge brown bear–supposedly on the shoulder–with a 180-grain X-Bullet from a .300 Win. Mag. The bear instantly lurched into the brush, and we followed an ever-diminishing spoor for eight hours, failing utterly when we tried to pick it up again the next day.
There are lessons here, but don’t take home the wrong ones. In the first case, the .270 will surely kill black bears, and the 150-grain bullet is the right weight–but on bears you’d better make it a premium bullet that will surely penetrate: Fail Safe, Barnes X, Trophy Bonded Bearclaw, Swift A-Frame, Nosler Partition and the like.
In my own debacle, the .300 Win. Mag. was enough gun, and the Barnes X was surely enough bullet. The simple answer is that I flubbed a simple shot. It is almost certain I didn’t hit the bear where I thought I did because he was seen the next season hale and hearty. I will always wonder if a bigger rifle like a .375 might have dealt a heavy enough blow to give me time for a second shot, but the fact remains that a bigger gun won’t help if you miss the mark.
You want plenty of power behind good bullets, and in most situations you also want versatility. The big bears–brown/grizzly and polar bears–are properly considered dangerous game. Black bears are borderline, but far more people are mauled by black bears annually than by all the rest combined. With any bear it is essential that you be able to stop the animal at close range, whether in a chance meeting or a genuine charge. But it is also desirable that you be able to reach out at least 200 yards, preferably 250 yards, because that might be the only opportunity you have.
This business of reach is actually a dual requirement. First, the cartridge should be flat-shooting enough so that you can make a shot at medium range without worrying about holdover. Second, the cartridge must have enough power so you still have all the energy and penetration you need when the bullet gets there.
There are at least two common exceptions to this versatility business: black bears over bait and hunting with hounds. In the former, you can forget about 200-yard shots–most stands for rifle hunting are sited 50 to 100 yards from the bait. Baiting is usually done in timber, so unless the first shot immobilizes the bear, he can vanish before a second shot is remotely possible. Of course, black bears are most likely to come to the bait in the evening, and the biggest bears will usually appear very late, in poor shooting light. All of this points to a rifle that will thump a bear really hard, and this is a perfect place for a powerful “brush rifle” like a Marlin in .45-70 or .450 Marlin, or a Marlin or Winchester 94 in .444 Marlin.
Hunting behind hounds is a different game. The chase will often take you through some of the steepest and nastiest country around, so gun weight and handiness are factors. When the bear is bayed or treed, the shot will almost always be at short range, but it’s essential that the bear be taken as cleanly as possible to prevent injury to the dogs. The classic houndsman’s rifle was the short, light, vicious-kicking Remington M600 in .350 Rem. Mag., discontinued many years ago. Other good choices include lever actions from .35 Rem. upwards, and this would be a good place for Ruger’s slick little .44 Mag. carbines in both lever action and semi-auto.
BLACK BEAR RIFLES
For all-around use on black bears, I still like fairly heavy calibers and heavy bullets, but I want a bit more range. My preference is medium-velocity .35 calibers. The nearly obsolete .358 Win. in a lever-action Winchester 88, Browning BLR or Savage 99 is good; when zeroed correctly, it will do just fine from the muzzle out to 250 yards or so.
However, the .350 Rem. Mag. (also almost obsolete) and the .35 Whelen are superior. Fortunately the Whelen is both popular and available, and I rate it as one of the best black bear cartridges in the world. This year, Weatherby will be producing the first factory rifles in the .338-06, long a popular wildcat, and this will be another excellent black bear cartridge.
There is nothing wrong with using your favorite deer rifle chambered to something between .270 and .30 caliber. I tend to lean toward the .30s, but a .270 or a 7mm will cleanly take bears. When you go lighter in caliber you must be even more careful to choose good, tough, heavy-for-caliber bullets that will penetrate. Round-nosed bullets initiate expansion and transfer energy far more rapidly than spitzers, and at closer ranges their ballistic inferiority isn’t important. If I were using a .270 on black bear I’d choose a tough 150-grain round-nose bullet. In the 7mms, use bullets from 160 grains upwards, and in the .30 calibers consider 180 grains the minimum weight.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with fast .33s from the .338 Win. Mag. upwards. I’ve often used a .375 H&H;, and I’ve never been embarrassed about carrying such a large rifle. In one of the close-encounter scenarios mentioned at the beginning of this story, I was using my 8mm Rem. Mag.; in another I was using a .375 H&H.; Neither instance was exactly a charge or an attack, but in both situations I shot monster black bears right off the end of the rifle barrel–and I was thankful I had plenty of gun in my hands.
THE BIGGEST BEARS
When I talk about cartridges for black bears, I’m always thinking about the kind of bear I hope to encounter: a bear weighing a quarter-ton or more. All bears are tough, but a 500-pounder is in a whole different class from the average bear, which will weigh closer to 200 pounds.
The potential for a really big bear exists wherever black bears are found, and a monster black bear will outweigh the average interior grizzly. Of course, grizzly bears get a whole lot bigger, and salmon-fed coastal brown bears and polar bears are larger still. Few brown bears are ever weighed, but I am absolutely certain that a really big one will go a good 1,500 pounds.
Shot placement remains the most important issue, but I think a .30-caliber firing a good 200-grain bullet is absolutely minimal. I can assure you that I will never again hunt a big bear with a caliber as light as .30. Good choices start with the 8mm Rem. Mag. and work their way through the magnum spectrum to about .416.
I think cartridges such as the .338 Win. Mag., .340 Wby. Mag. and .338 Rem. Ultra Mag are perfect for grizzly bears. Interior grizzlies are smaller than coastal bears, and the terrain often results in longer shots. Further, inland bears are far more thinly distributed than coastal bears, so while long-range shooting is not recommended, you want to be able to take any sensible shot. My last grizzly was killed on the final evening of the hunt, cross-canyon at about 250 yards; a 250-grain Nosler from my .340 Wby. Mag. flattened him.
The fast .33s are also good medicine for brown bears. Another of my close encounters was a Kamchatka brown bear that emerged from snowy alders at less than 60 yards. The same load from the same .340–just one–handled the situation perfectly. Even so, I lean heavily toward the .375 for the very largest of bears. The .375 H&H; is the traditional choice, but it’s hardly the only .375 out there. Faster cartridges such as the new .375 Ultra Mag and Weatherby’s soon-to-be-reintroduced .375 Wby. Mag. offer a bit more versatility without an inordinately high price in recoil.
There is simply no such thing as too much gun when hunting the biggest bears; many Alaskan guides carry .458s (and larger) with no apologies. However, there’s a difference between hunting a bear and preventing the escape of a wounded bear or stopping an attack. My idea of the ideal “big bear rifle” is bolt action, chambered to anything from a fast .33 to a .375, in either synthetic or laminate stock.
The traditional September first dove opener is almost certainly the single biggest opening day in the United States. It’s also one of the single biggest days for shotshell manufacturers, with millions of rounds expended against these speed demons.
A dove’s small size, speed and acrobatic flight all combine to make it one of wingshooting’s most difficult targets.
It’s said that one bird for five shells is a pretty good average. Usually, I can beat that, but add factors like a stiff breeze or birds that have already been shot at and one per five starts to look pretty good!
I just had a refresher course in missing doves in the grainfields of Sonora, Mexico. I was shooting with Alcamp (U.S. agent: Doug Mauldin, Derrydale Press, Lyon, Mississippi) near Hermosillo.
The doves were there in thousands, but so were extenuating circumstances: windy days and doves that had been shot at for months.
These were the most difficult doves I’ve shot at in years–and I won’t divulge my shell-to-bird ratio. But with Mexico’s higher bag limit and abundant birds, I did have a chance to relearn some old lessons.
Here are dove hunting tips for beginners:
Due to their small size, doves are rarely as far as you think. Most shots are between 20 and 30 yards, and 40 yards is very, very far.
In most situations, you’ll drop far more birds with an Improved Cylinder or Skeet choke than with Modified or tighter. If your gun has interchangeable tubes, start with an open choke; you can always tighten up if the birds are flying high.
Generic “dove loads” are usually cheaper due to second-quality shot. Less-uniform shot means poorer patterns, and doves are small enough to be very unforgiving of holes in your patterns.
Buy good shells. Target loads are a good choice; they’ll cost a bit more, but chances are you’ll shoot fewer in filling your limit. Number 8 shot is generally the best choice.
Doves will normally fly along definite terrain features; rarely do they enter or leave fields or go to water in a random fashion.
Treelines, fence lines, drainage ditches, even prominent individual trees, and shrubs are likely spots to take a stand.
Avoid spots surrounded by high vegetation where recovering downed birds would be difficult.
Don’t be too stubborn to move if it looks like birds are flying better down the line. But don’t crowd your neighbor–make certain you know exactly where any other shooters are, and make certain they know where you are.
Doves become wary as soon as the first shots sound. Pick your spot in some taller grass or weeds, so your silhouette is broken.
If there’s enough cover so you can stand, all the better. If not, bring a camp stool so you can sit comfortably and rise quickly.
If you have to hunker down on the ground, you won’t be in a comfortable position to shoot and you’ll lose some opportunities because it takes too long to stand up.
Under ideal circumstances, you can see doves coming a long way out. Stay still and let them come.
Pick your bird, then raise the gun, swing, and fire–all while the bird is in range. Raising the gun and tracking the birds too early invites unhittable acrobatics.
It’s almost impossible to watch all directions, so pick the most likely direction for birds to fly and concentrate your attention there, understanding that you might miss out on the odd birds that do the unexpected.
Pay attention, swiveling your eyes back and forth across the horizon.
If more birds are surprising you by coming from behind, you may have missed the flight pattern, so don’t be reluctant to shift your focus.
On incoming birds, your best opportunity is to shoot them as they come in, with the shotgun at no more than a 44-degree angle to the ground.
Optimally, you should wait until the last moment, then raise the gun and fire as quickly as possible.
The ones that surprise you by coming from behind must be taken even more quickly; add in reaction time and such birds are out of range unless you can get on them fast.
I find that my second most common error comes from simply raising the shotgun and firing, without properly seating the gun to my shoulder and getting my head down on the stock–especially on those birds that seem to come out of nowhere.
Concentrate on mounting the gun smoothly and getting your head down on the stock as your eyes and hands begin swinging with the bird.
Everyone is most likely to miss by shooting behind the bird. How much lead depends on distance, wind, and speed of the swing, so there are no absolutes.
But if you’re missing, chances are you’re either stopping your swing or not leading enough. Both mean you’ll shoot behind the bird.
On a windy day in Sonora, I found myself needing fully six feet of lead on crossing shots with the wind–and the birds weren’t all that far away!
The scene of my first-ever dove hunt was one of those crowded fields where you have to root for a bird to get by everyone else so you can shoot it. The slow, the stupid and the unwary fell from the sky long before they got to within 100 yards of the knoll where I sat, partially hidden under the branches of a tree.
The doves I shot at streaked by with their eyes and their throttles wide open. Up to that day, the only birds I had ever seen over a shotgun rib were ringneck pheasants clambering up and away over the cornfields. Nothing in my experience prepared me for the stream of tiny gray bullets zipping overhead.
Experts, of course, brag about shooting a limit of doves “inside a box,” taking 10, 12 or 15 birds with one box of shells or less. So it’s my duty to tell you that on that very first dove hunt, 25 years ago, I easily bagged my limit inside a box.
Unfortunately, it was one of those big boxes that hold 10 smaller 25-round boxes of shells.
There’s no question doves make one of the toughest targets in the sky. Ammo companies estimate hunters shoot five times for each bird they bag. I’ve improved my average a good deal since that first hunt years ago. You can too.
Becoming a better dove shot began, of course, earlier this summer, when you put in your time shooting skeet and sporting clays (you did, didn’t you?). Nevertheless, the transition from clay targets to real birds can be a rocky one come opening day.
It’s not so much that doves are fast; in fact, serious clay target competitors tell me they often shoot in front of live birds after a summer of clay birds. The problem is, clay targets fly straight paths while doves juke all over the sky.
Clay target shooting sharpens your hand/eye coordination and builds solid shooting form, but it can make you a little complacent, too.
After a summer of target shooting, when you look at the dove and judge its line of flight, you assume it’s going to keep going the same direction at the same speed. When the dove changes direction, it leaves your muzzle hanging in space, pointed yards away from where it needs to be.
What’s worse, many hunters treat smoothbores as if they were anti-aircraft weapons, mounting the gun, aiming down the rib and tracking the bird as it comes into range.
The longer you track a dove and the more carefully you measure your lead, the greater the chance you’ll slow or stop your swing or that the bird will dodge out of harm’s way. Instead, think “eyes to the target, hands to the target”–in that order. Lock your eyes onto the dove as it comes to you, but don’t budge the gun until you’re ready to shoot.
Rather than leaping to your feet while the bird’s still a way out, it’s often best to wait until the dove is right on top of you before making a move.
As you mount the gun, your first move should be with the muzzle, sweeping it along the dove’s line of flight and holding slightly below the bird so you don’t obstruct your view of the target.
Raise the butt as the muzzle moves with the target, and shoot the instant the pad hits your shoulder. It’s a short, compact move.
On the close shots, you won’t be aware of leading the bird at all; you’ll be shooting as the barrel passes the beak. If your eyes remain locked firmly on the dove’s head, your hands and the gun will follow to the right place automatically even if the dove pulls a last-second evasive maneuver.
On shots that require short leads, simply flick your eyes ahead of it at the last second, and the gun will follow.
Pretend the bird has a dollar bill in its beak, and make that your target.
Doves crossing in the distance require a slightly different technique. Rather than swinging through the bird, insert the muzzle ahead of it. You still move the barrel along the bird’s flight line as you raise the gun, but your target becomes an invisible, moving spot two or three feet ahead of the dove.
Don’t try to measure the lead; just get the muzzle out in front of it, and good things will probably happen.
Overhead doves present a shot that looks much more difficult than it actually is, and it impresses bystanders when you pluck a bird from what seems to be the stratosphere.
A dove over your head appears much farther away than it actually is, just as the moon looks huge when it’s touching the horizon yet seems smaller and smaller as it climbs into the open night sky.
The overhead shot used to give me fits, until the day I was fortunate enough to find myself crouched behind a levee at the edge of Uruguayan cornfield. Spot-wing pigeons (think “doves on steroids”) flew over me in waves, and I’d hide behind the levee until they were right overhead, then stand to shoot.
From that afternoon on, the overhead shot has been my favorite.
Most of the time, birds that are overhead don’t require much forward allowance at all. Swing the gun fast along its line of flight, and when the bird disappears behind the muzzle, shoot.
Don’t peek around the barrel at it to measure lead. Just blot the bird out, pull the trigger and keep swinging.
Do it right, and you’ll be rewarded with a gasp of awe from the onlookers, and a bird that folds cleanly and takes forever, it seems, to fall to the ground.
Make sure your eyes stay on that bird as it falls and hits the ground. Downed doves can be difficult to find, and there’s no point in shooting birds you can’t recover. Marking fallen birds is a dove hunting skill as essential as hitting them in the first place.
Watch the bird fall, and don’t take your eyes off the spot where you saw it auger in. Your eyes will fix on a particular weed or tall stem. Walk straight to it without ever looking away, and don’t even think of shooting at another bird until you’ve recovered the one you just shot.
Also pay attention to where the birds killed by the shooters to your right and left fall. It’s much easier to find a dead dove if you have two separate fixes on its location and can triangulate.
While retrievers will find birds you cannot, get a good mark on the dove’s fall even if you have your dog along. Dogs don’t last long in the heat, and the rank greenery of late summer presents difficult scenting conditions for the keenest of noses.
The best dove hunt I was ever on took place in a field where the owner had planted scraggly strips of sunflowers spaced widely across bare, disked earth. When you dropped a dove, it fell to the ground with a little puff of dust. I don’t believe I lost a bird in two days of tremendous shooting.
Finally, recovering birds begins before you pull the trigger. If you don’t know where a bird will fall, or if you see that it will drop somewhere it will be difficult to find, don’t shoot. There will be another bird along in a minute.
Dove hunting may be more about shooting than hunting, but if you use a little field-craft to hide from birds, you’ll get easier opportunities. A dove that never knows you’re there is much, much easier to shoot than a bird making a wide detour around you. I would recommend you be attentive to the following bonus dove hunting and tactics.
Don’t silhouette yourself. Sit in the shadow of a tree, or kneel by a fenceline, or use a tall stand of corn or sunflowers to your back to break up your outline. Take a small portable blind or some camo netting to the field. Don’t stand until you’re ready to shoot.
Hide too well, though, and you can’t see the birds coming. On an Ohio dove hunt a few years ago, a friend and I sat in the shadow of a long strip of cut corn with the tall standing stalks at our backs for cover.
We were well hidden from the doves; the problem was when birds came in from behind us low over the tassels, we couldn’t see them until they flashed over our heads. Most of them were gone before we could react.
We left the standing corn, walked out into the middle of the cut strip and laid on the ground in the stubble, facing in opposite directions. The birds scooting in low over the ground never knew we were there until we sat up to shoot.
It was like a field duck hunt in fast motion, with birds coming in at every conceivable angle and flaring wildly if we missed with our first shot. I don’t think I killed my limit inside a box that day, but there was no time to count shells, and I was having way too much fun to care.
Becoming a better dove shot is, of course, a highly commendable goal, but it shouldn’t become an end unto itself. Let the other hunters hoard their ammunition, cherry picks the easy shots and brag about how much fun they had not shooting.
Dove hunting isn’t about bird-to-shell ratios, it’s a 21-gun salute to the promise of another fall. After all, who cares if it takes more than 25 shells to properly ring in the hunter’s New Year?
The right binoculars are an invaluable aid when it comes to hunting most species. However, just having the right brand, power, etc., of binocular isn’t enough. To properly glass for game, keep these tips in mind.
How many times have you blown a chance because you walked to the edge of a coulee or draw or canyon, started glassing the far side several hundred yards off and heard the sound of an animal busting out practically right under your feet?
Eyeball the close stuff first, then work out to the farther distances.
If you’re walking to the lip of a canyon, keep your profile out of sight. Crawl if you have to. Ditto for approaching the edge of a flat clearing.
Keep something between you and the clearing, keep low and move slow. And keep the sun in mind. If it’s in your face it can reflect off your glasses and give you away quicker than you can say un-notched tag.
You’ll do better glassing an area section by section than you will just be roaming about with your eyes. Pick out a starting point (a corner, an edge, a stump, something at the edges of the area you’re looking at) and work from there, in small segments.
Try working up or down from there, glassing hard section by section, then moving left or right and repeating the process. Repeat the same pattern and you are assured of covering the area to the best of your ability.
Glass long enough and hard enough and it’s going to feel like your eyeballs are poking out the other end of the binoculars. After you have glassed a section, blink to black, open your eyes and move on to the next section.
Try to avoid rubbing your eyes, or even blinking too hard (really squeezing your eyelids) as this can cause odd light flashes that can obscure your vision.
At home, you can use rubbing alcohol and a cotton ball. This removes water spots and dries quickly and cleanly. In the field, always have a dry, clean handkerchief handy, or purchase one of the several products available for field-expedient optics cleaning.
So, there you have it. Simple tips, but use them all together and you might start seeing game that you might have missed before.
Your hunt has ended successfully and you are standing over your quarry, enjoying those nearly indescribable emotions that you experience each and every time: joy, achievement, reverence, all the things that go with being a participant in nature’s grand scheme.
Now the work begins.
Proper field care of any game animal is key to the full enjoyment of ethical hunting. Take care of the game and it will provide you and yours with great-tasting, nutritious sustenance for the months to come.
Before you hit the field, make sure you have a good quality sharp hunting knife, and a sharpening stone. A sharp knife is a key to quick, clean and safe field dressing.
The following tips for field dressing were written for deer, but will work for most big game species.
Many folks take their wild game to meat processors for “professional” butchering. But butchering your own keeps you in the “field-to-the-table” cycle. Besides, it’s fun and allows you to get everything you possibly can out of your animal.
Start by removing the front shoulders. Simply find the seams between the muscles, and separate the various muscle groups. When cutting steaks, take a section, find the grain, and cut against it: in other words, perpendicular to the natural grain of the meat. The lower front legs need to be trimmed thoroughly, and are best used for canning, grinding or sausage meat.
Next, remove the back straps. These are the muscles that run along the spine. They are very easily removed simply by running a sharp knife along each side of the back bone, then fleshing the straps off the rib cage. Again, cut against the grain. These are among the choicest cuts on any big game animal.
At the hind quarters, make a cut around the leg just above the knee joint. Flesh around the thigh bone, down to the pelvis, and the whole shooting match will come off in one big chunk. Lay it flat, find the seams, and separate, then cut into steaks or leave as roasts. The lower legs, again, are best for sausage, burger or canning.
As you cut steaks, trim the crust at the outer edges, and remove as much fat and sinew as possible. This cuts down on the “wild” flavor.
Inside the rib cage, along the spine, are two smaller strips of meat. This is the tenderloin. These should be removed no more than a day or two after the carcass is hung, as they are small and can dry beyond use quickly. These are probably the most tender tidbits on deer, elk and most of the others.
Once you’ve got your steaks and roasts separated, take a serving size full (which will be different depending on how many you feed at a time) and wrap in plastic wrap tightly, squeezing the air out as you roll. Then take butcher paper, wax side up, and wrap tightly, securing with freezer tape. Write the species and year of kill on the wrapper, and these will stay frozen just fine for a year or more.
The days of tying your big game animal to the fender of your car or the hood of your truck are over, thank goodness. For practical reasons, it is a terrible place to transport your game, as heat from the engine compartment can do some major damage to the meat. For ethical reasons, it’s a horrible idea.
A big game animal sprawled over the hood of your vehicle looks disrespectable, like you’re grandstanding, showing off your victory over nature.
The bed of your pickup, the rear of your SUV, even the trunk of your car, are preferable. It’s a good idea to have a game bag or a large section of cheese cloth on hand to cover the carcass, especially once skinned, to keep bugs and dirt and other icky stuff off the meat.
The key is to keep the carcass cool, dry and in a dignified posture until you get it home.
For wingshooters, where often times regulations require you leave a wing attached or some other form of identification, the temptation to just take the entire bird home and do it all there is constant.
However, you can quickly field dress most birds while leaving most of it intact.
It’s simply, really.
Make a small slit through the thin skin below the breast down to the legs. Reach up and dig it out. Try to be sure to get the craw out as well, as a lot of nasty stuff that could taint the meat tends to hang up in there. The craw is simply the pouch in the upper body where food is mixed with grit to aid in digestion.
Preparing a bird for the table can be a bit more complicated, depending on what you want. For grouse and similar birds, you can simply skin around the breast and legs and remove them. Ditto for anything where you do not need to keep the skin attached.
Pheasants and most upland birds are pretty easy to pluck, it just takes time and a little patience.
Once you’ve got the bird skinned or plucked, it’s not a bad idea to soak it overnight in cold salt water. After that, rinse it off, pat it dry, and you’re ready to cook or freeze.
As with upland birds, it’s a good idea to simply make a small cut and scoop them out right in the field, allowing them to cool right off the bat.
Since there are very strict regulations governing the number of mallards, pintails, etc., one may have in a bag limit, this is as far as you want to go in field dressing waterfowl so officials can make identifications easily in the field.
The messy part is plucking. Pluck as many feathers off the carcass as you can. You’re going to be stuck with pinfeathers and down, which can be removed by dipping the birds in a paraffin/water mixture.
Use two cakes of paraffin for four quarts of water, bring to a boil, then dip birds into mixture one at a time. After the birds cool, you can simply use a dull knife to scrape the remaining feathers off the bird. Wipe out the cavity with paper towels, and hang the carcass to allow for air-drying.
Again, it is important, especially with waterfowl but really for all other species, not to pluck the birds before you get them home and are ready for processing. Most states say you have to leave a head or wing attached, but it’s OK to leave them intact save the innards.
Do not pile warm birds on top of each other. When possible, hang them from your belt or blind, separated from one another. Put them on ice as soon as possible. Birds, more so than big game, is very delicate and will spoil quickly if not kept cool.
The whole idea of field dressing is the removal of anything within the animal that might spoil the meat if left too long. The key is doing the very best you can while in the field.
There are times when the situation doesn’t allow you time to do as thorough a job as you would like. At these times, get out the “big chunks,” get the animal out of the field and as quickly as possible complete the process.
This usually includes the wiping down of the animal and making sure the windpipe and anus are completely removed.
Properly cared for wild game is among the most nutritious and delicious meat on the planet, made all the sweeter by the fact you took it yourself.