I know that sinking feeling of pulling up to the spot you’re planning to hunt only to find that it looks like a Costco parking lot on July 3. Or, maybe you packed 10 miles into a secluded bowl only to see hunters pouring out of every nook and cranny on opening morning. Because if we’re being honest, even the most welcoming hunters would rather have a hunting spot to themselves.
That’s because hunting pressure very obviously changes animal behavior. But if you hunt big game on public land anywhere in the country (and even up here in Alaska), you’ll have to deal with hunting pressure at some point or another. Rather than just flipping around and spitting gravel on your way out of the parking area in disgust, you should realize that you can often still have a great, successful hunt when other hunters are around. Sometimes you can even make the pressure work for you. Consistently successful hunters are adaptable and they’re willing to shift tactics according to the situation.
Hunt Where the Animals Will Be
It’s often not good enough to just be able to out-hike your competition anymore. Backpack hunting is very popular, and plenty of hunters are in fantastic shape. You can’t always count on animals to stay where they are before the season, but you can try to anticipate where they will go once they’re pressured. If you’re hunting an area that you know will be pressured, focus on being either where you expect the animals to go, or in a position to intercept them. This might mean a travel corridor to private land, or a saddle to the next drainage where you expect pressured animals to escape. When animals get blown out of an area, they don’t just disappear; they go to an area where they think they will be safe and comfortable.
Preseason scouting is great. But if you’re in an area where you know there will be other hunters, putting all your hopes on the spot where you saw animals before the season is a recipe for disaster. Anticipate where those critters will go to escape hunters, and you’ll have a better chance of punching a tag.
Hunt the “Front-Country”
Sometimes an entire area might be saturated with hunters, but with all the popularity of backcountry hunting, many “extreme” hunters unknowingly walk by scores of animals trying to get to the sweet spot, and sometimes even cause animals to congregate a lot closer to the road than they would otherwise. You can sometimes find animals in places you wouldn’t think to look simply because it’s not “back in far enough.” If everyone else is hiking way back, try hunting closer to the road or trail. You might be surprised by what you see.
Take Your Time
Nothing forces a hunter to hurry like knowing you will be competing with other people, but often the best strategy is to slow down and hunt more carefully. Frantically rushing around trying to beat other people to a spot usually won’t help your odds. On many occasions, I’ve seen hunters buzzing around an area, or hiking through an area, where there are animals in plain view, but the hunters never even notice them. Different hunts obviously require different methods, but here’s an example. A couple years back, one of my buddies was listening to another pair of hunters say they couldn’t find any legal Dall sheep. He literally overheard this while he could see a legal ram, one that he’d been observing, beyond the other hunters’ shoulders. They gave up and left.
Plan for the Hunting Pressure
In ideal circumstances, we can do all of our off-season planning around where we think the animals are, and will be, as well as what land we have access to, and our entry points. Mapping and land-ownership apps and software do help tremendously, but everybody has those same apps now, so lots of those “secret spots” are laid bare to even the least-savvy hunters. A big initial advantage of these apps was to find little hidey-holes. Well, even with hunting pressure considered, these apps can still do that, but you have to reverse-engineer it. In other words, use your mapping app to find places that look less-attractive to other hunters. Sometimes these might not be the most prime hunting spots, but they can still offer you a great hunt and experience. For example, if you look at a map and the first thing that catches your eye is a beautiful mountain bowl that’s a good 5 mile hike from the road, well, you can bet everyone else has that bowl pinned on onX too. So instead of hunting there, look at all the features around that bowl and pick a spot that’s less obvious on a digital map.
Never Give Up
Even though hunting pressure might spoil the experience a little bit, or at least what you want that experience to be, you can still have a good time. Sometimes finding success among the hunting pressure can feel even sweeter. Not every hunt will be productive, but know that the most successful hunters stay patient and persistent regardless of the hunting pressure. That starts with mindset, and luckily, that’s one of the few things you can control out there.