Making the Shot on a Once-in-a-Lifetime Mountain Goat Hunt
Does a Midwestern deer hunter have what it takes to transform himself into an archery mountain goat hunter in just three months?
I’VE HAD FOUR shot opportunities on goats in my life, and none of them have gone especially well.
First there was the aoudad in West Texas, where I missed a 450-yard shot before connecting on a closer follow-up. (Aoudad are known as Barbary sheep, but they’re genetically closer to goats.) Next there was the bull tahr in New Zealand, where I made a good shot but watched the goat scamper across an unscalable (for a human) crevasse. We had to retrieve him with a helicopter. Then there was the mountain goat in Alaska, which I also hit well (multiple times) before it tipped off a massive cliff, never to be seen again. And lastly, there was the feral goat on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. I took a bad rangefinder reading by hitting the grass in front of the billy and ended up shooting below him, my arrow shattering against the lava rock and spooking him and his tribe.
So when I found out that I’d drawn a once-in-a-lifetime archery mountain goat tag in Utah, I was overcome not with excitement, but rather with a feeling akin to dread. I’d been putting in for the tag almost as an afterthought, like buying a Powerball ticket at the gas station simply out of reflex, not because you actually expect to win, and certainly not because you’ve ever considered the consequences of winning.
But it didn’t take me long to respect the opportunity I’d just been granted. There was only one nonresident archery tag available for the entire unit. I had drawn with just eight preference points (eight years’ worth of Powerball tickets that never hit) when there were other hunters playing with three times as many. No matter how badly those other hunters wanted it, they would not draw, at least not this year, because I had.
I also knew just enough about hunting goats in the mountains to know that I was not ready. My archery setup and skill set were tuned for whitetails, meaning shots from a treestand at 30 yards or closer. From a fitness standpoint, I was in excellent shape—at least for a beer-drinking, cheese-eating Midwestern deer hunter approaching middle age. To make matters worse, a mail mishap caused me to find out about my tag three months later than I should have. This was late June. The season opened September 10. That’s not enough time, I thought as I lay awake that night, imagining wind-swept cliffs and poor shooting.
Tight and Low
Years ago, Rick Bass wrote an essay about mountain goat hunting for Field & Stream that hit a nerve. Like me, Bass had unexpectedly drawn a mountain goat tag. But he was unsure if he actually wanted to kill a goat. He went on to halfheartedly hunt the mountains of Montana, but never fully committed and never punched his tag, which was a bit of a relief to him.
“I think it’s wrong to kill something you don’t know,” Bass wrote. “It’s hard enough to kill something you do know. Would I learn more about goats, in another month or two? I didn’t know.”
That essay riled me now, partly because I didn’t really know goats either, but more because I think it’s wrong to hunt an animal you don’t truly want to kill. Those goats, clinging to their rock cliffs at 11,000 feet, very badly want to survive and reproduce. In fact, that’s all they know. So if you’re going to climb into their mountains to try to kill one of them, you should do it with a pure heart, with no resignation or self-doubt. You should aspire to hunt them as determinedly and as earnestly as they live. That’s what a hunter owes his prey. If you can’t make that offering, you should stay home.
So I vowed to get my gear, my body, and my head right before the hunt—or forfeit the tag. And if I wounded a mountain goat on this hunt, I swore to give up goat hunting for good.
I focused first on my archery setup and then on my shooting. I opted for heavier arrows and heavier fixed-blade broadheads (150-grain Iron Wills) to maximize penetration. I tinkered with paper tuning my bow (a PSE Levitate cranked to 68 pounds) in my garage. Then I got to shooting seriously.
I started shooting every day at 20, 30, and 40 yards, just like I do before whitetail season. After a week, I stretched out to 50, and then, after another week, to 60. I measured every three-arrow group that I shot at 50 yards and logged it in my phone to track my progress. I shot in high winds and after sunset to practice finding a spot on the target in low light. I shot from my back deck to prepare for a steep shot angle, and then from my roof (only when my wife, who was already questioning my sanity, was at work) to get an even steeper angle.
I capped my maximum range at 50 yards. I know that with modern bowhunting gear, many archers can shoot accurately at much greater distances. But I also watched several videos in which some of those same hunters botched long shots and hit their goats poorly. I think the reputation that mountain goats are tough to kill has less to do with the critter and more to do with the hunter. Getting close to goats requires so much effort, and often pain. All that hard work on the front end tends to amplify the pressure when it’s time to shoot and bring the hunt to an end. The longer the shot, the easier it is to crack under pressure.
I also researched mountain goat anatomy and shot placement. Opinions on the internet (many of which were offered by people who had never killed a mountain goat) ranged from “goats are impossible to kill with a bow” to “shoot them just like you would a deer.”
The best advice came from OL staff writer and experienced mountain goat hunter Tyler Freel: Aim tight to the shoulder and a little lower than you’d hold on a deer. Tight and low became my mantra, and I wore out a softball-size spot on the crease of my 3D target.
Through all the practice, I began to rediscover my love for archery. Feeling the shot break, watching the arrow arc 60 yards downrange and thunk home into foam vitals. Thinking, That was money, and then walking down to the target to see three arrows clustered around the bullseye in a 2-inch group.
The feeling of dread began to turn into something like confidence.
Three days a week, I’d load my backpack with weights and walk up and down a long set of stairs in town. It was the most elevation I could find in my corner of Minnesota, and most mornings I shared those steps with women in their 60s and 70s getting a little climb in before hitting the local coffee shop.
One morning, a grandmotherly lady stopped me to say, “You must be going on a hiking trip! Where are you going?”
“The mountains,” I said between heavy breaths, sweat dripping. “I’m going into the mountains.”
Into Goat Country
One of the people I talked to in preparation for my hunt was Justin Christensen, a friend of a friend who lives in the unit I’d drawn. Christensen was a real mountain hunter in his day (his buddies nicknamed him “the Mountain Goat” for his ability to traverse steep terrain swiftly), and he spent years chasing big mule deer bucks around the same peaks where I’d be hunting goats.
But Christensen, 52, now has cerebral palsy, a disorder that has robbed him of his strength and balance—and of his golden years hunting the mountains. He’s a former police chief and retired Army National Guard staff sergeant who still has that never-say-die attitude so common among leaders. Never getting too high or too low, at least outwardly. Even with his condition and unsteady walk, he possesses an air of competence. Christensen has at least 20 mountain goat preference points to his name, but he has yet to draw.
I felt more than a little guilty when I asked him to help me with a hunt he’d always dreamed of but would never realize. It turned out that my feelings of guilt were foolish. Christensen was thrilled that I’d drawn and offered to drive me to a few spots where we could glass goats from the road and see the best trailheads to access them.
Just a few weeks later and a week into the season, Christensen and I were glassing a wide, rocky ridgeline with three tribes of goats scattered over it. By lunchtime I had a plan, and by 3 p.m. I was hiking the trail toward the spot where Christensen had told me to camp. I had three days’ worth of gear and food stuffed into my pack.
With just a mile to go, I heard rocks clattering and looked up to see a few mountain goats crossing a rock outcropping. They were only about 600 yards away, but that distance included a few hundred feet of elevation, and dusk was falling quickly. I watched them for a few minutes, noticing how closely the kids stuck to their nannies, and then I hustled on to set up camp.
The next morning, after a breakfast of instant coffee and a couple Clif Bars, I glassed the hillside above to find goats all around. Through my spotting scope I could guess which ones were billies (nannies also have horns and can grow massive bodies), but they all mostly looked the same to me: fluffy and stocky, almost like white bears lounging on the rocks. There was no obvious goat to make a move on, and even the lower tribes seemed impossibly high. The top quarter of the mountain transitioned from green slope to rock outcropping, then to sheer cliff at the peak. The goats were hanging out in the rock outcroppings.
With nothing else to do, I slowly made my way up. The terrain was wide open, so I threw on a white jacket, hoping that the goats would think I was one of their kind as I clumsily approached. After two hours of climbing, the goats didn’t seem so impossibly high anymore. In fact, I’d reached the same elevation as some kids and nannies.
I decided to clamber into the rocks with them, get as close as I could, and just see what happened.
The Fifth Goat
I spent the next four hours within 200 yards of goats, watching them as they grazed, milled about, and then bedded. The terrain was so steep and rocky that it would take me several minutes to move just a few yards. With every step, a rock or two would kick loose. Sometimes the goats would ignore the noise, other times they’d look toward me and I’d freeze in place, clinging to the mountain until they looked away.
At one point I spotted two billies heading my direction. They were going to cross the outcropping above me. When they disappeared behind a large boulder, I ditched my pack and charged uphill as quickly as I could, hoping to cut them off for a shot. But when they reappeared from behind the boulder, I was still 80 yards away. They watched me curiously from above and then continued on their way. I decided to keep climbing, since that seemed like the only thing to do.
From a higher vantage point, I could spot another billy along the outcropping, only about 60 yards away now. I crept closer, scooting on my butt as he fed in my direction. When I got to 50, I nocked an arrow, but the billy was quartering to me—no shot. A swirl of wind caught his attention. He picked up his head, looked directly at me, and then trotted over to a little drainage about 75 yards away and disappeared.
Imagine spending 30 minutes crossing a distance of less than a football field and you’ll have a good idea of how slowly I slithered to that drainage. When I reached the edge of what was essentially a 30-yard ditch cutting through the mountain, I peeked over and spotted a nanny and her kid not 20 yards away, feeding contentedly. I repositioned slightly, peeked over again, and spotted what I was sure was a young billy, munching on wildflowers and quartering away slightly. I looked at his horns through my binocular and was as certain as a rookie goat hunter could be that he was, in fact, a billy.
I nocked an arrow, ranged him at 41 yards, and then, without thinking, drew my bow. I cannot recall now if I rose to a knee or stood up fully from behind the ledge. All I can remember is my green 40-yard pin floating behind his snow-white shoulder as an immense feeling of calm settled in.
Just as the words tight and low flickered in my head, I saw my green fletching materialize from behind that green pin. The arrow was loosed, and it hit the precise point I’d been aiming at.
The billy bucked once and climbed out of the ditch. Just as he reached the top, I caught him with my binocular and saw the arrow protruding from his off-side shoulder. I hustled to cross the ditch myself and spotted the billy below the rocks on a green slope, tumbling down and then, thankfully, lying still.
After retrieving my pack, I hiked over to the young billy and ran my hand down his white mane. I was high enough on the mountain to have cellphone service, so I texted a quick photo to Christensen, hoping that he might find some feeling of pride in my success—it was, after all, his knowledge of the mountain that had gotten me there.
As for me, the only feeling left now was joy.
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