Ultimate Bucket List: The 10 North American Hunts You Must Try Before You Die
We've been dreaming about these hunts our whole lives
Into every life a little rain must fall, so offset it with epic hunting adventures. The North American continent retains wild beasts aplenty in open, wild country like the Mountain Men enjoyed 200 years ago. Towering mountains, gnarly canyons, expansive grasslands and deep forests. More than 440 million acres of public land are open to free exploration, camping and hunting. Why settle for the same 100-acre deer lease year after year? Dream big, lay plans, saddle up and grab your adventure.
Note that these aren’t ranked in any particular order—that’s for you to decide.
1. Mountain Goat
Backpack Hunt | British Columbia
Most U.S. hunters have never seen a mountain goat, but you can—up close and personal. Just be prepared to hike. These white cliff climbers can be hunted in several Western states, but tags are few and far between. In British Columbia you buy them over the counter. Nonresidents must hire local registered guides, but that’s a good idea anyway, considering how remote and rugged goat country is. You may have to hike a day or two from the road or fly a few hundred miles to a wilderness lake before starting your climb. You’ll share the experience with grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, and mountain lions. Probably moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and caribou, too.
You’ll be in, on or around cliffs, ledges and rocky spires, living out of a backpack. Think ultralight everything—tent, sleeping bag, rifle, scope, underwear. The less weight you lug, the farther you go and longer you last, but don’t scrimp on boots. Get them with tall, stiff sides for ankle support and stiff, deeply lugged soles for clinging to rock. A small binocular will suffice for finding white goats, but back them up with a 20-60X spotting scope for judging horns. Differences between a big billy and a young one are slight.
Be prepared for rain and snow. You can hunt in September, but goats’ coats get thicker and longer later in the year. For a real trophy, try a late October or even a November hunt. The first half of October is usually a safe bet for thick coats without battling extreme cold and snow. Standard deer cartridges are fine, but use a stout bullet, either bonded, partition or monolithic. High muzzle velocity and high B.C. bullets minimize drop and wind drift. Steep shooting angles, both up and down, put shots high. Learn your ballistics or use a ballistic rangefinder with angle compensation.
Wilderness Horseback Hunt | Montana
Nothing’s more classic than a Rocky Mountain horseback elk hunt from a canvas tent camp. Wood burning stoves, Coleman lanterns, campfires and starry skies. Dozens of outfitters offer these adventures in most western states, but Montana is my pick for its expansive mountain ranges without excessive elevation. Besides, Lewis & Clark hunted here. You can book with an outfitter/guide or do-it-yourself if you have the horses and camp gear. Either way it’s a grand adventure and much easier than packing your elk out on your back. Horses let you prowl deep into the back country without blisters. You’ll cover more ground than foot hunters ever could.
For this adventure, carry a rifle of 6.5mm up through the 338 Magnums. A 140-grain, controlled expansion bullet launched at 2,700 fps or faster will work just fine if placed in the vitals, but most serious elk men like 7mm, .308, and .338 controlled expansion bullets. Accurate placement is more important than power. Don’t overdo the scope! Elk are twice as big as a big whitetail. You don’t need 20X to clearly target one under a crosshair.
The ultimate elk hunt comes during the September rut. Bugling bulls add a spine tingling note to the adventure, and if you call one close you’ll understand “adrenaline overdose.” Check the Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks website for application periods and procedures. In recent years tags have remained available late into summer, but that can change.
3. Plains Pronghorn
The pronghorn antelope isn’t an antelope at all, but who doesn’t want to hunt the second fastest land mammal in the known universe? To hunt pronghorn is to experience pioneer America of 1850. Native Americans, mountain men, explorers, cowboy and settlers all stalked these sharp-eyed speedsters, and now it’s your turn.
Wyoming has more pronghorns than any other state and plenty of public lands on which to pursue them, most of them easily accessible to an ordinary highway car. You can camp out on these public grass- and sage-lands, too. Few things are as romantic as a sip of amber beside a crackling sagebrush fire while the coyotes serenade the moon. This is an affordable adventure almost anyone can manage and the perfect initiation into western hunting.
Dig up some land ownership maps, consult the Wyoming Game & Fish website for season dates, tags and locations and apply for your permits, usually due in January. If you draw, start training to become an open country stalker and High Plains marksman.
Pronghorns are our easiest big game to hunt because they live in the open. Scour the country at 10X. Look for white rumps and sides, then the black horns. Note the wind and the lay of the land and start your stalk. It’ll be easier than you first think. Slight rolls in the ground, sagebrush and grass hide your moves. Move slowly when you peek over the top.
High B.C. bullets at high speed from 243 Win. through the 300 Magnums give you the reach. The 257 Weatherby is perfect. Zero 2 inches high at 100 yards and see where your bullets fall at 300, 350, and 400 yards. The extreme range at which you can hit a 10-inch circle every time is your maximum shooting distance. Stalk carefully and you won’t need to stretch it. Most pronghorns can be stalked well inside of 300 yards. Skin and cool carcasses immediately. Contrary to rumor, pronghorn venison is top shelf when properly handled.
4. Quail Trifecta
Bobwhites have fallen on hard times across the southeast, but in Arizona you can find three of their colorful cousins—and shoot all three on the same hunt, maybe even in the same day. How many folks can say they’ve done that?
Like so many Western states, Arizona has plenty of public land. Quail are sprinkled across it based on elevation and rainfall. The lowland deserts with cacti and catclaw brush are Gambel’s quail habitat. These covey birds would rather run than breathe, so when you hear them calling “chicago chicago,” or notice your dog repeatedly breaking point, circle wide and come at them from another direction. Populations boom after high winter rainfall.
Scaled or blue quail are grassland versions of Gambel’s and most common in the southeast corner of the state after heavy winter rains. They’ll tolerate some brush, but need grass. They also love to run, but they’ll crouch when a good dog pins them or two hunters approach from opposite sides. Be careful where you shoot and be ready to put on some miles. Go high for Mearns (Harlequin or Montezuma) quail. They live among the live oaks in the “sky island” mountains of southeast Arizona where they scratch for tubers. Good boots are essential. Most ground is sloped and covered in loose gravel or ankle-twisting stones.
Seasons open mid-November and stretch through January. Licenses can be bought any time. Mid-summer thundershowers fuel Mearn’s populations.
5. Late Season Pheasants
The ultimate upland bird hunt has to be South Dakota pheasants after Thanksgiving. This remains the Pheasant Capital of the World, but it’s slightly corrupted with too many “preserves” where wild roosters are augmented with raised and released birds. You can get those in any state. You want to punch up wild ringnecks in South Dakota, and there are several places to do it.
One is on small farms where you get permission to hunt. Tough! The other is on small farms where CRP grass fields have been leased by the State for public hunting. No need to ask permission! Check the SD G,F&P website for maps showing these fields. The third and fourth wild bird hotspots are state Game Management Areas and Federal Waterfowl Production Areas. These are small to large grasslands usually sprinkled with wetlands (glacial potholes) and set amid private farmland, which supplies the grain. Wild pheasants use it all, and after late November they’ll be concentrated in the heavy cover because crop fields are gleaned and frost will have shriveled a lot of vegetation. Snow shrinks accessible habitat even farther.
A wild rooster hunt isn’t for the weak of heart or leg, especially if the wind is blowing and mercury plummeting. You never know which field or slough they’ll be hiding in, and sorting it out means hiking miles through tough, thick grasses, rushes and cattails that tangle, grab and slow you down. Add below zero temperatures and high winds and you’re facing the toughest upland bird hunting in the country. But when a polychromatic rooster bursts from a clump of snow-crusted cattails at your feet, cursing your impertinence, you’ll warm up. When three or fifteen do it simultaneously, you may need a cold drink.
To pull off this adventure, know your birds! Pheasants are masters at running from noise and hiding in odd places where no one bothers them. But they have to come out to eat, twice a day. There’s your first break. Now, how can you catch them between their feeding fields and dense hiding cover? I’ve spent 50 years figuring that out, which partially explains how I was able to bag three-rooster limits five days in a row last November, all on free public hunting lands. You can do the same, but you’d best get started.
6. Mountain Moose
The best hunting for the biggest deer in the world is in the mountains of Alaska where Alaska-Yukon bull moose climb above treeline to escape summer bugs and grow antlers that can span more than six feet! These are the biggest, heaviest antlers in the world and the bulls carrying them can go over 1,200 pounds.
Hire a master guide. He’ll provide camp, gear, grub, and sometimes horses (highly recommended) or at least a human packer or two to help haul out all that meat. Moose venison isn’t called the “beef of the north” for nothing. You don’t want to miss a sliver. And if you don’t haul it out in a hurry, a grizzly might lay claim to it. This is the real, wild America the way it’s always been. Empty, hard, wet, steep, and wooly. You have to take life by the horns to survive. Do not go lightly, but go joyfully because riding the tundra mountain wilderness may be your ultimate connection with the natural world—and your role in it as a legitimate hunter.
Go in September before the bulls begin rutting. Glass the high, lush basins. You’re likely to see two to four bachelor bulls together. Later in the month they’ll strip velvet and those palms will flash white like slabs of sheetrock. Any common deer cartridge will handle a moose so long as you put a controlled expansion bullet into the boiler room. Give him a few minutes to realize he’s dead and he’ll topple over. Then the work begins.
7. Dall Sheep
Fly-in Backpack Hunt | Brooks Range, Alaska
If any adventure can top an Alaska moose hunt, this is it. The 700-mile-long Brooks Range is the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains. Its entire north slope is treeless—perfect habitat for sheep. And Dall’s are there to make the most of it. There’s no place for these magnificent white rams to hide. You see every dip and roll, every rock and pothole, so leave your agoraphobia behind. But be prepared for long mountain views, longer mountain hikes, camping under the northern lights and singing along with howling wolves. Be ready to see caribou, red fox, gyrfalcons, and tundra grizzlies. This is the most remote, wild, thrilling mountain hunt on the North American continent.
Nonresident tags are readily available, but you must hire a registered guide/outfitter. Most are booked a year or two in advanced, so start planning early. You may hunt with bow, muzzleloader or modern firearm. The outside chance of tangling with griz suggests a rifle in the 270 Win. through 338 Win. Mag. class. I found a 5-pound Rifles Inc. Strata Stainless with Leupold 2.5-8x36mm scope in 280 Ackley perfect for my Brooks ram. Barnes TTSX bullets shot MOA and provided the deep penetration any unscheduled grizzly might have demanded. Tough, controlled expansion bullets will turn smaller calibers into bear stoppers if you park them where they’re supposed to go. Few griz/hunter interactions ever move beyond the scaring stage.
You may need to shoot long here, so learn your trajectory tables and practice at varied distances. The range at which you can keep every shot inside a 12-inch circle is your limit. Better to shoot $500 in training ammo than miss your chance because you’re too inexperienced. It’s hard to judge distances in these big, open mountains, so bring a rangefinder with angle compensation. White sheep are rather easy to spot, so a 10x32mm or even a pocket binocular will suffice. You or your guide should pack a spotting scope for sizing up heads. Rams must be full curl or at least 8 years old. The average horn taken is just over 35 inches, average age 9.5 years and average length of hunt to bag one 4.5 days. But plan to stay at least a week. You don’t want to shortchange yourself in a wild place this spectacular.
Folks think muskox are throwbacks to the Pleistocene, and they are, but so are Dall’s sheep, mountain goats and whitetails. Muskox, uniquely adapted to survival in the high Arctic, just look a bit more exotic, like prehistoric cousins to bison. Actually, they’re more closely related to wild sheep. And hunting them on the barren, flat tundra they call home might make you feel like you’re hunting in the Pleistocene.
Relax. This is good old Mother Earth, and the Inuit people have thrived here for a few thousand years, living cheek to jowl with muskox, polar bears, caribou, tundra grizzlies, red fox, Arctic fox and hordes of ducks and geese. Surely you can survive for a week. You must hunt under the tutelage of a registered guide anyway, probably out of a plywood cabin or at least a good tent camp with stoves, cooking facilities and plenty of food. You’ll boat or fly to camp and cruise the shoreline or cross the vast tundra with snowmobiles, dog sleds or ATVs. You can hunt in late summer/early fall and avoid most of the snow and thirty below or go in March to challenge the brutal cold. I went in late August and was delighted by the tundra changing color, the geese and loons packing up and flying south, the rock ptarmigan running about and the continent’s largest “bunny,” Arctic hares. They weigh as much as 15 pounds! You might want to buy a hare license, too.
Linda Powell and I hunted northeast of Yellowknife near the shores of the Queen Maude Gulf with superb native Inuit guide George Hakongak. The area had been hunted by another party the previous week and the muskox were on the alert. We found just one broken-horned bull the first day, but two small herds the next. We had to follow for miles and stalk them twice to line up good shots. Despite the early date, the pelts were thick and lush with guard hairs reaching 11 inches. Late winter pelts will be even longer.
A muskox is one of those species you hunt for the novelty more than the tactical challenge. You are out to experience places and habitats foreign to most humans, yet as much a part of our hunting (hunter-gatherer) heritage as any whitetail or mule deer. Chances are you won’t get to stalk a polar bear, walrus or narwhal, but tens of thousands of muskox thrive in the Canadian Arctic, just waiting for an adventurer like you. With the right bullet, your deer rifle will do just fine.
9. Mixed Bag Birds
Hell’s Canyon, Idaho
Extreme western Idaho is the place to enjoy a heavenly upland bird hunt in Hell. Hell’s Canyon was bulldozed by the Snake River eroding its path north through the Seven Devil’s Mountains of Idaho and Wallowa Mountains of Oregon. In the process it carved the deepest canyon in the continent and created such a diversity of habitats that a smart, tough hunter can pursue six species in a day with a good chances of collecting them—all on public land.
This bird bonanza includes ruffed and dusky (formerly blue) grouse, gray and chukar partridge, valley quail and ringnecked pheasant. The pheasant is a bit of a long shot, partly because its season opens later than the others, but with good planning, you can nab it. Here’s how to pull off the trick. Map a Payette National Forest road route into the high ridges west of U.S. highway 95 between Riggins and Council. Begin hiking a drainage west toward the river, ready for ruffed grouse near the creek. The lower you go, the better your chances for eventually stepping into quail and pheasant. Leave the creek to walk any flat to gently sloping grass flats for gray partridge. Climb the steeper, rocky slopes for chukars. Atop the high ridge you should find ponderosa pines and Doug firs bordering the open grass. This is where dusky grouse hang out. Drop over the top and down the forested north slope to find more duskies and ruffed grouse.
Forest grouse season opens around September 1, partridge and quail two or three weeks later. Pheasant doesn’t come in until mid-October. If this sounds like an unbelievable cornucopia of birds, consider that sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse and mountain quail used to be common in parts of this area, too, but habitat changes have pushed their numbers too low to allow hunting.
This is a bird challenge no upland hunter should miss, but don’t take it lightly. The terrain ranges from steep to leg-cramping, lung busting, heart attack steep. Rocks lie in wait to twist ankles, cacti to puncture skin. Early season temperatures can hit 90F and water can be hard to find. Prepare by working stadium stairs hard with 20 to 40 pounds on your back. Find stiff, tall mountain boots like LOWA Hunter GTX Extreme or Tibet GTX that fit without blistering. Break them in and carry spare socks in your bird bag for a mid-day change.
Minimize gun weight to under 6-pounds. Take plenty of shells. You can carry more 20 ga. or 28 ga. than 12. Doubles are sweet, but I often use my old “beater” Franchi 48 AL auto for the extra firepower. Idaho does not mandate a 3-shell limit for upland bird hunting, and when half the covey flushes AFTER you’ve fired twice, those extra two or three rounds in the magazine come in handy. When you climb and sweat this hard, you want to take full advantage of your shooting opportunities.
You can camp nearly anywhere in the forest, but bring plenty of water. There are springs, but don’t count on finding them.
10. Osceola Turkey
You tell me where when and how. This is one bucket list hunt I haven’t tried yet, but my chance is coming, and once I take it I’ll check off two bucket list items at once: the Osceola turkey hunt and the turkey Grand Slam.
Turkeys may be little more than the largest gallinaceous bird in North America to some, but to anyone who’s hunted them, they are the most challenging “big game” feathered challenge in the world. Five variations (subspecies) frequent North America, and I’ve taken all but the small, dark Osceola of Florida, our only game bird named after a Native American chief.
This is another bucket list hunt you take not so much for the quarry, but for the place, the history and the unusual habitat where it lives. Osceoloa’s live in our country’s only sub-tropical swampland. Longleaf pines and palmettos, Spanish moss and live oaks. Swamps and glades and slow-drifting rivers. Prehistoric-looking wood storks and man-eating alligators. Toto, this isn’t Kansas anymore.
Osceola experts say these toms start gobbling in January and peak in March. They reportedly gobble hard, but typical vegetative cover, especially thick palmettos at ground level, muffle the sound. A noisy Tom can sound as if it’s a long way off when it’s already within shotgun range. Cover is so thick in many places that getting a clear view of the bird and a clean shot can be a challenge. As if all that weren’t challenge enough, these dumb turkeys aren’s so dumb. The males are reportedly notoriously difficult to call into range. Sounds like challenge enough for any bucket list.
Public land is available but heavily hunted, making turkeys there hard to fool. A better bet is private farm and ranchlands which undoubtedly come at a price. If I’m going to travel all the way to Florida for a hunt in March, I’m laying plans to catch a few fish, too. And then I’m going to explore all the wild life in those swamps and glades. The birdlife in Florida is an adventure all its own. Don’t forget the binocular.
This top ten list of North America’s greatest hunting adventures is, by its very nature, incomplete and subject to change. I could be talked into exchanging the muskox hunt for caribou, the pronghorn for mule deer, the elk for blacktails…
But this is good news. The fact that we have a confusion of hunting options on this continent points to the success of our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, to the hard work and millions of dollars we hunters have contributed to restoring our wildlife heritage. Life is indeed short, but the list of potential outdoor adventures is long and enticing. Start your list and begin working to make it happen. Go for the gusto.