3 Lessons for Whitetail Hunters Who Want to Hunt the West

3 Lessons for Whitetail Hunters Who Want to Hunt the West

I talk to a lot of aspiring Western hunters every year. These folks, usually younger guys looking for adventure beyond the average whitetail foray, often focus on one thing—the kill. They say things like, “I’d be happy with a respectable Colorado bull,” or “I’m just looking for a 140-class type mule deer.”

Most of them don’t have a clue what they’re in for because Western hunting isn’t whitetail hunting. I realize that’s the most obvious thing ever written—but it’s true, and it often results in reality crashing headlong into fantasy land.

This happened to me on my early, uninformed trips. It could happen to you if you live out east and you point your truck to the left for 1000 miles or so. But it doesn’t have to. There are a few things about Western hunting that whitetail hunters should first understand and acknowledge. The whole experience will be more enjoyable and likely more successful if they do.

Good Clothing Matters

If you head to the mountains, you’ll be thinking about pounds and ounces. You’ll be thinking about weather. You’ll be thinking about the potential for absolute misery. Too heavy of a pack, and you’re in trouble. Rain when you’re not prepared, more trouble. Too many layers for the hike up to elevation, but not enough for the cold nights in a bivy sack—trouble

Quality clothing, the kind of stuff that weighs next to nothing but will keep you warm, is essential. Cheap out somewhere else, but not on your Western hunting clothing. A layering system that can handle everything from beach weather to blizzards is a high-country necessity, but you won’t have room for extra stuff. The proper base layers, mid layers, and outer layers are everything. You don’t need a ton of clothes if you buy the good stuff, but it has to offer a warmth-to-weight ratio worthy of carrying up 3,000 feet of elevation to your base camp.

I strongly advise any potential Western hunter to start building a kit. I usually opt for base layers that work well on my whitetail hunts so I can double dip. Mid-layers, like puffy jackets and vests, can pull double duty too (and function as a camp pillow if you need it). Outer layers should be built for the West, with the right camo, the right venting, wind-proofing, the whole deal. And don’t forget the rain gear, because you’ll probably need it.

About The Fitness Thing

There is an obnoxious level of fitness content tied to Western hunting, but the truth is that it really is important. This past September, I killed a solid 5x5 bull six miles from the truck on a hunt where I was in very good shape. The best shape of my life, actually—and I’m a gym rat who also runs anywhere from 700 to 1100 miles every year.

The pack-out was life-changing brutal. I’ve killed elk that didn’t nearly kill me getting them out, but this wasn’t one of them. It is also an inconvenient truth that on public land, in a high-pressure state like Colorado, the bulls will go where most of us hunters won’t. Sometimes that sanctuary is right by the road in an overlooked drainage, but most of the time it’s deeper into more up-and-down territory.

Think about Western fitness as a year-round pursuit, with some anaerobic (weights) and aerobic (cardio) workouts every week. Do free weight work to help with general strength and stabilizer muscles, and figure out a way to run (jog) or swim enough so that you don’t easily get winded. Give yourself this advantage for elk, but also mule deer. Pronghorn, well, you can probably skip the gym membership.

Trophy Troubles

The standards for a lot of first-time Western hunters are often way, way out of whack. If you’re not killing 150-inch whitetails on public land in your home state with scary frequency, you’re not going to be the one hunter out of 100,000 who kills a 340-inch bull in an over-the-counter unit. Whether it’s elk, mule deer, or antelope, keep it real.

I encourage all hunters to go for the hunt first because the experience of Western hunting is truly special. Killing is great, but not that likely for most people, especially on their first trip. This almost becomes a guarantee for anyone who holds out for a truly big and rare critter.

If you want to have fun and get hooked on the Western thing, just hunt animals first. Forget Pope & Young scores, and focus on enjoying yourself while trying to get close to some elk. Stalk every legal mule deer you can. You’ll see that most of them, even the does and forkies, will pick you off without even trying.

Go to have fun and learn. If you do, you’ll go back. Eventually, you’ll start to put things together and get to recalibrate your standards with your experience level.

Editor's Note: First Lite’s Whitetail Sale just got extended through 10/19! Along with everything a whitetailer needs, they’ve also added discounts to some of our favorite Western gear. Whether you chase whitetails in the East, muleys in the West, or something in between, there’s a piece of technical hunting apparel on sale right now that’ll fit your needs. Click here to shop.

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