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August 07, 2018

 By: Mike Attebery

For those of you who have been blessed enough to become familiar and experienced with Western hunting, you know just how difficult yet rewarding it can be.  However, if the title of this article caught your eye it’ s likely your one of those folks who haven’t yet, but might be thinking about trekking west to try something new much like I was not long ago.

Now, let’s preface this with the following – It’s not that the Midwest or Eastern United States isn’t full of hunting opportunities or those highly sought after trophy whitetail deer. I love a 20ft view on the edge of a bean field and a timber patch with a bow in hand just as much as the next guy. But coming from an athletic background growing up and possibly having a touch of ADD, I’m also partial to a physical challenge and oftentimes I find my mind begging my body to make a move and hit the dirt rather than waiting for the game to come to me. If this is you as well, you might want to consider heading west for a spot and stalk adventure.

For me, it started with hunting whitetail on our family farm in Missouri. A few years of lugging around a lever action 30-30 with minimal success eventually led me to the even more difficult task of picking up a bow (I know, makes sense right??) and the subsequent discovery of my passion for archery.

As some of you might know, if you live in Midwest and are passionate about bowhunting you eventually stumble upon the likes of the guys from Heartland Bowhunter by default. Or at the very least run across their show on the Outdoor Channel. Watching them grow their show and expand westward had a large influence on my eagerness to get out west.  In 2015 I was lucky enough to win a seat at their table for the annual Mule Deer Foundation banquet. You can imagine where the conversations might have led that evening – Western Mule Deer! 

After hearing about their experiences and listening to advice from them and others with western hunting experience I knew it was time to take action. Many states take years to accrue points and applying is the name of the game so the sooner you can begin that process the better. That being said, there are many states with over-the-counter tags and opportunities to draw with minimal points. For me choosing the state of Utah was a no-brainer. Utah has tons of public access, high country terrain and units with good odds for first time applicants!

First things first, you need to do some research. There is no shortage of regulation in regards to hunting in the west and you need to be well versed in topics such as season dates, unit boundaries and rules for specific species. Forums, blogs and state wildlife agency websites were my first source of information when I started planning my application strategy. It also doesn’t hurt to talk to an insider! Reach out to someone who lives or hunts in the state or area you are going to. In this age of social media it should be relatively easy to find someone willing to lead you in the right direction. Be careful not prod too much for specific hunting information unless they are willing to offer it. Be grateful for any help they might offer. Think about it – would you lead someone straight to your favorite hunting spot or to a big animal you’ve spent months scouting? Probably not. But I would like to think most of us in the hunting community are all about helping a fellow hunter who shares our passions with general information or tips on getting started. I was fortunate enough to make contact with a couple local guys in Utah through Facebook who were a wealth of helpful information.

Once you’ve done your research and picked some potential units based on what you’ve learned and your personal preference it’s time to apply. In Utah the application for both the hunting license and species tags are relatively inexpensive compared to some other states and you don’t actually pay for the tag until you have successfully drawn. Other states you may have to front the expense for tags before you draw. After submitting your application comes the hard part – waiting!

If the hunting gods happen to bless you with a successful application and a tag, it’s time to start prepping and planning more specifically. If you didn’t draw, don’t fret too much. You’ll most likely have another point accrued to your total points for the drawing odds next year depending on the state specific point system.

Now it’s time to really start preparing mentally and physically for your hunt. My preparation consisted primarily of 2 things – bow shooting and exercise. I worked out daily, which was already a staple in my weekly routine but for some of you it may not be! That’s okay, but get to work if you aren’t normally physically active. The high country and western terrain in general is not to be taken lightly. On average we hiked up and down elevation at distances of 6-8 miles per day. Your legs and muscular endurance will be tested so it’s important to push yourself mentally and physically on a regular basis in the months leading up to your hunt. If you want to get away from the trail-head and high traffic areas with a lot of other hunters you’ll be packing in your camp and supplies quite a ways and that’s no easy chore.

In my opinion, weight training and steady state cardio should take up the vast majority of your time in the gym with a solid focus on legs. My pre-hunt routine consisted of squats, lunges and other leg exercises twice per week with weighted sessions on the stair climber 4-5 times per week. I accompanied those workouts with other muscle groups and cardio on the remaining days. Keep in mind this is what worked for me (at least adequately enough to survive the seven or eight days of hunting). Your body is different and what works for me may not work for you. Having a trainer to keep you accountable and help you achieve your goals is almost always a good idea as well. There are some great companies that offer mountain and back-country specific training now that are great resources for increasing your odds in the field. Take advantage of those if you can afford to do so! Many offer free programs as well. Remember, hunting is all about putting the odds in your favor. Leave nothing on the table in terms of preparation!

The other big ticket item in my preparation was shooting. Keep in mind before you spend a whole summer behind a gun or a bow you need to ensure your equipment is dialed in and setup perfectly first. I had my bow setup and paper tuned the spring before my first western hunt and I spent all summer shooting at multiple ranges and adjusting as needed. Taking the time to really learn the features of my weapon and tuning it to perfection is something I became really passionate about in the months before my hunt. Not to mention a tuned and efficient weapon combined with hours and hours of shooting is going to help you to build that confidence you need especially in the moments leading up to that trigger pull. If your gun hunting - shoot often, if your bow hunting - shoot even more. I like to practice at distances much further than I expect to shoot on the hunt and I find that this really helps to increase accuracy at shorter more ethical distances. I shot my bow at 60-100 yards almost every time I hit the range. You wouldn’t know it if you were there watching the amount of nervous praying I did before taking the shot on my first high country mule deer but I was actually pretty confident in my shooting ability and I contribute that to the amount of shooting I did beforehand. In contrast, one thing I wish I would have done more of in the months of shooting leading up to my hunt is shoot at a variety of downward and upward angles to the target. I took my mule deer peering out over a rock ledge near the top of a mountain as he was 50 yards below me at a pretty steep angle. Although I made the shot, I took my sweet time settling into my draw and steadying my pin on his body. These shots are the norm in a steep high country environment.

Besides putting together a gear list and double checking it before you head out, that’s about everything I did to prepare myself. I don’t claim to be an expert in hunting so I’ll spare you all the technical hunting advice besides some apparent things that you will hear as you do some research;

  • Take some good optics and plan to spend a lot of time behind glass.
  • If it is feasible, take a scout trip ahead of time or get to your unit a day or two early in order to get familiar with the area. You may encounter features of the land that you weren’t able to distinguish by solely looking at satellite maps.
  • Go out there with a plan but don’t expect it to go smoothly! It is sure to be a learning experience.
  • Have a goal and go after it but be ready and willing to adapt and roll with the punches so to speak.
  • When you have an opportunity to put a stalk on the right animal and kill him don’t pass it up. I was blessed with an opportunity that seemed it would never come. But when it did I took advantage of it. 

The most important piece of advice I would give to you on your first western hunting trip is this: Don’t be afraid to fail! The success rate for our first western mule deer hunt from the previous year in terms of tags filled was somewhere right around 15 percent. The odds were against us and we knew that going in. Regardless of those odds, two out of the four of us had tags and we were both able to fill them on good animals with some hard work, a little preparation and a dash of beginner’s luck. While the odds of the hunt may be much lower than anticipated, one thing is for sure – you will be hooked! Get out there and give it a shot. 


Good Luck!


Mike Attebery




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