Five of the Top Game to Hunt in the Southwest

The Southwest is surprisingly varied in its diverse landscape – which offers a great many opportunities for a wonderful hunting trip. For many hunters, especially those of us in the Eastern part of the country, a Southwest Hunting Trip would be a dream come true simply because of how vastly different it is from anything we have over here.

You can spend time on the prairie looking for Pronghorn Antelope, or tracking Mule Deer through a canyon that looks like it’s straight out of an old Roy Rodgers movie. You can even be in a thick, wooded forest calling Elk. There are millions of acres of public land to hunt on in the Southwest – Colorado alone has 23 million acres. While there are a lot more game species available – here is a list of some game that you want to make sure you don’t miss!

Five of the Top Game to Hunt in the Southwest:

Mule Deer

Mule deer are common throughout most of the western states. They were named for their large ears that resemble a mule’s ears. The tails of mule deer are black tipped. They are much larger than the white-tailed deer – standing up to around three feet tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 300 pounds. Mule deer have excellent hearing and eyesight. 

Mule deer are highly sociable creatures. The does will stay in large multi-generation herds and the bucks older than yearlings will form their own smaller groups or stay solitary. In the fall, during the rut, males compete for dominance using their antlers as weapons. Gestation lasts for six to seven months and the fawns are born in the early summer. 

Mule deer are in high numbers particularly in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. Their behavior will vary a bit depending upon their location. The mule deer that lives in the grassland will behave a little differently than the mule deer who lives in the desert or mountains. This is important to know before you set out on your hunt. Body size and antler size can also vary a bit depending upon territory.

American Elk

The American elk is also known as “Wapiti,” a Native American word meaning “white rump,” which refers to the color on its hindquarters. Elk tends to get darker in the winter months. The American elk is some of the largest animals in the North American continent and can weigh over 1,000 pounds. The bulls can weigh more than twice that of the cows. They stand on average four or five feet at the shoulder.

American Elk is also highly social animals and live in gangs of up to four hundred members. The bulls loudly proclaim their status by bugling. The cows tend to be attracted to the loudest and most frequent bugles. During the mating season, the bulls will defend their harem from other bulls using their antlers that can weigh up to forty pounds. Elk can live up to twelve years in the wild and will gain three hundred pounds in the first year of life. 

During the breeding season, use the cow call for hunting this game species . It will attract both the herd and solo bulls. If you are just calling with the bull call, it can cause a bull with his harem to flee out of fear of a potential, larger bull. 

Elk hunting is also usually done at much longer distances than the average deer hunter is accustomed to. Some people average that sixty percent of shots were taken between two hundred or four hundred yards. It would be a wise idea to make sure you practice at this distance before going out on a hunt. 

Like other antlered members of the deer family, an elk’s antlers are covered in velvet. The elk’s antlers are the fastest growing antlers in the animal kingdom, growing as much as one inch per day. The velvet is a living organism that has blood pumping through it. This serves a purpose. The blood gets cooled before returning to the heart. It is theorized that this helps an elk to better regulate his body temperature. 

Be prepared to do a lot of walking when hunting this game animal. Their home range can be up to 600 square miles. Also, make sure you plan ahead. After you bring down this heavy creature, you will have to find a way to field-dress it, quarter it, and quickly get it to a cool environment and safely away from bears. 

As you are out walking on this elk hunt, blow the cow call occasionally to mask your noise level. A herd of elk will be much more likely to accept you like a cow and not a hunter. This strategy works during the fall since the cows and calves are chattering a lot.

It is a good idea to be able to distinguish rack size in a flash. When a bull reaches two or two and a half he will have a five-point rack. But just the next year he will have a six-point rack. The dagger is the longest point. If the main beam goes straight back from the dagger its a five-point elk. If there is another point going up behind the dagger its a six-pointer. 

Pronghorn Antelope

The Pronghorn antelope is a beautiful game animal standing about three and a half feet tall. They can weigh up to one hundred and fifty pounds. Pronghorn are reddish brown with white stomach, and some white patches on the throat and face. They have very large eyes that can see 320 degrees around. When startled, they will raise their hair on their rump – this white patch can be seen for miles and serves as a warning to the rest of the herd. 

Fun fact: Lewis and Clark were the first ones to scientifically document Pronghorn Antelope.

The breeding season begins in September. The bucks have gathered their harems and seek to protect them from other bucks who want to wage battles of dominance. The fawns are born in the spring. Does will keep the fawn hidden until he is old enough to join the others in the “nursery” where a group of mothers watch over them. Males will not breed until around three years of age. Pronghorns can live up to fifteen years in the wild. 

Pronghorn can be found throughout western and central North America. They prefer grassland regions but will also be found in the desert. They eat all manner of plants, even cacti. 

During the rut, the bucks are abnormally curious and extremely territorial. This is what makes the young buck decoys rather effective. You can also hunt them without decoys – often hunters will crawl up to a herd and take their pick. Trophy status horns begin around 16 inches. To help you gauge this from a distance, the buck’s ears measure just slightly under six inches.

You need to find a buck whose horn base is at least as massive as the circumference of his ear. The mass needs to be sustained up the horn and well past the prong too. By culling the herds of these older bucks, the younger ones have a better chance at mating. This helps to diversify the gene pool and to weed out the older more potentially defective genes.

Pro tip: find a fence. Antelope don’t like to jump fences and you can use that fence as a border to help predict the herd’s movements. 

Bighorn sheep

There are only two species of wild sheep in North America with large horns: Dall Sheep and the Bighorn, of which there are three living sub-species. Bighorn sheep are gregarious creatures. Most often they will form herds of around ten individuals, but they can form massive herds of up to one hundred.

The rams will form their own herds that stay apart until mating season. Around two years old, males will leave the mothers group and wander around in search of a ram group. Since they are so sociable, this is a difficult time for rams and it is not unusual to see a young ram in a herd with another species out of loneliness until he finds a suitable herd of rams.

Rams have massive horns that curl back around their ears and up again past their cheeks.  By the time a ram is seven, his horns will have a full curl and can be thirty-three inches in length and can weigh over thirty pounds. Rams can weigh more than three hundred and fifty pounds. Ewes are smaller, only weighing up to two hundred and fifty, and can have small horns. Bighorn sheep have excellent eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell. Horns are used by both sexes for eating and for fighting. They fight by ramming their heads together at speeds of up to forty miles an hour. The sound can be heard a mile away.

Bighorn sheep live in the western mountain ranges of North America. They can climb steep terrain – though not quite as agile as the mountain goats. They can travel on ledges only two inches wide. These sheep are a very important food source for many natural predators. They browse on clover, grass, sedges, willow, sage, holly and even cacti. 

Sheep are Ruminants, meaning they have a complex four-chambered stomach that allows them to eat large portions of grass very quickly before they have to quickly retreat to ledges where they will digest their food. The sheep absorb moisture from grass and can go a long period without drinking water. 

The Bighorn sheep is an excellent example of the vital role the hunter plays in conservation. By 1900 the population had diminished to only a few thousand, and one of the subspecies was driven to extinction. Thanks to the conservation movement started by President Roosevelt, the Bighorn sheep is doing better. They are still under threat – particularly by the lack of separation between the wild bighorns and the domestic sheep and goats. 

It is hunters, not taxes, that pay for bighorn sheep conservation and the restoration efforts. The funds come from the tags and hunting license. At the Wild Sheep Foundation’s convention each January, hunting permits are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Most of these go for over $100,000. This is for a SINGLE hunting permit. That is enough to recover 10 sheep into an area that hasn’t seen a wild bighorn sheep in decades. That’s a lot of money going to secure the survival of the species! The older males are the ones targeted. They are at the end of their reproductive lives and are the most susceptible to illness. Harvesting these older rams is healthy for the entire herd. 

Barbary Sheep, Aoudad

The Barbary sheep are an aggressive, invasive species that is a serious threat to the bighorn sheep and mule deer because of competition for food vegetation. They are also a threat to the wheat farmers – though not currently listed as significant agricultural pests. However, if you ask the wheat farmers in the Southwest, there are a great many stories of how damaging the aoudad is to the crop. These sheep are native to North Africa and were introduced to Texas and New Mexico in the 1940’s. There, they have flourished. 

 They can grow to over three feet tall and over three hundred pounds. Barbary sheep are brown in color and get darker with age. The rams horns grow upwards and backward and get can twenty inches long. 

Barbary sheep can be difficult game to hunt because you will most likely have to walk up and down hills and take a long shot. However, not only is it extremely beneficial for the environment to harvest these sheep – it can be an opportunity to bag a sheep for the average hunter. While the hunter’s dream may be to be able to bag a Bighorn, for most hunters that is just simply out of the price range to even enter the high stakes drawing. But a Barbary sheep can offer a similar hunting experience. That’s why Barbary sheep is quite possibly the most underrated big game trips in the country. 

Unique Game in the Southwest

Mountain lion

Mountain lions can be found throughout the United States, but for conservation purposes, they can only be hunted in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, the Dakotas, Utah, Texas, Washington, Wyoming, and Oregon. South Dakota only allows residents to hunt these cats. In most states, using electronic calls is illegal. Spotted kittens or females with spotted kittens are highly protected.

Mountain Lion hunting is vastly different from other types of game animal hunting. You have to use dogs. Cougars are not baitable and you cant set up a stand near water to wait for them. You have to go to an area where cats are known to be, scout for tracks (which can take hours and involve a lot of traveling) and get the dogs on his scent. It can take hours more at this point too. Once the dogs tree the cat, you must get to the tree before it escapes. It is best for most hunters to go with a guide on a mountain lion hunt.

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