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Big-Game Success Amid a Bout of Drought: How to Hunt a Parched Spot

Finding water isn’t always a dilemma. Finding the right water is, because all water sources are not created equal. Use these tips from Mark Kayser to connect to the right watering hole.

“Dry!” I exclaimed as my son, Cole, and I parked the Yamaha ATV next to the reservoir now sporting giant cracks in the dirt as if a mini earthquake had wracked the region. A season back we’d both tagged out with our bows at the massive Wyoming water hole, but not this year. It was back to square one and the chore of locating the perfect watering hole.

Finding water isn’t always a dilemma. Finding the right water is, because all water sources are not created equal. The reservoir we hoped to hunt for thirsty pronghorns sat a mile or more above a sporadically flowing creek bottom. Pronghorns, elk and mule deer used the high water source with regularity since it sat near a refuge of pine-covered buttes as opposed to the wide-open creek bottom below where vehicle trails converged. And whereas the reservoir provided a single site for pinpoint ambush opportunities, the creek held puddles up and down its length for miles and miles. There literally was no way to target the “right” location with a manufactured blind or natural hide.

Departing the dry reservoir, my son and I moved to a spring noted on our BLM map. A hike up the drainage indicated it also appeared dry. Then we rounded a steep bank and found mud. A few yards farther we located a shallow pool littered with pronghorn tracks, which hinted at a successful ambush location.

Two days later a young pronghorn eased in for a drink, but the wind and flapping blind caused him to shirk his intended watering spot for one farther up the draw. Cole readjusted himself in the blind for the shot and I read the yardage as the buck settled in for a drink. We had found the right water. Unfortunately for this pronghorn, it was his last drink.

The western half of the United States and parts of the Midwest were hit with catastrophic droughts in 2012, and many Western regions remain in drought in 2013. Is your hunting destination traditionally affected by late-summer dryness or a surprise drought? If so, how will you combat parched conditions for a successful ending to your hunt?

Drought Outlook
According to combined data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Weather Service, the U.S. heartland suffered the worst drought in a generation in 2012, similar to those experienced in 1988. Computer models suggest “another unusually warm growing season in many key Northern Hemisphere crop production regions. Therefore, untimely heat could again adversely affect some Northern Hemisphere crops in 2013.”

Drought maps developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the help of the U.S. Department of Commerce conclusively illustrate that drought persisted in the first half of 2013 in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and most of Texas. California data also indicate a trend to increasing drought. Improvement was noted in the Dakotas, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and parts of Arkansas. Most of the rest of the country should see normal precipitation in 2013 except for Florida with varying drought and moisture conditions.

Look for continued high temperatures and minimal rainfall in most of the West, except in the extreme northwest. In addition to the difficulties of finding the right water to hunt, you need to be on the lookout for fire concerns. The USDA issued a warning for “significant fire potential” predicted to be above normal in much of the West. States listed included Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Idaho; portions of Montana, Colorado, Utah and Washington also are affected. In 2012, more than 9.3 million acres of private, state and federal land was lost to wildfires in the United States. It was the third-highest toll ever since at least 1960. By the time this article hits the printers some Western skies likely will be smoke-filled.

Western Water Connection
All creatures great and small need water for survival. It makes up 70 to 75 percent of the body weight of most animals. Nearly all big-game species need water daily, but could go for a day or longer without it. Deer and pronghorns require a half gallon to a gallon of water every day. Elk require 2 to 3 gallons daily. All need more when temperatures spike. When you combine the needs of a bachelor group or an entire herd, it’s obvious a consistent water source is required to sustain area wildlife.

Miles Fedinec operates FMF Outdoors near Craig, in the northwest corner of Colorado, and is a 10-year veteran in the outfitting industry. He relies on water much of the season to target big game.

“It’s absolutely important,” Fedinec stresses. “If there’s no water there’s no wildlife. They’ll move territories to be near water and it doesn’t matter if you have 10,000 acres to hunt. If there’s no water the acres are worthless.”

Wade Johnson of Wade Johnson Outfitters ( tells a similar tale. A Jackson, Wyo., native, he has been outfitting for big game for 13 years with bases in the arid states of Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona. Elk, oryx, ibex, sheep, pronghorn and mule deer are his specialties; hunting all of them requires knowledge of water for a successful ambush.

“Water is really critical,” he says. “Take elk for example: I have better luck killing big bulls on water before the rut than during the rut in the Southwest. When I’m outfitting hunters in Wyoming water is also the key, especially for the antelope deal. If the water dries up so does the hunting because the game moves to water.”

Depending on the region and elevation, water comes in the form of springs, creeks, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, windmills and piped water via wells or any of the previously listed sources. As summer or drought conditions persist, many of these sources dry up due to lack of runoff. By early fall many species converge on fewer and fewer sources to hydrate. I see this in my Wyoming back yard in August as the reservoirs fed by runoff go dry and big game side up with livestock to take advantage of pipeline water. One fall I even watched as a bull elk jumped into the middle of a 500-gallon tank to water and wallow.

Despite changing venues, big-game species know the location of most water sources within walking distance. They file it away or smell out new sources such as a rancher’s new stock tank. These water destinations give you exact ZIP code locations to meet up with your quarry. The extended likelihood of future drought increases the odds for a close encounter whether with bow or firearm near one of these sources.

In some arid regions such as in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada or even the deserts of California, locating the limited water sources is easy. Known springs, creeks, wells and man-made water sources show up on maps.

“Game will move to water if it dries up in their home range,” says Johnson. “Two years ago New Mexico was in a record-setting drought. The only place game had to water was in a nearby river. Everything left the high mountains and stacked up on the river including raccoons, lions, bears, turkeys, elk and deer. If you hunted the mountains you rarely ran across a fresh track, but back along the river you ran into everything. That’s where the water was.”

As you move farther east and into the edge of the Great Plains, water sources begin to abound making the likelihood of meeting up with your target more challenging.

In the middle part of the last century water sources were limited to runoff and windmills in arid sections of the West. Today technology has changed that. In fact, the water-pumping windmill is quickly going the way of the land line telephone as heavy, earth-moving equipment allows landowners to trench in miles of pipeline with relative ease to move water across the landscape for livestock and mooching wildlife. Solar power also has hit the scene with wells in the middle of nowhere powered by massive panels for sun-soaking energy generation. In years of good moisture reservoirs boom, and when combined with piped water sources this creates a mind-boggling situation for hunters trying to find the right water to target.

And in recent years another water source has appeared on the landscape: water from deep-well fossil-fuel exploration. The use of water to hydraulically fracture, or “frack,” layers of rock and release coal-bed methane or trapped oil reserves is booming across the country. Recovered water is laced with added chemicals to aid in energy recovery and some is stored on the surface. Early methods even ran the waste water right into streams.

Water that is not heavily polluted is sometimes stored on the surface and provides another source for game to hydrate. Tightening rules on waste water and purification regulations likely will reduce these resources, but they still offer intermittent water in addition to traditional elements.

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