It’s no secret that the biggest bucks and bulls on public land thrive in the most remote and least-accessible wilderness areas. The best way to reach the backcountry has always been on horseback, and big-game pack trips remain a popular option.
But for some hunters, the backcountry isn’t far enough off the beaten path. Marc Warnke is one of those people. Warnke owns and operates Top End Adventures, and his experience as a hunting consultant taught him that there are public land hunting areas that even horses and mules couldn’t access. Those areas, Warnke thought, represented one of the last great unexplored wilderness areas in the country—and those remote corners of the Mountain West were almost certainly home to some tremendous trophies. But how could he ever reach those areas?
Warnke found the solution in a most unlikely hunting partner—goats. Over the years, Warnke started raising and training pack goats for backcountry hunts, and he found that these goats offered some very real advantages over horses and mules. Over time, Warnke became one of the leading experts in all things related to pack goats. When he couldn’t find a pack saddle that suited him, he developed his own, which he now sells on his website, packgoats.com. Soon, Warnke’s pack trips were drawing attention from hunters around the globe.
Leading a string of pack goats into the wilderness might be the key to taking the biggest public-land bull or buck of your life. If that sounds like something that might be of interest to you, here are some things that you should know before you book a hunt or buy a goat.
Pack Goats Are a Different Breed
Warnke’s goats bear only a passing resemblance to the domestic goats found on most farms. Warnke’s pack goats are mostly Alpine crosses, and they’re noticeably taller and more athletic than the average barnyard Boer goat.
“A goat can carry 20 to 35 percent of its body weight,” Warnke says. “My feeling is that 35 percent beats them up, therefore I like to keep it at about 30 percent. So a 200-pound goat can carry 60 pounds.” Because Warnke’s goats are large and well-conditioned, they are capable of hauling a surprising amount of weight—even over rough terrain.
Pack Goats Offer Many Advantages Over Horses and Mules
The biggest advantage pack goats have over horses and mules comes down to a single word: deadfall. In wilderness areas where motors (including chainsaws) are verboten, hunters who want to clear fallen trees are limited to the use of handheld saws. Trails with lots of downfall require tremendous effort to open for horses, and most guides and outfitters look for easier passage for their pony strings. Goats aren’t hindered by deadfall, though: they climb up, over and around debris. This means they can travel into areas that very few hunters enter.
Pack goats have other advantages, too. For starters, they eat virtually anything (Warnke says their diet is similar to a mule deer’s in the high country) and they can go for very long periods without water. There’s no worry that they’ll spook and crash headlong through the forest, dragging gear and hunters along with them. Goats are happy to follow along with hunters and don’t have to be tied.
Pack Goat Hunts Can Be Difficult
Hunting with pack goats can up your odds of success on big game, but this isn’t a hunt for everyone. For starters, you’re limited on the amount of gear you can carry in. That means no potbelly stoves and no massive wall tents. Your accommodations will likely be somewhat Spartan, and you’ll need to be in really good physical shape.
“I provide my hunters with a workout and diet plan,” Warnke says. “They need to be fit when they get here.” One of Marc’s favorite camps—abandoned by horse hunters because of its inaccessibility—requires a 14-mile hike at high elevation and over all the dead limbs and trees.
If you want to take a really good buck or bull on public land and you’re fit and able to do so, goat pack trips are an excellent option. You’ll be hunting game that most hunters will never tag in country that most other hunters never see, and that alone makes these trips worth it.