As I write these words in late May 2006, a massive wildfire is burning just a few miles from my ranch office. Giant plumes of black and gray smoke shoot off the cedar-choked canyons and short grass prairies like a nuclear mushroom cloud. The smoke even blocks out the midday sun. Scary stuff. A lightning strike is believed to have started it. Despite ample fire crews coming from all over to help and even aerial water and fire retardant drops, it’s been burning now for six days.
This is just one of dozens of wild fires in the Texas Panhandle this year. Estimates put the total number of acres burned at the top of the state at well over one million acres. The worst wildfires in Texas in recorded history. The drought of 2006 is very real in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and other western states.
The current dust bowl-like conditions got me reflecting on one of the best hunting tactics I know of anywhere, hunting over waterholes. If current trends continue, and unfortunately most weather predictors think they will, hot and dry will be a common theme across the West this fall. If ever there was a year to sit and wait over water with an arrow nocked, this is it.
In the past I’ve employed this strategy for pronghorns in several western states and even as far north as Alberta, Canada. I’ve waited in dark pit blinds to ambush kudu, impala and warthog in sunny South Africa. In Texas I’ve ambushed whitetails, pigs and turkeys over windmills and run-off ponds. And in New Mexico I’ve sat in tree stands overlooking mud holes waiting on elk and black bears. A variety of big game can be bagged with a bow over water.
The most obvious time to sit over water is during early bow seasons, August and September, when warm temperatures have animals visiting water more frequently. Rutting bull elk will visit water to get a drink and wallow in the mud. Black bears will visit ponds not only for a drink, but they’ll even swim in the pool to help cool their shaggy bodies. Perhaps no other western big game animal is as connected with hunting over water as pronghorns.
Nearly every year I hunt pronghorns in New Mexico in August. After ten years of this I’ve learned that the majority of antelope come to water at midday, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. or between late afternoon and dark. Typically, the last two hours of daylight is when I see the most antelope heading to water. That said, I’ve had nice pronghorn bucks water at 8 a.m. and virtually every other hour of the day. While midday and late afternoon are best in my experience, you never know when a buck will quench his thirst. For these reasons, when I hunt pronghorns in hot and dry conditions, I try to sit in a blind over water from daylight till after dark. With lots of daylight hours in the summer, this often means spending 12-14 hours per day in the blind. It takes lots of patience, but when conditions are prime, meaning hot and dry, there’s no better way to arrow a big black-faced lope.
My best bow-killed antelope, a heavy 15-incher that scored a touch under 80-inches, came running into a small waterhole at approximately 1 p.m. on September 13, 2000 in Alberta, Canada. My guide and I discovered the gagger-sized buck and his harem of does just a short distance from a small pond in the middle of wide-open prairie the previous afternoon.
I’d been in the small pop-up blind since before daylight that morning and I’d watched this buck in the distance through binoculars as he chased satellite bucks away from his harem of ten does. At times I’d see him standing with his sides heaving, tongue hanging out, visibly exhausting from chasing away the competition. I knew it was just a matter of time before he came in for a drink.
Midday over water, a time most hunters overlook, can be prime time for other animals as well. In South Africa, my host Stewart Dorrington assured me that midday hours were the best for catching any number of animals visiting the water. He was right. On virtually every day of my ten day trip, activity peaked between about 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. This was true whether I was hunting kudu, impala, warthog, red hartebeest or zebra. The next best time for a shot over water was the last hour of daylight.
Long hours in a blind over water might sound boring, but most of the time there’s lots to see. Birds are always drawn to water. In Africa, pear-shaped guinea fowl were frequent visitors. Colorful birds like hornbills and gray lauries also fluttered into the tank for a drink. In Texas, bobwhite and blue quail are common visitors. A few years ago, while patiently waiting on a ladder stand overlooking a small natural pond in northern New Mexico, I watched a frog catch a fly at the base of my stand. A few minutes later I watched a small water snake catch the same frog, wiggling and squirming in the muddy muck! A couple of hours later I took my eyes off the frog and snake show long enough to punch an arrow through a gorgeous chocolate-colored black bear at 17 yards. Water is a magnet for all sorts of life.
Productive waterholes can come in every shape, size and location.
A common mistake rookie waterholers make is thinking that because the water is muddy or even has a rank smell, that game animals won’t visit.
What appears unappealing to us might be just fine for a deer or elk. I’ve seen animals drink from moss-covered ponds no more than a couple of inches deep and I’ve seen them visit clear, clean pools as well.
Tracks around a pond, windmill or mud hole are sure indications that game are using it, but sometimes the earth is packed harder than concrete and you can’t decipher tracks. Scouting from a distance with good optics at various times of the day will clue you in on when and if anything is using that spot. Ranchers can also share vital info on when and where they see game at water. I’ve even heard of guys pouring bags of soft dirt around the banks of small waterholes to see what tracks they can catch. You could also set-up a trail camera to scout for you.
This is the result of hunting over water
When setting a blind over water, try to figure out where the majority of game will approach from. Set your blind, be it a portable pop-up, pit blind camouflaged with native brush or tree stand, on the downwind side of approaching animals. Pay close attention to the wind direction when setting up an ambush as game animals are usually on high alert when they approach water. Most well-used waterholes, particularly in times of drought when water is in short supply, will have distinct trails coming to them. Back off these trails a minimum of 20 yards. If you are comfortable with a longer shot, give yourself more room from watering animals so they won’t detect your presence. Put the blind 30 or even 40 yards on the downwind side to stay hidden.
One final note on hunting over water is not to limit your use of this strategy to just late summer or early fall seasons when temperatures are warm. Any time water is limited, even into November, December or January, game animals will require a drink. The action might not be as steady as it was earlier in the year, but critters still need to quench their thirst even when it’s cold. I know guys in Arizona that ambush mulies and Coues deer over water between Christmas and late January. These bucks are in the rut. Even when temperatures are cool, because of the extra energy bucks burn up chasing does, they come to water more often than you might think in the rut.
Last season, on December 27, 2005, I sat in a portable ground blind over a small waterhole in South Texas. Temperatures were unseasonably hot for that time of year, in the 90’s, but bucks were in the rut. On a hunch, my buddy Ty Bartoskewitz and I sat over water at midday. At 1 p.m. a chocolate-horned main-framed 8-point with several kickers came trotting out of the jungle-thick thorns and mesquites, running down the tank dam to water. His chest was heaving, his tongue was hanging out and he was hot. We both guessed he’d been chasing a doe. At 30 yards I punched an arrow through his chest. The 150-class buck barely made it over the pond’s dam before he went down. My buddy even captured the shot on video. He was one of three different bucks to visit the water between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
If you hunt pronghorns out West, look for water. If you hunt elk in arid western states, scout hard for a secluded seep or water tank. If your game is deer or bears, do the same. Any time it’s dry, hunting over waterholes is a deadly tactic.