Why Do Most Hunters Stay Near Roads?

Years ago, when I was still working as a field biologist for the state, I was doing wildlife surveys in a mixed aspen conifer habitat in early September. I was in beautiful country, the weather was perfect and I was getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that early September is in the midst of the mule deer and elk bow seasons and there were lots of bow hunters riding around on the roads. A large outfitter had set up several wall tents near our camp and I was concerned that I would screw up someone’s hunt while walking back and forth to my survey areas. The work had to be completed before snow covered the area, but disturbing hunters is not something your state wildlife biologists want to do.

live animal trap

Live trap set for Flying Squirrels.

Big Game and Flying Squirrel Surveys

This was a unique site, so in addition to big game surveys I also surveyed for flying squirrels. Eight transects were scattered around the area with each transect placed on a random grid point, so I had to find each point using GPS and then locate potential areas to set traps for the flying squirrels.

The traps had to be set just before dark because flying squirrels are nocturnal and had to be checked early each morning, so any trapped squirrels could be released as soon as possible. Traps had to be closed during the day so no other animals could be trapped, so they had to be reset again just before dark. Like I said earlier, lots of exercise.

I used the roads as much as possible to save time, but sites were as far as ¾ mile from the road. I thought it would be a miracle if I didn’t disturb a hunter, but in three and a half days, I never saw a single hunter in the woods.

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Road Hunters

I talked to the outfitter and learned he was guiding elk hunters. There were so many people camping in the area and riding the roads, the elk had moved to a different part of the mountain. The elk hunters were camping in the area but were hunting several miles away.

It was mostly deer hunters that were riding the roads. I talked to several of them that were curious about what I was doing and I was curious about their hunting strategy. Most of them planned to still hunt in the woods at dawn and dusk and then ride the roads during the day in the hopes of seeing a deer that was disturbed by someone else.

Mule Deer Bucks

When walking to my transects the next morning in the dark, I wore an orange hat and vest and turned on my headlamp. I walked quickly through the forest, not trying to stalk or sneak around or to be quiet in anyway. I didn’t want to surprise anyone that was hunting or let them think I was a deer.

About 8:30, I had been walking for about 15 minutes to check the farthest trap from the road when I saw movement in front of me. I froze for a second and saw two little 3×3 bucks stand up about 60 yards in front of me. They had bedded down in an area where about a dozen large aspen trees had been blown down in a big jumbled pile. Where they stood, I could see all of them except their faces that were hidden behind a fallen tree.

The two bucks obviously heard me, but could not see me and the wind was in my face, so I knew they couldn’t smell me. I stepped to the side behind a large tree and then walked another 20 yards straight to the tree. I peeked around the tree and the two little bucks were just standing there in clear view at 40 yards. They were looking nervously around trying to locate me.

I watched them for a minute or so and they never saw me because the tree blocked their view. They were very nervous, but since they were not sure what or where I was, they stood still. I have seen this behavior many times before, it takes a lot to push an experienced buck out of cover. These guys were still young, but had learned the lesson well.

I backed up with the tree blocking my retreat until I was about 80 yards from them and walked a big circle around them. I couldn’t see them the entire time, but when I could, they were just stood there and watched me as I walked around them.

Seen Any Deer?

Later that afternoon, I ran into a two hunters on the road that asked me had I seen any deer, so I told them about the two bucks. The hunters were looking for more of a trophy, but seemed interested, so I offered to give the exact GPS coordinates to them. They still had time to get there before dark, but when they discovered the bucks were about ¾ mile from the road, they didn’t seem so interested. I had one more trap to check before dark, so I left them to decide. I don’t know if they walked in or not, but I did not see either of the bucks again.

The next morning, I saw another young buck in a different area at about 90 yards. He was too far away for a bow shot, but he stood still and offered an easy muzzleloader or rifle shot. This buck was also at least ½ mile from the road and I ran into him while walking quickly through the woods.

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That afternoon, I talked to a man and wife that were riding together on their ATV, presumably hunting. They asked me had I seen any bucks, so I told them about the three bucks and also offered to give them GPS coordinates. Both of their ages added together would not equal mine, but they seemed to have no interest in walking into the woods. Probably for the best.

Most Hunters Stay Near Roads

We’ve all probably heard that 90% of hunters do not hunt more than a quarter mile from a road (this “fact” needs to be researched). But I don’t understand this strategy because I have never hunted with anyone that used it or known anyone that was consistently successful using the strategy.

I don’t expect to see people hunting near a parked state truck, but in 3½ days, I walked over 20 miles and spent about 35 hours in the woods. I saw three bucks, dozens of does and a cow elk. The surveys showed there were high densities of elk and mule deer using the area, but no flying squirrels. I even found some lost hikers (read post), but I did not see a single hunter except on the roads.

Hunting Strategy

This area was heavily forested with large aspen and scattered conifer trees. There were few vantage points to sit and glass for mule deer. A stream that ran through the area, so deer would not be concentrated at watering holes. This would be a tough place to hunt, especially with a bow.

The best options were probably to choose places bucks could be expected to travel at dawn and dusk and that can only be learned by scouting and with the experience that comes with spending time in an area. Riding the roads the rest of the day is a waste of time and gas.

I’ve heard others hunters say they used the fast walking strategy when scouting, but know of few hunters that use the strategy while hunting. Some that do use it, take it to the extreme and literally jog until they located animals.

If you are hunting an area that is not easily glassed or doesn’t have limited watering areas, what would you do in the middle of the day?

I suggest taking a walk. I have seen many deer and elk over they years while walking quickly through the trees that time of day. Most animals are spooked and run, but many just stand up and look at you, especially if the wind is in your face and if you freeze fast enough.

And spooking an animal when you had nothing else going isn’t all bad. Like the old fighter pilot’s saying “a Mig on your six was better than no Mig at all”. Game on.

bdc scope reticle with elk in
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  1. Old School says

    As a retired LEO and dedicated “old school” hunter, I Have hunted big game animals on public lands for years. I’ve witnessed all manner of road hunting shenanigans and heard all manner of excuses for it. “I don’t have time to hunt the field;” “I’m in a hurry;” “I suffer an illness preventing me from hunting on foot;” “I’m too overweight to hunt on foot;” “I’ll miss the Super Bowl;” “We’ve always hunted this way;” are just a few of the excuses people have for road hunting. I call it “hunting without a conscience.” I’ve seen a pickup truck drive up a forest road scouting for game officers only to slowly road hunt with a bed full of archers ready to stand and shoot at deer sightings. The most common excuse is, “We do it because its fun to do.” I don’t think we will ever stop all of the shenanigans, but please, don’t call them hunters.

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