The ram was in no hurry. He was picking his way along the top of a ridge while my wife and I were easing up a ridge parallel to his. We were only 200 yards apart, and I wanted a good look at his horns. He seemed oblivious to our presence and never looked in our direction. Finally, he turned his head, and I saw all I needed to see.
“Cover your ears,” I said. I settled my rifle on my backpack, which I had arranged on a rock, and found a comfortable prone position. After flicking off the safety, I started the trigger squeeze when a shot rang out from far below. I saw a bullet hit two feet under the ram. The animal took one bound and disappeared. I couldn’t believe it. I was a split-second from making the shot when the other hunter fired. He was at least 600 yards away—and this was before the interest in long-range shooting. The hunter climbed up to our position and apologized. He said he hadn’t seen us, even though I was wearing a blaze orange vest. I shared a few choice words with him that I won’t repeat here.
That incident stands out as a prime example of competition among hunters. All of us compete with one another when we’re in the woods. Of course, there are exceptions, say, a dove hunt in Argentina where thousands of birds are in the air all day long and it doesn’t matter who is standing where. But by its very nature, hunting is the best where people are the fewest. Often, successful hunters are those who get into the woods first or stumble onto the quarry before someone else. Some of that competition can get downright nasty, such as the time our group slogged along in deep mud, carrying heavy loads of duck decoys to our blind far out in the marsh. Another party of hunters carried no decoys and set up just far enough from our spot where they’d get first crack at the ducks we were calling.
Because of this rivalry, hunters often go through all sorts of shenanigans to outwit others. I have a honey hole for cottontail rabbits that is truly amazing. It’s a one-acre pile of old pipe, culverts, timbers, and all sorts of miscellaneous junk discarded from a nearby oil field. It’s tucked back in a draw and holds dozens of rabbits. You can shoot a limit of 10 with a scope-sighted .22 and not walk more than 10 yards. The bunnies sit boldly in the snow where they can easily jump to safety from an incoming eagle or coyote, but they haven’t learned the perils of a speeding bullet. The only hunters I’ve taken there are visiting pals from other states who would never return without me. I’ve never taken a local hunter there for obvious reasons. One day, while driving through the oil field to my spot, I passed a truckload of local rabbit hunters. They followed me at a distance, staying with me through all the forks and turns, so I led them on a wild goose chase. After a half hour of this, I stopped at one of my lesser spots, plinked a rabbit, and continued on my way. They stopped to hunt, and I circled back to my spot, far enough away that they wouldn’t hear me shooting.
But the most elaborate scheme of trickery I’ve encountered was on public land in New Mexico where I hunted DIY elk for years. I drove down a well-used forest road and saw tents pitched at the mouth of three big draws I liked to hike up and hunt. Disappointed, I drove on to another spot and walked up the mountain. I was on a trail when I saw a hunter walking down toward me, carrying an elk quarter on his back. I congratulated him on his success, and while making small talk, I told him that there were more hunters than usual in the area and mentioned all the tents. He grinned and told me that he and his buddies had set up those empty tents to keep other hunters away. I’ll admit I had to laugh in admiration of their creativity.
Among the outdoor sports, you can be successful in crowds when the fish are running and everyone is catching them. You can enjoy camping in a crowded campground if you’re a social person and like people. But if you’re a hunter, the last thing you want to see is someone else’s pickup parked in “your” spot. As I like to say, all is fair in love, war, and hunting—maybe.