The Column, No. 29:

Hunting On Private Ranches

By Dr. Jim Clary

Recently, one of the "mainstream" outdoors magazines (Field & Stream. -Ed.) wrote an article which was largely unfavorable to private ranch hunting and implied that those who go to these areas are not true hunters or sportsmen. I have to take issue with that article because of its unbalanced presentation.

First, I would like to make a distinction between what I consider a private hunting preserve/ranch (1,000 acres and larger) that offers a fair chase and those smaller operations (some only around 100 acres) that are little more than shooting fish in a barrel. Additionally, ff the operator of a hunting preserve guarantees a successful hunt, you can assume that it is not a fair chase operation. Nothing in hunting is guaranteed.

My opinion about the proper size of a hunting preserve is open to challenge from folks back east who correctly point out that a whitetail buck may never stray outside of a 50-75 acre home range in his lifetime and as such, a 100 - 300 acre enclosure is a reasonable hunting area. It might be, if the animals weren't as tame as my pet goat.

Public land hunting, without much argument from me, is probably the ideal hunting scenario. However, with the doubling of the population in the US in the last 50 years (coupled with the concurrent increase in hunters), reduction in available hunting habitat due to development and restrictive seasons and lottery drawings for tags, private hunting ranches are the only option for a lot of folks if they wish to continue to hunt.

There are also other factors worth considering, and I can provide a prime example. Individuals with disabilities may no longer be capable of riding up into the mountains or tramping through the brush and forests all day long in an effort to find game. A case in point: for years my wife Mary used to ride into the Rocky Mountains on hunting trips with me and her father. On one such trip she dropped a running mule deer at 350 yards with one shot from her .243. That 10-pt buck is mounted in our den and the meat kept her family in venison for an entire winter.

Unfortunately, one day she went off a horse the wrong way and busted-up her back. She will never ride again. She can walk a short distance, but not uphill/downhill through the woods and brush. Mary's hunting days were going to be over at age 38. That was unacceptable to me. And, although I had hunted the forests of Pennsylvania and Michigan, climbed the Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming in my younger days, and might be able to do so again, I won't go without the best hunting partner a man ever had.

Hence, I began researching private hunting ranches. I needed to find one that allowed Mary to hunt from a blind (like we did in Pennsylvania) or at least complete part of the stalk from a 4x4 vehicle (as we did on our oryx hunt at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico). I found such a ranch in south Texas, the Double C, and wrote about our experiences there in two prior articles that you will find on the Hunting Stories Page, so there is no need to repeat myself. And, after further study, I found that there were a lot of other ranches in Texas and Colorado that offered the same opportunities for the disabled, a fair chase, but with a warm bed at night and three meals a day.

In addition, there are many older hunters like myself who might like to climb to 10,000 or 12,000 feet to go after an elk, mule deer or sheep, but should we be trying that at age 68? Maybe yes, maybe no. The wisdom of such a hunt would make for an interesting discussion around a campfire at night.

For me, I decided that the risk of a heart attack, broken leg or hip wasn't worth taking. Was I to give up hunting, something that I had done for over 50 years? My eyesight is still good (with a scope), I can still put five rounds into a 2" bull at 100 yards from a kneeling position and with a stick I can tighten the group even more. Should I give up hunting because the body can't make it to the high country? In a word, NO! That is my reason for hunting on private ranches.

Every year I apply for the once-in-a-lifetime ibex hunt in New Mexico, knowing that if I am ever successful in the draw the hunt could hurt me real bad or even kill me. But I still apply (it makes me feel like I did when I was younger) and kind of hope that I don't draw out!

If you are not familiar with the ibex range in the Florida Mountains of southern New Mexico, they are sheer rock and shale, almost straight up. The climb will cut a pair of good leather boots to shreds in a single day. You need kneepads and leather gloves to get to where the Ibex are. I have climbed and hunted the college peaks in Colorado and the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and they are easy compared to the Florida Mountains of NM.

Bagging an elk in Colorado was no big deal. They are big, very predictable and easy to spot. The only hard part of those hunts was the physical stress of getting up into the mountains by walking or horseback. But, once up there, finding and harvesting your bull was no problem.

A final reason that private ranches have their place is time. Many successful Americans simply do not have the time to adequately scout an area prior to opening day, let alone take the time off for a week to two week hunt. Truck drivers, doctors, lawyers (and gun writers! -Ed.) don't get paid if they aren't working, so for them (and many others), the only option for hunting is a 3-4 day hunt at a private ranch.

My wife, daughter and I hunt on private ranches and participate in the draw hunts here in New Mexico on the rare occasions that we get lucky. We enjoy hunting on private ranches because of the outdoor experience, the fellowship of the folks at the ranch, the fine meals, warm beds and the meat, which is processed for us.

I do not consider myself any less of a hunter or sportsman because I have hunted on private ranches as well as on public land. If the Boone & Crockett Club chooses not to recognize my trophy (if I happen to get a nice one), no problem, because medals and certificates are like tears in the rain, they get washed away with time. What lingers is the lifelong memories.

With all of the above being said, I will agree that there are some private hunting operations that are not sporting. Rather than allow the "do-gooders" regulate them (they would also like to regulate all of us), you and I as sportsmen and hunters can eventually drive them out of business simply by not patronizing them.

Do your homework. Check out the ranch that you are planning to hunt, ask questions and request references. In time, the marginal operations will fade away, just like marginal businesses do in every field of endeavor. That is one of the beauties of capitalism.

Until next time, shoot straight and keep your powder dry.

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Copyright 2007 by Dr Jim Clary and/or All rights reserved.