A common sentiment in the hunting world is that 10 percent of the hunters take 90 percent of the game. I don't know that anyone has ever studied this enough to validate it, but in general terms it probably isn't far off the mark.
Most of us know hunters who year after year take the game they pursue. This conversation doesn't include guided hunters, that's a different story. We are talking about the average hunter who has a regular job and must hunt around the parameters implied by normal employment and function in the modern world. The hunter next door, if you will, who brings home meat for the table on a regular basis.
The casual observer might suggest these folks are just lucky. Luck does play a part in the success of most things we do, and for sure, some folks just stumble across animals while hunting. But most successful hunters make their own luck in ways that may not be obvious.
Some will say it is a matter of being in great game country. True enough, as far as it goes. The thought is the same for hunters who get airborne and see game from the air before settling in to a specific hunting area. It can improve the odds but it does not, in and of itself, guarantee success.
In a world where modern firearms have made hitting big game animals at reasonable ranges rather simple, a lot of hunters still miss. I've known folks who had a rather uncanny ability to spot and stalk game, but in the moment of truth couldn't hit the broadside of a moose. So good field shooting does play a part.
Patience may be the most underrated element in hunting success. Just a couple of months ago while sitting around our camp deep in the Brooks Range, we were telling hunting stories. One of our group, an old moose hunter, said of the area he has hunted for years, "If you can sit in chair and watch the hillside across the way long enough, you'll kill a moose."
All of those things contribute to the composite that forms the successful hunter. But less obvious things that we don't talk about much contribute far more than a glance would suggest.
Getting to know the country, spending time before, during and after hunting season in the area you hunt helps you understand what is going on there. Time on the ground reveals game trails that lead to feeding, watering and bedding areas. The hunter who knows these places can track animal movement and patterns that allow selecting valid places to sit and glass for game.
Good hunters try to learn everything about the place they hunt. They know all of the inhabitants of the chunk of selected ground. They learn the subtleties of the changing winds and plan their movements and choice of campsites accordingly. They learn where animals seek shelter in various conditions so they can anticipate animal movement as the weather changes.
They learn how the nongame inhabitants go about their daily business and how they react when something disturbs them. They see what the game does when spooked, how far it is likely to run and how long before it settles back into the routine.
Even neophyte hunters generally know that animals move to feeding areas during early morning and late evening hours. Many hunters don't bother to hunt any other time. The hunter who knows the game and the country will know these animals move about during the day and snack between major feeding times.
Intimacy with the country reveals changes in predator numbers or habitat that affect game populations and when it may be time to back off a particular area for a season or two. The accomplished hunter may have several primary hunting areas and will adjust according to the conditions. They will also know if other hunters are coming into the area, how they access it and how to use that to their advantage. Unwitting hunters can become the human equivalent of flushing dogs as they crash through the brush.
One must be willing to climb the next hill. With its vast acreage of country, Alaska can evidence a low population density of big game animals. An open season in a given game management unit only implies enough animals present to allow hunting. Within that unit there will be areas that contain the species in question and many that do not, and a map or Google Earth cannot tell you where the animals are. You have to get out and find them — and when you do, don't tell anyone or you'll soon have a lot more company than you want.
The hunting camp itself, beyond where it is located, isn't often considered a part of successful hunting. Knowing the terrain and the weather patterns allows setting a camp that will be comfortable through the extremes one may encounter. A miserable hunter is never going to be an effective hunter. Being able to get out of the weather, get dry, get warm, rest and prepare hot meals allows the hunter to regenerate and keep hunting. Less than that often results in abandoned attempts.
In the end, successful hunting is about building a holistic relationship with the country. The consistently successful hunter is also a naturalist and a bit of a land manager. The hunter who builds a good relationship won't need a Fish and Game report to reveal conditions of the game; they know long before anyone else and they adjust their hunting to what they know.
None of this happens overnight. It can take years. All of the efforts that go into becoming successful explain the high cost of guided hunts. The guide has done all of the work and has spent the years it takes to develop the intimacy with the country that insures the success exhibited by guided hunting operations.
For most folks all of this seems like a lot of work. That, in a nutshell, explains the percentages that started this discussion. But for those who ply this hunting trade to its highest degree, it isn't work, it's a lifestyle. It is the fostering of a love affair with the country and all that it encompasses, an affair that in the end has little to do with the outcome. And that, perhaps more than anything else, explains the hunter next door.
Steve Meyer of Soldotna is lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.