Ranking the 29: What’s the Toughest Big Game Animal to Hunt?

Ranking the 29: What's the Toughest Big Game Animal to Hunt?
(Photo by George Barnett)

When Editor Curt Wells first gave me the assignment to write this article, I was really looking forward to it. For me, the most rewarding part of writing any magazine article is it allows me to reflect on past bowhunts and adventures. When I construct an article, I begin by looking back at photos and reading my notes about past hunts. This rekindles memories as I relive the hunt all over again.

However, on this assignment, I have to admit that I had a tough time getting started. My instructions were to reflect on the adventures I’ve experienced while completing the archery Super Slam, which I have done twice, and to rank each of the 29 species of big game according to degree of difficulty. I was to disregard the financial cost, the odds of drawing a tag, or access to each animal. Each species was to be ranked only with regard to the animal’s wariness, adaptability, and intelligence. And in all cases, I was to consider only mature animals.

After looking back on both Super Slams, I began to think maybe I should have turned down the assignment. This was not going to be easy. How do I choose the most difficult, or the easiest, animal to hunt? It’s a challenge to take any big game animal with a bow. Each presents its own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, things simply fall into place and make a particular hunt seem easy. Or the opposite happens.

The more I pondered this concept, the more it started to clear up. Three species kept coming up in my mind. Based on my experience, and the criteria of wariness, adaptability, intelligence, and maturity, those three are Roosevelt elk, mule deer, and whitetail deer.

Wisconsin bowhunter Gary Martin poses with his hard-earned B&C Roosevelt bull. Gary put a lot of effort into this species.

A mature Roosevelt bull elk is not an easy animal to kill with a bow. Part of the reason is they live in some of the thickest and nastiest rainforest habitat in North America.

Roosevelt bulls are also the least vocal of the three subspecies of elk. Both the American elk and the Tule elk bugle more during their rutting season. This makes them much easier to locate, stalk, and call into bow range. Roosevelt bulls do bugle and can be called effectively, no doubt, but they do not come to the call easily.

The first Roosevelt elk I shot was an Oregon bull that responded to our cow calls. That was back in 2006, when I held the much sought-after Oregon Powers elk tag. I stalked in relatively close to the bull before we tried to call him into range. The setup was perfect, and the 6×6 bull silently slipped into bow range of where I was lying in wait in a patch of tall ferns.

In 2018, I killed another good 6×6 Roosevelt bull in Oregon. After several days of failing to call one into bow range, I started sitting in a ladder stand overlooking an elk trail. On my last evening hunt, the bull materialized but took a different trail and never came close enough for a shot. When he walked out of sight, with only a few minutes of daylight remaining, I made a quick decision to climb down and attempt to stalk the bull. Some big blackberry bushes along an old road hid me, and I was getting close — when I got lucky. A cow elk led the 6×6 through an opening in the blackberry bushes, and I was able to get a shot. My friend Gary Martin, from Wisconsin, had a goal to tag a P&Y Roosevelt bull, but it took him six years to get it done. He never gave up, and he was eventually rewarded with a beautiful Boone and Crockett bull. Mature Rosie’s are a tough challenge for bowhunters for sure.

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I killed this mule deer buck in Mexico in 2018. A mature high-country mule deer buck is one of bowhunting’s most formidable challenges.

Some would say that a mature mule deer buck is the most difficult critter to take with a bow and arrow. The first P&Y mule deer I killed was done by stalking, years ago in Colorado. Since then, I have arrowed a few more down in Mexico. My friend Randy Ulmer believes that a mature trophy mule deer is one of hardest animals to kill with a bow, and he has more experience hunting big muleys than anyone I know.

What makes these big mule deer so challenging? First, just finding a big mule deer buck is a challenge. Then you have the extreme difficulty of stalking within bow range of an animal as alert as this species is. The situation has to be perfect to have any chance at all. The terrain has to be conducive for a silent stalk, the wind has to be right, the temperament of the animal must be relaxed and calm, and the buck needs to be in a position that offers you at least a chance of getting a shot. So many things can and do go wrong when stalking a mature muley buck.

Successful mule deer bowhunters never quit looking for a big buck. Once they find one, they never stop trying until they are fortunate enough to get a shot. I took my best mule deer to date in Mexico in 2018. The terrain where this buck lived was not conducive to stalking, so I set up a blind on a water source that I figured he had to be using. It took several days of sitting in that blind, and passing on lesser deer, before he finally showed up. The buck appeared out of nowhere, and was drinking in an instant. He was facing me, so I had no shot. To make matters worse, three other bucks showed up to drink and got in the way. When the big one finished drinking, he turned and started to walk toward some thick brush, leaving me with a short window of opportunity, so I took the shot. Whether stalking or sitting in a blind, big mature muleys are never easy.

It is appropriate, although maybe a bit surprising to some, that a mature whitetail buck made the top of my list. In fact, this is the first animal I thought of when I started working on this article. More bowhunters have arrowed a whitetail deer than any other species of big game. This animal offers more opportunity than any other species in North America, and the majority of bowhunters, including me, cut their teeth in this sport by trying to arrow a whitetail buck.

Living in Alaska now, I get to bowhunt multiple species of big game every year, all of which provide their own unique challenges. While some of my Alaska adventures do stretch on for several days before I am successful, many are relatively short hunts. I am certainly not 100-percent successful on every Alaska hunt, but my track record for bringing home an animal is relatively high, and I attribute that success to all of the time, work, and effort I dedicate to these hunts.

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With whitetails, it is a whole different story. I’m fortunate to have access to some of the best Kansas whitetail farm country there is, but the amount of time and days it takes me to be successful on a mature whitetail is greater than on most of my Alaska hunts. Some years, despite hunting multiple days in some of the best deer stands a person could ask for, I cannot get an arrow into the mature whitetail buck that I want. I have experienced this same routine and outcome for many years.

Now, I have killed my share of good whitetail bucks, but I do not get one every year. My friends Curt Wells, Jim Willems, and John MacPeak — all accomplished bowhunters — share my sentiments about the difficulty of killing a mature whitetail buck. We all put in many hours, days, and weeks in the whitetail woods, and more often than not we come home empty-handed. I spent about two full weeks of hunting last year before a 5½-year-old 10-pointer came by and presented me with a shot. I had never seen that deer before.

Every November, when I leave Alaska and head to Kansas, I know I have my work cut out for me. The wariness, adaptability, intelligence, and sixth sense of the mature whitetail buck is second to none. Even with all of our proficient archery equipment and deer-hunting paraphernalia, the mature whitetail buck is still one of bowhunting’s great challenges.

All of this, as well as the accompanying species rankings, are my opinion and could be debated by seasoned bowhunters forever. We all have own ideas, thoughts, and experiences that lead us to our own conclusions. As I mentioned, this was not easy, but I am satisfied with my Top Three: the whitetail deer, mule deer, and Roosevelt elk.

We do not bowhunt because it’s easy. Successful bowhunters don’t give up. We must be willing to identify and adapt to the specific skills, strengths, and weaknesses that each of these species present. But I don’t discriminate, and I’ve always looked forward to trying to outsmart every single one of them.

The author is the first, and only, bowhunter to have achieved two archery Super Slams of North American big game.

Ranking The 29

You might be surprised to see the mature whitetail at the top of my list, but it is deserving. This is my 2019 Kansas buck.

Ultimately, the most difficult species to hunt is the one that gives you the most trouble. Some bowhunters are successful on their first attempt at a particular species, while the next bowhunter has to hunt several times to get it done. For example, the Dall sheep was the last of the four sheep species that I killed. It was my “nemesis” animal. To make matters worse, and even harder to explain, I am an Alaska resident and I fly my own Super Cub, and it still took me several tries to get my first Dall ram. After I arrowed that first one, I tagged seven more Dall rams over the following nine years.

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As mentioned earlier, Gary Martin had to hunt Roosevelt elk several times to get one, while I only went twice and took two Pope and Young bulls. Same with cougars: I went twice and took two toms, while friends of mine went on multiple cougar hunts before they got their cat. The late Dwight Schuh’s nemesis animal was the brown bear, and Curt Wells struggled to cross moose off his list. This is precisely why there can be no definitive list that rates the difficulty level of all 29 species of big game in North America. Yes, each species possesses varying levels of wariness, adaptability, and intelligence, even among individuals of the same species, so all rankings are open to debate. Acknowledging that, here is the best list I can come up with based on my own personal experiences. It was a difficult task, but if you analyze it by thirds (top, middle, and bottom), it may be easier to find common ground. We bowhunters love to debate everything from camo patterns to broadheads, so have at it.

1. Whitetail Deer – Has it all, wariness, intelligence, adaptability + a “sixth sense”2. Mule Deer – Solitary, extremely alert, beds carefully, giants are almost unkillable3. Roosevelt Elk – Perfectly suited to habitat, not as vocal, elusive by nature4. Coues Deer – Whitetails on caffeine, constant predation makes them extra wary5. Columbian Blacktail Deer – Like Roosevelt elk; live in steep, thick, wet country6. Grizzly Bear – Mature boars are old, wise, and nocturnal, with exceptional noses7. Alaska Brown Bear – Same as above8. Black Bear – Same as above9. Cougar – Pure intelligence, experts at evading, almost unkillable without dogs10. Bighorn Sheep – Not so intelligent, but nervous and intolerant of intruders11. Desert Bighorn Sheep – Same as above12. Stone Sheep – Same as above13. Dall Sheep – Same as above14. Rocky Mountain Goat – Not as intelligent as sheep, live in dangerous terrain15. Bison – Wary and easily spooked, more elusive than moose16. American Elk – Vocal and callable, can be stalked when sounding off17. Tule Elk – Same as above18. Shiras Moose – Responds to calling, decoys, great nose but poor vision19. Canada Moose – Same as above20. Alaska Yukon Moose – Same as above21. Sitka Blacktail Deer – Still a deer, but can be stalked with some ease22. Quebec/Labrador Caribou – Not sharp, unsure of human threat, stops if you’re not a predator23. Central Canada Barren Ground Caribou – Same as above24. Barren Ground Caribou – Same as above25. Mountain Caribou – Same as above26. Woodland Caribou – Same as above27. Polar bear – Has little fear of man, which makes him vulnerable.28. Pronghorn Antelope – Easy access, easy to kill P&Y at water; would be much higher on list if being stalked29. Muskox – Instinctive defense posture of forming a circle doesn’t work well with humans