Almost everyone has seen the movie “A Christmas Story.” And if you have ever anxiously awaited something in the mail, then you can relate to Ralphie when he is waiting for his Secret Decoder to arrive. That’s exactly how I felt waiting for my goat license to show up. As I mentioned in my last post, the anticipation was killing me.
For more than 10 years, I had given advice to other goat hunters on how to prepare, how to hunt and where to hunt. Now it was my turn to see if my own advice really worked.
I knew that a lot of my scouting in the early months was going to be “cyber scouting,” since there was a lot of snow remaining in the high country and access was limited. Nevertheless, I decided that I was going to know everything I could about my hunting unit from my computer so that when foot access opened up, I could hit the trails fully prepared.
In my opinion, the single best program to assist with cyber scouting is Google Earth. To begin, I plotted all the past harvest locations within my specific game management unit (GMU) into Google Earth’s maps. This information is readily available on the “statistics” link on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) website, and shows the overall distribution of goats within a specific area and where hunters had filled tags in past years. I also knew that just because a hunter harvested a goat in a specific location during a previous season, it did not necessarily mean that another goat would be standing in that same exact area on my hunt. However, previous kill-sites are a great indicator of goat habitat and always provide a good starting point for scouting.
From my past experiences working as a district wildlife manager, I knew to focus my efforts along alpine ridges dominated by high-elevation grasses and sedges. I also knew to look for rocky ledges and slopes adjacent to these grassy areas where goats typically spend the day chewing their cud. Because goats are a prey animal and use escape as their main defense, the animals usually spend the majority of their time on high peaks and along steep ledges where they can remain safe from predators. Equipped with soft, “sticky” hooves, goats are the ultimate mountaineers. They are able to use their hooves like individual toes to grip and bound effortlessly along sheer cliffs and vertical rock faces.
In addition to using Google Earth and CPW’s harvest statistics, I bought maps that showed roads and trails in and out of my GMU, so I could plan my on-the-ground scouting trips. To prioritize my efforts, I circled areas on the maps where I thought I was almost certain to find goats, marked areas where I thought that the habitat might have goats and then identified areas that I thought were unlikely to hold any animals at all because of poor habitat. My plan was to focus my scouting efforts on the “sure bet” and “good” areas to ensure that I was able to see as many goats as possible before the start of the hunting season.
When scouting in the field, it’s critical to spend several hours glassing mountain goats through a spotting scope or a good pair of binoculars prior to your actual hunt. Because males and females both have horns, it takes time to study the animals to determine sex and horn length. CPW has a “Goat Gender ID Tutorial” and offers a “Sheep and Goat Seminar” to help educate hunters on how to properly identify gender.
After you have mastered identifying goat gender, usually the next step is learning how to judge horn length. The difference between a “good-sized” goat and a “big” goat is usually less than two inches — a relatively small difference when you are trying to identify this in the field. Therefore, I spent a lot of time on the Internet looking at pictures of goats and trying to hone my skills at determining horn length. Eventually, I determined that comparing an animal’s horns to its ear length and the length from the nose-to-eyes was the best way for me to estimate horn size. However, as another biologist reminded me, “Goats only have two points anyway.” So, that provided me with a humorous perspective to make sure that I didn’t get too caught up with horns, even though my goal was to harvest a mature animal.
After spending a few weeks collecting all of my cyber-scouting information, the snow had receded in the high country, and I was finally ready to put my boots on the ground. My first scouting trip ended up being a tremendous success. I spotted more than 40 goats in the areas I had marked on my map as my “sure bets.” I spent hours glassing goats, looking at horns, studying hair condition and determining gender. I watched the goats from sun up to sun down so I could see exactly what the animals did throughout their entire day. I also found several goats that I deemed “shooters” on my very first trip out.
Throughout the next month, my other scouting expeditions were met with varying degrees of success. I hiked into a few areas where I didn’t see a single goat or even see any sign. However, every scouting trip was beneficial, and I accomplished all of my goals: I found a base camp location, determined possible sites to set up a spike camp, I had gotten my legs in shape for climbing and I had determined the access points in and out of my GMU. Most important, I had found goats!
And then, like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” my waiting and anticipation began all over again. This time, I couldn’t wait for opening day. My next post will detail my actual hunt. Stay tuned!
This story was written by Shannon Schaller. Schaller is a former district wildlife manager in Summit County and now works as a wildlife biologist in CPW’s Denver office.