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Justin Shaffer | KUIU Guide & Outfitter Director
As far as upper-end bucket list hunts go, mountain goats should be near the top of your list. Pound-for-pound they’re one of the toughest and most athletic critters on the planet, yet ironically, are one of the most under-appreciated big game animals.
They’re often overshadowed by the great sheep species, even though they can be hunted at a fraction of the cost. Sporting long shaggy coats and sleek black horns, they live in some of the most unforgiving real estate on the continent, rightfully earning the title of: Kings of the Mountain.
There’s no shortage of opportunities to hunt mountain goats as population estimates put them somewhere in excess of 100,000 animals across North America. Whether you’ve spent decades building points to draw a coveted tag in the lower-48, or you’re hunting an over-the-counter tag in Canada or Alaska. You can never be over-prepared to take on the challenges of hunting this premier mountain species.
A mountain goat hunt is truly an adventure of a lifetime. There are countless factors that come into play when determining the outcome of a hunt, and some are in your control, and others are not. In this article, I’ll point out some of the key elements that can help you better prepare for, and hopefully increase your odds of a successful hunt.
Obviously, physical and mental preparation should be a top priority in your pre-hunt planning. There’s an old saying that “mountain goat country begins where sheep country ends”. It’s no secret that these shaggy beasts live in some of the steepest and gnarliest terrain out there.
Weakness makes cowards of us all and unless you want to be chewed up and spit off the mountain, with your tail tucked between your legs, you should take your off-season prep seriously. Don’t let the hunt you’ve invested all that time and money into be ruined because you're burned out on day 1.
We won’t get into the specifics of training routines, as there are so many variables that are specific to each person individually, that it could make up its own article. Let’s just say you don’t have to be a gym rat or conduct two-a-day workouts to have success on the mountain.
At a minimum you should be spending as much time as possible in the boots and under the pack you intend on hunting in. This is the most important work out tip I can give you. Not only will this help in getting you into better shape, but it’s going to identify any potential shortcomings or adjustments that need to be made to your set up prior to the trip.
The bottom line is that the more time you put into your physical conditioning, the better you’re going to feel on the mountain range. This time and effort will play an instrumental role to your success rate.
Physical preparedness is essential, but you also need to be mentally fit. Being mentally prepared with the knowledge that you’re going into a grind, is what makes or breaks a lot of mountain goat hunters. Whether you’re hiking 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado or breaking through a seemingly endless 2000-foot vertical jungle of alders on Kodiak, it’s going to take a toll on more than just your body.
Mountain goat hunts can start as early as August and run clear into late March. Not only will this determine the length of the hair on the goats your hunting, but it should be the starting point for your gear selection.
We’ve already identified that mental and physical prep are critical but having the right gear for the time of year and area you’re hunting in, is just as important—if not more. You can be in the best physical shape of your life but after a couple of days of being wet and cold, you’ll start to wonder why you're even out there. Wet and cold is never fun, but on the mountain in the middle of nowhere, it can turn ugly quick, ending your hunt in a hurry.
For those of you lucky enough to be chasing goats, the right gear is critical to your comfort and success. When choosing your set up, it should be based on mostly two factors. The first and most important is the time of year you’re going and the second is the number of days in the field.
The time of year is more important because it’ll identify the potential weather and temperatures you’re likely to encounter. Those variables will dictate your specific clothing and gear needs. As with any backpack mountain hunting trip, weight should always be a factor in your selection. Ounces add into pounds quickly and when you’re the one carrying it, you’ll quickly start to question every item in your pack.
Balancing weight, versus need, versus want, is always tough for these types of hunts. It’s important to have a system in place that breaks this balance vs. reward, so that you can get the most out of each item.
A great technique and place, to begin with, is to start out in a large area with plenty of floor space like your garage. Get all your gear laid out and then start out by making two piles. Pile 1 should be all the “no brainer” must-have items you need to take, like a sleeping bag, backpack, boots etc. Pile 2 is going to be all the items you want to take but don’t necessarily need like that 2nd watch cap, extra socks or hand warmers.
You get the point, this is where you can systematically break down your gear based on the factors and conditions of your hunt and the weight carried versus reward, you’re getting out of it. From here you can refine your choices based on the individual item and how much it adds to the overall value and weight of your kit. You’ll quickly realize that when it’s all packed and sitting on your back, it adds a whole new perspective to “want vs. need”.
Good optics are an absolute must here, this is one of those items that you truly get what you pay for and not a place to cut corners. Not only is good glass important to finding goats, it’s going to be even more important in helping you to identify the sex, judge age, and the trophy quality of an animal.
This is so important when the difference in sexes and size can come down to less than an inch of horn. Top shelf optics can keep you from putting on unneeded miles across rough terrain chasing maybes.
Whether you have a billy, nanny or either sex tag in your pocket, it’s important to know the key differences of what you’re looking for when judging goats, especially since both sexes have horns. Although similar in a lot of features, there are key characteristics that can help identify the sex of the species to even the most novice hunter.
Most state wildlife agencies that offer mountain goat hunting opportunities provide some type of goat identification education on their website. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is a great example of this. They have a 6-page educational section that takes you through the key characteristics of identifying the differences in sexes. It then rolls into a 25-picture identification test that is mandatory for hunting some units in the state where nanny management is vital.
Here is a link to the ADFG educational platform and Mountain Goat Identification Test.
Both mature male and female goats will have similar length horns. At first glance both sexes can easily be confused for one another. But If you take the time to learn the differences and with a little bit of practice, characteristics between the two quickly start to become evident. If you don’t have goats in your area to study in person, take advantage of the thousands of reference photos and videos available online.
Typically speaking outside of the rut, mature billies and nannies are going to be found in their own separate groups often hanging out at different elevations on the mountain. As a rule of thumb if you find a billy goat hanging out in a nanny group, he’s going to be an immature sub-adult.
Mature males are usually found alone or in much smaller groups, where it’s not uncommon to see females grouped up with a dozen or more. Billies like the solitude of the upper third of the mountain where nannies are often found hanging out in the middle sections. This is not a hard-fast rule as with any species and goats are going to be goats, where either sex may be found anywhere on the mountain at any time.
In the words of A.J. Kissel, “all you gotta do is get above them”! With escape cover always nearby, mountain goats are not the most skittish game animal you’ll ever hunt. A goat’s biggest weakness is its comfort in its habitat. They feel safe in the cliffs and tend to have a threshold for a tolerance to pressure that usually keeps them in place well inside the average rifle range.
This is especially true when you approach them from above. They seem to almost look at you in disbelief as to how you got above them as they typically expect threats to come from below. Although you can sometimes fool a goat’s eyes, you’ll never beat their noses.
It's critical to always play the wind unless you want to see just how quickly you can blow a goat out of the country. Play the thermals to your advantage and do your best to time those tricky swirling mountain winds on your approach. Once you’ve made it up and into goat country, the hardest part isn’t killing a goat, it's finding one in a spot that you can recover it in.
If not pressured, goats can be somewhat predictable, especially earlier in the hunting season. They often use the same bedding and feeding areas as well as travel routes to move back and forth between them. This is where patience can pay dividends.
Spending a few days in goat country observing them, you can pattern these movements and identify the areas they’re using frequently. Here you can tip the odds in your favor by selecting ambush points, and or stalking routes, that will not only put you in position for a shot, but hopefully a set up that keeps your goat from tumbling off the mountain into oblivion.
Whether you’re rifle hunting or bow hunting mountain goats, it’s not for the faint of heart. Adequate preparation and a little luck are the differences between a great hunt, and a lifetime of could of, should of, and would of.
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