I’ve heard some hunters worry that “Hunting’s getting to be a rich man’s sport. Pretty soon, the average fellow won’t be able to find a place to hunt.”
Look in the back of any hunting magazine and you will find ample opportunity to spend your money on gear and trips. Yes, it can be expensive. But I disagree that the best days of American hunting are in the past. Even those with limited resources and vacation time can still find great hunts on public land without spending much money.
I began to wonder what it must have been like when Lewis and Clark explored this country. As I thumbed through my copy of their journals, I realized that all the animals they hunted, as they traveled across the Louisiana Purchase, are still found here today.
Headed west, the explorers were not sure what they would find. Speculation was rampant in the East. What lay beyond those mountains? Some spoke of unicorns, wooly mammoths, giants and fire-breathing devils. President Thomas Jefferson needed to know, so he commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to make the journey.
They didn’t find any unicorns or mammoths, but the members of the Expedition were the first Americans to see mule deer and pronghorn antelope. They also hunted Rocky Mountain elk, bighorn sheep, Roosevelt elk, bison, black bear, and grizzly bear.
Along the way, they met and traded with Indians of many different tribes and dined on steelhead, salmon, dog, horse, and other delicacies.
Their journey took them by foot, boat, and horse through what are now the states of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Much has changed since their time, but along parts of their route there is little difference in the landscape. Best of all, if you’re a hunter, you can retrace parts of their journey and make your own voyage of discovery. Let’s call it the Lewis and Clark Safari.
With the exception of the grizzly bear, the average hunter could, in one to three years, pursue each of the representative big game species that Lewis and Clark hunted on their Voyage of Discovery.
Heading north and west up the Missouri River, the explorers would have first encountered turkeys and whitetail deer. Today you can hunt turkeys and whitetail in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, or any of the western states.
The explorers first saw pronghorns, and mule deer (which they called blacktail deer) in what is now Nebraska. Several states along the route offer good opportunities to take pronghorn. Mule deer are available throughout the West.
Lewis and Clark hunted elk on the plains and in the forests. Today, your best bets for Rocky Mountain elk along the explorer’s route are in Montana, Idaho, or Oregon. Today, sheep tags are hard to come by, so hunting bighorn sheep is optional. The party took their first bighorn sheep somewhere in Montana. Tags are awarded by lottery in several western states.
While the expedition was in winter quarters near what is now Astoria, blacktail deer and elk were hard to find. Today, those species are still the most difficult of the western big game animals. For Roosevelt elk and blacktail deer, head west of the Cascades.
For black bear, look to Oregon, Washington, or Idaho. Spring hunts offer a good chance to practice your spot-and-stalk technique, or simply buy your bear tag and keep a close watch for bruins while hunting the other species.
No Lewis and Clark Safari would be complete without a buffalo hunt. Fortunately, there are surplus bison in herds on private and public land throughout the West. As Lewis and Clark learned, the cow buffalo offers the best hide and meat. If you’re interested in taking a big one, go after a bull.
To complete your Lewis and Clark Safari, fish for salmon and steelhead. A network of dams have made the Columbia tamer now than it was in 1805, but the landmarks are still there. Lewis and Clark saw Beacon Rock and Multnomah Falls. You should see them as Lewis and Clark did, from a boat on the river.
Each of the hunts listed above are still within the reach of a hunter with modest means and a lot of desire. One rifle (I suggest something in the 30-caliber range) and one fishing rod are all you need. With some advance planning, a person could hunt two or three species in one trip, or make the whole hunt in one month-long safari, making the most of that precious vacation time.