It’s a privilege to access public lands, but sometimes that means competing for a shot at filling your tag—here’s one story of a successful bowhunt from a blind that almost didn’t happen
I tried hard to control my breathing as the first pronghorn walked in front of my shooting window. I sat motionless, with my bow ready, as the doe dipped her head to drink. For two hours I had been glassing the pronghorn antelope from a ground blind set up on public land in the dry southeast corner of Oregon. There were ten antelope now just 30 yards from my blind. The biggest of three bucks was last in line as they slowly made their way into the waterhole.
Pronghorn archery hunting on public land is extremely challenging, but I felt lucky to be there. The wide open space and lack of cover in antelope country is not conducive to bowhunting at close range. A ground blind on a well-used waterhole upped my prospects, but it wasn’t easy to find one unclaimed by another hunter.
That’s one of the central challenges of hunting public lands—we are so fortunate to have these places to go, but they are a shared resource. Blind hunting, in particular, is first come, first served. From my experience, two blinds with two different hunters on one waterhole will result in neither shooting an antelope. Hunters are much better off simply respecting each other’s right to hunt public land; if someone is there first, move on.
Blind hunting is definitely worth a try. Here’s what I’ve learned:
First, whether your public lands are managed by the BLM, Forest Service, or another agency, check with the local office about restrictions and placement dates. On BLM lands in Oregon, you can place your blind up to ten days before the beginning of the season, but no sooner. And your blind must be removed within seven days of the season’s closure. While all this may seem like a pain, and a longer allowance might be nice, it’s less stressful on the animals if there aren’t blinds set up a month before season and a month after.
As early as you can, based on these restrictions, look to place your blind on the downwind side of some form of natural funnel: a well-traveled trail or an important source of food or water, as was my choice in the arid sage flats of Oregon’s high desert. I’d arrived in my unit four days before opening day, which, having hunted there before, I figured was plenty early. I knew the landscape and that there were only 15 tags given out. Still, I spent an exhausting morning hiking into waterhole after waterhole, all of them occupied by other hunters’ blinds, until I finally got lucky. As I stood in the sage and glassed the hole, I could see it was only occupied by thirsty antelope.
Set up your blind, check your shooting lanes, and get comfortable enough to sit all day long. For me, this means a small stool, lots of snacks, and plenty of water. Temperatures inside of a hunting blind in the direct sunlight can reach staggering highs. You want to be alert and ready to shoot when the opportunity presents itself, not lightheaded and dehydrated.
Similarly, as much as I’d like a cross breeze, I usually insist on keeping all but one of the windows closed. The goal is to have it as dark as possible inside the blind. I practice drawing my bow and aiming out the front window to make sure there are no obstructions. Any flaps or screens that are in the way are dealt with now. I also like to remove my hiking boots and put on another pair of socks to keep me quieter in the blind. Antelope will still act especially wary when approaching a waterhole, and any noise or movement from inside of the blind will put them on the run.
Then you wait, with your bow at arm’s length and an arrow ready to fly.
For me, all this preparation paid off. As the doe’s mouth touched the water, a second doe came into view. As she stepped up to the water to drink, I lifted my bow and nocked an arrow. My heart was beating so fast and loud in my own ears that I was sure the antelope could hear it, too. I willed the blind to do its job of concealing me. Suddenly, the big buck charged into view and trotted into the water about knee-deep.
My bow came up, and the arrow touched my cheek as I came to full draw. The buck’s nose hit the water, and my arrow was gone.
I watched the arrow slide into his ribcage and bury itself into his far shoulder. The waterhole exploded as antelope ran every direction. I watched the buck run 60 yards and turn around to look back. The other antelope caught up to him, settling into a walk toward the short sage. Another 40 yards and the big buck lowered himself to the ground.
Relieved, I too sat back. I set down my bow and started to put on my boots. It was time to get to work.
Ground blind hunting was very effective for me this fall, and though the search for my very own piece of public land was frustrating, I remain grateful for the privilege. I guarantee that when a big pronghorn buck walks in to 20 yards and stares right into the dark black rectangle you are sitting in, you’ll forget all about your hike past other blinds and how hot, cramped, and bored you were ten minutes ago.
If you agree that hunts like this are worth the wait, take a minute to support our opportunities to hunt and fish on public lands, especially those undeveloped, pristine BLM lands in the backcountry. Having better tools for managing these lands ensures that “Sportsmen’s Country” can thrive. It only takes a minute, and it might mean a shorter sit next season.
Mike Roth is a born-and-raised Oregonian, and a third-generation hunter. He prefers the intimate experience of bowhunting, and when he’s not chasing big game on public lands, he’s salmon and steelhead fishing from his drift boat.