Stealth on Two Wheels

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There was no mountain bike in Oklahoma. No covert ride into an opening where wildlife aren’t so leery. No hunters. No nerves. Only a passing thought, which led to an idea, that, I hoped, would lead to a moment.

Instead, there was an old, raised railroad bed to my right and I was on foot. The tracks were long since gone, but the raised earth was there as proof of the train that once passed through a cow pasture in western Oklahoma. I’d killed a gobbler in a soggy bottom the day before, the area was bright with tender grass—rare in an otherwise dusty, brown spot on the map—and I was relaxed and mildly indifferent to the outcome of this day.

After covering a short distance along a narrow path between fencerow and ridge, my wingman, a Vietnam vet and avid turkey hunter, grabbed my shirtsleeve and pointed to the top of the old railroad bed. Somehow he’d heard a flock of birds before they heard us, so I gingerly hoisted myself up the ridge after them. Given the ambush nature of the situation, I took extra time to size up the surroundings and identify my target, despite the consequences. Plus, there were beef cattle on the other side of the birds, and I had been warned the cost of killing a cow. With little fan fair or anticipation, I dropped my second bird in two days.

Here’s the thing. You don’t walk up on birds like that, even if you are below their line of sight. But you do if the wind is whipping 30-plus miles per hour. Our voices and footsteps were muffled, our approach unnoticed. After dropping the bird, I considered the value of a silent approach and the potential value of the wind. I considered, too, how I might hunt more actively on windy days.

What I didn’t consider is how to recreate my stealth.

Only later, in a near empty gym doing a final set of preacher curls did I even consider a bike at all. The gym was a dreary community center that catered to the geriatric crowd, the only option in a rural town. But there was another option, lots of open space. Rural, remember? So I purchased a mountain bike for cheap from my boss. She was, I determined, a Dead Head because the bike was a Gary Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo Greatful Dead Special Edition.

On my first outing, I road up a tough, eroded incline, between a stand of hardwoods and a field of rye before topping out in a 60 acre peach orchard. I rode down a wide, scented lane near the middle of the field, and, by the time I’d reach the other side, I’d spooked three deer and more than a dozen rabbits, two of which I almost ran over.

I should start riding with a shotgun, I thought. Then there was that rather pedestrian moment that every human has when you think, that’s actually not a bad idea at all. Then I learned hunting by bike wasn’t an original idea. People were doing it.

“Covering several hundred yards quickly is a simple affair for a hunter on a bike,” said Carl Warmouth in an article for Game and Fish magazine. “Moreover, a bike seems to make less noise—or at least a less recognizable noise—than does someone walking; it certainly makes less noise than an ATV.”

Warmouth also noted the advantage a bike offers on public land. It can get you well off the main thoroughfares, past gates and away from hunters dependent on roads and big trails, and even those who are willing to walk.

In my mind, the mountain bike was to hunters what a backpack was to fly-fishermen. A pack and a willingness to hike in would get you beyond the crowds and into the wild trout, streams dense with fish. I found guys messaging on boards about how to camo up a bike, mount a shotgun, mount a bow, whether or not to ride with bike shoes or hunting boots and the best way to haul game from the woods.

Many times, I associate rural life with improvising. People who live in this culture seem to find a way to make junk work. On one archery forum, I found proof of this theory:

“I have taken a bike rack for a van, and mounted it behind the seat to carry the tree stand and gear, and I use ATV handle bar rifle racks for a bow rack on the bike’s handle bars.”

“I sling my bow around my neck where it is oriented to the front.”

“I used my handlebar mount for my GPS and marked some key turns and signs.”

“I will be hunting a WMA and the only way to get around is to walk or ride a mountain bike. I rigged a trailer to my mountain bike. It will hold all of my gear without any problems.”

The one sticking point of everything posted and everything written was hauling game. Every post and every article revolving around the mountain bike/hunting theme, focused on hauling deer—no other wild game—out of the woods and no one among the message board hunters or outdoor writers were satisfied with a solution to the problem. One guy, on the same forum, offered this solution:

“If the deer is of reasonable carrying size, you can make a backpack out of him. I suggest putting some orange maybe on his antlers to avoid an arrow or two. You cut the front leg knee bones to where the lower legs flap (leave skin attached at knee) and then cut between the back leg tendons where you usually hang deer from. Now put the front legs through the back leg, and push the front leg bone up. You kind of form a “T” through the hole of the back leg. Slip your arms threw and carry on your back. Easy way to backpack out a small to fair size deer.”

Uh, yeh, I have no idea.

This puts the ole kibosh on any enthusiasm for hunting by bike. The effort to make it work doesn’t offset the benefit the bike provides, unless, you’re hunting something light, like a gobbler. Yet, seldom did I find anyone talking or writing about this.

“Everybody has a pouch on their turkey vests,” said Stan Baker, an NWTF regional biologist in Utah, a state that considers itself the mountain bike capital of the world and plays host to the Fat Tire Festival, an event for mountain bike enthusiasts. “You can stuff your bird in your vest and, in that respect, turkey hunting fits well with bike use, more so even, than on a deer or elk hunt.”

In a state where turkey hunting is still considered a new exercise in the hunting pursuit, Baker is accustomed to telling new turkey hunters about the ease of packing out a bird rather than a 6x6 elk, for instance.

In Utah, turkey hunters enjoy a 60 percent success rate on public lands, while the rest of the nation sits at 20 percent. About 70 percent of Utah’s land mass is public, so there’s tremendous opportunity for hunters in this state and other western states with similar composition. Still, for areas where hunters are dense, specifically on public hunting lands in the East, a bike can get you into the wilderness, beyond the crowd. It also saves you the worry of being patterned after the sounds of motors and the smells of exhaust fumes.

The bike can heighten the success rate of a hunt, yes, but it also gives you access to what most hunters are after: solitude associated with open land and emptiness. Hunting by bike is a stripped-down version of today’s hunt, it’s closer to the way it used to be. It’s a compromise that meets a reasonable criteria, leaving behind the old ways that no longer work in a modern world of advancements, but holding onto the things that allow you to achieve the larger purpose, and that purpose, in today’s loud and busy roar, has just as much to do with silence as it does with hunting success and the resulting trophy or evening meal.

Bagging a Bird by Bike: FAQ

Q. I’ve got a pretty sweet mountain bike, that I use outside of hunting. Is it really necessary to paint it up and make it camouflage or can I leave the finish alone?

A. Definitely leave the finish alone. Some guys paint their bikes camouflage, others sand them down to soften the sheen. But there’s always the option of camouflaging the bike the old fashion way: tuck it under brush, cut limbs to drape over the frame or carry a camo burlap for covering.

Q. What’s the best way to ride a bike with a shotgun in tow?

A. The most practical way is to use a sling and put it on your should as if you were walking with it. Make sure the gun isn’t loaded and always ride with the action open. Mounting your shotgun or bow is an option too, but there’s two warnings here: If the firearm or bow extends beyond the handlebars and gets caught on something, you’re likely to do a face plant. If your firearm or bow is mounted and you’re traveling narrow trails, your equipment could take a beating from limbs, etc.

Q. Do they make bow and gun racks for bikes?

A. Most hunters who have documented their bike rigging voyages tend to make homemade racks or purchase bow/gun holders designed to mount on an ATV rack or handlebars. These manufactured holders work just as well on a bike as they would on an ATV.

Q. Are bike lights necessary or overkill?

A. Lights are helpful. And when you’re advancing on a forest in the predawn, well before you approach areas that require optimum stealth, you’d hate to wipe out on a tree root. But manufactured bike lights aren’t a must. Use a headlamp or strap a light to the center of your handlebars.

Q. Can I hunt near bike trails on state and federal lands?

A. Always check with the officials who manage the land you plan to hunt. There are areas that permit hunting in the woodlands surrounding bike trails, while others do not.