A long sit the day prior revealed bucks were chasing heavily, but in the randomness of the rut, none ambled under my stand. That night a front turned the south wind inside out and hauled with it a November rain that rendered potato chip leaves into pool table felt. So, the next morning I audibled to a new attack. I set out into the wind, sloth-like, pausing every few feet to examine new slices of woods unveiled by each methodic step.
I actually smelled his tarsals before I saw him. The buck cruised across me, curious-eyed, 30 yards away. I spied 5 points, a matching side, and decent width. I nudged the safety off my .308 and found the buck's chest in my scope as he cleared an oak.
With my hand on the buck's still-warm chest, I had a thought: Hunting whitetails from treestands is mighty effective, but it's surely not as fun. Here are five key tips to help you get the most out of still-hunting.
The Still-Hunting Technique
Still-hunting, or slip-hunting as some call it, is the technique of sneaking through the woods on foot and using all of your senses to get within range of an animal or to put yourself in a position to let it get within range of you.
The challenge is to see a deer before it sees you. This means you must move so slowly that your overall movement becomes as imperceptible to the fauna as a clock's hour hand is to you. It requires placing a foot ahead of the other as if it were in slow motion, then pausing for a minute before moving the next. It requires being aware of your silhouette at all times. It also requires a Zen-like attitude and flowing with the woods to use what it gives you to your advantage. Most of your time should be spent not moving your feet, but inspecting the woods ahead of you with your eyes. Your best tool is a binocular, and it should seldom leave your hand.
I hold my 10x32 binos in my right hand so I can cradle my rifle in my left arm with its butt under my armpit, barrel forward and down. Keeping my right elbow tucked to my side, I raise the glass to my eye with minimal movement. If I could glue them to my face, I would. Vision at 10X allows me to pick apart subtle edges and colors among the vegetation that could be a part of an animal, and it allows me to see through the woods that otherwise distracts and hampers my normal vision. A binocular harness is handy. Leave the lens caps in the truck; if it's raining, cover the ocular lenses.
When you lower your binocular to take a small step, scan the woods with your eyes, looking for flickering light that betrays movement. I take a slow step, glass, scan, and repeat. Stalking in this fashion takes incredible mental discipline, and if you're doing it right, you'll notice how quickly you'll become tired and hungry. Take a break when you begin to get impatient — it will become obvious when you start making clumsy mistakes — as that's precisely the time you'll spook something. Take that break in a spot where you'll possibly see a buck.
If you can hear yourself walking, you're too loud. If deer routinely see you before you see them, you're going too fast and not glassing enough. When you get it right, you'll notice how many deer you see before they see you.
Confluence of Conditions
For best success, still-hunting bucks, you'll need the rut, recent rain, and the wind in your favor.
The rut dulls a buck's danger impulse by a half-step. That second-long pause is often all a hunter needs when hunting with a rifle. (It's much more difficult with a bow, but it can be done.)
A whitetail uses its ears like radar beacons, so it's nearly impossible to stalk one when the forest is laden with dry leaves. So, for all but the Natty Bumppos among us, still-hunt only among damp or otherwise quiet ground. And if the wind isn't right, don't bother still-hunting. You'll benefit from a steady breeze that pulls your scent away from whitetails ahead of you, and it also masks your sound. Move only when the wind blows, and if it shifts, turn into it. Take advantage of the opportunities the rut offers you to bag a Booner buck from a stalk.
Challenges of Stalking Bucks
When a seasoned still-hunter gets the right conditions, killing a deer from the ground is easy; it's trophy hunting that's tough. Because the vast majority of deer in the field are not shooter-quality bucks, most deer encountered while stalking are passed by the trophy hunter. These deer often flow around the hunter as they continue foraging. Eventually, they'll cross the hunter's wind trail and spook, alerting other deer. So, spooking deer while trophy hunting is a part of the game. But if you continue to slip within killing range of deer, it's only a matter of time until you get in range of a shooter who's thinking about his next date instead of his own safety.
Judging on the Hoof
When you see movement through the woods, immediately get your binocular on it to identify it as a deer and then move to its head to see if it's a buck. At close range — inside 50 yards — it's often best to lower the binocular and use your eyes to get a relative view of a buck's rack compared to its body. When a deer is moving in thick woods, you'll seldom have time to examine each tine. If you determine he's a shooter, get him in your crosshairs, click the safety off, and hammer him the very first opportunity you get.
Fleece or wool is best for stalking. Pants and jackets that crinkle and swish are not worth having. Because I most often stalk on damp ground or in the rain and I frequently stop to sit, I prefer water-resistant, breathable pants that are quiet, like Core 4 Element's Highline pant. In a light rain, I add a waterproof jacket and hat. (A hood restricts peripheral vision.)
Wear thin gloves to camouflage the hand's constant movement while raising a binocular. Wear flexible, soft-soled boots that are waterproof — something like a Scent-Lok Silent Stalk Sneaker. This is no time for rubber boots. Don't worry about insulation — you'll be active. If you get serious about stalking, consider leather moccasins over Gore-Tex socks. Leave the backpack and all the other brush-snagging gadgets at home. If you must carry a bag, consider the Browning Billy 1000 Lumbar Pack. It's small and goes around your waist, limiting snags.