There were no deer in front of me. I was sure of that. I had stopped next to a large oak and scrutinized everything out of the ordinary on the hardwood ridge. Through my binoculars an antler tine had turned into a piece of deadfall, and a flicking tail became nothing more than a leaf turning in the breeze.
I stepped out of the shadows and there he was, bolting out of a stand of saplings 60 yards in front of me that I had checked at least a half dozen times. He ran hard for the safety of a thick belt of pines, and I swung with him and shot. And shot again. The third time I pulled the trigger, the 8-point buck fell dead in the snow.
That hunt, high on a ridge on public land in Pennsylvania, is typical of my experience with still-hunting: It’s impossible to do everything perfectly, but if you get enough of it right, it’s the most effective tactic for many conditions.
I started still-hunting the late season one year because I had spent most of the fall perched in a tree with a bow or a rifle. Doing this now allowed me to take the hunt to the deer, to make something happen, and in December or later, that is often your only chance. Bucks are worn out from the rut and spooked from unrelenting hunting pressure. They find small pockets of cover near food and don’t travel far. Set your stand in the spot that was great during the rut, and you may have to sit there until next November before you see a buck. You need to leave the comfort of your stand and go looking.
Everyone who’s read a hunting magazine knows the two rules of still-hunting: First, go as slow as possible, and then go slower; and second, always hunt with the wind in your face. A good still-hunter has mastered these concepts but also knows how and when to break them.
It’s true that your best hope of defeating a buck’s defenses is to go slow. You must walk super quietly, in a way that minimizes the chances a deer will see you. The standard practice of taking a step or two and then stopping to look for 30 seconds works. It makes it harder for deer to detect you, and you also have a better chance of spotting movement–the drop of a head, the flick of an ear, the lift of a hoof–if you are motionless. When you do it properly, you may cover 100 yards in an hour. It’s effective, but in reality, you can’t spend all day at this pace. Go faster in areas with little deer sign, such as wide open hardwoods. If you start seeing sign—or worse, a whitetail’s bounding flag—put on the brakes.
Every still-hunter loves a headwind, but the hunting route that makes the most sense may not provide that. A breeze perpendicular to your direction also works well, especially around bedding areas, as deer often lie down facing the wind. At some point, you may not be able to avoid having the breeze at your back in order to get to a location you want to hunt. The trick is to allow that to happen only when you’re in barren areas, and to move along quickly.
A light rain or snow is perfect for still-hunting. The precipitation helps hide your sound, scent, and motion, and deer activity often seems to increase in this kind of weather. Windy days are good too; the swaying branches and howling gusts also disguise your presence, but deer won’t be moving as much. Look for them in hollows and on the lee sides of hills.
Follow deer tracks you come across in the snow during a still-hunt–even if they are old. The idea is not to target that particular buck but simply to let the trail take you to areas where deer travel and feed. I’ve discovered some of my most productive hunting spots by letting deer lead me to them.
Look for water. Creekbottoms are great places to still-hunt. Deer often follow the watercourses, and the trails you find parallel to the creek make ideal routes. The water can hide your sound, and cover and food attract deer.
Let yourself get lost. Successful still-hunting takes all your attention–analyzing everything you see, stalking with extreme care. You can’t do it if you’re constantly worried about where you are. Set your GPS and then lose yourself in the hunt.
Still-hunting is one of the best ways to learn a piece of land, because you’re covering ground and doing it at a pace and with a level of concentration that forces you to spot tracks, droppings, rubs, and bedding areas. So keep a map with you, and make notes as you go. I carry a digital camera and snap photos of interesting sign and promising spots. It only takes a few seconds, and when I get home the images remind me of what I saw. I’ve found great bowhunting stands and other still-hunting routes this way.
Grouse hunters often hit several productive covers in one morning. You can do the same thing if you have a few places to hunt close to one another. Sneak through the brushy bottom next to a field on one farm. Get in the truck and hit a winding creekbottom nearby. This allows you to focus on the best spots in multiple sites.
Maintaining a razor-sharp focus may be the most critical skill in still-hunting. Get distracted and sloppy for a few steps, and you can undo two hours of careful work. If you feel your mind wandering and find yourself going too quickly, take a stand. Eat a sandwich. In 20 minutes, you’ll be ready to start again.
Don’t avoid dense vegetation. “That’s too thick to still-hunt” is something you hear often in deer camp. But if it holds deer, why not give it a shot? You probably just need a different approach. Focus on small cover, just a couple of acres, and really work it over. Spend a lot of time looking, squatting to see under the brush, even crawling. Go very, very slowly.
Before you step into the woods, take the sling off your rifle and stick it in your pack. You’ll want it when you drag the buck off the mountain, but if you use it before then, you won’t be bringing anything home. Shots are quick in still-hunting, and keeping the rifle slung over your shoulder is the best way to miss.
Stop next to cover. It’s one of still-hunting’s golden rules. Having a tree next to you when you’re not moving helps hide you from deer, and it also gives you a rest in case you need to shoot offhand.
Good binoculars are a still-hunter’s best friend. Use them often to pick apart the terrain in front of you. If something seems even slightly off, glass it. Wear them on a harness that holds them snug against your chest so they won’t swing when you duck under brush. Bring them to your eyes slowly.
Get a gillie suit. I used to laugh at hunters who wore them. Then I tried one on the recommendation of a friend who successfully still-hunts with a bow. This leafy camouflage outfit hides the two visual clues that I think are the main things that spook deer: the flat, wide-eyed predator’s face, and the upright, two-legged silhouette of a man. The very first time I wore one, I crept within bow range of a feeding doe.
To walk quietly, wear boots that fit tightly, with solid support and a thin sole. You need to be able to feel sticks and other debris under your foot before you bring your entire weight down. Put your heel down first, slowly rolling onto the ball of your foot. Gradually increase the pressure, and find another place to step if you feel something underneath.
No matter how hard you try not to, you will snap a branch underfoot. When it happens, just wait a full minute before proceeding. Deer will forget about the noise if you give them enough time. If conditions force me to make a ruckus going through a particular spot, I’ll blow a series of grunts on my call, hoping to fool deer into thinking the noise was caused by one of them.
You’ll try to find a rest before you shoot at a deer, of course, but when you’re still-hunting, most shots are offhand. There is no shortcut to getting good at this. You must practice before the season. Make it a rule that for every round you fire from a bench or rest, you fire two offhand. Shots will most likely be close, so don’t set your variable scope any higher than 4X.
There’s no need to dress as warmly as you would for a day of late-season stand hunting. You’ll perspire in bulky clothes, which also make it harder for you to move quietly. I wear a synthetic base layer under a medium-weight wool jacket and pants. Nothing is quieter than wool.
Wear a fanny pack to bring lunch, water, a survival kit, and extra clothes. A backpack is too noisy for still-hunting; it always ends up raking across branches or brush. I prefer a fanny pack’s lower profile. A model with shoulder straps supports the load better and is more comfortable to wear all day.
Planning a Still-Hunt
Start out in the morning, paralleling feeding areas. Deer often leave food sources early this time of year, so be in place at sunup. Work inside the timber along fields [A], or through creekbottoms [B] and around clear-cuts [C]. When you have scouted well, you’ll know where deer want to go next. Work your way to bedding areas, like thick patches of cover [D], or remote ridgetops [E]. Check bed sites close to the food first, since deer are reluctant to move far now. To get there, you want to cut through the corridors that the deer use to travel [F]. If you find a trail, walk it. Remember, deer like to take the shortest, easiest route, just like you do, so try the most logical paths.
Once you reach the bedding areas, your job gets more difficult. Use your binoculars a lot; you’re going to need all the help you can get to spot deer before they spot you. Take your time, and try to get above the bedding areas. This makes spying deer easier. Walk just below the ridgetop [G], taking care not to skylight yourself. If you come to a saddle [H], peek over the ridge to check the other side. Don’t rush. If you can hunt only one or two bedding areas before it’s time to head back to the travel corridors, fine. It’s more important to hunt right than to cover every possibility. But move quickly through open woods [I] barren of sign.
In the afternoon, head back to travel corridors and feeding areas. An oak stand with acorns still on the ground [J] is a great spot. Pay special attention to staging zones [K], the places in the timber where deer mill around before heading into an exposed food source.