F&S Classics: The Deer Stalker
Heavey learns a thing (or 10) about stealth from a recon specialist for the Army's elite Special Forces, who survived 20 secret missions behind enemy lines in Vietnam
If you were to write a book about Maj. John Plaster’s life, you might be tempted to call it All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Squirrel Hunting. That’s because back before he was running recon missions deep behind enemy lines in Vietnam, before he taught sniping and special operations skills to more than 100 departments and agencies around the world (FBI, Navy Seals, Army Special Forces, etc.), and before he began appearing on the History Channel as an expert on the history of the SOG commandos in Vietnam, John Plaster was just another kid hunting squirrels in the Minnesota woods. At the age of 9, Plaster and two of the neighborhood’s other aspiring young hunters pooled their funds to buy a bolt-action .22 rifle.
“The deal was that you stalked until you took a shot, then gave up the rifle to the next guy,” says Plaster, who at 54 has gained a few pounds since his combat days but still sports the military moustache that some soldiers can’t bear to shave off. “It might be as long as an hour before it was your turn again.” While awaiting his next chance on those rare occasions when he missed, he remembers being sure that every squirrel in the woods was heckling him. “I absolutely hated to miss,” he says.
By the time they were 10, each of the three boys had a part-time job, a bit more cash, and the means to satisfy the overpowering itch for a slick new semiauto .22. Plaster bought a Remington, and his buddies each bought other models. “And our shooting just went to hell,” he says with a chuckle. “There was something about having all those bullets at your disposal that destroyed the mental focus you need for one-shot hunting. There’s something about a bolt action, a kind of finality, a bonding of mechanism and purpose you don’t get with any other action.”
When he was 17, Plaster volunteered for the Army, trained with the airborne infantry, and was sent to Vietnam two years later as a Green Beret. Then he made it into an even more elite force: SOG, the innocuously named Studies and Observation Group that was actually a covert special warfare unit. SOG missions were “black,” meaning that the U.S. government would deny any knowledge of such operations or the soldiers carrying them out. Its members wore no insignia, carried no identification, and fielded an array of exotic weapons that could not be traced to the U.S. military.
Small recon teams, usually six to eight men, were inserted by helicopter deep behind enemy lines for missions lasting about five days. Casualties were extremely high, and it was not unheard of for a team to get off the chopper and simply vanish in the jungle, never to be seen again. Silence, Plaster recalls, was not a virtue, but the virtue. During a five-day mission, team members might go days without raising their voices above a whisper, communicating mostly by hand signals and facial expressions. Often surrounded so closely by enemy forces that they caught the reek of Thang Long cigarettes and overheard casual conversations, a team might advance 500 meters in 10 hours. That boils down to a little more than one step per minute, which is about the right pace when snapping a twig is a matter of life and death. By the time a SOG recon man had three missions under his belt, he was considered competent. If he survived 10, he was a veteran and usually led the team. Twenty, and you started to wonder why he was still alive. Plaster completed 22 SOG missions, served three tours of duty in Vietnam, was wounded in combat, and was awarded the Bronze Star and an officer’s commission along the way.
That’s all well and good, you might say, but what does it have to do with hunting? Well, if you’re up in a tree stand, maybe not much. But if you’ve ever had the urge to take on a deer at eye level, you can learn a lot from Plaster’s example. What the SOG recon teams were doing was practicing the hunter’s skill of moving with the utmost stealth. The ultimate compliment for a recon man, the phrase you used to describe the guy you’d want next to you on patrol, was simple: “He’s good in the woods.” I caught up with Plaster during last year’s deer season in Wisconsin to get a firsthand look at how he applies his commando skills to deer hunting, and I found out just how good in the woods” he is.
I met Plaster at his home in Iron River, a small town in northwest Wisconsin not far from Lake Superior. Bayfield County—a place with 65,000 acres, 2,000 people, and not a single stoplight—is gently rolling country that’s popular with snowmobilers, who share their trails with a big population of whitetails. We hunted hard for three days and got thoroughly skunked. I surprised what might have been a buck in brush too thick to get a good look, much less a shot. Plaster passed on a doe he surprised on a trail. We stalked ridges in gusty snowstorms, slogged down trails thick with fresh prints, and inched our way along some very promising fingers (hillsides with fingerlike spurs). We showed up an hour before dawn at a spot he’d scouted only to find a truck parked there, its hood still warm. We tried driving wood plots, approaching from opposite directions to try to squeeze the deer together, with strict fields of fire.
“This is what happens when you invite a writer along,” I explained. “Bad juju.” We commiserated over prime rib, mashed potatoes, and the better part of a bottle of Glenfiddich, and I tried to soak up some of Plaster’s deer hunting knowledge along with the whiskey.
Three days after I returned home, a photo of Plaster posing by a heavy 10-pointer showed up in my e-mail. He’d been hunting another set of fingers. He’d stuck his head over one, seen nothing, and waded through the deep snow in the ravine to the next. There wasn’t anything on the second, either. Nor on the third, which he could see clearly from his position. Owing to a drop in elevation, however, he could see past the third to the fourth finger, where he noticed a brown oval in the snow. He put his scope on it, saw a length of tine, and took a neck shot. The deer never moved. It was a 10-pointer—the biggest buck he’d ever shot, and dressed out at 201 pounds. The taxidermist told him that it was the most symmetrical large rack he’d ever seen.
“You come back anytime you want,” Plaster wrote. “I told a bunch of my hunting pals what good luck you bring when you leave, and now they all want to pay your way out for next season.”
Major Plaster’s 10 Rules of Stealth
1. Gear Matters
“That’s nice stuff,” Plaster says on the first morning of our hunt, running a hand over my Woolrich camouflage parka. “Wool’s my favorite. Polar fleece is good, too. They’re your only quiet choices for stalking. Everything else sounds like sandpaper when it brushes against vegetation.” He also approves of my LaCrosse Alpha rubber boots. You want the thinnest, lightest boots you can get away with and not freeze.” The thinner the boot, the more sensitive your feet will be to the terrain.
2. Get Down and Dirty
Plaster says he doesn’t understand why modern deer hunters are reluctant to leave their feet, almost as if there were something demeaning about it. Frontiersmen did whatever it took to get their quarry, he points out. Deer and hunters each expect the other to be standing erect and making noise when moving through the woods, yet most hunters have seen deer get down on their bellies to slide under fences and to avoid hunters in low cover. They routinely fool us by not acting the way we expect them to. We can do the same.
3. Do the Unexpected
The stalker mindset is about behaving in an unexpected way. Plaster has had deer walk right past him while he was wearing agillie suit in an open field because deer don’t expect a man to look like a pile of straw. He has snuck up on them by walking streams, which is perhaps his favorite method. “Streams tend to be low and out of eyesight, particularly of a bedded deer. You leave no scent underfoot and the water is superb at covering the noise of your movement. The key to moving quietly is to never lift your feet out of the water. Deer, in my experience, simply don’t associate streams with humans.”
4. Go Low
In thick woods or other adequate cover, a sniper—just like anybody else—walks erect. But as the height of the cover gets lower, so does the sniper (and so should the deer hunter). Use a crouching walk in irregular or less-than-head-high cover. The high crawl, on hands and knees, is good for waist-high cover. In the elbow crawl, your elbows and thighs are on the ground as you drag your rifle along with one hand, the barrel resting on your forearm to protect it as you advance. “I’m 54,” says Plaster. “I’m not going to high-crawl 500 yards anymore. But I would do it for 50 yards to get to an ideal spot. And if the place I want to hunt involves crossing 500 yards of open ground, I cheat. I get up an hour earlier and walk there quietly in the dark.”
5. Employ Misdirection
The guys who wash out of sniper school quickest are the ones who decide that the best way to get from point A to point B is the easy way, and then try to figure out how to take that route without being detected. A sniper, says Plaster, is only interested in one thing: which path offers maximum concealment from his quarry. And that is almost never the easy way. Most hunters would benefit by adopting that strategy. He tells of hunting with his nephew Alex last year and wanting to stalk a nearby ridge. There was a decent deer trail that offered a quiet approach. But Plaster knew it was the course that deer would expect a hunter to use. He opted instead for a 400-yard dogleg route through some pines—quieter, with better concealment—to reach the ridge. The boy took his first buck that day.
6. Stalk and Stand
Plaster loves to find a likely section of the woods, approach from down or across the wind, and stalk his way in. “My personal rule of thumb is to stalk for two minutes at a time, and then pause for five. I might move 5 yards in those two minutes or as much as 40. It all depends on the terrain.” He never crosses a beam of sunlight if there’s a way around it. To muffle noise he tries to time his movements with increases in wind volume, and he always stops with a tree or rock covering his left side, which offers a right-handed shooter a rest while minimizing exposure.
7. Get Quiet and Stay Quiet
Because deer see about as well as we do but have vastly superior hearing, Plaster believes that hunting requires more emphasis on being quiet than on being invisible. And most of us, he says, screw this one up royally. “I don’t understand guys who slam doors, talk loudly, and then think they can start hunting. My stalk begins when I turn the truck engine off.” He shuts the truck door softly, loads the rifle quietly, and keeps conversation with his hunting companions to a whisper. Since any sound you make radiates out in a circle, any reduction in volume exponentially decreases your detection radius. In other words, being a little bit quieter creates a lot more area where the deer don’t know you’re coming.
8. Keep an Eye on the Sky
Plaster likes to skylight deer walking wooded trails above him. Deer tend to think that they’re invisible as long as they’re on such trails, and Plaster says that the animal doesn’t have to be on the crest of the ridge as long as you can see light behind them. Similarly, a deer feels secure in head-high brush because it can’t imagine something surprising it there. Plaster exploits this weakness by searching for elevated places overlooking this kind of ground. A few years ago, after sitting in such an area for three hours, he was about to call it quits when he saw a faint flicker of movement. He put a spotting scope on it and found a mature buck bedded below him right out in the open. He took that buck where it lay and later paced the shot off to 232 yards.
9. Use Your Fingers
In the Midwest and many other parts of the country, there are hillsides composed of fingerlike ridges. Plaster loves to hunt these because they bring into play all his stalking and shooting skills. “The idea is pretty simple. It’s the execution that’s tough,” he says. You move slowly and quietly, working your way crosswind to the edge of a finger, get down on all fours, and peep up over the edge shielded by a rock or a log, ready to take a shot. Deer like to bed on the fingers with the wind at their backs, looking downhill. Plaster believes that deer in this situation are focused on detecting danger at a distance, not close by. Once you scan the finger you’re on, you can often see to the next finger or even the one after that.
10. Haunt the Trail
Stalking on a trail is making a bet that you can move more quietly than the animals that made it. Since it’s tough to do this, what Plaster does is set a series of ambushes along the trail. He moves stealthily down the path and then stops in brush or behind a tree at the side. “I’m listening more than anything,” he says. He once got a 10-pointer this way. A doe and a buck came from the side of the trail, but Plaster heard them before he saw them and had his rifle ready. The doe turned onto the trail and was headed away. He shot the buck at 40 yards just as it was about to turn.