Still-hunting is all about spotting deer before they see you. That means you have to move as slowly, quietly, and inconspicuously as possible. Take short, balanced steps. Keep your weight on your back foot and use the ball of your leading foot to test the ground for noisy leaves and sticks. Once you find a quiet footing, gradually transfer your weight onto your leading foot, rolling it onto the heel until it can take all your weight. Then repeat the process. Look for silent footholds of moss, flat rocks, pine needles, bare earth, or wet leaves, and plan your route accordingly. Time your steps when passing planes, gusting winds, distant log trucks, and the like will help drown out the sound. Conceal your actions by staying in shadows and the margins of brushy cover. If deer are about, it’s almost impossible to go too slowly, and it’s also true that still-hunters who never seem to see deer are moving way too fast.
Sneak Through Crunchy Leaves
At times it’s impossible to still-hunt silently. This can be an advantage, however, because deer will also be easier to hear. Get into the best deer-holding cover you can, as quietly as you can. Once there, go ultraslow, and use a grunt tube or fawn bleat to cover the sound of your steps. Listen for the four-legged step-step, pause, step-step pattern of walking deer, and try to intercept them. Since you can’t avoid making noise, you want to sound like a deer. Push down sharply with the toe of your leading foot, then promptly bring your heel down. Step-step. Repeat with the other foot. Step-step. Do not hesitate. Take an angle that will put you within range of the deer, but don’t move directly at them–and be ready to shoot. Deer will be aware of your approach but often will not bolt until they determine the source of the noises.
Speed Up and Slow Down
Still-hunting does not mean always moving at a snail’s pace, especially in areas with low deer densities. Look for fresh sign as you go, and adjust your pace accordingly. Walk relatively rapidly through open areas with little sign, especially at midday when deer have retreated to thicker cover. Slow to a crawl in thick cover, creekbottoms, and areas with lots of tracks, droppings, rubs, and scrapes. As a rule, if you’re not seeing deer, you need to move quicker. But if you’re only seeing flags, you’re going too fast.
Spot Hidden Bucks
For every moment you spend advancing, spend several times that looking. Begin by scanning 180 degrees ahead from flank to flank, watching for activity–the flick of a tail, bob of a head, or sway of a leg. Then systematically break down the terrain and focus on individual blocks one by one, searching for anything even slightly out of place–a white patch, a horizontal line in a sea of vertical stems, a solid gray block amid a brown mosaic of newly fallen oak leaves. Investigate with binoculars everything that doesn’t fit in. In open terrain, repeat the process, again using binoculars. Be patient. The longer you remain still, the more likely any deer ahead will move and reveal their location. Before pushing on, drop to one knee and take a look below the eye-level branches.
Follow the Deer
Early in the morning, work the downwind edges of old clear-cuts, mast-bearing stands, and other feeding areas. Try to keep the sun at your back, which both blinds deer and makes them easier for you to see. Follow existing trails whenever possible, so you can spend more time looking for deer and less time searching for quiet footholds. As the day progresses, gravitate toward thick bedding cover, moving through travel corridors and funnels as you go. As evening nears, reverse course and intercept deer as they go to feed.
Make a Buck Chase You
Scents aren’t just for stand hunting. Spray the bottom of your boots with a premium doe-in-heat scent, and lay down a heavy scent trail as you stillhunt. When you get to a draw, bluff, or open area, stop and watch your back trail. Blowing on a grunt tube can also help attract nearby bucks, which in circling your position might cross your scent trail and follow it.
Hunt the Wind
A headwind is the still-hunter’s greatest ally. It carries your scent away from deer, muffles your footsteps, and if it’s blowing hard enough obscures your movement with swaying branches and shrubs. But wind direction alone should not dictate your route. It’s better to hunt prime deerholding cover with the wind perpendicular to your path than it is to follow a headwind through open, barren terrain. Monitor the wind by tying a piece of yarn to your gun barrel and try to keep the breeze in your favor. Be alert for areas where terrain causes the wind to swirl or radically shift direction; do not linger there any longer than necessary. On calm days, hunt uphill in the early morning and late afternoon to capitalize on prevailing downslope thermals. Hunt downhill during midday, when upslope thermals predominate.
Shooting opportunities come and go in a heartbeat while you’re still-hunting, so you’ll have to take most shots offhand. Learn the correct form and you can shoot quickly and accurately.
1 If you’re right-handed, turn so that the left side of your body faces the deer and brace your left arm directly under your gun.
2 With the fore-end resting on the palm, lean back slightly and pull your elbow tight against your rib cage for support. Use your right hand to snug the stock firmly into your shoulder pocket, keeping your elbow level with your right shoulder. If the deer is moving, do not try to track it in your sights; instead, pick an opening that it will pass through, and hold there. When time permits, or the range is excessive for an offhand shot, drop to your right knee and brace your left elbow on your left knee for a steadier hold.
TRICK PLAY #4 THE SNEAK
Most hunters know to return to the woods to scout for the coming year before spring vegetation obscures trails and bedding areas. The best deer hunters understand that even this is too late. Actually, you don’t even need to go home. As legal light dwindles on closing day, drive immediately to the nearest taxidermist. You will almost certainly find a blood trail that ends at the steps leading to his freezer behind the house. Follow this trail backward using a powerful light, such as the Streamlight Ultra Stinger, which combines a sunlike 75,000 candlepower with the ability to recharge off your vehicle’s cigarette lighter. This ancient skill is no longer taught in outdoor schools because so few modern hunters have the patience and determination to master it. It commonly requires several tanks of gas, gallons of coffee, and endless creative explanations to enraged drivers behind you, but it’s trouble well worth taking. The trail will lead you to the home of a hunter, and ultimately to the woods where that fool took your buck.
No more scouting is necessary. Big bucks are like big large-mouth bass; when one is dislodged from a prime hole, another big one invariably takes its place. On the first day of the next season, rise early from your bed. Disable your competitor’s vehicle by employing nondamaging techniques (such as the potato-in-the-tailpipe routine or benign tire deflation). Return to the woods and reap your reward. Sure, it’s a lot of trouble, but in my experience nothing attracts luck better than old-fashioned hard work. –Bill Heavey