Careful, deliberate movements are key when still-hunting. Stay low whenever possible.
In today’s world, the vast majority of deer hunting is done from elevated stands, which in reality might more accurately be described as “sits.” For the most part, stand hunting is a waiting game, although rattling, grunt calls and the use of various scent attractants do involve some active approaches on the part of the hunter.
This kind of hunting was not always so ubiquitous; what were once common methods, namely still-hunting and stalking, have for the most part been abandoned. Yet in certain situations and geographical settings, these approaches might be the best ways to get within range of whitetails.
In one fashion or another, all traditional methods of deer hunting involve taking the action to deer as opposed to waiting for them to come to the hunter. Up until the last 40 years or so, it was how American hunters put venison on the table.
Still- and stalk-hunting placed a premium on superior woodsmanship. I’ll flat-out guarantee that anyone who takes to the whitetail trail using still-hunting and stalking techniques will improve his woodscraft skills to a significant degree.
The finest deer hunter I’ve ever known always hunted afoot. Joe Scarborough moved through the woods like a ghost. He was so quiet, so attuned to his surroundings, that his customary method involved shooting undisturbed deer in their beds. On top of that, he invariably shot them in the eye.
Of course Joe had been a sniper who spent three tours of duty in Vietnam, and his woodsmanship was so outstanding that when walking through the woods in front of him, I constantly caught myself looking back to check whether he was still there. The man exemplified the concept that “silence is golden,” at least in a woodland setting. Most of us will never achieve similar levels of unobtrusive oneness with the world about us when hunting whitetails, but at least we can strive to do so.
In the course of a typical day Joe would cover a lot of ground in a measured, unhurried fashion. His was constant watchfulness, ever alert for an ear flick, a glimpse of a tail or the glint of sunlight off a tine. Similarly, there was always a lot more watching than there was walking, but even so, he could cover a lot of ground in the course of a full day.
For Scarborough, as for any skilled hunter afoot, the quest takes on new, challenging dimensions once a deer is spotted. If the animal is within range and a clear shot is available when it is spotted, obviously all that is required is easing the gun into position and making an accurate shot. Otherwise, it’s time to stalk to within range. This might necessitate a belly crawl, a strategic retreat to take a roundabout route to a suitable site, or some other tactic. Whatever the choice, it’s an extended equivalent of a bowhunter picking a moment when he can make his draw unseen.
Whether stalking, still-hunting or employing a combination of the two, one distinct advantage is the ability to hunt into prevailing winds. A fixed ladder stand or tripod offers no such opportunity to adjust to the vagaries of shifting or changing winds. When a front approaches, bringing winds from a different direction, stand hunters sometimes find themselves at the mercy of the deer’s first line of defense, its sense of smell.
You’ll need vegetation to cover your movements when you’re on a stalk. Keep your eyes on constant watch for the slightest hint of movement ahead.
Even if hunt from a fixed location, you can still incorporate some still-hunting techniques. Rather than walking hurriedly and heedlessly from a stand after a morning session, or while en route to a stand in the afternoon, take your time — lots of it — to cover the ground between your vehicle and your hunting station. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how productive this might prove to be, and it has additional advantages, including avoidance of getting “sweated up” and reducing the likelihood of spooking deer.
While on the ground, be constantly alert for movement. Ease to the top of every hill and each turn in a trail or road with great caution. Use vegetation to cover your progress as much as possible, and in general allot some extra time get to and from stands.
Never overlook taking a water route to deer. As is the case in many regions of the country, pressured deer near my southern home regularly seek refuge on islands in larger rivers, on elevated hideaways in flooded river basins or swamps, or in thickets bordering small streams flowing through remote regions. Often the only feasible way to reach deer in such habitat is to paddle to them using a canoe or johnboat. Hunters with sufficient gumption and a willingness to go the extra mile (or maybe several miles) can ease into an area without making much noise, leave their watercraft, and hunt afoot from that point. Then, too, a canoe or johnboat offers a much easier way to get a deer back to civilization than a long drag over rugged ground.
Obviously there are times when turning to the traditional approaches to deer-hunting will be impossible. Yet in many situations the varied options offered by still-hunting or stalking can serve the hunter well.
Potential downsides to traditional approaches include safety considerations and the possibility of interfering with other hunters. Generally speaking, the techniques described here should be employed on private land, where you know you won’t encounter another hunter. However, for the really venturesome sportsman of the sort who gets back of beyond on a regular basis, doing this on really remote stretches of public land might be considered. In any case, wear plenty of hunter-orange attire and take care not to intrude where someone else might be hunting.