Still-Hunt for Bad-Weather Whitetails

Stand-addicted bowhunters have largely forgotten how to effectively hunt afoot. Luckily the lost art of still-hunting is best executed when sitting is most unappealing.

Still-Hunt for Bad-Weather Whitetails

Western born and raised on a steady diet of spot-and-stalk game, there was a time for me when sitting in treestands was intolerable. When I began bowhunting whitetails — while attending Texas Tech University — I remained decidedly impatient. Sitting more than a couple hours, quite honestly, bored me senseless. More pointed, when action proved slow (most of the time, it seemed) I was convinced I could be making something happen elsewhere by hunting afoot. I resented what I considered the random luck of stand hunting. I wanted to earn success through applied skill.

I would eventually learn to sit for long hours, to actually enjoy the peacefulness of just observing, especially after moving to bona fide whitetail country and the adopting trail camera scouting. It’s much easier to sit patiently when there is some small assurance a desirable buck is occasionally appearing beneath a carefully placed treestand. 

Still, living in northern Idaho, where 30 percent of our annual moisture arrives in November in the form of chilly rain showers and snow, I frequently return to my bowhunting roots. Awaking to rain in the heat of the rut — conditions guaranteeing the most miserable treestand sits possible — usually signals a still-hunting venture. A fresh skiff of snow, with more swirling in the porch light also makes still-hunting a welcomed option with conditions ripe for ground-hunting success.

But Why?

I mentioned early Texas hunts, as they illustrate how productive still-hunting can be. I still-hunted nearly exclusively during my whitetail initiation because of a decided traditional bias and because I was young and impatient, but to be completely honest, deep down I knew sitting offered higher odds at success on trophy bucks. But there were other hurdles involved. Those college years were busy and cash was tight. I didn’t have time to scout. I didn’t even own treestands. Most importantly, finances didn’t allow the expense of a deer lease, feeders and the corn to feed through them — as is the standard Lone Star State approach. I bowhunted a scattering of marginal public areas, but mostly depended on the generosity of friends with leases, helping fulfill doe quotas that had become part of new-found quality deer management schemes. Understandably I didn’t hunt many feeders, and the nature of Texas habitats — featureless and brushy — made random stand setups low-odds propositions. Still-hunting was my option.    

Many of my hosts weren’t too wild about my ground-hunting ways, convinced I would spook deer onto neighbors’ properties. But I did enjoy some small amount of success, impressing them enough to warrant continued weekend invitations. No one entertained the thought of hunting in such a manner — and I can’t really blame them, as they enjoyed much more predictable results guarding feeders.

Fast-forward 30 years and I now use still-hunting to avoid the nastiest days on stand and impart a greater sense of accomplishment to any deer pursuit. But there is a truly practical side to this ground-hunting program. The coldest, wettest conditions possible — those promising nothing but misery while sitting — also happen to be the most productive while still-hunting.

Windy-Day Stalking

Like most people, I detest strong winds. In direct relation to deer hunting, you can certainly dress to avoid real suffering in wet weather (if conditions are not too still and deer will tolerate a bit of clothing rustle). Combating serious cold is easier today than it once was, hinging entirely on advances in insulating technologies. There are wonderful wind-barrier clothing laminates, but that doesn’t eliminate the annoyance factor. Gusty winds while on stand quickly get on my nerves. Yet, wind-filled days offer the perfect conditions for still-hunting, especially in drier climates or after fall leaves blanket the ground. 

The explanation is simple: Wind creates confusion. In a deer’s hierarchy of survival defenses — smell, sight, auditory — wind is the great equalizer. A strong front with consistent wind trajectory is less likely to create swirls and eddies like light breezes and thermals will. This lessens the occurrence of wind traps that unexpectedly give deer your scent, making it much easier to keep wind in your face, or even use crosswinds to approach deer. A rustling wind and jostling vegetation creates visually confusing surroundings that destroy a deer’s motion-detecting advantage. You get away with more movement while stalking, and obviously all that moving vegetation, and the wind itself, drowns out auditory acuity. 

A still, fall woodlot blanketed in crispy leaves advertises any movement like nothing else. Add a stout wind and moving across such ground undetected becomes feasible. The sound of snapping twigs, grinding gravel or clothing brushing through shrubs is drowned out. Wind even makes approaching deer lying low in standing corn feasible, in my opinion the only time this is truly viable. Windy days level the playing field for still-hunting.

Moisture-Dampened Footing

Add enough moisture and even the most cluttered footing becomes acceptably quiet. Ground holding ankle-deep oak leaves, pine-needle carpets, clear-cut slash or pickup-stick blow-downs all become viable stalking ground after a couple soaking rains or melting snow — often quiet enough that you don’t actually need nasty weather to make it happen while still-hunting.  

Right up there with high winds, cold rain or slushy snow makes stand sitting utterly miserable. I don’t care how many layers of waterproof wonder fiber you don because you’ll eventually grow wet and miserable. Becoming soaked one drop at a time, delivered down my collar, while also remaining completely immobile, is simply torture. Too, in my neck of the whitetaildom, deer just won’t tolerate any amount of clothing rustle. Many manufacturers claim silent designs and/or materials (and some do a better job than others) but in the context of super-wary, predator-pursued whitetails, this is seldom true.

Yet, getting soaked while on the move (generating warming body heat in the process) becomes more tolerable. When it turns especially wet and chilly, you’ll usually find me still-hunting.

The author spends a lot of time still-hunting deer after waking to discover freshly fallen snow. This has led to the discovery of countless productive stand spots, preferred bedding areas and overlooked honey-holes.
The author spends a lot of time still-hunting deer after waking to discover freshly fallen snow. This has led to the discovery of countless productive stand spots, preferred bedding areas and overlooked honey-holes.

Let It Snow

I’ll happily sit on snowy days (some of my most productive stand days have included copious snow). Still, there are days when waking to fresh snow inspires wanderlust. Fresh powder or slushy snow (not old, early morning thaw-and-freeze stuff the consistency of Styrofoam) is an effective insulator against noisy steps, while also soaking into vegetation to eliminate crunching and snapping.

I’m especially inspired to still-hunt when curious about a certain patch of ground or when deer patterns on a certain piece of property have remained unfathomable. Fresh snow creates a clean slate. It can help you learn more about your hunting area in a single morning than months of old-fashioned scouting. This is a proven way to scout and hunt at the same time.   

Snow-day still-hunting is largely how I managed to get a handle on intimidating big-woods mountain habitat after moving to Idaho more than a decade ago. Deer density is relatively low here and they tend to congregate in isolated pockets, despite nearly limitless habitat. We have no easily defined feeding and bedding areas (at least in the advertised Midwestern sense), and mossy, conifer-needle-blanketed and rocky ground further complicate matters.  

Our deer can also prove highly nocturnal due to intense rifle hunting pressure through the heart of the rut. Early on I did a lot of backtracking from known feeding sites after the first snows arrived, including limited agricultural fields and feeding sites (it’s legal to feed deer in Idaho, if not hunting directly over those sites). That snowy-day reconnaissance taught me a lot of what I know about how deer move through local topography, where they prefer to bed, rub and scrape. It also guided me away from more obvious hunting sites and into secreted pockets where I began to discover increased daytime deer movement conducive to stand hunting.

While all this enlightening scouting occurred, I was also hunting. It resulted in my first notable Idaho whitetail buck, a chunky, heavy-beamed 5x5 arrowed at 25 yards with a recurve.

This was the author’s first trophy buck after moving to northern Idaho, taken while still-hunting old-growth forest during a particular nasty winter storm. Wind and swirling snow allowed him to move into recurve range.
This was the author’s first trophy buck after moving to northern Idaho, taken while still-hunting old-growth forest during a particular nasty winter storm. Wind and swirling snow allowed him to move into recurve range.

The Art of Still-Hunting

Most bowhunters believe they know what still-hunting is about: Moving slowly and quietly through the woods hoping to encounter deer. This is about as accurate as saying that writing well is about knowing how to type and stringing some words together. Still-hunting productively is an entire state of mind. It requires practice to develop the patience required and especially the ability to sense nearby game. Stealth is certainly a huge part, but a still-hunting education is more about learning to shed the contrivances of modern living and opening all the senses to become a sponge of your surroundings. It isn’t easy because this depth of all-consuming concentration is difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain hour after hour. 

To become a truly effective still-hunter you must learn to truly see. I liken it to hunting morel mushrooms. The uninitiated steps over or even on many morels before developing an educated eye. Some have a knack for it, others, not so much. Part of this is employing the imagination. The unpracticed eye wants to see entire deer. Obviously the nature of cluttered habitats makes this unrealistic — and discovering plainly visible deer likely means they’ve also seen you. Effective still-hunting means developing the ability to detect deer through subtle ear or tail flickers, noticing a wet nose or glistening eye, recognizing the curve of a leg, the horizontal outline of a back against vertical trees or an antler glint. This isn’t feasible until you learn to truly slow down and visually pick apart landscapes.

Effective still-hunting involves more looking than moving. I don’t move like this across miles of habitat, of course. That would be exhausting. But trust your intuition, and old-fashioned sign. A particular patch of ground may simply feel “deery,” or smoking-hot sign may hint at the likelihood of deer. You then turn on the zen, probing more than stalking. For example, you might take three or five careful steps before visually probing 30 seconds. Binoculars are used to inspect suspicious objects, patches of color or movement. Sink to your knees occasionally for a change of perspective. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. 

High-definition vision is certainly a human’s strong suit, but trust in your remaining senses as well. Listen to what the forest is telling you. I employ Walker’s Game Ear, my hearing greatly diminished by handguns, construction equipment and rock ‘n roll. This is difficult for civilized people, our industrialized world largely muting this important sense. But by listening intently you’re more likely to detect deer moving through leaves, sneezing, snorting or grunting. I tagged my 2018 buck after hearing two bucks engaged in a shoving match, antler rattling sounds guiding me in my stalk. Don’t discount chattering squirrels or scolding jays, as they can also betray approaching deer.

Many discount the feeble human nose, but I’ve certainly sensed the musky scent of rutting bucks on a damp breeze, leading me to a choice scrape or letting me know deer were in the area. The most eerie of senses is our “sixth sense.” Many accomplished deer hunters laugh when I relate that I actively heed my inner voice. This little voice has warned me to freeze or nock an arrow just before an unseen bucks appears, approach a lip of ground more carefully, or probe a piece of brush a bit harder. Perhaps there is no According to Doyle ESP involved, latent instincts simply triggering something so subtle the conscious mind doesn’t pick it up, but it’s happened to me too many times to ignore.

Still-hunting is demanding, both physically and mentally. It certainly doesn’t promise the more reliable success treestands generally introduce. But still-hunting is without doubt more engaging, provides a fighting chance on nocturnal bucks snug in their beds — and is certainly more rewarding when things go according to plan. But still-hunting, especially on the nastiest days, can help you avoid creeping hypothermia and provide much-needed intel into areas you hunt, while also keeping you in the game.

With a week-long hunt winding down with little luck, the author expanded his hunting time by investing in midday still-hunting forays into likely bedding areas. This old management buck was the result.
With a week-long hunt winding down with little luck, the author expanded his hunting time by investing in midday still-hunting forays into likely bedding areas. This old management buck was the result.

Catnap Bucks

For those who just can’t get enough, or who are forced to deal with nocturnal deer, try still-hunting bedded midday bucks. This is still-hunting’s ultimate challenge but absolutely viable under the right conditions. This means stalking established or likely bedding areas using the techniques already detailed. A 100-yard-per-hour pace is about right. The intense concentration necessary for this mode of bowhunting makes hour-long hunts about the limit of effectiveness.  

Once a bedded deer is encountered a decision must be made: Back out and leave them in peace (if you don’t wish to shoot), take the shot, or sit tight and wait for them to stand. In nearly all cases the latter is best, as bedded deer are tricky, vitals often shielded by legs/shoulders or just not where you think they are. The greatest challenge, perhaps, is resisting the urge to coax a deer to stand, as this typically results in a fleeing animal, or string-jumping by a deer that is aware of your presence.

Sidebar: Stealthy Stalking

Stealth is obviously a huge part of successful still-hunting. But you can’t exactly bowhunt cold-weather bucks in thin-soled tennis shoes. Hushing clumsy hiking boots is easier after slipping on a pair of boot mufflers. “Stalking slippers” are boot covers that insulate the sound of crunching gravel or snapping twigs. Take, for instance, Rancho Safari’s Cat Prowlers. A high-top, zip-up fleece shell covers laces to eliminate potential tangles. Durable, furry “bear-paw” soles and a thick insole of insulating wool felt muffle noises under foot.

Boots suitable to cooler fall weather usually aren’t especially stealthy. Pull-over boot mufflers offer a solution, providing a quieting cushion between hard boot soles and crunchy ground.
Boots suitable to cooler fall weather usually aren’t especially stealthy. Pull-over boot mufflers offer a solution, providing a quieting cushion between hard boot soles and crunchy ground.


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