Stalking Deer - The Forgotten Art
(Originally published in Western Sportsman)

© By Othmar Vohringer

Before the introduction of modern treestands stalking game was the only method of hunting and in some countries this is still the prevalent method of the indigenous people. While it is certainly true that hunting deer from treestands has proven to be the most successful hunting tactic for a number of reasons, there are times when spot-and-stalk can be more rewarding and productive. In open areas where there aren’t any suitable trees to hang a stand stalking up on deer is the only option available. There are other instances where I prefer stalking deer. The rut is one example where stalking can be more successful than sitting in a stand waiting for a buck to come by. During the rut bucks keep on the move all day long and it is hard to predict where they will turn up next. This is a good time to take the action into your own hands and go after the bucks on foot. Here is what I’ve learned over many years of hunting bucks at eye level.

The most common mistake aspiring deerstalkers make is to use still-hunting as a means to scout. Huge mistake. Still-hunting and stalking works best in an area that has been previously well scouted, where the hunter is intimately familiar with deer travel patterns, available food sources, bedding areas and the location of rubs and scrapes. Fail to scout, or scout incorrectly, and success becomes entirely dependent on sheer luck. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, can spoil a hunt faster and educate deer better than a hunter walking aimlessly around hoping to run into a deer.

Take Your Time
When you still-hunt leave the hectic mess of civilization behind you. Don’t look at the clock and slow down. If you think you’re already walking slowly you’re most likely still going too fast. If you move more than a half-mile in an hour you’re definitely walking too fast. Deer key in on movement and if they can see something move that doesn’t look quite right they will not stick around to find out. Spot and stalk is slow going. Plan on hunting all day long from dawn to dusk. When I leave camp before sunup I do no not go back to camp for lunch or an afternoon nap. That means packing a small lunch and eating in the field while I hunt. It is here where good scouting habits pay off in a great way; by learning where deer hang out in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Look All Around
More deer see hunters than the other way around. I am continually surprised how many hunters walk right past deer and then act surprised if it bolts right in front of them. The whole idea of spot and stalk is to see deer before they see you. Stop every two to three steps and make a 360-degree visual sweep around you. Use binoculars, even in thick cover. Learn to use the zoom feature to look through brush and trees to detect parts of deer that you would miss otherwise. Don’t look for whole deer. If you can see the whole deer it is very likely that the deer can see you too. Instead, look for parts of a deer such as the flicker of an ear, the glint of an antler, or a horizontal line. That brownish tree stump 50 yards away could be a bedded deer. The odd branch at the base of that tree 60 yards ahead could be an antler. Once you’re convinced that there are no deer in the immediate vicinity walk two or three steps more and repeat the above scenario. Yes it is that slow going.

Be Quiet
Deer have very sensitive hearing. Research has shown that deer can hear an apple falling off a tree a hundred yards away. To them the heavy footfall of a human must sound like thunder. Every unusual sound gets the deer’s instant attention. The cadence of a human walking rhythm is a dead giveaway to any deer. Walk like a deer by taking two to three short steps then stand still, take a single step and stand still again. With that you replicate the meandering gait of deer. Each time you stop look and listen carefully. Walk quietly. Use footwear that lets you feel the ground underfoot. I often wear just a pair of hiking boots that have thin soles. Before you make a step look briefly on the ground before you and memorize potential noise makers such as twigs and branches on the ground and try not to step on them. If you do make a noise by stepping onto a branch stand absolutely still for a few minutes, watch for movement and listen. Deer that heard the noise might get up. Wear quiet clothing like fleece that doesn’t make unnatural sounds when brushing against vegetation. I also carry a deer or turkey call with me. Should I step on a twig or brush against something I make a deer or turkey sound. This lets deer think that there is another deer or turkey nearby that made that noise.

Mind The Wind A deer’s number one defence mechanism is it’s highly sensitive nose. Deer can smell the faintest scent molecule floating in the wind current. To avoid getting busted, always be aware of your surroundings and try to evaluate the habitat in front of you. Think of the wind like water flowing in a river. This will help you to figure out what the wind is doing ahead of you. I always carry a small nasal spray bottle filled with unscented talcum powder. I frequently squeeze a small cloud of talcum powder into the air current and then watch carefully how it behaves. If I have the wind in my face where I am standing but the talcum cloud shows me that 100 yards ahead the wind will be in my back I am backing out of that area fast. Knowing the area I am usually able to circle downwind and resume hunting. Failing that I go to another area. To my mind it just doesn’t pay to keep on hunting an area where the wind is unpredictable. The best hunting is always where deer do not expect hunters, but once they know hunters are in the area it becomes that much harder to hunt.

Keep Under Cover
As you still-hunt through an area try not to expose yourself in the open, or walk in direct sunlight, or where you’re sky-lighted. Instead, stay in the shade, using every bit of advantage you have to stay hidden from full view by staying below a ridgeline, using trees and brush to advance. Wearing good camouflage including head, face and on the hands to blend into the surroundings will help to disguise the human outline further. When I scan an area I lean against a tree; not only does that steady my binoculars during lengthy observations but also hides me from direct view. If there are no trees or very few I drop to my knees to keep a low profile. It is also a good habit to not walk directly on the deer trails. I am not worried that deer could smell my scent from the boots because there is no human scent on the outside of the boots. The reason I stay off the trails is because they are more open then the immediate adjacent habitat. Walking off the trail gives you usually a bit more cover from the naturally suspicious whitetail.

Always Be Ready
When you stalk upon a deer, more often than not the encounter and shooting opportunity will be fleeting. Deer seem to have a sixth sense for danger. I’ve never encountered a deer, even laying down with its back turned to me that would not get up or look in my direction within a second or two. With that in mind always chamber a cartridge or put an arrow on the string before you start closing the gap between you and the deer. Be ready to shoot quickly as an opportunity arises as a deer that senses danger will not stick around for too long. It pays to practise various shooting positions as well as snapshooting before the season opens so that you’re confident to take any decent shoot that presents itself.

You spotted the Deer. Now what?
Now begins the most critical part of the hunt. Before you start to close the distance between you and the deer have a rest. I don’t know about you but when I see a deer my heart starts pumping faster. I rest to calm down but I do not sit idly and wait to relax. I use that time to survey all the possible approach routes. I am looking for a route that provides me with good cover. Before I start to stalk I also have to make some preparations, such as putting an arrow on the string if I hunt with the bow or chamber a cartridge when I use my rifle. Depending on the condition of the ground I may also take my boots off or slip an old thick woolen sock over it. Walking in socks or pulling them over your boots will muffle almost every sound as you walk.

When I am ready to take the first step I’ve already decided where I will put my first foot on the ground. I’ve memorized every possible noisemaker on the ground that I have to avoid. I make the first step and stand still against a tree trunk. Again I survey the ground in the immediate area before me to literally plan my next step. When I am ready for the next step I first take a look around me and at the buck. Why look around you? There is always the chance that other deer are close by which you haven’t seen before. When I am convinced and feel satisfied that everything is still okay I take the next step…and so it goes: one small step at a time until I reach the position from where I can take the shot. The emphasis on stalking is to go very, very slow, avoid any hasty movement; even swatting a mosquito will be detected by deer. Deer seem to ignore very slow movement but are keyed in on quick or erratic movement. To give you an idea of how long it can take to stalk up on a buck, last year it took me one hour to cover 50 yards, and that is about my average.

The Buck Sees You And Runs
Don’t worry, all is not lost. You might get another chance. Stop dead in your tracks and don’t move a single muscle or make a sound. Wait about 10 to 15 minutes then follow the buck in still-hunting mode. Deer that run from real or perceived danger will resume normal activity as soon they realize that whatever spooked them is not following them. When you commence following the buck pay particularly close attention to either side of you and behind you as spooked deer often circle around in an effort to find out what it was that spooked them.

Mix It Up
I often combine spot-and-stalk with stand hunting. As I stated above, I hunt all day but I time my still-hunting so that I can take my lunch at a spot where many trails intersect, such as a funnel or other structure that promotes frequent deer traffic. On such spots I select a natural feature, such as a tree stump or some brush that I can use as a natural blind. That way, while I am having lunch or just a short coffee break, I am still actively hunting. If the time of season is right I might even do some calling or antler ratting and use deer scent to attract a buck.

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