Still-Hunting: The Woodsman's Dance
Though it's certainly no Swan Lake, in a very real sense, still-hunting is the dance of the woodsman. Done properly, it is choreographed and precise. It's planned out so that every movement combines agility, grace, and stealth, so that each step, head turn, and pause serves an artful purpose - to collect venison.
A quick definition
A still hunter prowls the woods, river bottoms, marshes and field edges in search of deer. He moves through prime habitat with faith, and faith alone. He is certain that a deer is nearby, and he knows that if he moves carefully, and with the wind in his favor, he might earn a chance to shoot that animal before it is even aware of his presence.
Most commonly, it is a tactic employed by the lone hunter. But two hunters, one trailing the other by 100 yards or so, can also be very effective. In either case, skill, woodsmanship, and incredible patience are required to succeed.
Let's begin by conceding, that not every day is suited to still-hunting. Crunchy snow, frost, or brittle leaves can make stealth difficult. If the woods are crowded with hunters, it's probably best to still-hunt on another day too.
But if I wake up to a countryside blanketed with powdered snow or bathed in gentle rain, still-hunting suddenly becomes a very real option - since footsteps and sound is muffled. Soil-covered trails and crop field edges are also ideal for stealthy patrols.
All of these things, combined with the right winds and room to roam, amount to perfect conditions.
A little faith
The proper mindset is also critical. This means recognizing that deer can and will show up anywhere along your route, assuming, of course that you are in good deer country.
This recognition is important because if you have faith that deer are in the immediate area, maintaining the patience and focus required to still-hunt properly is easy. And, make no mistake; patience is key. Without it, you'll move too fast, make too much noise, lose your concentration, and alert every deer in the area.
On the other hand, having complete faith in your hunting grounds means you'll remain confident and in the zone.
One step at a time
The mechanics of still-hunting are simple: step forward, stop, have a good look around and then shoot if you see the deer you want within practical range. If you don't see it, repeat the process.
All this is easier said than done, however. First, you need to pay special attention to where you'll place your next step. You're looking for a path that favours quiet walking and a route that keeps you downwind of high percentage spots such as major trails, scrape lines, cedar swamps, old orchards, and isolated fields. Your rifle, bow, or shotgun should be at the ready too; things can happen fast.
Concealment is also important. Never walk through a meadow, for instance, when you can sneak in the shadows along its edges. Similarly, don't silhouette yourself on a ridge top. The idea is to ghost through the woods using terrain, foliage, and even distant noises to your advantage.
Any movement should be slow and deliberate; after all, you are trying to penetrate the defenses of one of North America's most wary game animals. Don't worry about covering ground either; instead worry about sneaking up on the unsuspecting deer that could be just over the rise.
If you're moving more than 200 yards an hour through good deer cover, you're probably moving too fast for stealth.
Each step in this dance is important, so pick up your feet; don't shuffle them. Put your heel down cautiously and then lower the outer edge of your foot, compressing rather than breaking or crunching twigs and leaves. Then, slowly roll your foot to the ground until all your weight is shifted onto that spot. Done correctly and deliberately, this will minimize noise. After a while, this will become second nature.
In any case, the snapping of twigs or the crunching of leaves, does not necessarily spell disaster. The truth is it's going to happen no matter how carefully you proceed. If infrequent, these transgressions are not a big deal. The woods, after all, are teeming with chipmunks, mice, chickadees, and squirrels.
As previously mentioned, background noises can help mask any sounds incurred by movement. If a chainsaw is being used in the distance, for instance, take a step when the whining is at its peak. If you create a really loud or unnatural noise (such as clanking metal on metal), freeze for a few minutes until the woods have settled down again, and then carry on.
None of this is of any use if you don't spot deer first. So, stop to take a long hard look around after each step. This might seem excessive until you consider that each new position presents a different vantage point into the deer woods. Old-timers prescribed looking around first from a standing position and then from a crouching position with each step forward. This is still good advice.
Most of us notice movement first - we see the easy things like walking or feeding deer. But sometimes, the flick of a tail or ear or a smooth horizontal shape is the only clue we're offered. That's why we need to pay attention to details and scrutinize every bit of cover.
I once noticed something different about a familiar apple tree at last light - the silhouetted trunk seemed much wider than normal at the base. It took minutes before the deer moved, but that simple observation allowed me to get a shot when it did. Which leads to another point - if it looks like a place where a deer could hide or should be, take your time and really examine it. The biggest buck I ever still-hunted up to held-tight behind a blow-down until I turned to look at something else. Then, at a mere 10 yards, he leapt up and bounded off in a truly dramatic and textbook example of how to break a hunter's heart.
Don't expect to see a full deer either - you rarely do. Often, the white edge of a tail, a leg, the top of a back, or some other body part is all that stands out. Examine any small movement that catches your eye too. What you thought was a squirrel, just might be the flick of a deer's ear. A blown down log, might turn out to be a bedded buck.
Also pay attention to your back trail and, in hill country, have a good look at the side hills. On occasion, deer you didn't detect will circle around in an effort to wind you.
And while you've stopped to look around, listen. The swish-swish-swish sound of ungulated hooves through brittle leaves can be heard at quite a distance. So can sparring.
Lastly, though it won't happen often, on occasion, I've actually smelled bedded deer before ever seeing or hearing them. If this is the case, get the rifle ready, it's close.
Still-hunting doesn't require much specialized gear. Clothing should be quiet, not too bulky, and reasonably warm. I prefer wool, but there are several excellent modern materials with similar qualities that will certainly do the job.
When it comes to footwear, it's hard to beat a broken-in pair of insulated hunting boots. If conditions allow, I sometimes don a pair of lightweight hiking boots. Whatever footwear you chose, solid ankle support is a must, and you should be able to step quietly in them.
I'll carry several essential items in a small daypack too. These include a knife suitable for field-dressing, a rope or deer drag, lunch, a few granola bars, a water bottle, extra ammunition, a flashlight, matches, extra batteries, a cell phone (if the hunting area gets coverage) and a topographical map.
Since your hunt might lead you into uncharted territory, a GPS and compass is also essential. The former is also useful to mark the location of a downed animal, should you have to leave it to get help.
When it comes to weapons, I prefer a lightweight, compact and fast-handling rifle or slug gun - which of the two depends entirely on what the terrain and regulations dictate. Use whatever firearm you prefer - just remember, you're carrying it at port arms for the duration of the hunt.
Still-hunting is not easy, but it can produce deer when no other tactic can. And, truthfully, I can't think of any deer that are more memorable or exciting than the one's I have taken while cruising through the woods. Perhaps that's because success in still-hunting is a true testament of your woodsmanship and hunting know-how.
This deer season, when the conditions are right, get out there give still-hunting a whirl. In this dance, two-left feet don't matter at all... so long as they're quiet.
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.