Still hunting for whitetails is, I'm convinced, a matter of character. No one technique is more effective than another, rather, some hunters are better suited to one style than another and so they're more adept at it.
For instance, I can't sit still long enough to let my morning coffee cool. Ask me to sit still in a tree stand for more than half an hour and I'll have whittled every branch within reach down to toothpicks. Because of this restlessness, I've never done well hunting from a tree stand.
Similarly, while rattling, calling and a number of other techniques can be extremely productive for others, they do little for me.
I still hunt because the technique suits me like a favorite wool sweater. And, in the three decades since I stumbled across my first living, breathing whitetail, I've refined, modified and tweaked my skills to the point where still hunting has become second nature. The fine tuning process continues, because there's something to be learned from every encounter with a wild, smart whitetail, but these days, I enjoy whitetail hunting more than ever before and that's saying a lot.
The trick is to spot the deer before they spot you.
In large part, that enjoyment stems from the gratification derived from every successful outing, gratification counted not just in the number of deer tagged, but also in those passed up. During the first two decades of my three decades as a deer hunter I made all the classic mistakes of a greenhorn -- I sat up past midnight arguing the virtues of my favorite calibers, I hunted in clothing ill-suited for the conditions, I relied on a basic sense of direction to keep from getting lost and I counted on my young eyes to spot whitetails, no matter how far. And I took the first legal whitetail that crossed my path, certain that it would be my only chance of the season.
But once started, the learning curve takes a steady and steep upswing and, with it, the number of whitetails encountered. Taking the first legal deer is no longer critical because it is likely not the only one spotted during the course of an outing. During the course of the last decade or so, I've come to the conclusion that successful still-hunting depends, in large measure on technique, but also partly through pre-season preparation and partly through being properly equipped. Leave out any one of these elements and the two others are compromised as well.
I start to prepare for the deer season in early September by paying frequent visits to a local game farm which has a small herd of whitetails in a wooded enclosure. By watching wander in and out of cover, by trying to spot them when they're bedded down in brush, I train my eyes to pick up the flick of a tail, the turn of an ear, the glint off an antler tine or just a small patch of fur through the bushes. It's a basic truth that the more deer you look at before the season, the more you see during the season.
For the bowhunter, pre-season practice is an accepted part of the preparation process, but many hunters who pursue deer with firearms feel that their pre-season preparations entail little more than a session or two at the range, making sure that the sights haven't been jostled off center and then, perhaps, firing off half a dozen rounds for practice. Granted, it's important to know that the gun is shooting straight, but what good does that do when you can't hold the gun steady?
Shooting requires that the hunter use the triceps, biceps and a number of other upper body muscles to support and steady the firearm; few jobs and no amount of jogging exercise these particular muscles. Yet, without proper toning, the shooter is unable to hold the firearm on target, be it slug gun or rifle, flintlock or percussion muzzleloader.
I start to work these muscles long before even my first visit to the firing range by lifting an unloaded gun to my shoulder and holding it there to the count of 60, then relaxing and repeating the exercise half a dozen more times.
Three or four of these sessions per week will do wonders for your shooting and, in turn, build confidence for actual hunting situations. (In the course of these exercises, I double check the chamber to ensure that the gun is empty and keep the action open to prevent any possibility of accident.)
Dress Well to Hunt Well
Confidence also comes from having the right equipment and that includes clothing. I cannot hunt well and find myself wishing I were back at camp if I'm cold or wet. And if the material of my garments hisses every time a branch brushes against it, I know every deer within hearing distance will immediately go into hiding. Face it, there's no way you'll avoid coming in contact with branches or bushes every now and then, no matter how careful you are, and that must be taken into account when you choose your outfit. I like wool best, though for warm weather hunting I favor of the new synthetic fabrics that offer a soft pile outside surface to muffle the slap of a twig.
I also favor a beaked hat to shade my eyes, substantially reducing eye fatigue. A still hunter relies primarily on his eyes to spot the deer before it spots him; that means probing intensely into the shadows near and far and squinting against the sun can cause considerable strain, especially over a period of three or four hours.
Speaking of eyes, if you're serious about deer hunting, invest in the best compact binoculars you can afford. I say compact rather than pocket binoculars because the latter spend most of the day in your pocket rather than at hand, where they should be. Compact binoculars are much clearer and easier on your eyes and, cinched up short to ride high on your chest, they're always handy. During the course of a day's hunt, I probably spend three hours or so peering through the glasses, not just to look at deer, but to identify a curious shape, an out-of-place texture or understand a flash of movement in the brush. Whitetails have a unique ability to blend into their surroundings, but a good pair of binoculars can provide the contrast needed to make the animal stand out.
Binoculars & Compass
A few seasons back, on the opening weekend of the deer season, my binoculars served me well by producing a fine eight point buck that I might have passed up as just another stump through the heavy brush. In fact, at first glance, I shrugged it off as just another rotting stump, but something about the texture bothered me. After several minutes of careful scrutiny I finally realized that the stump was indeed a bedded whitetail. Probing even more intensely through the thick screen of branches, I finally made out the neck and head of the animal and that allowed me to look for antler. Using a set of pocket or bargain basement binoculars, the eye strain might have discouraged me after some five minutes or more of peering intently through the specs, but with good optics I finally made out the base of a fairly heavy beam, heavy enough to convince me that I was looking at, not only a whitetail buck, but a fairly good one at that. This and many a similar incident have reinforced my conviction that I would no sooner leave camp in the morning without my gun or bow than without my binoculars.
Binoculars are essential to effective still hunting.
Same goes for a compass. No matter how good your sense of direction, you cannot hunt hard and keep track of your wanderings at the same time. When hunters tell me they don't need a compass, they also tell me that they rarely step far off the trail or bush road and that, sooner or later, they'll spend a night in the bush. With a reliable compass at hand, I can concentrate on finding those big bucks which rarely linger beside the well trodden path.
All of this preparation and attention to detail is essential to effective still-hunting since, without it, the still hunter depends primarily on luck to fill his tag and luck can be with him one day and against him the next. The second half of the success formula, however, lies in actual hunting technique.
A great deal has been said and written about the proper speed for still hunting and the overworked bit of advice is to proceed as slowly as you can and then cut that pace in half. I don't subscribe to that at all; rather, I believe that a still hunter should travel at whatever pace his level of skill and the nature of the surroundings allow. I hunt with the premise that there is a whitetail buck within 100 yards of me at all times, that it is strictly up to me to detect it before it spots me. If my pace is right, I'll see that deer sooner or later, but if I hunt too slow, I'll spend unnecessarily long in any particular area.
The first consideration in setting the pace is the skill with which the hunter moves and is able to spot game. We may as well resign ourselves to the fact that we will never be drift like a spectre through the autumn woods; that's a physical impossibility. Nor is it essential. A veteran hunter who racked up more good whitetail bucks before I was born than I can hope to tag in my lifetime and did it all without the benefit of cover scent, doe scent or anti-UV soaps, once told me that the secret is in the cadence of your step. A slow, relaxed cadence is a natural sound in deer country, while a surreptitious or, conversely, an intense, purposeful cadence signals danger and instils fear in the game. Using this concept of cadence, I've walked up on wary whitetail bucks when the dry leaf litter was ankle deep and I took one of my best deer while hunting on badly crusted snow that crunched noisily with every step.
That's not to say you can bulldoze through blow-downs and snap every sere branch that lies in your way. Deer themselves break twigs every now and then, so the sound itself does not alarm them, but if the sound is too frequent, too loud and too determined it becomes an alarm signal. Practice reasonable care in selecting your footfalls and, if you do happen to inadvertently snap a twig, freeze and let the sound work for you -- it might trigger the twitch of an ear, the flick of a tail or a feeding whitetail might raise its head in curiosity.
The ability to spot game is another factor that determines the pace. Early in the season, I tend to move much slower than late in the season after I have a few weeks of hunting behind me and my eyes become more accustomed to the shapes and shadows of the deep woods and the backwoods. A good gauge of how well you're doing is in the number of deer you spot -- if all you see is flags, you're walking much too fast; if you spot the deer before they bolt, a bit of moderation is in order and if, more often than not, you see the deer before they see you, then you've hit the right pace, you've mastered the technique. Pre-season visits to a game farm are a tremendous help in training your eyes to see deer, but nothing beats the accumulated benefit of days spent in the places where whitetails live.
Buck, yes. But how big and what about the second deer?
Fast or Slow
Another consideration is knowing when to move fast and when to go slow. It's difficult to establish guidelines since this is primarily a case of gut feeling. It's basically a matter of maximizing your time and effort. Some cover always holds deer and other cover almost never, so, in order to minimize wasted effort, the hunter should travel quickly through the latter in order to spend as much time as possible in productive cover. Hence, I hunt quickly at times and slow to crawl at others. Again, the nature of the likely cover also determines the pace -- if it is open hardwoods where visibility is good, I proceed faster than I would in thick, dirty bush where the deer are easily hidden from first glance.
While whitetails are fairly calm about the world they perceive through their eyes and ears, they respond instantly to the scents that waft through their domain. I'm convinced that scent positively identifies the intruder, while sounds and movements, which are a normal part of their daily lives, do not. It is a basic truth that the still hunter who does not pay attention to the flow of air through his hunting area will come home empty handed no matter how well he has honed all other skills. On several occasions, I've watched whitetails try to identify the strange creature in their midst by examining me from every possible angle, by snorting and stamping their hooves to trigger a reaction, by nibbling on tender shoots in feigned carelessness and finally circling around downwind to catch my scent. When they did, the outcome was invariably identical -- they bolted, flags flared and high.
Watch the Wind
There is no alternative to keeping the wind always in your favor, dousing yourself with cover scents and washing with soaps that break down your body odor simply provide false confidence. Face it, no human will ever be so scent free that he becomes undetectable to the incredibly sensitive nostrils of a whitetail and the use of cover scent simply compounds your own detectibility. The surest, most effective way to avoid detection is to keep the breeze in your favor. That doesn't necessarily mean that you must keep the wind in your face; I've taken several bucks while hunting crosswind. It does mean however, that you may as well sling your gun or bow over your shoulder if you feel the wind on the nape of your neck.
Knowing when to hunt is as critical as knowing where to hunt. I generally try to be in my hunting area just prior to first light and continue to hunt until shortly after lunch, knowing that, unless heavy hunting pressure has forced them to go nocturnal, they'll be active not only during the first hour of light, but right through to midday. If the situation allows, I try to head back to camp for lunch and perhaps a siesta to rest my eyes and then try to be back in the sector by about mid-afternoon to hunt right through to the last second of legal shooting time. During the first hour or two of the afternoon hunt, I look for deer to be bedded and during the last hour or so, I look for them in their feeding areas or close by. My hunting companions know by now that if I show up at camp before nightfall, there's work to be done.
This fine whitetail was taken by still hunting.
Look around you at any deer hunting camp come opening week of the season and you'll easily pick out the still hunters from among others. He turns in early, foregoing the card game and avoiding the never-ending argument over best calibers. He's up early, wide awake and anxious to get going; he's dressed for the weather conditions and, on leaving camp, binoculars and compass are as much an integral part of his equipment as is bow or gun. He leaves early and comes back late, usually with a story to tell.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.