How many of you have heard another hunter say that you can’t sneak up on a deer? Or heard that you have to call a moose to you because their hearing and sense of smell is just too good to approach them? I beg to differ. Stalking is a very effective method of harvesting your big game animal and with a little training and practice it’s not that difficult. I have taken many deer by stalking in fact and if you keep reading I’ll share with you the tips and tricks I have learned to get within effective shooting range of this wary ungulate.
If you are going to be an efficient game stalker the first thing you need is good clothing and boots. In this case ‘good’ means well camouflaged, flexible and very quiet. Camo that matches the season and vegetation in your hunting area is an obvious consideration. You also need to make sure that the fabric is quiet when you rub it together or on anything else. Your boots must be flexible enough so you can step quietly and feel what you are stepping on. Hunter orange is required when hunting big game during the gun season so make sure you have a hunter orange vest and hat and that it covers a minimum of 400 sq inches and that it is visible from the front and back. A hat with a peak to shield your eyes along with camouflage facemask and gloves are also something not to leave home without when hunting and especially stalking. Your gun or bow can also benefit from some camo tape if it is not already sporting a camo finish.
Remember to make sure that your equipment is quiet as well. Anything that rattles or squeaks when you walk or move should be silenced. Tape your zipper tangs and silence anything that moves on or in your backpack or pockets. Even a floppy pair of boot laces can get you noticed by the sharp ears of a whitetail deer! Your bow or gun should be checked for loose parts, and tighten anything that makes noise when you shake it. I even have a piece of felt glued to the plug in my shotgun magazine. Things that hit together in your pockets or on your person might be unnoticeable to you but a deer can hear a mouse sneeze at 300 yards so it’s imperative to silence your gear.
Now that you are invisible and silent you need to think about scent. Obviously you are going to try to stay downwind but a sudden change of wind direction can get you busted if you are not prepared. Good clothing like Sitka Wear can really help kill human odor with the microbial silver sewn into every layer. Washing all your clothing in scent eliminator clothes wash is another very helpful precaution. I have found that the spray on scent eliminators are good as a bonus when you arrive at your hunting area and get out of your vehicle. You never know what kind of odors you might have picked up while travelling in your vehicle or from your fellow hunters. Masking scents are, generally speaking, not my cup of tea, as I would rather smell like nothing than like another animal. You must realize that deer can smell skunk or fox masking scent and it will alert them. I have seen deer watching both skunks and foxes that they have scented and personally I don’t like to give them any reason to look in my direction.
Now that you are quiet, camouflaged and nearly scent free comes the real work of figuring out how to sneak up on a whitetail. In southern Ontario where I hunt there are woodlots and cedar bush mixed with agriculture, which is about as good as it gets for stalking. I like to start from a tree stand or high ground where I can glass a large area. I also prefer to be in my glassing spot at least 45 minutes before legal shooting time and to go in quietly without a white light. I use a muted red lens on my flashlight, as this is nearly invisible to deer and much less likely to alert them. Make sure you have some powder wind checker as wind direction can be fickle and it can be undetectable at times without your magic powder. Really good binoculars are essential kit for stalking and glassing in the dark can be productive while waiting for first light. I use 8X42 Steiner Peregrines because they are excellent for looking into bush and low light conditions. The 8X are all you really need for stalking. When glassing in near dark watch for the telltale white flashes on the rear and throats of the deer. You will likely be surprised at the deer movement in open areas before sun-up. This early morning scrutiny can help you determine a course of action when shooting time arrives.
At legal shooting time you might have already seen deer exit the field and animals may still be present in the field. If you know where they are going then move to a position that will allow you a shot when they move out of the field. Plan a route that will give you the most cover and keep the wind in your favor. Use your wind checker once you are on the ground, before you move. If you are stalking fields or agriculture try to use vegetation like trees, fencerows with rocks, weeds and brush, or low areas to shield your movement from the sharp eyes of the deer. Resist the temptation to keep popping your head up or out from behind things to check on the deer, this is the most common mistake that people make when sneaking up on any animal. Prey animals have an uncanny ability to see and feel your eyes, so once you have spotted them be careful to shield your eyes with the peak of your hat and mask. Keep your head down and look at the ground because picking the quietest spot to place your feet is also very important. They have ears like satellite dishes and the snap of a twig or a heavy footfall can cause them to vanish before you are within effective range. If you are in a place where you can see them, remember they can also see you. If you do see them with their heads up, stop moving and stay low. Lie down and use the grass for cover if you must. They will sometimes be in what I call “nervous standby,” standing like statues for minutes on end. This does not necessarily mean you are busted; just put your head down and wait. Don’t move, watch their body language, carefully keep your eyes shielded at all times and when they relax and look away or down then resume your stealthy advance.
If you are stalking in cover, like a forested area, this is actually harder than open areas because you cannot see as far. It is often quieter and the wind is more likely to swirl and change direction. You will probably find yourself in this situation as the day proceeds and the deer have moved into cover. Mid-morning will have the deer laid up in day beds napping or chewing cud and watching warily. Glass carefully and look for “horizontal lines” as the top of a deer’s back will stand out in the forest, everything else grows up and out. Also watch for ears eyes and antlers, as these might be the only things you can see if the deer are bedded. The ears will constantly be moving and the white hair on the inside is very noticeable in cover and in low light. The black circle of an eye is also a different shape from everything else in the bush. Spotting a set of antlers will cause your heart rate to go up dramatically! Stay calm, and be sure of your target. “Buck fever” can lead even the most experienced hunter to see an illusory trophy rack amidst brush and bramble. I have often had deer stand up out of beds while stalking through cover on field edges, and where there is one there are more so always be ready. If the deer does not know where you are it will hesitate to look around. They will not run if they can avoid it. Deer need to pinpoint danger so as not to run toward a threat and this gives you vital seconds in which to decide to shoot or wait.
If you spot a deer before it spots you, don’t swing your gun or bow up immediately and don’t drop to the ground either as any sudden move can alert it. You should freeze and avert or close your eyes to avoid that proven connection between predator and prey. If you are close enough for a shot and you have a tree between you and your target, avoid looking or stepping around the side, or swinging your gun up, as you’ll risk spooking the animal. Instead, keep your body sideways and behind the tree and move slowly back away from the tree, this will make your profile smaller so the tree can cover your movements completely and you can then position your body and get your gun up or draw your bow. As you move to the side for a shot you are a much smaller and less noticeable object and you are ready to shoot. Hopefully you will have stalked to a position that allows a shot at an animal that’s totally unaware of your presence. In this situation take your time, find a good rest for your gun and control your breathing before your shot. If the deer are moving and you have an opportunity for a quick shot within your effective range a soft bleat will often stop them. You can make this sound easily, just pretend you’re a sheep but substitute the ‘baa’ for a ‘maa’ sound! Finally, remember to visualize your shot and to wait for the broadside shot with the near leg forward.
I won’t get into follow up shots or what to do after the first shot. I’ll leave that for another post.
Stay tuned for my upcoming blog on tracking; another long-winded narrative that will hopefully help you elevate your game.
Big Red Out.