Kneeling motionless for what seemed like hours, my knees were aching as I waited for the right opportunity to move a little closer to the deer feeding barely 30 yards away.
Finally, I saw my opportunity to stand. While the blood rushed into my feet I searched for some sign of headgear. Suddenly the buck emerged from the draw beyond the does. In one fluid motion, I came to full draw, aimed and released the arrow. For several minutes, I remained motionless, taking in what just happened.
In two hours since entering the creek bottom, I had barely covered 100 yards. Standing in the shadows of a giant oak, I was searching the terrain in front of me when I noticed the slight movement of an ear swatting some imaginary insect. Kneeling beside the giant oak, I watched to see what would happen.
Still-hunting whitetail deer is fast becoming a lost art, victim of box stands and food plots. People are losing the art of moving silently through the woods.
I began my still-hunting career out of necessity rather than by choice. When I first began hunting whitetails, thick pine plantations and oak-covered ridges were abundant. Tree stands were in their infancy, and to be quite honest, the idea of bear-hugging a tree to get a better vantage point did not appeal to me, so I stayed on the ground. It was while sitting on logs, behind blowdowns, on stumps or in the crevice of a big, old oak looking for game, that I would often see deer beyond the range of my single-shot 16-gauge shotgun.
So I began to move towards them.
Often, the ignorance of a youth is a good thing. Had I read about hunting techniques, I would have stayed put. But my anxiety got the best of me; I would get up and begin moving along a trail towards the deer. Many more times than not, the deer would see me and the game would be over. But the failures taught me lessons that I practice today — with what I consider a pretty good success rate. Today, I still-hunt by choice. When the conditions are right, I leave the tree stand and hit the ground.
Moving silently through the woods is difficult; moving slowly is also difficult, but both can be learned and mastered. Doing them in tandem will often put you in position to kill a great buck.
When conditions are favorable, this can be your best chance at killing that buck that is avoiding your tree stand. Here are seven still-hunting tactics that will put more bucks in your sights.
Flowing creeks and dry creek beds provide great avenues for intercepting bucks. Greg Braselton of Greer uses this tactic late in the season in certain parts of his hunting lease.
“I’ve hunted this same land for over a decade, and I have learned that, especially in the late season, bucks will head to the cane thickets along the creek to hide from pressure.” he said. “To get them, I put on my hip boots and slip into the creek, slowly moving along its route to find unsuspecting bucks.”
Walking quietly through creeks or bigger streams, you can move right through the heart of big-buck country. Bucks are keenly aware of these arteries that flow through their home range, but seldom does danger approach along these path. Getting down into these creeks and waterways, you change your profile, often getting below a deer’s normal line of sight. This alone can help put bucks in range without them ever knowing you are there.
Cutovers or clear-cuts are common across South Carolina, and many hunters enjoy hunting them from high-elevation tree stands that put them in position to see vast expanses. But getting down into these cutovers can put you face to face with big bucks.
David Catoe of Lugoff has, for years, used cutovers to put big bucks on his wall.
“I like it when the grass, and undergrowth is about waist high.” Catoe says. “The deer feel like they are hidden, and you can literally walk right up on them.”
Moving slowly though these especially in the middle of the day, Catoe often gets to within a few yards of unsuspecting bucks.
“Sometimes, I’ll see their antlers barely sticking up in the undergrowth, then I make a plan to approach upwind and get as close as I can,” he said.
Using a shotgun and buckshot, Catoe has filled a wall with big bucks killed while still-hunting clear-cuts. Often, there are drains, or veins of hardwoods, that drain hilly land. They are often left when the land is cut due to wetlands restrictions. These hardwood drains are magnets of travel for bucks. Getting the wind right and slipping along these drains will many times put you in range of the buck of your dreams.
Slow, slow, slow
Barry Wensel, one half of the famous “Brothers of the Bow” outdoors television fame said that most still-hunters fail because, “They are moving too fast.”
He describes good still-hunting as being a “moving stand” and explains it this way. “
“A hunter should move so slow that he is really hunting a moving stand — it’s similar to stand-hunting, only the hunter is moving very slowly through the woods,” he said.
There are plenty of ways to slow down. The biggest mistake is trying to cover a certain amount of terrain during a hunt.
“Let the hunt dictate where and how you move through the woods,” he said.
I’ve heard still-hunters say that when they think they’re moving slowly enough, they slow down some more, spending much more time standing and looking than actually moving. Effective still-hunting is simply drifting through the forest, moving silently and slowly.
As Wensel says, “A whitetail will pick up on horizontal movement very quickly; the less you can move the more likely you are to remain undetected.”
So when you think you are moving slowly enough, slow down.
It should go without saying that still-hunting into the wind is a necessity. The wind cannot be marginal, or in most cases, you are wasting your time.
I love hunting in the rain. Some hunters head home when the clouds darken; I head for the woods. Nothing spells good still-hunting like a light rain after the leaves drop.
A mist or drizzle is best; the soft rain quiets the surroundings and puts many things in your favor, including making movement much less noisy. It also darkens the woods, making it more difficult for bucks to notice your movements. Last, it holds scent. Moving through the woods on drizzly or misty days will definitely put the odds in your favor.
One of the best part of hunting in the rain is that it levels the light. Bright, sunny days cause a lot of light to penetrate the canopy, and this light can make it tough to hide your movements. An overcast, or rainy day levels the light being transmitted into the woods, and this alone makes it easier for your movement to be hidden.
Other weather patterns that are conducive to still-hunting are those blustery days that occur in mid-October as the seasons begin to change. A sustained wind of 15 mph or more will hold deer tight to cover and keep them close. This type of weather really unnerves the deer and keeps their movement to a minimum, which creates a great opportunity to move into their area and try for a shot. Of the two weather patterns, rain is best, but it’s hard to beat a day when a steady, hard wind blows.
Camouflage is worn by most hunters these days, but to get close, it needs to be stepped up a notch, to a much-higher level. To kill big bucks from the ground on their level, hard-core tactics are necessary.
Wensel, who kills bucks in his native Iowa while still-hunting, believes camoflage is essential when you’re on the ground.
“I (wear) a ghillie suit when I still-hunt,” he said. “I need my outline to disappear, and nothing does that better than the ghillie suit.”
Perhaps the most important part of his suit is his hat.
“The hat hides the silhouette of my head, which alerts deer.” said Wensel, who admits that some hunters don’t like a ghillie suit but should at least use one of the new 3-D “leafy” suits that are not as bulky. Whichever you choose, full head-to-toe camouflage is necessary. Gloves, face cover, head cover, the works, anything you can do to break up your outline will put the odds in your favor. Wensel believes that when hunting bucks from the ground, no detail can be missed. The hunter has to put every advantage in his corner; no detail can be missed or he will not stand a chance. This is what makes still hunting so rewarding.
One of the most-common mistakes made while still-hunting is predetermining a course or route. Often, conditions change over the course of a hunt, and more times than not when you don’t adapt, your hunt will be fruitless. Trying to force certain things to happen will result in failure more than success. It’s better to back out of an area than to push ahead and educate the animals. Most dedicated hunters know that many times, the best plan is to back out and wait for better conditions.
A plan to hunt along a creek can change quickly when the wind shifts, an animal is spotted or a sudden change in the route emerges. Creeks that are too deep to cross, fallen trees, bluffs — all can make changing your plan the best course of action. Being able to adapt will more times than not lead to a more successful hunt. Trying to force your plan on changing conditions will almost certainly end in a failed hunt.
Wensel is adamant when he speaks of the attitude of the hunter.
“Maintaining a positive mind-set when still hunting (or any hunting for that matter) will help keep your focus and make you more aware of what’s going on around you.”
As Wensel concludes, “Killing a big buck, or any animal, while still-hunting is the purest form of hunting. The reward of the hunt is far greater than the size of the antlers; the thrill of having taken that animal while still hunting is the greatest trophy.”
Still-hunting can be a very effective tactic under the right conditions; it will leave a hunter knowing that while he or she may not be successful, they will finish their day knowing they have hunted well.