Is a hunter really hunting if they sit 15 feet in the air and wait to ambush a deer? Yes, they are —you won’t get an argument from me. But if that’s the only kind of hunting a hunter does, their deer hunting skill-set might be very narrow, and they’re missing out on one of the most rewarding styles of hunting one could ever try.
Among all deer hunting methods, the one most neglected is the old-fashioned art of still-hunting. You can count on one hand the books that have been written about it since the start of the 20th century. One of them is old enough to have been Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite. Published in 1904, it’s called The Still-Hunter, by Theodore S. Van Dyke (1842-1923), a close associate of the great hunter-President.
In light of Van Dyke’s volume numbering more than 400 pages, it’s fair to say you can’t learn to still-hunt from a brief internet article. And although I don’t consider myself an expert, I have some modest success under my belt and I can share some things I’ve learned along the way. You won’t be an expert at the end of this list either, but I hope you’ll be encouraged to get out and try it.
- Still-hunting is like learning to walk again. When you’re still-hunting you probably won’t do face-plants like you did when you were a toddler, but whenever you bump a deer you’ll feel like you have. Get back to taking baby steps. Abandon your normal gait—the way you’ve walked for 20, 30 or 40 years. Sometimes you’ll lift your foot and put it down almost in the same track. Learn to move through the woods like ooze.
- Choose opportune times. I can’t stress this enough. Certain times lend themselves to still-hunting more than others. If it’s afternoon, expect to see deer preoccupied as they move to feeding areas. If a mild drizzle is soaking the forest floor, get excited because the woods will be very quiet. If it’s snowing lightly, get very excited. The woods will be quiet, and in the snow your fluorescent orange isn’t as noticeable to deer as it is in brown woods.
- You need to focus. In a treestand, maybe you can afford to daydream because when a deer enters your field of view he is unlikely to notice you. In still-hunting, you must be much more alert. Imagine yourself entering a deer’s field of view with every step you take. That’s exactly backwards from what happens when you’re in a treestand taking no steps at all. You also need to be very aware of yourself, how you’re holding your rifle or bow, how your clothing fits, even what you touch. Don’t be distracted by more gear than you need—distractions rob you of focus.
- Realize that deer may be moving, too. Deer will often move into your field of view, so continually scan the entire perimeter of the area visible to you. When you’re doing it right, you’ll spend more time being still than moving. Maybe that’s why they call it “still-hunting.”
- Stop often. When you’re moving through the woods, stop often for a minute or two where visibility is good. Do not expect to use a tree for a shooting rest. No tree will be in the right position for a shot in any possible direction, and making that your intention will risk too much motion. Learn to use a shooting stick that you can quickly and quietly employ from a standing position. I use the Bi-Pod Shooting Stick—it also helps support the weight of your gun while carrying it. And remember that deer activity often picks up at edges of various sorts, such as field edges, rights-of-way, or habitat transitions. Stop there, clear a place on the ground, and watch for 15 to 20 minutes before moving on.
Deer often move along edges where habitat changes, for example from open hardwoods to thick hemlock stands. It’s a great place to stop for a while when still-hunting.
- Know what to do about the sounds you make. You will inevitably make sounds. You’ll step on a stick, your foot will suck muck, you’ll brush up against a tree limb, and you’ll cough or sneeze. When you make a noise, stop immediately. You may have caught the attention of a deer. Take a few minutes to scan 360-degrees around you. Look for parts of a deer—a leg, an eye, the twitch of an ear, the horizontal line of a deer’s back. Never let your footsteps fall into a cadence. Natural sounds in the woods are random. When your sounds or motions fall into a pattern, you will alert more deer.
- Use your ears. If a squirrel begins to chatter or a blue jay screams, they’re probably reacting to a disturbance—very likely it’s you. Stand still until everything settles down or the critter moves away. You don’t need animals warning of your presence.
- Keep your eyes up. While you’re moving is not the time to be looking at the ground. Decide while you’re standing still where your next two or three steps will land. The less time you spend looking at the ground, the more likely you’ll see a deer before he sees you.
- Use topography to your advantage. If you’re near a streambed, use the sounds of the water to cover your sounds. If you’re on a bench, don’t skyline yourself along its edge. Rather, move in a zig-zag pattern and peek over the edge periodically. When you slowly approach the edge, use trees to block a view from below. You’ll be surprised how often you spot bedded deer.
- Keep the wind in your face. This must be your first priority, but it’s way easier said than done. The good thing is that the wind doesn’t have to be hitting you head on. It can be as much as 90 degrees from your left or right, but if you can’t feel it on your face, deer will smell you and you’ve lost the game.
And that leads me to my Bonus Tip – On one memorable still-hunt I had to cross a field to get where I wanted to go, but I couldn’t keep the wind in my face. I bravely walked the field’s edge with the wind to my back and a thick patch of pines on my left. I kept my eyes on the far end of the field about 150 yards away where I thought some deer might be bedded. I was about halfway there when three deer stood up and ran to the left.
I knew they had to go down a small slope to a flat bench. I expected them to head for the brushiest place on the bench. I also knew that if I ran back to the corner of the field, I could quickly position myself where I could see into the brush on that bench. I arrived a few seconds before they did. With my still-hunting technique I actually drove those deer to myself, and I was able to fill the antlerless tag in my pocket.
I bumped this doe while still-hunting, but because I knew the lay of the land, I was able to predict where she would go.
So the bonus tip is this: be a thinking hunter. When you’re in a treestand, you can think about your job, your family, your future, virtually anything you want. You can even read this article on your smartphone. But when you’re on the ground, you must think about hunting. Always be asking yourself, “What are my options? How can I best cover this ground? Where are deer likely to be, or go, and what’s my best path to get there?”
Van Dyke wrote this about still-hunting, “the greatest and most important branch of the whole art of hunting has, I may safely say, been totally neglected by the great body of writers upon field-sports.” Today we have instructional videos, but they can’t teach still-hunting. Nothing you read is a replacement for experience. And picking up tips and tactics here and there is no substitute for practice. It’s no wonder still-hunting is still neglected more than a hundred years later. But if you make an effort to learn how to still-hunt, this “most important branch of the whole art of hunting,” you’ll join a fraternity of some mighty good hunters.