You need a Plan B when treestands and food plot vigils aren’t working.
When a herd of cows decided to camp out under Gary Smith’s northern Virginia treestand, he had no choice but to get down and move. It was still early in the morning, but instead of hustling to his backup stand, Smith decided to still-hunt his way along a ridge. It turned out to be a smart decision.
“I was easing along when I noticed something in the field that just didn’t look right,” he recalls. “When I put my binoculars on it, I knew right away it was a big buck.”
The deer was bedded in a thicket of tall grass, and Smith could see only its head, offering no chance for a clear shot. Instead of trying to get the buck to stand, Smith crouched down and crawled 20 yards to a stump that offered a good rest for his handgun. He waited patiently for 90 minutes before the buck finally stood up, presenting a perfect broadside shot at just 70 yards. The hunter put it down with one bullet from his Ruger Super Blackhawk.
It wasn’t the first buck he’s killed while easing through the woods. In fact, Smith has taken countless deer while deliberately sneaking across the countryside in search of whitetails. A lifelong still-hunter, he’s become adept at sneaking into gun range on some impressive deer.
Still-hunting isn’t a fail-safe method, agree Smith and Knight & Hale public relations manager Mike Mattly. Some days just aren’t right for still-hunting. Neither man tries it on calm, dry days. Every deer in the woods will hear you long before you get into shooting range. And Mattly, who lives in Iowa, will camp out in a treestand if the ground is covered with a crusty snow, a situation even more noisy than bone-dry, brittle oak leaves.
Instead, both hunters prefer either light snow or damp ground to help soften their footsteps. Throw in a little wind, and it’s a safe bet Mattly and Smith will be sneaking through their favorite woods in search of a bedded buck.
Both say wind is the most important ingredient in a successful still-hunt. Smith favors a steady breeze, while Mattly gets fired up when the Iowa wind is screaming across the countryside. A strong wind not only masks his noise and movement, it also pushes deer into predictable locations like swales and protected hillsides, where they hunker down to wait out the nasty weather.
“They are really reluctant to get up and go, even when they have been spooked,” Mattly says. “I think a mature buck will be more likely to stay put on a windy day than on a calmer one. If the conditions are real bad, you can be sure I’m on the ground looking for deer.”
That is, unless it’s early in the season or smack in the middle of the rut. That’s when it’s better to let the deer come to you. Smith adds that by walking through a woodlot early in the season, there’s a fair chance you’ll bump deer and throw them off their normal routines. Push them one too many times, and you might never see them again. However, in pressured situations like public land or during the waning weeks of the gun season, walking can be the only way to see deer, especially mature bucks.
“They don’t move much when they know they are being hunted,” says Smith. “That’s why I prefer to go after them, especially toward the end of the season. When the number of deer I see from my stand starts to go way down, I know it’s time to start still-hunting.”
Smith will, however, climb a tree early and late in the day, even later in the season, because he favors the middle of the day to poke around the farms he hunts. He’s not opposed to still-hunting in the mornings and evenings, he just prefers to move midday when deer are less likely to be on the move themselves. That’s partly because he’s a dedicated handgun hunter who needs to hold his gun against a tree in order to make a good shot.
“If I come across a deer that’s walking, I might not have time to find a rest before the deer is gone,” he says. “Of course, that’s probably not going to be a problem if you have a rifle.”
Smith admits he could carry a set of shooting sticks, but he prefers to travel as light as possible. He always keeps a pair of binoculars around his neck, and he uses them constantly, a key ingredient to a successful still-hunt.
Smith will make frequent and prolonged stops, taking as long as it takes to scan every bush, lay-down and thicket. He learned long ago that mature bucks bed in open woods because it allows them to see approaching danger. They typically lay against a fallen tree large enough to camouflage their bodies, but small enough to allow them to glance over it to check behind them for danger. That’s why Smith studies every fallen tree. So does Mattly, but he also scans the woods behind him.
“I learned to check behind me, even if I thought I was pretty thorough,” Mattly says. “I’ve had quite a few bucks jump up after I walked past them.”
It might take Smith an hour to travel 100 yards, or it might take him just a fraction of that. How fast he moves depends on the terrain and the cover within that terrain. Mattly is far more willing to move more slowly when he’s not entirely sure he’s scanned every nook and cranny, sometimes stopping after just two or three steps to look again. In many situations, that’s all it takes to reveal new hiding places that need to be glassed before moving forward.
“I’m constantly scanning the woods with my binoculars,” he says. “I look as far as I can see, but I also look closer than you might think you need to. I’m always amazed at how well a deer can hide in what seems like pretty open woods.”
He and Smith prefer to still-hunt open hardwoods because they can see distances of up to 100 yards or more. That’s important. Thicker cover such as cedar trees or dense patches of greenbrier and blackberries will hold plenty of deer, but they just don’t lend themselves to stalking. Not only is the cover extremely noisy, it’s virtually impossible to penetrate while attempting to scan the cover for a bedded whitetail. Instead, Mattly will skirt the edges of thickets, or he’ll walk a hillside that allows him to peer down into thick cover.
“I tried still-hunting thick cover when I was younger, but all I ever saw were tails. By the time I identified the deer, it was too late for a shot,” he said. “It just doesn’t work very well.”
Even under ideal conditions, neither expert will see every deer before it sees them. If Smith bumps a deer he didn’t see, he doesn’t give up and go somewhere else. Instead, he’ll just stop and stand still for as long as a half-hour. Sometimes, a deer that isn’t sure what spooked it will cautiously return. Mattly agrees. He’s taken quite a few bucks that stopped to take one last look to try to figure out exactly what spooked them.
“They’ll go 200 yards and stop, but they don’t stop for very long, so you better be ready,” he says.
If a deer keeps running, Smith will continue to scan the area with binoculars because there might be more deer still bedded. Does are more likely to bed in groups, and bucks tend to bed alone, but that’s not to say another buck won’t be nearby. An area that is appealing to one buck is likely to appeal to another.
“I immediately start looking for other deer when I see one run. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll see a buck still bedded after I’ve bumped a doe, especially around the secondary rut,” says Smith.
Sometimes, however, it’s a good idea to circle around spooked deer and still-hunt toward them. It’s a tactic that only works if conditions are right and you know the land real well, says Smith, but it can be highly effective.
“They’ll be more concerned about their back trail than where they’re going,” he said, “so if I can be there to intercept them, I have a good chance of getting a shot.”
As with any style of pursuing deer, there are no guarantees with still-hunting. One thing’s for sure, though. If sitting in a tree for hours on end isn’t your idea of a thrilling hunt, there might be a still-hunter inside you just waiting to sneak through the woods. Read Recent Articles:
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• Scrape Savvy: Is hunting over scrapes really worth your time? This article was published in the November 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.