The nearly lost art of getting close.
For clarification’s sake, I’d like to talk about what stalking is versus still-hunting. Sometimes hunters will refer to stand hunting as still-hunting, as I will on occasion. But when I say still-hunting, I’ll be referring to moving very slowly and deliberately through the woods trying to spot animals before they spot you. Stalking, on the other hand, is often what still-hunting leads to. This is the active, and sometimes passive, approach to an animal once you’ve got them spotted.
Both stalking and still-hunting require extreme concentration, stealth, and alertness. When you’re stalking an animal, you have something to focus on—something that demands attention—but still-hunting requires the same concentration without any immediately tangible object of attention. We don’t know where, when, or even if we’ll find what we’re looking for. Maintaining concentration when there is nothing in particular to concentrate on is the most difficult aspect of still-hunting.
Still-hunting is a mental game. It’s really more about an approach to hunting than any specific techniques or strategies. I don’t think any other type of hunting requires the type of sustained attentiveness that still-hunting does.
We all have any number of things that occupy our minds every day, events going on at work and home that we constantly find ourselves thinking about. In order to maintain the level of concentration you need for effective still-hunting, we have to let go of these distractions and become immersed in the moment. We have to be here now, completely. It helps me to go out into the woods and sit on a log, or lie on the ground and do a little meditation. Concentrate on your breathing and imagine all that mental clutter flowing out of your body and into the ground with every exhalation. Call me crazy, but it works.
When we set out to still-hunt an area, we never know what might happen or when an animal might show up. It could happen a minute or four hours from now. That’s why it’s so important to stay alert and on the lookout. I can’t count the times I’ve started the day off hunting hard, really paying attention to what’s around me, being careful and quiet, only to spook something when my mind starts to wander. When I spook game, that’s usually why. My mind starts to wander, and when that happens, I’ll start making more noise, being a little less careful, and moving a little faster than I should.
To be honest, I can’t maintain that level of alertness for more than about an hour at a time. When you’ve done everything right and hunted hard for an hour or more, and then let your guard down for a minute and spook an animal, it’s a little depressing. When I catch my attention waning, I’ll stop and sit for a while. That usually does the trick.
Because I can’t stay on high alert for hours on end, still-hunting becomes about knowing when to slow down and take notice of all the little things. A lot of the time success depends upon gut feelings—when you’re moving through the woods and come to a place where, even though there are no physical indicators you’re conscious of to indicate their presence, you know there are animals around. You can feel it. Hunters get these feelings all the time. I think we’re picking up on subconscious memories sparked by our surroundings of places we’ve found animals before. When you get those feelings, you feel recharged and can spend another hour inching through a patch of woods. Sometimes you find what you’re looking for, sometimes not. Even though you might not find the animal, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Being able to gauge the freshness of sign will be a big help in knowing when to really start paying attention. When you come across gooey elk droppings, you know they’ve been there recently and are probably not far. A lot of the time you can smell elk as well.
Being able to still-hunt effectively depends on your ability to remain undetected, which is affected by a number of factors including terrain and vegetation. I do a lot of hunting on fairly narrow ridges where, by moving to one side or the other, I can use that topographic break to mask both sound and sight. The density and type of vegetation can also play a big role. There are tipping points beyond which good cover becomes too much or too little. Too much cover can be hard to move through quietly and, if you’re shooting a longbow, impossible to shoot in. You’ll often find lots of animals in those places, but they’ll usually be bedded and much more likely to see or hear you first. With too little cover, you’re just plain exposed.
I never still-hunt bedding areas when I don’t already know exactly where an animal is bedded. The odds are just not very good. Stalking a bedded animal, on the other hand, can be very productive given the right conditions. I do most of my still-hunting in early morning and late afternoon when animals are most active, or during the rut or other times animals are active throughout the day. Basically, I’m just mirroring the animals’ activity pattern. If they’re bedded down and you don’t know exactly where, you’ll just end up spooking game. It’s better to take a nap and wait for them to start moving again.
If you spend enough time around animals, you’ll eventually understand what they’re saying through body language. Are they alert, relaxed, or watching another animal? Ear and head position are a good indicator of mood, but there are others as well. Feeding, ruminating, and flicking flies are all signs of relaxed animals. You can sometimes calm lightly spooked animals with calls of other animals. When I’m hunting whitetails, I’ll usually have a turkey call in my mouth. I’ve had several experiences when I’ve spooked deer through noise and totally calmed them down with a few yelps. You could probably do the same with elk, although I haven’t tested the theory.
The way you move can be important as well. Have you ever tried to ride a bike as slowly as you can? You constantly have to make corrections, and you’re all over the place because you don’t have that forward momentum to keep you upright. Walking extremely slowly is much the same, especially on uneven ground. The way that we walk isn’t really conducive to slow movement; it’s designed to cover ground. When we walk, we’re constantly falling forward and catching ourselves with that next step. This is a problem when still-hunting for a couple of reasons. First, it’s hard to maintain balance, so you end up flailing around trying to stay centered. Second, if we’re relying on that next step to catch us, we can’t stop until we make that step. When still-hunting, we need to be able to stop instantly and completely.
To be able to do this, we need to shift our balance point to the foot that’s planted firmly on the ground. I keep my weight on the back foot, scan the ground with my peripheral vision, place the toe of the front foot, transfer weight, and make the step. This way, you’re always centered and can stop instantly at any time, so long as your weight is centered over the firmly planted foot. By placing the toe first, you can more easily feel for obstructions and lift the foot if you encounter one.
I’ve made it a habit to move as little as possible while I’m still-hunting. If you need to look, look with your eyes first, and then turn your head if needed. If you need to point to something, do it with a nod, not by throwing your hands up and flailing around.
When an animal does finally appear you’ve got to decide what to do. It’s usually best to do nothing, at least until you watch it for a little while to see what it’s up to. If an animal hasn’t detected you, it’s probably not in a hurry, and you shouldn’t be either. If it is in a hurry, there’s probably nothing you’re going to be able to do about it anyway.
What you do will depend on the conditions. If you’ve got favorable conditions—good cover, damp footing, a little breeze—it’s not too difficult to get within forty or fifty yards of deer and elk. After that, the difficulty of active stalking increases exponentially. I’ll usually watch the animals for a time, figure out what they’re doing and where they’re likely to head, and then try to get in front of them. With deer and elk, you don’t usually recover from a mistake within that 50-yard mark. If you snap a twig, you might not totally spook the animal, but they’ll remember that spot and constantly check on it.
You’ll need to pay attention to the clothes that you’ve got on. Some materials are much quieter than others. I’ve found wool to be about as good as it gets, and I’ve yet to find any rain gear that is totally quiet. Back when I lived and hunted in the south, I was a big fan of the L.L. Bean & LaCrosse rubber bottom boots with leather tops. They’ve got thin soles, so you can feel what’s under your feet. But if you’re going to be spending any time on a slope, especially on pine duff, they quickly turn into skis. You’ll spend more time on your butt than upright. I’ve had to move to a boot with a much more aggressive tread and a heel that isn’t the greatest for sneaking around because you can’t feel what’s underfoot. If you’re careful though, you can still be very quiet, even with heavy boots. Still, during a final stalk, I’ll often take them off and just wear my wool socks.
Stalking and still-hunting are skills that were once very prevalent in hunting. But, like so many other woodsmanship skills, they’re quickly being lost, rendered unnecessary by modern aids and techniques that don’t require years to master. But if there’s a crowd that can appreciate the hard work and years of dedication required to master a difficult skill, it’s the one reading this magazine. If you’ve never tried it before, prepare to be frustrated. But, like shooting the stick bows we so love, when things finally do come together the rewards are so worth it. Now get out there and get your stalk on!