Stalking Whiltetails or putting my “Mohican sneak” on, as I like to call it, is the most challenging technique for deer hunting. My stalks are typically the result of opportunity or out of desperation. Although I am far more successful as an ambush predator, hanging out in elevated treestands or ground blinds in wait of a passing deer, the stalks that I have attempted were just as, if not more, thrilling.
Over the years I have attempted to sneak up on many wiry whitetails. While most ended in failure, I was able to connect on a few and when I didn’t there was always a lesson to be learned. I’d like to share the do’s and don’ts that have helped or hurt me over the years so that you may add them to your arsenal and maybe save another blown opportunity.
The most important part of any shooting opportunity on an animal, whether it be from a treestand or on a stalk, is taking a clean shot. When crossing terrain on foot and inch by inch, it is a different perspective than looking down from above. Odds are there will be more brush, tall grass, low hanging limbs, etc that can obstruct your view and the arrow’s path to the deer’s vitals. The same vegetation that helped you get into bow range can quickly become your biggest obstacle once your there. Be patient and wait for the deer to move into a clear lane.
Also a deer may not want to cooperate and fail to offer you a good shot. It seems to never fail that when the deer walks into a clear shooting lane and you draw your bow, he then turns towards you, straight away, or even beds down. Now you do not have a good angle to make a quality, high percentage shot. Again, nothing to do here but be patient and wait. I am guilty of forcing a quartering to me shot on a doe after I had stalked her for over 200 yards. Luckily I was able to find her but it put all my tracking skills to the test and ended up in a much longer drag than should have been necessary. That may not always be the case.
When to Draw
If you are successful in getting into bow range, when should you draw your bow? I am not a fan of drawing ahead of time and walking in the last few steps. Typically this has only resulted in me being exhausted before the shot presents itself and having to let the bow down. If you manage to get in range of a bedded deer, draw as soon as he begins to stand. The deer will almost always offer a view of the vitals and pause just long enough to get an arrow off. If the deer is up and alert or moving, then standard draw opportunities apply. Wait for the deer to go behind a tree or brush or turn its head away before making your move.
Beware of your Weapon
In any aspect of hunting, safety always comes first. While on hands and knees through briars or crossing an open field, broadheads can slip or you could easily lose track of the direction in which you muzzle is pointed. This can lead to dangerous situations, so always be mindful of your weapon.
Also remember your weapon’s limitations. Avoid bumping your scope, breaking pins on your bow sight, bending your release under your hand, prematurely opening mechanical broadheads, all things that I have done and only realized 200 yards and 45 minutes later when I attempt to take a shot. I first started muzzleloader hunting with a side hammer percussion, Hawkins style rifle. After watching two very nice 8 points from my treestand 350 yards away and realizing that there was no chance of them ever making it into range before dark, I eased out of stand and started to move. I circled out another 100 yards to put some elevation between us and get the wind. When I was only 150 yards out, I ran out of cover and belly crawled the last 90 yards. When I rose to take the shot at the 18″ wide heavy buck, standing broadside, all I got was a misfire and the heartbreaking sight of the bucks making a mad dash back into the creek bottom. The wet ground, from the evening rain, soaked my powder. It took two more caps to get the rifle to fire.
Selecting the Right Conditions for a Stalk
Before you can take the shot, you have to get yourself into position. I am an eastern whitetail hunter and have watched on TV shows and read in magazines about the spot and stalk hunts out west for elk, mullies, and pronghorn that take place over a mile or more. Well, I usually can’t see more than a few hundred yards so determining the best route to a deer seems more simple but is based on the same fundamental principles.
Let’s face it, the deer will smell you long before he can see you. So if you alert his nose you might as well head back to camp. ALWAYS get the wind in your favor before beginning a stalk. Ideally the deer are moving in a direction that will allow you to get ahead of them and wait in ambush with the wind in your face. But if you have to play “catch up” to keep the wind right go for it. I am a scent control freak but that is no replacement for wind direction.
I was returning from an early morning september bow hunt with my good friend and cameraman Levi, when we jumped a doe and a fawn from the edge of a standing soy bean field. The fawn ran into the brush while the doe stopped in the beans and after a few minutes, resumed feeding about 80 yards from us. I told Levi to stay behind as at the time he was new to the woods and had never been on a stalk, even a short one. Plus there was no cover to hide behind, only a wide open sea of green. I kneeled down, took off my pack, unpacked an arrow and removed my quiver from my Hoyt bow to lighten the weight. I knocked the arrow and set out towards the doe. I only moved when she put her head down to feed or turned away, keeping myself as low as possible. The wind was in my face and just strong enough to help disguise any noise as I cautiously worked my way through the tangled beans. Finally, after 30 minutes, I ranged her and she was 30 yards. I was feeling greedy so I inched out 3 more yards and drew my bow. I waited at full draw for what seemed like hours but was only a few seconds before she took one step away and offered a clear quartering away shot. the arrow found its mark and the deer ran 75 yards and collapsed. The video was recorded on an old 8mm tape. I haven’t had it converted to a digital format yet.
Getting the wind right or cutting a deer off may be made even more difficult by those pesky property lines. Most of my stalks were over before they began because the deer was heading too fast towards a neighbor’s farm or to get a good wind I had to cross adjacent properties. If you don’t have permission, stay off other people’s property.
Knowing Your Yardage
I think one of the greatest inventions for deer hunters has been the range finder. I use them faithfully whether hunting with a gun or a bow. It saves us all the trouble of walking off distances and laying down scent around our treestands. It is even more valuable on a stalk. When stalking deer you often cross uneven terrain which can deceive a hunter’s perception of distance. Wide open flat terrain is also very difficult to judge as well as steep shot angles. A range finder will help take away the guesswork and allow you to make a good ethical shot. I like to range the animal and any prominent trees or brush during a stalk. It will help me determine how close I need to be and what the final distance is to the target. Prior to owning a rangefinder, I once ruined a stalk on a nice buck by shooting under his vitals. I guessed him to be 30 yards and I walked off 37 paces after the shot.
Your biggest friend, after the wind, will be the terrain and vegetation between you and the deer. I prefer to have a rise that I can put between the deer and myself so that I can cover as much ground without being seen. Thick brush will also work but it can be difficult to maneuver through quietly. Take your time and don’t rush it. Even if he can’t see you, he still has radar ears and don’t forget that NOSE.
If you must use brush, find a way through that offers the least resistance. This will allow you to move as quietly as possible. Take it slow. Move from tree to tree or briar to briar but always stop near some cover. Do not try to cover too much ground too fast. I have been busted more times than I can count by taking five steps when I should have only taken two.
Stalking whitetails is a challenge that I will never master. There is always something out there just waiting to spoil it for me. But these tips have started to help me close the gap between the deer’s score and mine. It sure is fun!
Alarmed doe photo courtesy of D. Gordon and E. Robertson