By Travis Faulkner
Just about anyone who’s ever hit a grunt call on a cool fall morning knows about the advantages of hunting whitetails from high in the treetops. Over the years, it’s been hammered into our brains through strategy-based articles, hunting shows and expert commentary that tree stands are the way to go. And in many cases, that’s right. A bird’s-eye view often provides better visibility and fewer problems with scent control and hunter movement.
But it’s important to note that you can also consistently tag top-heavy bucks from ground level with the right hunting strategies, tactics and setups. In fact, this time-proven approach definitely has some major advantages of its own.
IT’S IN OUR BLOOD
Nomadic hunters, including Native Americans, early explorers, settlers, and pioneers in general, successfully hunted whitetails from the ground long before tree stands ever entered the hunting culture. In the beginning, our ancestors were able to pull it off with only primitive spears and bows at super-close range. Later, the introduction of gunpowder and single-shot muskets helped stretch the effective range somewhat, but hunters still had to get close.
Remember, we’re talking about an animal that’s instinctively paranoid and fully equipped with a highly sensitive nose, incredible hearing and enhanced overall survival skills. So how, exactly, were early hunters able to meet such a demanding challenge of harvesting whitetails for thousands of years without tree stands or any of the high-tech gear we have today? The answer is that these trailblazers hunted them at eye level in their natural realm by relying on stealth, pure woodsmanship and patience.
While some early deer hunters made use of intentionally set fires and other means of driving deer, a lot of their success also came from employing lethal ambush strategies and setups. Many of these same ground-hunting tactics and techniques can still be used today, even on big bucks.
STEP UP YOUR WIND GAME
When targeting mature bucks at eye level, it’s crucial to choose setups that keep the wind and the deer in front of your face. Sometimes you can get away with a sudden directional shift or swirling wind when you’re high in the treetops, but it’s much harder to do so from the ground. Having a favorable wind hitting you directly in the face can make or break any given hunt.
Continuously monitoring the wind direction with either powder or ultralight floating detectors is always smart. I prefer floaters, because they continue to reveal sudden shifts or swirls long after they’ve been released. By contrast, powder-type detectors quickly dissipate and disappear upon being released into the air. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I had the wind in my favor but detected directional shifts and swirls with floaters 30 to 40 yards away from my ambush point. In my view, powder doesn’t stay visible long enough to identify such changes much past your setup, and it’s critical to know they’re happening. The wrong wind conditions can quickly ruin the hunt.
Another good tip is to meticulously plan your hunts by reviewing the most accurate hour-by-hour local weather forecasts. You need to note predictions of both wind direction and speed throughout the day. This will help you choose the most productive setups and dramatically decrease the chances of spooking a shooter buck.
Of course, sometimes you still might have to make adjustments in real time and on the fly, despite what even the best forecast is predicting. One of the major advantages of hunting on the ground is the ability to quickly move, alter and adjust setups according to the current wind direction or other changing conditions. Hunting from the ground simply gives you more options and choices, and that makes you a much more versatile hunter.
SIDESTEPPING SCENT PROBLEMS
Of course, just playing the wind might not be enough when you’re going face-to-face with a veteran buck at ground level. Taking extreme measures to sidestep his super-sensitive nose will often be the difference between painting the ground red and facing an empty freezer.
I’ll be the first to admit that few things are 100 percent foolproof when it comes to scent elimination. Many factors we can’t control. As a result, everyone gets busted from time to time. Eventually such factors as perspiration, scent from gear or a sudden swirl of a light wind will give you away. However, doing everything you can to be as scent-free as possible is what we should strive for on every hunt. This means showering with scent-free soap/shampoo, applying odorless deodorant and wearing clothing that’s been prewashed with scent-eliminating detergent and stored inside sealed, scent-free plastic bags. Dressing in the field and wearing knee-high rubber boots and latex gloves on the way into your setup also can help. Of course, a growing number of deer hunters also now are using ozone generators, whether at home, in the woods or both.
In addition to making sure your body and clothing are as scent-free as possible, do likewise with your bow, gun, binoculars, rangefinder and other gear. Spraying yourself and all of these items down with a scent-eliminating formula before and periodically during the hunt is beneficial. Early hunters didn’t have these scent-control options, but it’s a safe bet that they used natural cover scents and always tried to keep the wind in their favor.
I’ll also add some natural surrounding cover scents to help keep me under a buck’s radar. Scraping back the leaves and rubbing fresh, soft dirt on your clothing, hat, facemask and boots makes an excellent scent blocker. Plus, if I’m hunting in an area that has a lot of pine or cedar, and cutting live vegetation is allowed, I’ll use fresh branches to naturally shield against any alarming odors that might have escaped my scent-eliminating process.
These newly cut branches serve a dual purpose: not only adding cover scent to your setup but also helping to break up your outline. That’s true whether you’re operating from a naturally constructed makeshift setup or a portable pop-up blind.
UTILIZE BARRIERS & MAXIMIZE TERRAIN
When setting up ground-level ambush points, always try to choose locations that keep the deer in front of you. That might sound obvious, but if you’re not careful, you can easily end up having deer come in from the “wrong” angle.
Whitetails don’t always follow the script, of course; big bucks are notorious for popping up where you least expect. A buck that sneaks in from behind is likely to catch you off guard and might even wind you long before you’re able to see him or pull off a good shot. So the trick is to find some way to prevent deer from coming in from the wrong way and busting you, or traveling through areas that significantly reduce or even prevent good shot opportunities.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is to use natural barriers to influence deer movement. Try to use uprooted blowdowns, cliffs, large boulders, extremely steep terrain, deep water, gullies, or even impenetrable cover such as overgrown briar thickets and other dense vegetation as a backdrop. Placing these types of barriers at your back can hinder deer from approaching your ambush site from behind.
I know what you’re probably thinking: Whitetails can swim deep streams, climb steep banks, jump gullies and pass through thick cover like a cottontail rabbit. They even like using and hiding inside dense cover, especially during periods of intense hunting pressure.
These are all valid points. However, with adequate cover in front of you, the deer will generally use the route of least resistance as long as they feel safe in doing so. The key is to make sure the whitetails you’re hunting aren’t already frequently using any obvious routes from behind your possible ambush point.
Before you set up, comb potential problem areas for obvious sign such as tracks, droppings, rubs and scrapes. Doing so will help you choose the best ground-level setups. For some extra reassurance, you can face a motion-activated game camera toward targeted travel routes and your blind or ambush point. This type of monitoring will let you know if any deer even occasionally approach the setup from behind. If you see they do, you can make adjustments.
BECOME ONE WITH YOUR SURROUNDINGS
For early hunters, a key requirement for setting up a close-range ambush was learning to virtually vanish. They blended in with the environment and minimized their movement.
Constructing a makeshift blind out of surrounding saplings, newly-cut branches, fallen logs, boulders and/or loose vegetation can help you disappear naturally. With this type of setup, you’ll need to make sure that you have plenty of cover: behind you, on each side and even some in front. Full-surround cover lets you get away with subtle head and hand movements when scanning for deer. It also makes it easier to come to full draw with a vertical bow or aim a rifle or crossbow undetected.
Today’s pop-up ground blinds can give you even more freedom to move without being spotted. However, it’s important to brush in these blinds with natural cover from the vicinity. An artificial blind placed in the open stands out way too much to deer, regardless of how good the camo pattern. Deer might get used to it over an extended period, but in my experience, an unhidden ground blind will still make mature bucks nervous and wary upon approach. The best option is to go the extra mile and make sure it’s naturally concealed.
Lastly, with all ground-level setups, do everything you can to reduce noise. Thoroughly rake away dry and crunchy leaves, sticks, weeds or other ground debris. Also, make sure your clothing is whisper-quiet, so you don’t get busted making any type of movement before or during the shot. The slightest and most subtle sounds on a day with little to no wind are significantly magnified when hunting whitetails on the ground at close range. In this high-stakes environment, you have to be absolutely silent and carefully calculate every move.
I’ve utilized these ground-hunting strategies and setups to harvest some of my best bucks from pressured tracts of private and public land. A well-placed tree stand isn’t always available or even the best option when going head-to-head with a mature buck. Sometimes you must get down on his level to make it happen.
In the end, hunting with both feet on the ground can give you more and better options than you’d find in a tree. Plus, you can adapt quickly to changing conditions, should they arise. All this ultimately makes you one dangerous two-legged predator, just like our nomadic hunting ancestors.