December 09, 2022
By Clint McCoy
When I was in my early 20s, I used to hang a couple dozen tree stands every summer. The work was tedious, hot and extremely time consuming. And I always felt like I was acting like an outfitter for myself and members of my hunting family at home. Sometimes these stands wouldn’t even get used in the fall, and I’d have to burn more time and energy pulling an unused stand in the winter. The entire process just seemed extremely inefficient. Now that I’m in my early 40s, I have even less time and energy than I did back then, and I desperately try not to waste either.
Now my family and I hunt much more mobile and hang 75 percent of our stands in real time.
Occasionally, I grow tired of passively sitting in a tree waiting for a big buck to come by for the ambush. Also, some conditions are just plain poor for a tree stand location, and the advantage of sitting aloft is lacking. In recent years, I’ve grown fond of switching up hunting techniques and giving the bucks in my area a different look. When I get to hankering for some action, grow bored with tree stand sitting or just need to do some in season speed scouting, my go-to method for chasing deer is old school still hunting.
Defining The Practice
I will preface the remainder of this piece with a statement of pure truth: I am by no means a master still hunter. I live on the prairie in southeastern Illinois, far removed from the big timber and rugged country where the method is used much more frequently. In my hunting youth, I read T. S. Van Dyke’s book from 1883, The Still Hunter. His tales and illustrations of sneaking up on whitetails on foot seemed like pure fiction to me. Around the same time, I read several books authored by Larry Benoit and his sons. They told spinning tales of tracking down monster Adirondack bucks on foot for miles, in the snow no less, before closing in on the animal for a kill shot with a rifle.
After digesting a pile of literature on the subject, I made up my mind. I was going to learn how to still hunt.
I’ve always thought the term still hunting was a bit of a misnomer, because you’re on foot and you’re moving very slowly. Still hunting is the simplest form of active pursuit there is, a process by which one literally creeps through a whitetail’s habitat on foot as slowly and methodically as possible. The goal is quite simple: use all your senses to see, hear and sometimes even smell the whitetail before they return the favor. But that’s only the first part of the still hunting equation, for the hard part is pulling off the shot at eye level. For my tastes, still hunting lends itself to be a fantastic method for the deer hunter with a firearm tag in his or her pocket. But, given the proper conditions, an archer can also use the still hunt. Let’s study these elements in detail.
The Proper Conditions
In order to up your odds of still hunting success, you need to have the proper conditions. In my opinion, a calm, sunny and dry day is just terrible for the task.
I want damp conditions to allow for quiet footfall in the timber on a calm day. Also, dry leaf litter under foot is less apt to spook game if the wind is up and covering your sound signature. Noise mitigation is paramount to the still hunter.
On sunny days, keeping the sun at your back and slowly working through the shadows is a fine way to get the drop on bedded deer. But cloudy days seem to make for better overall visibility. Keep in mind that shadows can help hide the human form, but they can also hide the whitetail just as easily.
Rain and snow can make for some excellent conditions to still hunt. However, if the ground is too wet and muddy, it can throw off your balance and make for a noisy boot slurping through the muck.
Falling snow is my absolute favorite helper. While I’m wearing some white snow camo and easing through whitetail habitat on foot, the fresh powder helps dampen one’s noise signature and ups the odds of catching a big buck on his feet.
The terrain and undergrowth also need to be considered before attempting a still hunt. Too many snags make for difficulty in slow navigation where minimal movement is desired. Terrain that is pancake flat sounds advantageous, but it is not, nor is extremely sharp terrain. Flat ground gives game the advantage of seeing you way before you see them, and aggressive contours take your mind off the task of spotting game, and you become consumed with not slipping and falling. Gentle rolling timber or hill country is a still hunter’s best ally. Terrain should be diverse enough to allow for camouflaging hunter movement, but not so sharp it is extremely hard to traverse.
A word needs to be mentioned about the condition of the still hunter themself. Being in sound physical condition with a strong core, legs and feet is a good idea. If I still hunt for a few days straight, my hips and calves get tired and sore, and I am less balanced on the trail of game. Physical form aside, by far the most important condition of any still hunter is a soundness of his or her mind. On a still hunt, you must try and remain focused and adaptable. If your mind is on work, bills, your phone or other distractions beyond the woods, you will fail in this endeavor.
When I begin a still hunt, I try to mentally check out of day-to-day life and check into the metaphysical “force” of the hunt. I try to be hyperaware of the task at hand. If I can control my mind, I can control my pace. And if I control my breathing, I control my mind. Speedy travel and a racing mind are poison to the still hunter looking to bag a buck on foot. The mental aspect of still hunting cannot be overstated. If you have a slow foot and a calm mind, you can shoot any deer in North America on a still hunt given the proper conditions.
Still Hunting Gear
A minimalist approach to still hunting is usually a good idea when choosing essential gear. I prefer to still hunt with a short-barrel firearm with a 2-7X scope, or open sights, and a quality sling. A short barrel seems to balance in both hands well, and it wields nicely while sneaking through the timber. The scope is almost exclusively on 2X, and I find it much easier to zoom up in power to spot a deer at ground level than it is to have an encounter and need to quickly zoom down in a hurry up close.
Still hunting with archery gear is challenging, but it can be done. I use a short axle-to-axle Mathews with their quick detach quiver. Personally, I hate carrying a bow during a still hunt. And mine resides on my back attached to a backpack with a device called a Bow Spider. This allows me to quickly deploy it when action calls for it, but it also allows for more balanced and streamlined travel.
As far as other essentials, I like to still hunt with a Guide Series chest harness from Vortex. It houses a pair of their 8x42 binoculars, a range finder, a wind checker and my knife and tags. This leaves no gear in my pants to snag on brush and makes it easy to get to.
For camouflage, I prefer neutral tones of tan, brown, gray or olive green, opposed to commercially available patterns meant for tree stand hunts.
In the footwear department, I despise rubber knee-high boots for still hunting. They are helpful in the mud, but I like a nimble, lace-up boot like a Danner Pronghorn. If conditions call for ultimate silence, sometimes I go barefoot or with a thick wool sock. Then I’ll attach my boots to the back of my binocular chest rig with rubber coated wire gear ties. This fall, I plan on adding a pair of Silent Pursuit brand moccasins to the list. Ultimately, still hunting gear needs to be simple, functional, easy to access and silent.
Still Hunting Techniques
Still hunting your way to a big buck may sound simple, but it is quite challenging. Once you’ve got the proper conditions and gear, it’s time to start slipping through whitetail habitat. Whenever possible, the approach should begin with the wind in your face and the sun at your back or off to one shoulder. I tend to break up my approach in 10- or 20-yard increments, and I slowly creep forward step by step to the next landmark to stop beside. But these are not ordinary walking steps. I like to “fox walk” with a stride about half as long as a normal walking stride. The “fox walk” is a three-cadence stride, where you raise your knee high above the underbrush to step forward, then gently place the ball of the foot to the ground, and finally roll your foot to place it flat. Repeat the process with short strides from your trailing leg and feel the ground below your feet for obstacles as you go.
The process is slow and tedious, and it takes a lot of focus and balance. However, with enough practice, you can effectively sneak through the timber.
Spotting bedded whitetails can be immensely tough, and the reason for the snail’s pace is to take the time to visualize everything. Looking for an antler tine in the brush or the flicker of a white tail can be a giveaway for a bedded buck’s location. You must be as thorough as possible, scanning the terrain and habitat for sign of prey. Use the terrain to your advantage and slowly peek over the next ridge or down into the next bottom.
If you can get it, snow helps the still hunter tremendously. It more easily allows you to cut a big set of buck tracks and stalk their maker, creating a very intense hunting experience. Sometimes, I’ll stop and rest a spell in some natural cover and take a mental break. I’ve found this helps restore my vigilance when I continue. For added versatility, I’ve taken to still hunting with a stand on my back during the rut in somewhat of a hybrid combination.
Though I never climb very high on these hunts, one climbing stick or a couple screw-in steps can get me six to eight feet high up in natural cover very quickly. This method is a ton of fun when big bucks are chasing does all over, and I like to chase them too!
My Successes and Failures
Before everyone reading this figures me as some authority on still hunting whitetails, I assure you I’m not. Though I know how to do it, I fail more than I succeed. No doubt, when practicing this ancient method, I spook deer way more often than I kill. But like most things in whitetail hunting, it is the few and far between successes that make up for the struggle.
During muzzleloader season in 2013, I watched a big buck and a few does feed in a morning snowstorm. Then they headed into a small patch of cover to bed for the day. Around noon, I put some snow camo on and still hunted their way. Not an hour into the hunt, I peeked over a ridge to find the group bedded in a bottom out of the wind. I rested my smoke pole on a small tree and killed the buck when he stood from his bed.
In 2016, I still hunted my way through the timber on a sunny day during the rut, and I found an old target buck tending to a doe in a brush pile. He finally gave me a shot, but my arrow missed high. During the following year’s gun season, I took off on foot for that same buck in a drizzling rain. By luck, I found him in the back of a cattle pasture, down in a valley out of the weather and made my play. He spotted me in my final approach and sprang from the cover, giving me a short window to make a shot. And I dropped him before he fled. I knew the buck to be old, but to my surprise, using tooth cementum analysis, he was aged at 9 1/2 years old!
If I never live to shoot another trophy buck on a still hunt again, tagging an ancient whitetail with the most primitive of hunting methods is a feat I assume I will never top! Hopefully, you can apply this tactic with success, too.