With well over 1,000 antler inches taken from the ground while still-hunting, I find that other hunters often ask me, "Man, how do you do it? Big bucks are hard enough to shoot from a tree, but trying to hunt them on the ground is another story altogether!"
My answer is that ground-hunting is a very effective and aggressive tactic that must be done properly in order to work (and a little added luck never hurts). If you follow a few basic principles, you can be a more effective ground-hunter.
Here in the Midwest, the old rule "Walk three steps, stop and listen, look around for a flick of an ear or some other movement, then walk three more" has probably saved the lives of more trophy whitetails than can be counted. There is so much more to hunting mature bucks on the ground! Certainly some of the other basic rules of ground-hunting that have been around for a while should be followed: things like always keeping the sun at your back, trying to stay in the shadows as much as possible, and sneaking/moving only when the wind gusts. But putting the sneak on whitetails, especially big whitetails, is so involved, that it's not an action. It's a state of mind!
FIRST THINGS FIRST: A DEER'S SENSES
We all know that mature bucks are survival machines and that they rely on their top three senses to make it through the day. In order to put a tag on a big whitetail buck, the ground-hunter must constantly contend with a buck's senses of smell, sight and hearing, in that order. In my opinion, you can beat his senses of sight and hearing, as we have all done at one time or another, but his nose? Well, that's non-negotiable.
His sense of smell cannot be beat. I don't care what you do. If a big boy gets downwind of you, there is, in my opinion and experience, nothing you can do to keep him from scenting you. And when he smells you, the gig is up. The wind has a huge impact on my ground-hunting. I don't just consider what direction it's coming from; I also take into account wind speed, the time of day, thermals, and which side of the cover the wind is coming from or going toward. You have to have the wind in your favor in order to beat a big buck. It has to be either in your face or going to one side or the other as a crosswind.
Either is okay, but I like hunting a crosswind the best.
For example, say a big buck is trolling a ridge. The top of the ridge consists of open oak woods with cover and brush along the sides. Say the predominant wind blows either up or down that ridge. Where do you think he'll be walking -- the upwind side of the cover, the downwind side, or across the top of the ridge in the open? The downwind side, of course! He can scent anything on the ridge above him and he can see anything coming up the ridge below him. What's he looking for? He's looking for predators, other deer, and you!
He's hidden in the brush and feels comfortable there. If you are on the upwind side of the cover hunting the edge of the beautiful open woods, your human scent will be blowing right through the thick cover below you. At that point you've done more than miss a chance at a big whitetail. You might even cause him to avoid that area all together. So what's the solution? Get in the brush with him!
Think about where the wind is going once it gets past you. Is it blowing into cover where a big boy might be bedding? Where does are bedded? You have to understand that as soon as you set foot in the woods, things change. You want to make the smallest impact possible. You must avoid deer and deer cover being on your downwind side at all costs and you must plan your sneak route accordingly.
When planning your sneak route, don't think like a hunter. Try to think like a mature buck. Put yourself in his shoes. Work the woods in such a manner so that it seems like you are being hunted by him, because in fact, you are. Make decisions that he would make no matter how uncomfortable or out of the way they are for you.
MAKING A CROSSWIND WORK FOR YOU
My ideal sneak spot is where a crosswind is heading straight out of heavy cover that contains a doe bedding area. You can sneak back and forth along this line all day and never have the wind at your back. And a mature buck will approach the bedding area and cruise along it scent-checking for does. This tactic has worked for me time and time again. Coming face-to-face with a mature whitetail in heavy cover is very exciting. They sure don't expect to see you there and you have the upper hand.
One of my most memorable encounters occurred in 1996. I was still-hunting an area similar to the one described above in mid-day. I slipped into the fringe and sat down to watch the area for about half an hour before I moved on. While scanning the brush in front of me, I heard a noise to my left and slightly behind me. Slowly turning my head, I saw a large 10-pointer standing 12 feet away. I have no idea how he got so close to me without my knowledge. But since he had not yet spotted me, I knew I had a few seconds to make a plan.
I figured he would spot me at any second and I would have to make a running shot.
About that time I guess he must have heard my heart beating. With eyes as big as tires, he stared me down. I was ready to pounce at the first hint of him leaving. After about 30 seconds of this, however, he decided that I was no threat. He turned his head and picked at his ear with his hind leg. He's now hanging on the wall. He scored 156 and some change with a broken G-3 on the right.
SIGHT AND HEARING
You can beat these senses, but it takes work, concentration, discipline and the correct mental attitude. Have you ever seen a coyote or bobcat put the sneak on a prey animal? I have. I learned from it and it works. When moving in on prey, these predators are in constant motion. That's how they move without being seen. But they move so slowly that you cannot actually see them moving. The only time they are perfectly still is the moment before the strike. They are constantly creeping, inching, moving forward until they close the distance enough to easily catch their prey. They don't stop there; they move closer yet, twice as close as they need to be. And when they leap, they don't often miss!
The steady "crunch, crunch, crunch," of leaves with the occasional "pop" of a stick is a real attention getter in the woods. Anytime we hear this sound we try to identify its source. Deer do the same thing when they hear that sound. They'll usually do one of two things: stand there and let you go by, or leave the area if the source of the sound is identified as a threat.
Another real attention getter in the woods is movement, any movement. So if you combine the two attention getters, there is no way to go undetected. Or is there? Say you have to get from point A to point B without detection. To do this, remember the coyote or bobcat -- they are in constant motion, but they seem to move without moving. Now this might sound funny or strange, but I compare this same sort of stealth to the American Indian: "Deer cannot see me, for I am invisible." I also want to be an invisible piece of the landscape that goes undetected.
In order to be invisible, you have to take your thoughts of going slow to another level.
Ground conditions don't matter. It can be wet or dry. Your steps cannot be over 6 to 8 inches, and each one has to be thought out and perfectly balanced. Lift your feet only high enough to clear the leaves and twigs as you slide along. The ground pressure of your feet will be on the outside edges, not flatfooted. The calf of one leg cannot exceed the shin of the other, and you must try to maintain constant movement.
Basically, your foot and leg movement must be minimal. If done properly, the space between your legs as viewed from the side will not be as visible as it is in a normal stride.
One foot is slowly coming off the ground as the other foot is placed on the ground. You will sound like a turtle, the sound of constant contact with the ground.
Your feet blend together to one constant muffled crackling sound that blends into the woods. You will not be making that dreaded "crunch . . . crunch . . . crunch" human sound that immediately gains interest.
ONE FLUID MOTION
Your upper body movements must also be minimal. If you want to glass, raise your binoculars slowly to eye level before you pause to glass, or move them into position as you are slowly taking a knee. Try to make all of your movements in one fluid motion together. Before moving or slowly standing, take a good 360-degree look around, and then do it again. Then rise slowly and pause, and do another 360. You'll be amazed about how much more you'll see.
With every step you take and every movement you make, act like a B&C buck is bedded ahead, watching you at 50 yards, because this could very well be the case. You'll know that you are moving slowly enough when squirrels feeding within 10 yards of you are totally unaware of your presence. Several times I've actually had little birds land on me.
When this happens you can rest assured that you are invisible and animals cannot see you.
Moving slowly like this (one to two inches per second, max!) will allow you to move without being seen by animals in their normal routine. It allows you the balance to put both feet on the ground when you spot a buck. You will not get pegged trying to balance on one leg, which never works out. If you have a whitetail looking in your direction, you have to slow down even more and pause or you will get pegged!
THE "30-30 SNEAK"
Taking all of the above into consideration, I call this method the "30-30 sneak." It should take you 30 minutes or more to move 30 yards. With each step, you are getting a different view of the cover around you. After you move 30 yards, sit, kneel or stand for 30 minutes by the watch. This keeps you rested and alert.
The entire time you are moving, you should be scanning 360 degrees. Anytime you check your back trail, look over your left shoulder with your right foot in front of the left. This puts you into a perfect position if you have to shoot behind you if you are right-handed (vice versa if you're left-handed). I try to check my back trail every time my right foot touches the ground.
This type of sneaking is physically demanding. If I get tired, or feel myself breaking the stride and going too fast, I slowly take a knee for a few minutes. If I have to cross a large log, I might put one leg over the log and sit down on it for a few minutes. Use this time to rest, scan and glass in all directions, especially downwind.
Always keep an eye on your downwind direction. In 1995, I was doing the old "30-30 sneak" while paralleling a doe bedding area. It was about 9:30 a.m. I just happened to look downwind and I noticed a buck doing the "rubber neck" as he looked for me. He could smell me, but he couldn't see me because I was invisible. As he turned to run, I nailed him at 40 yards. He was a 16-point non-typical just shy of 170 B&C points. If I hadn't been checking my downwind side, he would have been long gone.
Dead calm, when there is no wind at all, is horrible for sneaking. Dead calm often occurs at first light and at last light. Sound travels a long way during this time of day.
Sometimes, dead calm wind conditions will remain for the entire day. At these times you should be sitting in a brushpile, in a blind, or next to a tree. You should not be moving at all, because you will get busted no matter how slow you go or what the ground conditions are like. A 5- to 10-mph wind with gusts of 20 mph is ideal for groundwork. For anything less, you'd better be at the top of your game.