Ask the people you know how they prefer to hunt deer. I’d venture to guess most hunt from a stand, whether an elevated platform or merely a favorite stump. Next you’ll find the walkers, folks who prefer to move through the forest intent on intercepting an unsuspecting deer. It’s a low percentage option, but a fairly popular one, particularly among more casual hunters.
Fewer still will claim to prefer the ages-old tradition of tracking. These are more often veteran hunters of the north woods who eagerly wait for the snow, and a chance to ply their trade.
Both last and least on the list are those who practice the most ancient technique: still-hunting.
Every thing that moves through the forest somehow makes its presence known. Stand hunters are probably most aware of this as they sit for hours looking and listening intently for the slightest sound of something out of place. It takes a trained ear, but over time you develop the ability to discriminate between a squirrel rummaging through the leaf litter and a deer making its way.
Deer, meanwhile, are in the woods 24-7. They develop this ability at a very young age, and hone it to razor-sharp acuity over the years. Yet the task of the still-hunter is to defeat them.
To do so requires great stealth and patience. Unlike the walker who simply strolls through the woods or the stalker who moves steadily along the track, every step is measured for the still-hunter. Forget your watch; it only fosters impatience. Still-hunting requires you to stand, look and listen for as long as it takes until you’re certain there is nothing within sight or sound of you. Only then can you move forward, and even then, you may well be mistaken.
You begin by not just looking, but dissecting your surroundings. Start extensively, slowly scanning across your field of view for movement of your quarry.
You can still-hunt any time of day, but the chances of spotting a deer on its feet are greatest when they’re most active — at dawn and dusk.
As you look, listen. Too much wind makes it tough to hear. Too little gives your quarry too great an advantage, except on wet ground.
The best days are those with a slight, intermittent breeze. Listen carefully between gusts for the sound of a creature stirring. Move forward slowly a step or two when the wind blows, then stop and repeat your scanning. You’ll be amazed how much your perspective can change with just one step.
When done properly, still-hunting is a very slow process. It may take you an hour to cover a couple hundred yards.
Look ahead, not at your feet as you move. Plan your next three steps, then look up and take them. With each step, set your foot slowly down, gradually shifting your weight as you feel for anything underneath, like a twig, that might crack or snap.
With practice you can feel the ground even with a fairly thick-soled boot. Quiet clothing is crucial. Fabrics like wool or fleece won’t make noise as they rub against brush and vegetation.
You cannot be completely silent, particularly if you have to cross a patch of dry leaves or a pile of slash. If you must make noise, make woods noise. First, move only when the wind blows to cover some of the sound. Then, move as a squirrel would. Take uneven, interrupted steps. The regular, two-legged pace of a human is easily recognized as a danger signal by all woodland creatures.
Plan your stops strategically. If possible, stop near a tree. This may afford you some cover if you have to move, and will give you a solid rest for your gun if you have a shot. It also helps to break up your outline.
It should go without saying, but always use the wind to your advantage. Try to keep it in your face, or at least quartering toward you. The opposite applies to the sun. You want it at your back, not in your eyes, so it hampers your quarry’s vision, not yours.
Don’t look for a deer. Look for part of a deer, a patch of brown, a horizontal line, sunlight glinting off an antler beam, a round black eye or a white ear.
It’s difficult at first, but over time — years — you develop a search image. The mind picks up things the eye misses, and good optics are invaluable.
Still-hunting takes mental toughness. At first you fight to slow down, but in time you relax. Then your mind starts to wander, but you must stay alert and be ready. It can happen in an instant. The flick of an ear or rustle in the leaves turns into a deer, and it’s staring in your direction, senses on full alert.
You’ve done it right up to this point. Now it all comes down to how you react, for in the blink of an eye your quarry could be gone.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: