Still-Hunting Blacktails

When the going gets tough, the tough . . . get on their feet? Hunting blacktails while creeping through the woods offers a whole new set of challenges and a lifetime of lessons.

By Cal Kellogg

Dawn was a distant memory as I hurriedly strapped on the fanny pack and headed for the canyon. It was just after 1 o'clock on the last day of the deer season, and boy, the clock was ticking!

The bluebird weather, while beautiful, seemed better suited for hunting quail rather than deer. However, there were plenty of cervids in the area. Spending the morning in a tree stand had proven that. I'd seen 11 does and a husky spike before the deer activity dried up around 10 a.m. I figured with the mild conditions most of the deer had bedded for the day. After calculating my options, I decided my best chance was to spend the remainder of the day still-hunting a series of brushy gullies that dropped into a major drainage.

From experience, I knew bucks often bedded along the main ridge just above the tops of the gullies. These areas offered the bucks cover, a good view of the ground below them and multiple escape routes.

Moving at a snail's pace and glassing every few feet, it took me nearly an hour to zigzag across the first gully. I hadn't seen a deer, but abundant sign told me it was only a matter of time before I would.

I eased onto the rim of the second gully and started glassing for bedded deer. After several minutes, I moved a few yards downhill to gain a new perspective. Just as I began to glass, a deer snorted directly below me. This was followed by the sounds of deer bouncing through the brush. I dropped the binoculars and unslung my rifle. Almost immediately, I saw movement as a doe bounded from the cover closely followed by a wide rack of antlers. As my cross hairs drifted across the buck's vitals, the 7mm roared and the buck disappeared.

A wet day allowed Pat Martin to still-hunt this 4x4 blacktail buck in an area that otherwise would have been too dry to walk through without alerting every deer in that zip code. Photo by Cal Kellogg

I thought the buck was hit hard. but I wasn't certain of it. I chambered a fresh round and walked over to where I'd last seen the deer. The buck was there - sprawled across a deadfall. It had been blocked from my view by thigh-high buckbrush.

For many, the mere mention of deer hunting congers up images of a lone still-hunter silently prowling the woods in search of a heavy-antlered buck. Even in today's high-paced, high-tech world, still-hunting remains the hands-down best option for most Pacific Coast blacktail hunters. Yet the majority of blacktail hunters afield today do not understand the fundamentals involved in consistently harvesting deer from the ground. This is one of the reasons that a small minority of hunters tag the majority of deer harvested year after year.

The still-hunter seeks to match his or her senses against those of the deer. When we consider the wary nature of the blacktail buck, especially those living on highly pressured public lands, it's easy to see that the odds are stacked against the hunter. Now, before you get the idea that still-hunting is based on luck or that you have to be blood kin to Daniel Boone to be successful, let me assure you that good still-hunting skills aren't inborn. They are learned.

STILL-HUNTING FUNDAMENTALS
Still-hunting is by no means rocket science, but it is more that just a casual walk through the woods. Effective still-hunting is based on a number of fundamental principles that must be observed. Woodsmanship, patience, concentration and experience are among the still-hunter's greatest allies.

The first things the still-hunter must consider and overcome are the senses of the deer. Deer have a well-developed early warning system consisting of a highly refined sense of smell, keen hearing and good vision, particularly when it comes to detecting movement. The most effective way to defeat these senses is to hunt from a tree stand. However, there can be problems with stands.

First, some hunters aren't comfortable perched on a small platform 15 feet or more above the ground. Others find the waiting involved tedious and boring. Furthermore, for stand-hunting to be effective, the deer must be moving. When the deer aren't on the move, the hunter must exercise skill in seeking them out and then moving in close enough for a shot.

Ranking a blacktail's defenses in order of importance, I place his sense of smell first, vision second and hearing third. The only way to defeat a blacktail's nose is by keeping the wind in your favor. In theory, the process is simple: Determine the prevailing wind direction and move into it. Seldom are things so simple. Reading the wind can be difficult.

Air currents are strongly influenced by topography and thermal heating, making "wing doping" an unreliable science at best. A wind chalk bottle (available at bow shops) is a great help in reading the subtleties of the wind and is a must-have item for still-hunting.

Under field conditions I've never found cover scents or scent eliminators to be effective for still-hunting. (They can be effective for hunting from tree stands.) The human body is a veritable scent factory, and the fact that you're moving this scent factory about in the woods makes it almost impossible to prevent or cover up those odors. It's naive to believe we can mask our scent from an animal with a nose as sensitive as that of a bomb-sniffing dog.

GROWING UP A STILL-HUNTER


I lived a privileged childhood. I grew up hunting on some of the Pacific Coast's best blacktail ranches surrounded by a handful of colorful old-timers who had honed their hunting skills over years of field experience.

 

One man surpassed all the others in terms of his knowledge and zeal to pass that knowledge onto others. When I knew Deacon Wiseman he was in his 80s and still carried his deputy sheriff's badge. In his younger days, Deacon was one of California's last licensed market hunters, using his still-hunting skills to provide venison for the men building Highway 32.

 

In teaching me about the tactics he used, Deacon stressed the physical and mental aspects of still-hunting. He spoke about the basics - reading the wind, moving slowly and being quiet.

 

He explained how weather factors into still-hunting. Strong wind, for example, allows hunters to move faster. Deer feed at night under clear skies and moonlight, and then bed down early in the morning. Wind and rain concentrate deer on the sheltered sides of ridges. Deer will feed in a gentle rain, but a heavy, soaking rain will send them into the brush.

 

Most importantly, Deacon talked about the most difficult aspect of still-hunting: concentration. "The second you start to daydream, that old buck will jump up and catch you off guard as sure as shootin'," he said. And like most other things he taught me, I had to experience it for myself before I truly understood that aspect of still-hunting. — Cal Kellogg

 

THE VISION THING
"A deer's vision is geared to detecting motion. No movement, including the blinking of an eye seems to be too slight to be noticed. But motionless objects even if they don't blend with their surroundings are seldom seen or recognized," says deer expert Leonard Rue III. Movement poses a significant problem for the still-hunter. Moving too quickly is the main reason still-hunters fail to connect. Everything a still-hunter does, from walking to raising a pair of binoculars, has to be done S-L-O-W-L-Y. In nature, quick movements signal danger. Not even the best modern camouflage can mask movement.

A still-hunter hunts with his eyes, not with his feet. Take two or three smooth, slow steps, then stop and glass the surrounding cover. Your goal is to spot a bedded or browsing animal, not to spook one into flight. Quality binoculars are the still-hunter's most important tool. They enable the hunter to probe the cover looking for the smallest sign of a deer, such as the shape of an ear or the glint of an antler. Ideally, a still-hunter should spend at least three-quarters of the time standing still, watching. Moving in slow motion and glassing thoroughly translates into increased deer sightings and more filled tags. It's as simple as that.

BREAK UP YOUR HUMAN APPEARANCE
When moving forward, use surrounding cover to mask movement and try to stay or stop in shadows. When stopping to glass, position yourself so that surrounding vegetation breaks up your outline.

In a perfect world, I try to stop near something that will serve as an improvised shooting rest. Early in my hunting career I missed a lot of bucks by shooting off hand. Once I started making a conscious effort to use a rest whenever possible, my accuracy improved tremendously. When a nice 4x4 steps into the clear 200 yards over yonder, believe me, you won't want to be scurrying around looking for a rest.

SHHH - BE QUIET!
Blacktails have an acute sense of hearing. Despite this, it is possible to get by with making some noise provided it sounds natural. Deer are not disturbed by the natural sounds that surround them constantly. It's steady or unnatural noises that get you busted. The steady cadence of a walking man, for example, is pure poison because the deer have come to recognize it as a sound of danger.

Moving slowly and carefully planning your footsteps goes a long way toward overcoming the problem of noise. The noises made by a careful still-hunter moving in a slow stop-and-go manner closely resemble the noises made by browsing deer. As a result, when deer hear such noises they don't become alarmed. If you make a mistake and break a twig or kick a rock, the best reaction is to freeze and then slowly look around. Deer seldom take off because of a single strange sound. Instead, they try to zero in on the source of the noise while awaiting more evidence. If nothing happens after a few minutes the deer will relax and go back to what they were doing. This is one of the times when patience really pays off.

DRESS-UP TIME
Another way to minimize noise is to wear quiet clothing. A lot of guys wear blue jeans while hunting. In our father's and grandfather's day, when hunters hunted in the clothes they wore to work, jeans were a logical choice. Today hunters have access to a wide array of fabrics that are quiet and comfortable, and that will help camouflage the human form in any type of weather and on any kind of terrain.

During dry weather it's tough to beat fleece. It's extremely quiet and great for layering, making it useful in a range of temperature extremes. When the weather turns wet, I like to layer silent, breathable raingear over a pair of Thermax long johns. This combination keeps me warm and dry, while allowing freedom of movement.

The footgear a hunter chooses is also a factor in reducing noise. The aggressive hard-rubber lug soles found on so many hunting boots are a poor choice for the still-hunter trying to remain unheard. Lug soles are designed for traction, not stealth. I prefer a lightweight boot with a relatively smooth soft-rubber sole. This type of sole resists picking up debris, while still providing good traction in most terrain. Dry, comfortable feet are a necessity. That's why I choose all-weather models with Gore-Tex liners. This way I'm assured of having the right boot rain or shine.

Before heading afield, test your gear with a critical ear. Do the snaps on your jacket rattle? How about the zipper pulls on your pack? Are the swivels on your rifle sling squeaky? These may seem like trivial details, but such details can be the difference between success and failure.

TO STOP A FLEEING BLACKTAIL


What do you do when a buck spooks and flees an area? It's a situation faced by someone somewhere every day during deer season, and if you still-hunt long enough, it will happen to you.

 

Shooting at running deer is never advisable. You risk wounding the animal and not recovering it.

 

Try an abrupt whistle or a deer grunt. Sometimes a buck will stop to see what made the noise, providing you with a shot opportunity.

 

If the deer continues moving, watch where it goes. After waiting several minutes, still-hunt your way toward the location where you saw the buck and ask yourself some questions. Was the wind blowing in the right direction? Did you move too quickly? What about any noise you made? Is this a bedding ar

ea? A transition zone? A game trail? Is there another route you should take to surprise this buck? Where is the buck going now?

 

Ask enough questions and you'll be on your way to successfully still-hunting this buck! — Burt Carey

 

THE FINE POINTS
Once the basics have been mastered, it's time for the real learning to begin. The fine points of still-hunting are learned primarily through experience. No matter how long one hunts, a still-hunter can never say, "I've learned all there is to know."

Every experienced still-hunter has developed a unique style in response to the variables of locations, conditions and specific animals he's hunted. The best hunters view each outing as an opportunity to learn something new. Oftentimes the best learning occurs when there's been a blown opportunity, if the hunter is willing to focus on what might have been done differently.

Not much has been written about the blacktail bucks' propensity to sit tight and let danger pass them by. And yet many of the tactics I employ are aimed at dealing with this very behavior. I'd always heard the old-timers talking about wise bucks sitting tight, but I didn't give it much thought until I saw it happen.

While glassing a canyon one morning, I spotted a hunter sneaking down the opposite ridge. I followed his progress as he moved through sparse cover that I presumed held no deer. Suddenly, two heavy bucks stood up about 25 yards behind the hunter. I watched, expecting the guy to turn and see them. He never did. The bucks watched him until he moved off and then they tiptoed over the opposite ridge.

Rather than sniff arrogantly at the hunter's misfortune, my thoughts turned inward: How often had that very thing happened to me? What could I do to prevent it?

Two decades have passed since that morning, and I've come to believe that the way a hunter moves is the determining factor in whether a buck moves or sits tight. A deer will only hold until it believes it has been detected. Stopping often invokes what I call the anxiety factor.

A buck that feels concealed is content to let the steadily moving hunter pass, especially if the hunter is traveling in a straight line. In contrast, the same buck will often show himself if the hunter moves erratically and stops frequently. Why? Because the buck can't predict the hunter's route and will think he's been spotted when the hunter stops. Always zigzag as you move through the woods. This allows you to cover the ground more thoroughly and brings you near more deer. I'm always amazed by the number of deer that I don't see until I'm within 15 yards of them.

The tactics I've outlined enable a hunter to hunt a small area intensely. Scouting plays a large role in my overall strategy. Since I'm covering a small area, I must be able to accurately predict where the deer will be when I'm hunting. Hunters must identify bedding and feeding areas and learn the habits of the deer they hunt before still-hunting will pay reliable dividends.



Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe Now!


Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.