7 Do'™s And Don'™ts Of Still-Hunting Blacktails

When it comes to targeting a trophy buck in his domain, still-hunting is a close-contact sport. Here's a veteran hunter's list of what to do afield and what to avoid. (August 2007)

When still-hunting, take three steps, stop, listen and glass the vicinity to spot signs of a deer bedded nearby or lurking in the shadows.
Photo by Eric J. Hansen.

Still-hunting for blacktails is effective -- and is growing more popular each year. Unlike their mule deer cousins who prefer open terrain, blacktails live in some of the densest vegetation and old-growth timber found in the Western coastal states. Their ability to conceal their movements and whereabouts have forced many hunters to change tactics when searching for this difficult trophy.

Blacktail deer have humbled even the most veteran hunters and earned the reputation of being extremely intelligent, elusive, and very difficult to pattern. Some hunters, after years of frustration, use tree stands as their method of choice. Stands are effective, but not the only way to hunt blacktails successfully.

If you don't want to sit in one tree for hours and would rather hunt from the ground, here are some proven still-hunting tactics that could increase your success.

As a still-hunter, you must be a silent stalker. You move through the woods undetected, find game and position yourself for that one clean shot before a buck's radar-like senses zero in on your position. You have to progress at a snail's pace while remaining on alert, using the terrain to conceal your movements and preparing yourself for that one opportunity at a trophy buck -- which can come and go in a matter of seconds.

Don't get caught flat-footed!

How many times have you heard hunters say, "I was working through an area and jumped the biggest buck I've ever seen!"?

Most of the time, these hunters see only the buck's hindquarters as it explodes from cover and heads for the next county. Obviously they did something wrong, though they may never know what -- or if they do, admit it.

Listed below are some tips that will prevent you from making those same mistakes next time deer season rolls around.

STILL-HUNTING BASICS

To outfox these masters of deception, known to hunters as the Pacific Ghosts, you need extreme patience. Slow down your hunting and maintain a high level of concentration.

You might easily spend hours working through a small bedding area or feeding plot while dissecting it with your eyes and ears in search of an antler tine, a twitching ear, a patch of hide or a leg. This is where woodsmanship and depending on your senses come into play. The slower you go, the better!

Blacktail deer are constantly on alert 24-7, living their lives in fear every day. Their front line of defense is their nose, eyes and ears, in that order. Once danger is detected, they turn to one of their last resorts -- their legs -- by fleeing the location and quickly seeking cover.

Blacktails living in areas with a good population of predators change their behavior to become more cautious during their daily routines. If you hunt wilderness areas as I do, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. These are some of the hardest blacktails to take on the ground while still-hunting.

Over the years, I've heard stories of wise old bucks holding tight and letting a hunter pass by them while they sneak out the back door, undetected.

Last season, while hunting a wilderness area in Northern California, my hunting partner Rob Rowland and I witnessed something that shows how smart these animals are. As we glassed a canyon from a ridge, we spotted a lone hunter working his way through a group of trees toward a rock outcropping that contained a huge boulder about 15 yards in diameter. He didn't realize that watching him from the other side of this boulder was a trophy blacktail buck.

The hunter, oblivious to the buck's presence, continued walking in the buck's direction. We watched him as he paused for a rest at the lower side of the boulder never lifting his binoculars from his chest.

Directly across from him but out of sight, the wily old buck was holding tight, no more than 18 yards away, and not moving an inch.

When the hunter began walking again, circling to the right of the boulder, -- you guessed it! -- the buck circled to the left, gaining a very nice view of the hunter's back.

That hunter never knew that trophy blacktail was within a stone's throw of where he was standing! Had he been on his toes and used proper still-hunting techniques, probably he'd have filled his tag that morning.

Soon after witnessing this, I realized that events like this probably happen a lot more than we think.

THE DOS AND DON'TS

Of the percentage of successful hunters who harvest blacktails annually, it seems that the same guys fill the majority of tags every season. This is no coincidence. The reason why is because they've honed their senses -- and still-hunting techniques -- to a higher level than most others.

Believe me, over the years I've been forced to learn the hard way with my fair share of disappointing hunts, as most blacktail hunters have probably experienced. Most of these unsuccessful ventures were the results of my own mistakes. Nobody's born with these skills, but from our past blunders, we learn what works and what doesn't.

Keeping that in mind, here's a list of things you should avoid while hunting blacktail from the ground.

I CAN HEAR YOU!

When still-hunting blacktails, it is absolutely crucial to disguise any sounds your movements make so that the deer will not associate them with humans.

'¢ Don't rush through an area while hunting. Quite possibly, making avoidable mistakes could cost you that trophy of a lifetime.

'¢ Do stop, listen and look. Deer know the distinctive sound of a man's cadence as he walks through the woods. They associate this sound with danger, and it usually triggers their survival instinct to flee and put as much ground between you and them as fast as possible.

I've used this stop-look-listen tactic for a number of years and have been fortunate enough to fill my tags almost every season. When entering a spot where there could be a good chan

ce of taking a buck, I move extremely slowly, constantly on alert and ready to take action should the opportunity arise.

I take only a few steps at a time, stopping to listen for the most minute sound -- the crack of a twig or the shuffle of a leaf -- that could alert me to a buck's presence. Then I glass the immediate vicinity thoroughly, looking for the smallest sign of a deer bedded or lurking in the shadows.

I remain still for a few minutes, then proceed to take my next few steps and repeat the process.

Remember to look behind you constantly for those wise old bucks that sometimes hold tight and wait for you to pass. They've seen hunters walk through the woods without stopping. By taking three steps at a time and then stopping, you mimic the sound of a browsing deer, not a human.

If a buck continues to hear this pattern without being able to see what's there, he generally becomes curious, sometimes nervous, and exposes himself briefly as he tries to identify the intruder. That's when he's vulnerable for your fatal shot.

'¢ Don't think you can move quietly through an area strewn with dried leaves and not get busted, when each of your steps sounds like you're crunching potato chips.

'¢ Do use the weather to your advantage. Hunt during, or just after, a rain, when twigs and leaves are wet and less brittle. Another trick I use prior to still-hunting is to slip a pair of Bear's Feet over my hunting boots to minimize sounds produced from the boots' hard soles.

'¢ Don't wear noisy clothing while hunting.

'¢ Do scratch back and forth with one fingernail on the legs of your hunting pants. If you hear what sounds like a cat sharpening its claws on your sofa, then these clothes just aren't going to work for you. While still-hunting, closing the distance on trophy game, you'll be moving through vegetation at a snail's pace, constantly rubbing against twigs, branches and brush.

For this method of hunting, clothing with an outer layer of fleece is ideal because it's an extremely quiet fabric. In addition to being very comfortable, it's lightweight and breathable, which lets moisture escape.

GETTING WIND OF IT

A blacktail's nose is its strongest and most developed sense. Its survival depends greatly on its ability to smell predators and detect unseen danger from a distance.

'¢ Don't approach a productive area that could hold bucks when the wind isn't right.

'¢ Do approach with the wind in your face. Otherwise, the only thing you'll do is announce your presence.

While working an area, judging the wind and trying to constantly keep it in your face can be very tricky. Wind currents change depending on the contour of the terrain. Swirling winds within canyons and ravines are a hunter's worst nightmare. For an archer like me, closing the distance is much more crucial than it is for rifle hunters who can pick off their prey from longer distances.

When still-hunting ridges or high basins, I always wait for the thermals to change, then use them to my advantage. A good rule of thumb is to work ridges from above when the thermals are steadily pushing upward, and work canyons from below when thermals are pushing down.

Using chalky products that test the wind direction can help. Sometimes, no matter what you do or how cautious you are, wind currents change at a moment's notice. Then they can broadcast your presence and blow your chances at that big buck.

SMELL SOMETHING?

Scent control is extremely important for all still-hunters, especially bowhunters who need to get as close as possible to their target. If the deer smell you, they're gone. Game over!

Hunters face this constant battle of trying to mask scent by using various scent-shield products or wearing Scent-Lok clothing. A multi-million dollar industry thrives on our desire to be odorless.

Through my many years afield --and countless dollars spent on numerous products -- I've found that no matter what preventative measures I take, I'll never be able to mask my scent 100 percent of the time.

The best you can do is try to control your scent by using products intended to decrease odors. Doing so could very well give you that small edge needed to close the distance on that buck of a lifetime.

'¢ Don't use a scented soap or shampoo before you hunt. Even though the odor may be a very faint, if a human can smell it, you can bet a blacktail's nose will detect it well before you get within range. When dealing with scent control, this is a big red flag.

'¢ Do use unscented antiperspirant deodorants, body soaps and shampoos that contain antibacterial deodorizing agents. Some companies make products like these specifically for hunters. They work very well for all methods of hunting, and are ideal if you plan on still-hunting or hunting from a tree stand. The odor-fighting agents are retained by skin proteins and last a long time for hunters who are always on the move.

All of these products do help, but there is no sure-fire remedy to conceal human body odor. So keep that wind in your face.

'¢ Don't carry any foods that emit unnatural odors. Remember that still-hunting is a close-contact method of hunting -- within a buck's domain. You can't afford to carry a sandwich that smells like a deli.

'¢ Do make a better choice by packing high-nutrition supplements, such as factory-sealed protein bars and high-energy gels. They may not be as satisfying to the palette as a homemade sandwich, but they are odorless -- and will sustain your energy level throughout the day.

'¢ Don't wear hunting clothes in camp. If you're a wilderness hunter whose mobility depends on carrying the least amount of weight possible, then probably you won't have the option of changing into a set of "camp clothes" when not hunting. But when you sit around camp, your clothing is an odor magnet.

While doing daily camp chores, many hunters never even think about the different smells that are getting trapped in their clothing. Avoid common odors such as food smells while preparing your meals, campfire smoke or fumes from your vehicle's exhaust while warming your engine or loading gear.

If you're not careful, you'll carry these odors around with you while hunting. Talk about sabotaging yourself before you even get started!

'¢ Do change out of your hunting clothes while in camp. Hang them outside, letting them air out and absorb the natural odors produced by the vegetation in the area.

While still-hunting, the most important strategy is to spot your prey before it spot

s you. That's basically what it all comes down to. A hunter must not only heighten his senses to the next level, but also find ways to disguise his movements and control his scent in order to become the ultimate predator.

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