Still-Hunting for Thick Cover Whitetails
March 10, 2011
Most hunters stay far away from the thickest cover, but that is where the biggest bucks spend most of their time. Our expert offers his tips gleaned from nearly 50 years of sneakin' and peekin' success.
By Mike Gnatkowski
Tree stand hunting is far and away the most popular and, for most nimrods, most successful method of harvesting a whitetail buck.
Over the years I've hunted out of ground stands, tree stands and blinds with great success, but for me, no hunting experience matches the exhilaration of going one on one with a wily, dominant buck on his own turf.
I've been an avid deer hunter since the end of hostilities after World War II, and I've devoted the past 45 years to still-hunting almost exclusively.
I've been fortunate enough to take at least one good buck by still-hunting almost every season either in my home terrain or while hunting away from home.
GETTING STARTED Before you try still-hunting, it's essential that you be well versed in orienteering and completely at ease in the woods. Always carry a compass and topographic map of the area you plan to hunt. It's almost a given that you're going to become confused about where you are at some point during the day, even in familiar terrain.
Off-season scouting is crucial if you expect to harvest a husky buck this fall, particularly if you're going to be hunting in unknown real estate. I scout throughout the year, even in my home territory. On trips, I try to arrange for a weekend of scouting time prior to seriously hunting the area.
The best time to begin scouting for the following season's buck is right after this year's buck is hung on the game pole. Tracks, trails, droppings, horn rubs, scrapes, feeding areas, etc., are fresh and most obvious at this time of year. You can also discover much about a buck's hunting season comings and goings immediately after the spring thaw, because the winter's cold will preserve most of the signs made the previous fall.
Big buck habitat is a heterogeneous mix of cover types that may include hardwood ridges, softwood knolls, brush-filled bogs, dense thickets and swamps intermingled with an occasional heath, clearcut, abandoned or active farm, etc.
Most of the still-hunters I've observed and guided stick mostly to the more open portions of a forest, but the biggest trophy bucks rarely leave the thickets and swamps except under the cover of darkness. All of their necessities - forage, water, bedding cover and estrous does - can be found in the thickest growth. I hunt the open areas, too, when fresh sign leads me there, but the bulk of my time in the woods is spent skulking about the densest cover.
Few hunters deign to invade the heavy cover, perhaps because they lack the patience, confidence and concentration to surreptitiously skulk about the jungle of blowdowns and thickets day after day until they get an open shot at a big buck. This is tense work - you can't allow yourself to pop sticks, rustle leaves, clink rocks, splash water and make other noises that will alert a wary buck of your approach. In these situations, the best the hunter can expect is a difficult running shot.
But if a still-hunter is doing things properly, most of the deer he sees will be standing, moving slowly or bedded, and he'll get point-blank shots at an unsuspecting target. In fact, most of the deer I've shot while still-hunting have been 30 yards or less away.
LOOK AND LISTEN Consistently successful still-hunters spend about 90 percent of their time in the woods looking and listening. I rarely prowl through more than one or two miles of cover during the 11 hours I spend in the woods on a day's hunt. If I hunt through one-tenth of a mile of cover in an hour, I'm hunting much too fast to spot game. It might take an hour or more to still-hunt through 50 yards of prime whitetail real estate and sometimes more than that!
SLOWER THAN SLOW! My usual still-hunting pace is to take one step, meticulously inspect the nearby cover in all directions, including my back trail, and then kneel and scrutinize the surrounding habitat again, take another step and repeat. Before taking that next step, I always observe what lies ahead to make certain I can advance quietly.
If I should make a small noise, I don't despair. All wildlife makes noise while traveling about the woods, and if the disturbance isn't excessive, any nearby deer will likely think I'm just another forest resident. Sometimes I bleat or grunt softly a few times, and this usually alleviates any concerns a wary buck might have over a cracked twig or crunched leaf.
It's not easy to spot a husky buck in the thickets. On a number of occasions while guiding, I've pointed out and described down to the smallest detail exactly where a buck was standing, yet my client was unable to catch sight of the critter until it bolted. In his gray fall-winter coat, a whitetail standing motionless among a forest of gray tree trunks is wearing almost perfect camouflage. The dappled lights and shadows of the forest make it even more difficult to pick a hidden deer out of the cover.
The trick is to look for pieces of the animal: a glistening eye, a flicking ear, a section of leg, a patch of hide, a section of antler, etc.
Look for horizontal lines in the forest. It may be only a blowdown, but then again you may be eyeballing the back or belly of a trophy buck. Also, study any odd-looking branch, brush, stump or rock very carefully. Bragging-size bucks spend a lot of time standing and looking - and so should you.
Sometimes on damp days I can actually smell the strong, musky odor of a nearby rutting buck, but when it comes to the olfactory department, Homo sapiens is not in the same league as the whitetail. Therefore, I do everything I can to minimize my human odor. I wash my hunting clothes and shower in unscented soap. Then, after a thorough outdoor airing, I store my hunting duds in a plastic bag. I use cover scent on my boots, and at intervals during the day, I apply scent eliminator to heavy sweat areas; and, of course, I try not to hunt with the wind at my back.
THE RIGHT GEAR If you expect to skulk about the thickets without spooking your quarry, it's essential that you wear warm, light, quiet clothing. The best way to do this is to use a layered system with wool, fleece or other soft-finish outerwear. If rain is likely, choose a warm, dry and quiet fabric. I also travel light, carrying only those accessories critical to the hunt - extra shells, a knife, a deer drag, a compass, topographic map, a monocular, a lunch and a flashlight.
A firearm for still-hunting amidst the thickets should be short, light and quick in the hands, with an action you're comfortable with. Open sights, peep sights and 1X red dot scopes are popular with some swamp hunters, bu
t a low-powered scope is a far superior instrument for zeroing in on a deer in the thick stuff, particularly under low-light conditions or when it's necessary to squeeze a shot into a tight opening.
WET-WEATHER ACTION Most hunters are not happy when they wake up to the sound of rain pattering on the camp or lodge roof, and the vast majority elect to remain in camp hunkered next to a warm fire. However, over the years I've spent a lot of days still-hunting in the rain, and myriad of big bucks I've shot while hunting in the pouring rain have convinced me that deer are more active in a heavy rain than during any other weather situation.
Just because a hunter is wet, cold and miserable hunting in the rain is no indication the whitetails are suffering, too. The biggest bucks often carry on their normal daily routines of checking scrapes, making rub lines, etc., and hunters who elect to stay in camp on a stormy day may be missing out on some great hunting.
When the woods are wet, conditions are perfect for the still-hunter. In fact, when the woods are wet and quiet, the impulse is to still-hunt at a faster pace and thus cover more terrain, but this is not a wise decision. Whether the woods are wet or dry, it's better to still-hunt at the same slow pace. A cagey buck has a difficult time picking a motionless or slow-moving hunter out of the woods, but his eyes are adapted to recognizing motion, and the hunter who moves too quickly will be avoided.
To be a successful still-hunter, concentrate on heavily used forage areas, travel thoroughfares between cover and food sources, swamp and stream crossings and major trails marked by rub lines and scrapes, as well as funnels between any of the above.
If you're satisfied with your present deer-hunting strategies, fine. But, if you've ever hankered to put more intrigue into your hunt, a switch to still-hunting could put more venison in your freezer and more excitement in your hunt.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!