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Bowhunting Hunting West Virginia Whitetail

Still-Hunting for Thick Cover Whitetails

March 10th, 2011 11

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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.

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  • marty vuncannon

    I've been huntin thick cover with a bow need some suggestions

    • John G.

      Hey Marty,

      My buddy and I are new to bowhunting. However, we are learning that during Oct. in North Arkansas (Ozarks) these bucks are nocturnal. We have only seen spikes during the day on our 600 acres. We have both taken does, but big bucks are still running in bachelor groups. Our rut in not on. Our cover is really thick. We have seen almost no sign on our cut roads. You have to find out for sure where their bedding area is so you can hunt the alley way between the feeding areas and bedding areas. This can only be done by going in there. Yes, you will bump some deer, but if you dont, you can only surmise where they are by the sign. Deer poop will not advertise the sex of the deer. Hunt quiet, slow and down wind (ONLY) in tight areas. If the wind wont participate, get out. You will never see that big 8 if you press it on a swirly windy day. Sadly I still see guys loading big racks into their truck beds during this time. I have a lot to learn still. Its frustrating. My buddy and I must suck cause we have 600 unpressured acres and only does so far. If you get some good info send it our way!!

      • jim

        where there are does durring the rut that is where the bucks will be. dont give up! it took me 2 years to finally harvest my first buck, I did it still hunting into the wind on heavily hunted stateland. if you are making a mistake its probably moving too fast,you can move too fast buy you cant move too slow.

  • GuyMacher

    This article is a hoax. The writer claims to have hunted since 1945? He'd be at least 80 and mostly likely closer to 90 and he hunts 11 hours! Who is this man, Daniel Boone?

    • brlally

      Nowhere in the article does it say 1945. It says he hunted for 45 years. Which is perfectly reasonable. MY grandpa is 70 and hunts 10 hours a day easy.

      • GuyMacher

        "I’ve been an avid deer hunter since the end of hostilities after World War II." If he meant to say 45 years ago (actually the article says closer to 50) he would have said 1965 or so. I read carefully and did the math.

        Kudos to your grandpa. I wish him many more seasons.

      • Spock

        Actually, it does. He claims to have become enamored with still hunting since the end of WWII which was in 1945.

        I assumed another reason, that the article was old (mid 90's vintage), now republished on the web.

        As to the quality, well, it is only the absolute and rather obvious basics.

        I have been still hunting almost exclusively for about 30 years (I'm 51, so you can put your calculators away) and can agree with everything except the choice of scope and speed of hunt.

        Technically, he is right. The slower you hunt, the more time you spend looking after each step, the more game you will see, before it sees you, which equals more shooting opportunities. I still hunt, however, because it beats sitting in a stand for hours. Even still hunting, if it too still, isn't a match for my personality. He may get more shooting opportunities with undisturbed game, but I cover more ground and come on more game, a greater percentage of which I do not always see until it has been startled by me nearly stepping on their tails.

        Depending on your personality, either way will work.

        This also leads to my choice of site. Because more of my shots have to be fast, once I have been discovered, fast site acquisition is key. I used to prefer open sites, but ages has caught up with my eyes and I cannot keep both sites and the animal in focus simultaneously. Because it is holographic, there is no need to line up sites. As long as you can see the red dot in the window, the bullet will hit where the dot is. Site acquisition is as fast or faster than it used to be with open sites.

        The most valuable advice from his article: get out there in bad weather (rain). Not just because animals are active but even more so because it covers your mistakes and keeps you unnoticed. Do not go into cover, however, in high wind. Having the wind break off even a medium sized branch and drop it on your head will ruin your whole day.

        My best advice, PRACTICE! Nothing in season, tag filled, freezer full, don't feel like shooting anything? Get out there, develop your skills then keep them sharp. The more you practice, the better results you will have.

  • canadianhunter

    66 years years between 45 and 2011, given that someone were 11-12 years old and started hunting that makes 77 or so years old today. I do know two gentelmen long retired between 60 and 70 that spend about 10-11 hrs a day doing exactly this during the season until the season is over or they have their game in the bag. not as unbeleivable as you might think, also it does not say that this person still hunts today, just that they are offereing their 45 years or so experience. I for one will simply apply my own understanding to this and if I find it to be good advice and it works so be it, if not im out nothing except the time to read, which I suspect if your looking for information like this your likely looking for that experience to begin with.

  • GroveDog

    My grandfather is 88 and still-hunts every four days during general gun season here in north central Fl until he bags enough meat for the freezer to last the year. He always takes a nap after eating lunch mid day for an hour and naturally moves very, very slowly through the woods. He has learned to use the cell phone now to call one of his three grandsons to drag his bucks out for him since he has been too weak to do it himself these last few years. His best advise has been exactly the same as the gentleman says:

    Know your surroundings
    Move very very slowly and deliberately
    Look everywhere, even for branch movement indicating browsing of leaves from over head limbs
    Go lite by taking very little gear

    One other thing he has taught me is that if one sees turkeys feeding around you, and you manage not to disturb them, you are more than likely to spot a doe or buck at ease nearby.
    There are old wise men out there that still have the want and need to hunt all day, or, until they bag there quarry.

  • Tim Littlefield

    Really its very nice steps for hunting.

  • carlrooney

    Thanks for sharing, I
    learn a lot and I’m sure it will improve my deer-hunting skills. I’m been in
    duck hunting for 3 years and I just decided to try deer hunting. Again, thanks
    for the tips.

    duck hunting

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