Missouri deer hunters take one of two general approaches to harvesting their game. They either wait in one spot for deer to come to them, or they move around, hoping to scare up deer, sneak up on deer or intercept deer that are themselves moving.
The first is called stand-hunting; the second, still-hunting. Which is better? Well, as any grizzled, deer-hunting philosopher would tell you, “It depends.”
Both methods are pretty simple. Stand-hunters wait in a ground blind, in a tree stand or behind natural cover, or they just remain out in the open, trusting that a lack of movement and noise on their part will allow them to escape the notice of moving deer. Very few hunters actually stand in stands; most sit and a few recline, sometimes luxuriantly.
Still-hunters try to walk into the vicinity of deer. Because deer are reluctant to share their personal space with humans, these hunters either have to be lucky and catch a deer that’s not paying attention, or they have to walk quietly and slowly enough that a deer doesn’t see or hear them.
I like to call still-hunting sneaking. It differs from stalking in the sense that you usually don’t have a specific target in mind. You’re just moving around quietly hoping to cross paths with a deer.
Both standing and sneaking work well some of the time, but neither works all of the time. In fact, the most frustrating thing about both methods is that they usually give you enough time between deer sightings to think that it might have been better to hunt the other way. When you’re not seeing deer in the woods, it’s very easy to imagine deer where you are not.
During one of those long mornings when I’d sat in a stand with nothing to look at but trees, rocks and shrubs and only my gurgling stomach breaking the silence, I tried to calculate whether sneaking or stand-hunting is better. I happened to think about those cowpie raffles, in which a field is marked off into sections and the location of the cow’s first deposit determines the winner.
I imagined the woods divided into 100 equal sections and containing only me and one deer. The winning combination would be when the deer and I occupied the same section. Given those conditions, at any given moment I have a 1-percent chance of that deer being in the section I’m guarding.
If the deer moves through five different sections during the time I remain on stand, I have a 5-percent chance of encountering it, assuming that being in the same section as the deer means that I would see it. If I move through five sections and the deer remains still, the odds of having all six legs of the two animals involved occupying the same section at some time during the hunt are also 5 percent.
Because I used only my fingers and my cold toes in the calculations, my math became a little clumsy when I tried to figure the odds should the deer and I both move through five sections during the time I was hunting.
You might think the dual movement improves the chances but, instead, it allows the possibility of me moving into an area that the deer had already occupied, or vice versa. Essentially, I was back to the same 1-percent chance that both of us would occupy the same section at the same time.
In addition to being wonderfully time-consuming, the exercise was constructive. It suggested that if the deer were moving, I would be better off in a stand, but if the deer were laying up somewhere, I’d be better off sneaking.
Of course, I didn’t bother with speed of movement, duration of stay in a section, unhuntable or uninhabitable sections or other complications. The odds only hold for purely random movement throughout the entire woods by either deer or hunter. Fortunately, we can improve those odds by eliminating some of the randomness.
For one thing, we can take advantage of patterns of deer movement. Deer are crepuscular animals, which means they are usually most active near sunrise and sunset. This suggests that your most fruitful approach to hunting early in the morning and late in the day is to sit and wait. If you want to sneak, take advantage of the times when the deer aren’t likely to be moving.
Because deer movement often involves traveling between bedding and feeding areas, we have a better chance of intercepting deer if we sit and wait somewhere between those destinations.
I used to bowhunt not far from a big field. I was able to hunt a lot of mornings and evenings and got to the point where I could guess pretty well when the deer would be moving and in what direction they would be heading. During the day, they bedded anywhere from a quartermile to a mile in the woods, usually in the thick stuff. Most evenings they commuted to the field. I suspect they stayed in or near the field through the night, because the deer I’d see in the mornings were usually headed back into the woods.
Once I’d learned the general pattern, I kind of played with it, setting my stand in different places and hunting at various times.
I saw plenty of deer, and what impressed me most was that they were less creatures of habit than creatures of tendency. They tended to and from the field, but that’s about all I could predict about them. The deer didn’t always use the same trails, for example, and they traveled at different times. Sometimes they were in groups, and sometimes they’d be solo. They also moved at different speeds, poking along one day and rushing as if late for a meeting another day.
I saw the most deer from stands anywhere from 100 yards to a quarter-mile from the field. When I set up right at the field edge, the deer seemed to arrive too late or too early, and they seemed really “edgy.”
Another drawback to field-edge stands is that I was too close to where they were when I was leaving or arriving. Deer aren’t dopes. From the field, they can hear a hunter climbing into a nearby stand or climbing down from it. They might not know it’s a hunter they’re hearing, but being naturally cautious, they might avoid areas that generate unusual noises.
Even when I set up away from the field, I made a point of approaching my stand from the field side in the late afternoon for an evening hunt and from the woods side for a morning hunt; I left the stand heading the opposite directions. That way I was always approaching or leaving from where I figured the deer weren’t.
They often “made” me anyway. That’s the only way to explain why I generally saw more whitetails when I put the stand in a new place but fewer the more days I hunted from it. The deer either whiffed my “perfume,” or spotted me moving my head or hands.
It’s hard to spend long hours in even the most comfortable stand. When I’ve got a whole day to hunt, I usually plan to sit early and late and sneak in between. In fact, it’s while sneaking that I usually find new places—trails or scrapes, for example—to place my stand.
When I’m sneaking, I feel more like a hunter. Maybe it’s because I can’t multi-task. I’ve hoisted books, MP3 players, video games and notepads into my treestands and still saw deer, but sneaking forces me to be focused and deliberate.
Everyone knows how to sneak. We’re always surprising brothers, sisters, cats and dogs by sneaking up on them—great fun! Sneaking through the woods isn’t much different. We have to travel quietly and slowly, hiding behind trees or brush whenever we can.
Because we don’t know what we’re looking for or where it is, we have to remain extremely alert. Experts tell us that we shouldn’t look for a whole deer, but for parts of a deer, especially the horizontal line marking the bottom or top of the deer’s body. One of my favorite sneaks involves creeping like a box turtle through cedars, looking beneath the limbs for deer legs.
Travel slowly enough that you can spot almost any movement, even the flick of a deer’s ear. Remember, they are as likely to be lying down as standing. Your goal is to see a deer before it senses you. If you’re startled by sudden noise and see a white rump bouncing away through the woods, you’ve lost the sneak game.
I can be quietest when the woods are soggy, but I also like to sneak around in dry, windy conditions. I think strong breezes whisk my scent away quickly, giving only those deer directly downwind a chance to sniff me. Also, the wind rustling through the dry woods provides a kind of “white noise” that masks any ruckus I might make. The same wind shakes branches and leaves, which probably makes it more difficult for the deer to pick up my slow movements.
My most memorable sneak actually was a stalk. I disturbed a couple of deer when I approached my treestand early one morning. They clumped off noisily in the dark, but they didn’t go far. Not long after full light, I could see two deer milling around in a patch of tall grass about 300 yards away. As I watched them through binoculars from my perch, they suddenly vanished.
The deer had bedded down.
They weren’t coming to me, so I decided to go to them. Before lowering my bow and easing myself out of the tree, I noted landmarks and planned a stalk toward where I’d last seen the deer. I had all morning to hunt and told myself to use it all if necessary to get close enough for a shot—about 15 yards. From the time my foot first hit the ground, I took every step slowly, deliberately and quietly.
The wind that came up gave me a lot of confidence. I was mostly moving into it, so the deer couldn’t smell me, and if I was stealthy they probably wouldn’t hear me. The wind also whipped the grass where they were bedded, so they would have trouble seeing me. Confidence breeds competence: I have never been sneakier.
I plotted each footfall, kept trees between me and my destination and moved only when the wind gusted. If I did happen to snap a twig, I froze for at least a minute before even thinking about shifting my weight further.
A couple of very enjoyable hours passed before I found myself on the edge of the grassy plot without a clue of what to do next. I had an arrow nocked and was ready to draw, but I had no target. The deer were still hidden in the grass. I kept moving forward, extra alert, hoping that I could startle them into standing up without spooking them out of range.
It happened just that way. The deer popcorned up, one right after another, both within easy shooting range and both staring at me to the point of rudeness. I didn’t dare pull the bow, but the deer to my left forced my hand when she began to circle matter-of-factly to a point downwind of me. She apparently wanted to get to the bottom of my sudden apparition. If she whiffed me, I knew they would both be gone.
I slowly drew on the standing deer, even though it was looking at me. I could see its muscles tense, and we both seemed to release at exactly the same moment. It ran off, as did the sniffing deer, and I spent the next 15 minutes locating my arrow in the grass. What a great hunt!
Actually, they all are. It’s not really so important that I see a deer or shoot one when I’m hunting. It’s enough to know that I have a chance to do either, and that I can improve my chances by applying the hunting skills of stealth, patience, woodsmanship and awareness.
As a bonus, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a hunt when I didn’t marvel at or appreciate something wild and natural and worth telling others about. When you take such benefits into account, the odds in deer hunting, whether you’re standing or sneaking, are always in your favor.
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