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Written By: Cal Kellogg, May 28, 2014
We kicked off this discussion of blacktail still hunting tactics in the last issue of The Fish Sniffer. Here’s the conclusion-Cal Kellogg.
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!
When moving forward as you still hunt, 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 4 x 4 steps into the clear 200 yards over yonder, believe me, you won’t want to be scurrying around looking for a rest.
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 resembles the noises made by browsing deer. As a result, when deer gear 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.
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 nulls 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.
Once the basic of still hunting 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 variable 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 will to focus on what might have been done differently.
Not much has been written about the blacktails bucks’ propensity to sit tight and let danger pass them by and yet many of the tactics I employed are aimed at dealing with this very behavior. I’d always heard the old timers taking about wise bucks sitting tight, but I didn’t give it much though until I saw it happen.
While glassing a canyon on morning, I spotted a hunter sneaking down the opposite ridge of a large canyon. I followed his progress as he move 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 top of the ridge.
Rather than to sniff arrogantly at the hunter’s misfortune, my thoughts turned inward: How often had that very thing happened to me? What could be done 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 dete3cted. Stopping often invokes what I can 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 move erratically and stop 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 brigs you near more deer. I’m always amazed by the number of deer that I don’t seen 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.
My Education As 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.
My Dad and uncle taught me most of the basic when it comes to hunting blacktails, but in terms of non-family members, one man surpassed all others in terms of his knowledge and zeal to pass that knowledge onto others. When I knew Deacon Wiseman he was in his 80’s 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 would say. And like most other things he taught me, I had to experience it for myself before I truly understood that aspect of still hunting…
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