Still-hunting deer is considered by many hunters to be the ultimate challenge. However, it is perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly executed of all deer hunting tactics. On the surface, it is essentially walking through the woods and looking for deer -- but, as you'll see, there is actually quite an art and a science to still-hunting.
If you attempt to wander through the woods with no awareness of proper still-hunting techniques, you're simply relying on luck to get your buck. Learn the skills of the still-hunter, and you can tip the odds in your favor. In this article, we'll cover the essential skills of still-hunting deer, including how to move at the correct pace, how to fool a buck's sense of smell, sight, and hearing, and how to spot more deer.
The first thing to understand about still-hunting is that the correct pace is probably slower than anything you've ever experienced. Still-hunting demands the speed of a tortoise. You have to move slowly, or you're wasting your time. Take one slow ten-second step, and then spend the rest of the minute watching, observing, and scanning.
Deer do not take regular, even steps when they walk -- only humans do that. If you take more than three even steps in a row, you run the risk of broadcasting your human presence. Think about how slowly a deer moves when it it undisturbed -- this is the pace you should be going for.
If you're traveling over dry, crunchy leaves or brittle branches, it's usually best to back off and wait for rain or the melting of the morning frost to soften the forest floor and then continue your still-hunting.
It is also a good idea to stop walking altogether from time to time. When you arrive at a promising area, don't hesitate to stop and stay there for 5 to 30 minutes or more, watching for deer. Here's a good rule of thumb: if you're using your boots more than your binoculars, you're moving too fast.
Cultivate an attitude of patience. Good things come to those who wait; in still-hunting, good bucks come to those who slow way, way down.
Staying downwind or crosswind of deer is your most important objective when still-hunting. A deer's sense of smell is about 1,000 times stronger than yours, and once a deer smells you, it's all over.
Always keep wind direction and thermal air currents foremost in your mind, and be ready to adjust to changing conditions.
It is extremely important to continuously monitor even the slightest changes in wind and thermal direction. However, the use of talcum powder, which can be effective for other hunting methods, is not necessarily the ideal choice for still-hunting. When still-hunting, you want to minimize your movement as much as possible, and squeezing a bottle of talcum powder into the air requires significant movement. Instead, tie a short length of yarn, thread, or frayed dental floss to the end of your rifle or bow -- this allows you to keep track of the wind without any movement on your part.
The better you've gotten to know your hunting area, the better you'll be able to keep the wind in your favor while still-hunting. Knowing wind direction is easy to determine. But knowing wind direction and knowing where the deer are likely to be at the time of day you're hunting is the real formula for still-hunting success. The key to knowing this information is to practice proper scouting techniques throughout the year.
Scent reduction practices can definitely help your cause when still-hunting. At a minimum, wash your hunting clothes in unscented, deodorizing laundry detergent, and shower with unscented soap before hunting. Our article on tree stand hunting has more detailed information on scent control strategies you might consider using for still-hunting. However, there is no way to completely eliminate or mask your human odor. The only way to be sure the deer don't smell you is to stay on the correct side of the wind.
After ensuring that your human scent will not reach the noses of deer, the next thing to focus on is avoiding a deer's sense of hearing. The ear canals of deer take in about the same amount of sound as yours do. However, the large size and radar-dish-like shape of a buck's ears capture and direct much higher levels of sound into their ear canals, the net result being they can hear a whole lot more than you can. So it is crucial to stay as quiet as possible when still-hunting.
First, make sure your clothing is quiet. Fabrics such as wool, brushed cotton, or any of the newer high-tech hunting fabrics are all quiet materials that minimize the noise you make when you are forced to brush up against vegetation. Nylon, canvas, denim, and velcro are some of the worst offenders in the noise department. If you have to wear raingear, either purchase newer, high-tech, quiet fabrics or cover noisy raingear with softer fabrics.
When you're still-hunting, footwear becomes a bigger factor than it is in perhaps any other hunting method. Heavy, stiff-soled boots just won't cut it.
In order to walk as quietly as possible, you need to be able to feel the forest floor with your feet, so you need to wear boots with soft soles. The softer and more sensitive the soles of your boots, the quieter you'll walk and the less likely the deer will hear you coming.
Before heading into the field, put on all your clothing and gear so you can identify anything that makes noise when you move. Apply tape or other noise-muffling material to these problem items, or, if you can't get the noise factor down, replace them or leave them at home.
Carefully plan your route as you go, taking into account the ease with which you can walk silently over a given area. As you walk, plan each step to make sure you don't snap twigs, crunch leaves, or brush branches. If you accidentally snap a twig with your foot or make some other deer-alarming noise, all may not be lost. Try using a fawn bleat call -- this can sometimes calm down the deer that heard your noise.
When auditory cover presents itself, you can use this to your advantage. The wind rustling branches, a blue jay squawking, a creek flowing, a light rain falling, or even a plane flying overhead -- any of these could give you a window to move slightly (but only slightly) faster and get into a better position.
After you've learned to stay hidden in smell and sound, then it's time to make sure you avoid visual detection. Deer have eyes with highly developed peripheral vision, which means they can see movement much better than you can. But there are still-hunting techniques that will make you practically invisible to deer and allow you to get close enough for a shot.
Your first line of defense is to wear full camoflauge. If you're required to wear hunter orange, choose hunter orange clothing with an added black camo pattern instead of just solid orange. You can also mix and match camo garments for an additional level of concealment. If possible, match your lower body camo to the lower vegetation and your upper body camo to the the mid-level vegetation.
One often overlooked but extremely important element of camoflauge is covering exposed areas of skin like your face, neck, and hands. Always wear gloves -- ungloved hands stand out like glowing neon lights in the woods. A camo handkerchief can be a handy way to cover your neck. And use a quality camo cream to cover your entire face, including your ears and eyelids.
It is crucial to make certain your clothing is not reflecting any ultraviolet (UV) light. Deer can see UV light very well, and, unfortunately, many common laundry detergents actually increase the amount of UV light reflected from clothing. Make sure you wash all your hunting clothing in detergent that is free of whitening and brightening chemicals (you can buy detergents specially formulated for washing hunting clothing). Some hunter orange clothing reflects UV light, but you can purchase UV blocking sprays that will neutralize this effect.
Because deer can see the color blue fairly well, it would be a particularly bad idea to wear blue jeans. Because deer can easily recognize the outline of your arms extending out from your body, you might consider sewing some loose camoflauge material under the arm area of your clothing, which will eliminate this outline and mask the upward motion of your arms. Spray paint over, or otherwise cover up, any little bright or shiny parts of your clothing and equipment.
In order to avoid detection while still-hunting, you will need to move in a fluid, gliding motion. Abrupt, jerky movements (especially upward movements) are a universal sign of danger to a deer's eyes. Don't turn your head quickly, and don't raise your arms abruptly. Because deer can see 310 degrees around them, never move when a deer has its head up -- only when it is feeding with its head down. When you spot a buck, your heart will be jumping out of your chest, but remember to maintain slow, fluid movement as you bring up your rifle or bow.
Bucks can spot you much more easily if you're out in the open or have sunlight reflecting off you. Always screen the outline of your human body by staying close to available cover, and stick to the shadows whenever possible.
Deer have mastered the art of concealment, and it's hard to shoot deer if you can't spot them. But it is possible to train your eyes to spot deer in the woods more effectively, and this will greatly improve your still-hunting. The first thing you need to do is carry a pair of high quality binoculars on a chest harness and use them constantly. Still-hunting typically works best in relatively heavy cover, so you'll want to consider binoculars with a 7x magnification. Use your binoculars to look into and through the brush, no just at it.
In order to see deer effectively, it helps to know what to look for. Concentrate on locating parts of deer -- such as a nose, an ear, a leg, or an antler -- instead of looking for a whole deer. One trick is to look for the horizontal line of a deer's back, which contrasts sharply with the many vertical lines in the forest.
Certain colors can give away a deer's location. White is a color you should be on the lookout for -- deer have white patches around their eyes, nose, and throat. A buck's gray nose can be a giveaway as well.
How you look is just as important as what you look for. If you do all your looking at eye level, you're missing out on a key perspective. Make sure you stop and slowly crouch down to look beneath the cover you're hunting. This is closer to the deer's eye level, and often it can give you a better view through the vegetation.
Humans have two types of vision: foveal and peripheral. When you focus on one small spot, you're using your foveal vision, and when you focus on your entire field of view at once, you're using your peripheral vision. You can train yourself to more easily detect movement, such as the twitching of an ear or tail, by practicing using your peripheral vision. As a still-hunter, using your peripheral vision gives you two major advantages: you can see movement much better, and you can see better in low light because peripheral vision uses the parts of your eyes that gather available light more efficiently.
Still-hunting certainly takes work, both in preparation and in execution. But it can be an incredibly enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding method of hunting deer. With patience and practice, you can become not only proficient, but also deadly.