Smoke Through a Keyhole

Gusting wind violently whipped the barren branches of the cottonwood trees overhead. At eye level the waist high grass of the river bottom frantically whirled from the invisible torrent of air coursing through our region. With wind gushing around me, my gasping breaths of the frigid air failed to fill my lungs as I pushed headfirst into the gale. It was early March as I searched the expanse of public land, searching for nothing but the unfound. Hunting seasons had closed months ago but I still felt the tug of forgotten wild places. Besides, when is a bad day to be outside?

I had told myself to record major areas of deer sign and hoped to discover a lost honey hole, giving more purpose to my expedition. As I approached a likely bedding area I caught brief movement through the brush ahead and froze. After focusing on the obscure movements for several minutes I realized several whitetails were drifting around a small opening within the brushy area about 80 yards away. Crouching down to hands and knees, and then slowly slinking forward, I silently crept toward the oblivious deer. My goal was to see how close I could get to the whitetails. Over the next twenty minutes I closed the gap to twenty yards using some wild rose and deadfall as cover. It amazed me to be so close to these animals and simply watched them over the course of several minutes. At times they drifted to within ten yards of me, unaware of my presence. In season or not, getting this close to wild game always gets my heart pounding.

Stand hunting has taken the nation by storm. With the majority of hunters pursuing whitetails in the US, the term “tree stand” has become common nomenclature in our hunting community. Stands and blinds hands-down offer hunters of whitetails, and other species of predictable game, the best chance at success. There is a reason stands are so popular; they work. You’d have to be a fool not to utilize these efficient tools, or at least a bit different. I’d rather describe myself as the latter, and I frequently pass up tree stand hunting for other opportunities. My preferred method of hunting is eye level spot and stalk. These techniques require more energy, patience, perseverance, and fewer opportunities for success, but the heart pounding sensation of hunting animals at eye level fuels my engine. If you’ve ever dreamed of moving through the woods like the last Mohican, or if you’re up for a new hunting challenge, here are a few tips that can shorten your learning curve on a spot and stalk hunt.

The Spot

Spot and stalk hunting is a technique where you first find the animal (spot), make a plan, and then move in upon it (stalk). This type of hunting is popular out west on a variety of big game hunts, but can be used by all hunters pursuing all species of game. Like in my story, even tightly wound animals like whitetails can be stalked. Finding a good spotting position must be priority number one. Of course elevated locations are the best spotting locations, but remember to stay off the skyline. Even from a mile away animals will spot movement on the skyline and vacate the area before you even get set up. When spotting it’s important to have a good set of optics, these will allow you to cover much more area without having to spend the energy walking everywhere to go see something.

Once you’ve found a good spotting location you need to follow the golden rule of spot and stalk; be on your butt when the animals are on their feet and be on your feet when the animals are on their butts. Depending on your terrain, you may be able to watch the animals move about in their morning routine and then head to their bedding area, all without moving from your original location. Once you have the animal bedded it’s most beneficial to make a plan and create a solid mental map before commencing your stalk. Creating mental maps can be more challenging than it seems at first. Landmarks often change in size and distance as you approach. For best results study the landscape intricately, looking for a number of landmarks or unique features. Personally I’ve blown stalks by making poor mental maps and not understanding where the animal was.

The Stalk

At this point its time to put your plan to the test and start your stalk. Wind direction plays a huge role in deciding your stalking pattern. Nearly all big game has a good enough nose to sniff you out if the wind is bad. Secondly, use terrain features to close the distance. Small depressions, dry creek beds, ridges, and the like, allow the hunter to cut space without being detected. Vegetation also can help conceal your approach, but a word of caution; vegetation seldom creates a solid barrier and may offer your quarry glimpses of your movement. Also, stick to the shadows. They obscure your movement and can help you cut the distance down. As you move into the red zone you need to really start dropping gears and slow down.

Red Zone

The final 60 yards of a stalk often pose the biggest challenge. As you close in upon the bedded animal you are moving into the zone where the animal has the advantage. In the red zone all the basics still apply, but should be overemphasized. At this point your noise can impact your hunt in big ways as well. Crunching grass, snapping twigs, even grinding gravel can end your stalk. One thing I do to give myself the advantage is to remove my hunting boots and stalk in my socks. Not only can I feel the ground better, but each step is amazingly more quiet. I’ve received some questioning looks on hunts for doing this, but can attest from my own experience the results can be profound.

Besides for noise your movements must change in this high stakes stage. My best advice is to think of what a mountain lion, or other cat for that matter, looks like as they close in upon their prey; body low, ultra slow movement of the feet, carefully feeling the ground with each step, pausing to scan the terrain and contemplate their next move. Hunters who want success in their stalks should emulate these habits. With luck you will penetrate into your shooting range. From this point on you have to be ready to shoot at any point. I would advise archers to set their feet for shooting and take each lead step with your lead foot and gather your trail foot, more slowly shuffling rather than alternating your lead foot like regular walking. Another key point is to search for any small movement, and all your hopes rest on the chance you will see the animal before it sees you. One trick that can help you is to pack along your optics. Most people think binoculars are strictly for long distance viewing. I almost always sling my binos over my shoulder and once in the red zone use them to investigate an area as I approach. If you think about it, most animals have eyes that rival binoculars so using them will help level the playing field. One final note is to keep your cool in this situation. With your adrenaline building and focus restricting on the goal, as always, make sure your shots are ethical and will result in clean kills.

Spot and stalk hunting comes down to exercising instinctive skills that dwell within all of us. By finding a good place to glass, using the terrain to your advantage, and keeping your cool in the red zone you will go a long way toward improving your spot and stalk skills. Expect lots of blown stalks early in your career. Like anything, spot and stalk takes some practice but the payoff is worth it. Nothing compares to tapping into your primal predator and getting the drop on an animal on their own turf at their own level. Good luck, and in no time you’ll drift through the woods like smoke through a keyhole.