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Revival of a Lost Art

Kneeling motionless for what seemed like hours, my knees were aching and my feet were asleep, waiting for the right opportunity to stand so I could move a little closer to the feeding deer barely fifty yards away. Finally I saw my opportunity to stand. While the blood rushed into my feet I searched all of the deer in front of me for some sign of headgear. Suddenly the buck emerged from the draw beyond the does. In one fluid motion the Remington 700 found my shoulder and at the report the buck vanished. I remained motionless for several minutes taking in what just happened.

For the past two hours I had barely covered 100 yards from my vehicle when I first noticed the slight movement of an ear swatting some imaginary insect. Now it had all come to fruition as my buck lay only a few yards away.

Still hunting whitetail deer is fast becoming a lost art. It has fallen victim of            box stands, and food plots. The loss of woods-man ship and skill       needed to effectively sneak through the woods unnoticed has been exchanged for the convenience of towers and tripods. Sure the success rate is reduced, but I would argue that the hunt is cherished more. The act of hunting is realized, and at the end of the day, one knows that they have hunted hard, and have hunted well.

Make certain that your state allows this type of hunting and wear your blaze orange as required by law.

I began my still hunting career out of necessity rather than by choice.When I first began pursuing whitetails in my native state ofSouth Carolina, the thick pine plantations and oak covered ridges were abundant. Tree stands were in their infancy and to be quite honest I could not afford one, plus the idea of bear hugging a pine to get a better vantage point just did not appeal to me. So I stayed on the ground. It was while sitting on logs, behind blow-downs, on stumps, in the crevice of a big old oak looking for game, that I would often see deer at a distance my single barreled 16 gauge could not reach, so I began to move towards them. Often times the ignorance of a youth is a good thing. Had I read about the techniques of hunting I would have stayed put. But my anxiety got the best of me and I would get up and begin moving long a trail towards the deer. Many more times than not the deer would see me and the game would be over. But it was in these failures that I learned my lessons of still hunting that I practice today with what I consider a pretty good success rate.

Contrary to the early days when I still hunted out of necessity, today it is by choice.When the conditions are right, I leave the stands in the trees and hit the ground.

The best conditions in my state may be different than where you are, unfortunately we do not get very much snow here in South Carolina, in fact I have never had the opportunity to hunt deer in the snow, when the white stuff does fall it is usually long after the season is over. So I look for other weather events to increase my odds of success.  Immediately following a rain is one of the most opportune times to slip through the woods. The rain will dampen all of the potential noise you may make. Softening leaves and sticks, makes the walking far quieter, suffice it to say that the deer have the same advantage after a rain, it is impossible to hear them. But with a good steady wind or breeze following a rain, I will hit the trail every time. If it is not raining or fresh after a rain, breezy conditions are the second choice for opportunities for still hunting; the strong winds hide your noise movement and allow for a stealthier approach.

A common mistake many make when still hunting for the first time is to pre determine a route before they leave. “I want to slip through that creek bottom” and they head off never paying attention to the wind, sun position or the conditions. Rather successful still hunters will look at the conditions and let that dictate where they go. Once an area is designated and a plan made approach the target area well in advance to get yourself mentally ready for the concentration needed to still hunt effectively. As soon as you leave your vehicle or camp begin hunting. In planning a route, stick to a plan and move deliberately and intentionally makes the hunt longer and more enjoyable and often more successful. Many times I have seen my first deer within 50 yards of my starting point. The hunt begins as soon as you enter the woods.

In planning your approach it is imperative to keep the wind in your face or at the worst quartering towards you, the sun at your back or very high in the sky (or overcast) and never, ever allow yourself to skyline on a ridge. And lastly, never let your guard down. More times than I care to remember, as soon as I let me guard down the snorting of a bolting deer waving its tail at me brings me back to what I was doing there in the first place.

The conditions were prefect. Slight drizzle had lasted most of the night and had recently stopped. The woods were quiet and the wind slightly from the NW. I moved to one of my favorite ridges for a still hunt. As I was slipping along the side of a ridge being careful not to skyline myself, I spotted movement ahead. My mind told me it was a squirrel jumping onto the side of a tree, so I took another slow calculated step, and a huge buck bolted from its bed not 15 yards in front of me never offering me a safe shot. Had I deliberately studied the movement, I would have realized it was an ear flicking or head turning. But I let my guard down and missed the opportunity I was hoping for.

Camouflage is essential for effective still hunting. The choice of pattern is up to you, but every piece of skin needs to be covered. Head to toe, face mask or makeup, gloves, and of course a good top layer. I prefer a gillie suit complete with head cover. The three-dimensional movement of the suit allows for better concealment. But any pattern works as long as everything is covered.

Walking pace is without a doubt the most critical element of still hunting. Too many hunters decide they want hunt the back 40 and they are determined to cover the whole thing in their allotted timeframe. Effective still hunting cannot have time or distance restraints. I have spent many an hour hunkered down beside an oak watching deer feeding just out of range.Watching and waiting for just the right opportunity to move. In knowing that I can only move when the opportunity presents itself. Standing and waiting, watching, listening. Still hunting requires you to use your eyes far more than your legs. This is where the use of good optics is crucial. Most of the deer I have harvested while still hunting were first spotted with my binoculars while I was standing still, leaning against a tree and surveying the surrounding areas.

In the opening story I shared a moment when I harvested a buck while still hunting a ridge, when I recovered my buck within 30 yards I was elated, he was not a trophy by Boone and Crockett standards, but the hunt remains as one of my most memorial.

Still hunting is moving like smoke through the woods, drifting without making a sound. Moving from one tree to another, calculating every step, feeling through your shoes for limbs, sticks, brush that may make a sound if stepped on. Finding a tree and leaning on that tree for minutes until every nook and cranny has been investigated. Every possible sign looked at and looked at again. It is often in these moments that the deer are spotted as they move along a trail, sneaking from their bed for a stretch, or going to dine on a mid day meal when we intercept them.

Whenever you try it, you will leave the woods feeling excited and invigorated, knowing that every hunt is successful whether you or not you harvest your intended animal.