Gerald Almy: Still hunting for November bucks
By far the majority of hunters out in the woods during the muzzleloader and rifle seasons will be taking a stand or sitting in a blind and waiting for a whitetail to walk into gun range. But if you want to try a more active approach, still hunting is an option. This means slowly walking through the woods, pausing often, trying to sneak up on the quarry.
There are some common beliefs about this tactic, however, that are sometimes worth ignoring. Here are some still hunting “rules” you might not always want to follow.
Glass often. Compact 7X or 8X binoculars are vital for picking through clusters of brush that might hold a hidden buck as you walk. They’re also useful for scanning ahead to plan your route or analyzing a distant deer’s age and antler quality. But mostly, just using your eyes is the best bet. That way you can take in the whole scene around you–looking for signs, scanning for deer, analyzing the habitat, planning your course. Save the optics for specific tasks.
Walk slowly. A common belief is the slower you still hunt the better. Problem is, all habitat isn’t created equally.
Walk at a moderate-to-fast clip through poor areas to cover more ground. Then, when you ease up to potential doe bedding areas, transition corridors, funnels, feed areas, fresh rubs, or scrapes, throttle back down. Sneak along like a turtle until you find a buck–or convince yourself he’s not there.
Plan your hunt well. It’s good to have a general idea of a route you’ll take on a still hunt. But don’t micro-plan every step. Be flexible. If you see a line of fresh rubs and scrapes heading into uncharted territory, follow them. If the wind shifts and blows poorly for your intended route, adapt and head a different way.
Pause often. Sure, you can pick apart cover and see deer more easily when you’re stationary. And deer are less likely to spot an immobile object. But some hunters stop almost on a robotic basis–every two minutes, every tenth step.
Pause more sparingly. Freeze, of course, when you spot a deer. Also stop when a dense piece of cover demands picking apart with optics or a field edge or travel corridor looks ripe for a longer sit–ten, 20 minutes or more.
But don’t just pause “because you’re supposed to.”
Hunt thick cover. We’re told dense, nasty thickets are where old bucks hang out. In October and December, that’s true. But when the rut is in, look to doe territory. Find gentler, semi-open habitat with brushy fields, scattered cedars, honeysuckle, and tall grasses closer to major food sources.
Mature bucks will be shadowing these areas, hanging downwind looking for their next estrous doe. Also hunt the routes bucks take as they move between different female groups. None of these areas are as thick as the habitat bucks will be in during winter. That’s in your favor, because it makes it easier to spot them.
Be quiet. Still hunting requires that you slither along as silently as a snake. But you should break that rule for one exception: calling. Grunting and doe bleating periodically while you pause in prime areas can bring deer that were just out of sight into range. Without calling, you’d likely walk right past them.
Raise your bow or gun slowly. Ease up your weapon and then carefully squeeze the trigger. At times this works. But often this slow mounting just gives a buck more time to make his escape. If you think a deer looking at you can’t see you move slowly, you’re kidding yourself. And if he’s not looking at you, a quicker smooth mount (but not a fast jerk) is best. The longer you wait to make the shot, the more likely he’ll sense something is wrong and flee.
Of course all of these still hunting tactics require that you have access to a large property. For most of us, that means hunting the national forest. That’s the best way to make sure you don’t interfere with stand hunters around you that won’t appreciate a “still hunter” walking right past them when they’re waiting for a buck to show.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.