Article for July - August 2012
Up Close and Personal
by Dennis Chastain
In South Carolina, the phrase “still hunting” has come to mean hunting from a stationary elevated stand, but a different type of still hunting can bring rich rewards.
The increasing popularity of tent-style ground blinds has some South Carolina deer hunters taking a stand at ground level, and many are finding this new perspective offers some advantages over a lofty perch up in a tree. For folks who have made the great leap down from the trees and found it rewarding, and who are lucky enough to have sole access to a piece of property large enough to support it, I would suggest taking the next step and including a technique in your deer hunting repertoire that many consider the ultimate deer hunting experience — "real" still hunting or stalking.
In this case, "still" refers not to a stationary stand, but rather to the slow, deliberate movements and quiet travel through the woods necessary for success. (Note: Public lands that are heavily used during deer season may not be a safe place to practice this technique. And if there’s even a chance that someone may be sharing the woods with you, blaze orange gear is essential. A blaze orange hat, coat, or vest is required on WMA lands during muzzleloader and gun seasons for deer, bear or hogs.)
As a thirty-year veteran of hunting on the ground, I can tell you that taking a mature buck at 200 yards in an open field is one thing, but having a one-on-one, eye-level encounter with that same buck at thirty or forty yards is something else entirely. And lest you think getting that close to a deer, a wild hog or even a black bear is not possible, let me rattle off a few of my more memorable wild game encounters.
There was the ten-point buck that came strolling into view some forty yards from where I was sitting at the base of a white oak tree. That deer weighed 238 pounds and sported a beautifully symmetrical rack that scored just under 160 Boone & Crockett points — at the time, the twelfth highest-scoring deer taken since the S.C Department of Natural Resources had been keeping records. Then there was the 211-pound nine-point that just two years ago made the mistake of appearing thirteen steps away while I was leaning against a chestnut oak. Two weeks later, another big-bodied buck, who apparently had come to believe that deer hunters were only a threat when they were up in trees, made his appearance on the scene, broadside at thirty feet…. That’s “feet” not yards. That seven-pointer weighed in at 215 pounds, but even if I hadn’t taken the shot, it would have been an unforgettable experience.
Finally, this past bear season I found myself standing within forty yards of a huge black bear that tipped the scales at just under 500 pounds, nearly a quarter of a ton. Forty yards! That bear is now in my freezer, and I have a great story to tell.
So yes, it is possible to get really close to game animals on the ground. Not easy, mind you, but definitely possible, with patience, practice and commitment. If you think you might be ready to take a stab at the fine art of authentic still hunting, here are a few tips that I have gleaned from many years of trial and error. It all revolves around learning to deal with what I call the “Four S’s”— Stealth, Sight, Sound and Scent.
Let’s take stealth first. Stealth means moving through the woods like a ghost in the night. Deer have excellent hearing, and being stealthy requires taking it very slow and placing each step in a way that makes as little noise as possible. It can feel painstakingly slow, and depending on conditions, you may travel only a hundred yards or less in an hour. Try leaving your watch at home. If you need to get back to the truck by a specific time, you will almost certainly push yourself and will inevitably mess up. A well-executed still hunt is a beautiful thing. Carelessly done, it’s a one-man deer drive.
Regarding sight, keep in mind that every time you take a single (slow and careful) step forward, a new sight window opens up. Whatever you can see from wherever you are standing, when you take one or two steps forward the view changes considerably. Don’t take that next step until you have scanned every feature in your sight window and satisfied yourself that your quarry is not in view. Pay particular attention to any horizontal lines or patches of color that seem out of place.
Sound is a two-way street. If you are going to become a consistently successful still hunter, not only will you have to learn to make as little sound as possible (see stealth, above), you’ll also need to become adept at interpreting any natural sounds that you hear in the woods. In terms of making as little sound as possible, I faithfully adhere to the sage advice of perhaps the greatest still hunter of all time — the legendary archer, Fred Bear, who famously said, “Never step on anything you can step over, and never step over anything you can go around.” Burn that little pearl of wisdom somewhere in the back of your brain; it will serve you well.
In terms of learning to sort out the various sounds that you hear in the woods, it simply takes time and focus to learn to distinguish all the sounds of nature — and there’s no substitute for time spent in the woods, watching and listening. As a starting point, you would be wise to quickly learn the difference between the sound of a squirrel scampering through the leaves and that of a deer tripping through the woods in your direction. Never move forward until you are satisfied that you can explain each and every sound you hear.
Scent control is nothing new to deer hunters, but in still hunting it’s critical. Obviously, you want to keep your hunting clothes out of the regular wash, and use only unscented soaps on days you’ll be hunting. But not only should you be concerned about controlling your scent, you must also be constantly aware of which way the wind is blowing. Stalking with the breeze at your back is an exercise in futility. Over time, you will learn to detect even slight changes in wind direction by sensing it on the exposed skin of your face and the back of your neck. In the meantime, check the daily weather forecast for the area you’ll be hunting and use a small squeeze bottle filled with talcum powder, a feather on a string, or even a cigarette lighter as a wind detector.
Still hunting is not for everyone, but for those looking for a more intense, up close and personal, hunting experience, it may be just the ticket. Still hunting is, after all, the very essence of what hunting has been about for 10,000 years. Stay safe, stay focused and wear plenty of orange. Good luck.
Dennis Chastain is an Upstate writer and outdoorsman with decades of experience stalking everything from black bears and deer to chipmunks and morel mushrooms.
© 2012 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, July - August 2012 - www.scwildlife.com