Stalking Know-How

Use these tips to effectively ‘close the gap’ on open-country game.

 

By Joe Bell

 

       Sweeping across the stark, table-like landscape with my binocular, I easily picked out the mule deer buck and his group of does; their grayish hides strongly contrasted against the snow-covered backdrop.

       With nearly a mile of desolate prairie grass separating me from the deer, an appropriate ambush looked rather bleak, if not impossible. Yet, as I looked harder, I recognized my only hope—a few gradual slits in the ground, possibly channels carved out by flowing rainwater, zigzagging closely to the deer’s hangout.

       Equipped with my bow, hydration pack, kneepads, and a leafy overcoat, I began the stalk. Soon, I was dipping behind every nook and cranny in the gentle topography, knowing any display of myself would go unnoticed by the binocular vision of my quarry.

       Before I knew it, I was on my knees and began the process of maneuvering, taking one kneecap step at a time, while supporting myself with my right hand. My left arm was curled into my bow, keeping it tucked away and safe.

       Now 400 yards from the deer, I meandered into a belly crawl, effectively cupping my legs into “wings,” clawing forward. Each slide of a knee offered about 18 inches of stride.

       Still 150 yards out from the buck, I was close, but not close enough. Allowing only one eyeball to scan above the wind-blown grass, I was plum out of cover, other than what was afforded by a few scraggly sage bushes and yucca plants.

       Over the next 60 minutes, with the pace of a caterpillar, I inched my way in behind each of these camouflage shields, continually questioning my sanity as I slinked along. I was clearly in the open now, but “blurred” by my effective camo, an illusion of grass, sticks and muted earth tones held into one thin, deceptive layer. Only the thought of getting a shot made me press on.

       When the time came to pull out the rangefinder, holding it on the buck’s sweeping, polished horns, I couldn’t believe my great fortune, and I was utterly exhausted, physically and even more so mentally.

       My body screamed with aches and pains as I fought the bow to full draw, keeping the limbs parallel to the ground. Ever so slowly I raised the bow vertically until the 50-yard sight pin was bobbing on the sweet spot. Now was not the time to rush things.

       Arrow flight was blurry, and the hollow thump of arrow impact reassured me of a good shot. In a matter of seconds, the buck reacted to the impact, and made a frantic last run down slope. I couldn’t believe it. I had pulled off the “impossible.” Killing a sharp-eyed buck, with three does, in wide-open real estate.

       Trophy animals are not dumb. They usually situate themselves well out of harm’s way. They bed where they can, smell approaching danger, with their eyes glued to where their noses can’t reach. When they are rutting, bucks and bulls tend to take the center position, encircled by a perimeter of sharp-eyed females. Sometimes they seek out the safest, thickest, noisiest cover imaginable, making one’s attempt of a stalk seem like nothing more than foolish play.

       After years of orchestrating some pretty “unachievable” stalks, I now believe the limits to killing game on the ground remain only within the bowhunter. Outfitted with the right amount of patience, skill, and willingness to succeed, one can definitely beat the odds in terrible stalking conditions.

       The following covers some of the challenges you’ll face as a stalking hunter and tips on how you can overcome them.

 

Analyze the ‘Big’ Picture

       Observe thoroughly before you react. That’s rule number one in effective stalking. Study the animal’s whereabouts, the terrain as a whole, wind direction, time of day, and so on, before you ever plot your stalking course. Consider short routes, but also the smartest ones, no matter how long they may be. One way may be shorter, but the other safer and quieter. Perhaps you’re stalking a pronghorn antelope with a harem of does; these animals are much less prone to bed for hours on end compared to mule deer or elk.

       Consider an approach where you can keep a constant visual on the animal you’re hunting. This way, if the buck decides to vacate the area, you can redirect your stalk accordingly, instead of waltzing over an edge after a long, tiring stalk, only to find nothing more than dirt and rock and no buck.

 

Terrain: Identifying the Weak Link

       Nearly every type of stalking setup has a chink in the armor. Find it and make your ground attempt count. Of course, there will be times when a stalk just is not possible at all, due to terrain and even more so the wind. When this is the case, you must wait, sometimes for days, depending of course on how bad you want that animal.

       However, 90 percent of the time, there’s a window of opportunity in which to stalk. In vast, open country, as I illustrated in the opening of this article, usually there’s enough swell in the terrain where a willing bowhunter can make a legitimate sneak. Of course, you’ll fail most of the time, but that’s part of the game. Failure is common in stalking, but don’t ever focus on that; always focus on making the stalk work.

       Also, in those heavily forested regions, where you’ll surely have brushy areas to circumnavigate, always choose the path of least resistance. Follow a deer or better yet a cattle trail. Also, realize in these types of attempts, combining stalking and still-hunting technique is par for the course. Improvise as you go along and remain flexible and, most importantly, hopeful.

       In super-steep country, where there are rocky bluffs, cliffs, talus slopes, etc., remember the steeper, more jagged way may seem the most frightening, but it’s usually the best. In these areas, loose, pebbly granite prevails in most if not all places, other than along larger bedrock. This is where quiet footing exists, not to mention “solid” camouflage to maintain stealth. Plan your route along these locales.

 

Wind: Wait ’Till It’s Right

       A few weeks ago, I stalked a massive desert mule deer. The entire morning I watched him rally does, feed and eventually bed, all by himself. Immediately I felt the urgency to rush out on the stalk. Experience told me otherwise.

       I knew planning my route with a 10 o’clock wind would end up being a mistake because, by 11:30 or so, about the time I’d be hovering over the deer maneuvering for a shot, I’d be caught completely in a sideward-drifting wind leading straight to his nose. Smell is an animal’s best friend—don’t get caught in it.

       Instead, I made my move at 11:30 a.m. Later that day I looked downward at the public-land buck of my dreams. Only, I missed the steep, downward shot. Even so, in terms of the stalk, it was a success.

       It’s my experience that thermals maintain their consistency anytime after 11 a.m. and stay pretty consistent until 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. So, if you can’t get in position before or after this window, be sure to wait and then start your stalk once the midday breeze is on.

 

Learn the Moves

       Polish your foot-hunting skill beforehand by going out in the yard and practicing. Prior to deer season, I usually “suit up,” throw on my low-profile daypack, and stalk around in the yard with my bow while maneuvering for shots at 3-Ds. In between shooting, I move on knees, crawl on my belly, lay for a few minutes at a time before rising to plunk the target, and so on. In due time, you’ll sharpen your ground-hunting savvy.

       Realize it’s vital to maintain a low profile during your maneuvers, despite cactus, rocky terrain, and other natural obstacles. Crawling around in this stuff is rough, but that’s life on the ground.

       Most importantly, don’t leave out the belly crawl. The best stalk-hunters I know spend hours on their bellies in order to outsmart the craftiest of game. No predator has the ability to stay as low as a wiry, patient hunter. It’s the best secret weapon I know of. When belly crawling, I like to slide my bow out in front of me with one hand, usually my left. To eliminate noise on rocks, you should pad one side of your bow to dampen the sound. This is a tip I learned from Randy Ulmer.

 

Eliminate the Shadow

       In sunlight your body’s shadow is your worst friend. If you fail to disguise it from the eyes of your opponent, you’ll surely get busted. I lost my chance at a mighty big Nevada mule deer because of my laziness to keep my shadow in check. The only way to remain hidden from your shadow is to travel in shady areas only. There is no other alternative.

 

Time Factor

       Only you can size up how much time you have to close the deal based on past experiences and your intended quarry. Generally speaking, mule deer and blacktails tend to linger in an area if they are grazing. Elk, in my experience, usually do not. This goes for free-ranging wild boar, too.

       With these animals you’ve got to bust a move. Also consider that elk and wild boar are notorious for bedding in dense cover, so in most cases, your chance of an opportunity may be right before your eyes, requiring you to hustle <now!> Consider the wind and hope for the best. Again, only you can assess the “small” and “large” pictures of stalking conditions.

       Antelope, depending on the September rut, are perhaps the most enjoyable animals to foot-hunt. Difficult, yes, but so visible, they sometimes allow you to hone your stalking ability all day long, forming you into a well-oiled ground killer.

       Prior to the rut, bucks are easier to stalk since they are focused on watering and grazing. During the rut they become twice as difficult since they are undoubtedly on the move and doing their best to partner up with females. Antelope eyes are the best around, and more of them never help your cause.

       However, a combined effort of stalking-and-ambushing, a technique commonly used on animals like elk and wild pigs, works great on rutting antelope. Anytime you see a buck leaving a herd to run off an opponent—and you will if it’s September on the plains—remember to always to remain with the does. The dominant buck will always return to the group.

       If the does move, and they will, since most of them don’t want to be grouped up, be sure to bridge that gap between the does and the buck, paying close attention to the “walking trail” left by the does. Nine out ten times, the buck will scent trail his way back to the does, even when he sees them in the distance. This is your prime spot of ambush, especially along a fence line or ditch.

       Stalking Western game is kind of like playing a challenging game of chess. You’re opponent is smart, and you must identify its weakness. Only through skill, patience, methodical assessment, and perseverance will you win in the end.

 

Sidebar 1:

Gear for the Stalk

       Low-Profile Pack: Don’t hunt with a bulky daypack. Choose one that rides snuggly to your back, maintaining that much-needed inconspicuous outline. I favor today’s miniature hydration-type daypacks for serious stalking. Badlands and Blackhawk make great models.

       Some bowhunters don’t like the idea of stalking with a pack. I agree, but only in certain cool-weather conditions. However, during warm August and September hunts, I always want water and some food just in case I need to stalk out all day. Having that ability could mean the difference between success and failure.

       Kneepads: Sometimes I use them, sometimes I don’t. I find them vital along sharp, jagged terrain or on the plains where those ground-hugging cacti seem to be everywhere. You can find good foam kneepads at most hardware stores, but be sure to try several types. Some are noisy, and some are not. I really like the athletic fabric ones; they are very quiet, but they don’t slip over camo pants as well, nor do they last as long.

       Leather gloves: I favor some kind of hand protection along harsh ground, such as thin elk or cowhide gloves, otherwise, any jersey-style camo glove will work just fine.

       Quiver choice: A bow quiver is hands-down the easiest to manage on the ground. However, a well-designed hip quiver or back quiver works well, too. The key is to learn how to use it. I use a hip quiver and sometimes crawl on my side to prevent the fletching from rising above my back. In some situations, where I have to belly-crawl a lot, I fasten the quiver to my back in a place where I can draw out an arrow with ease.

       Bow setup and arrow rest: Don’t deck out your bow with a bunch of flimsy accessories. I like to use stout products with large lockdown screws. Anything that exhibits “play” when wiggled by your hand is too flimsy for this kind of hunting. Today’s 3-D-like bow sights are most vulnerable to this.

       Also, an arrow rest that offers full-containment of the arrow is useful when drawing the bow horizontal to the ground. I prefer models like the Trophy Taker Xtreme FC, Quality Archery Designs Ultra Rest, Ripcord, and other similar models for this reason. The Whisker Biscuit is another great stalk rest. <—J.B.>

 

Sidebar 2:

Quiet Footwear

       No serious stalker should be caught dead donning backpack-style boots on his feet. The only exception I see is when bivy hunting with a heavy pack on.

       I favor light “stalking”-specific style boots or sturdy athletic footwear. In most situations, I prefer Danner Jackal or Russell Bowhunter or Safari boots. These are both dead-quiet, light and offer protection against rain, creek-crossing, tall shrubs, and so forth. However, top-quality cross-trainer running shoes, especially those with Gore-Tex liners, work great in many situations. Experiment to see what works best for you based on the climate and terrain you most often hunt. Also, slipover-boot fleece stalking slippers are helpful when footing is just too noisy for an approach in regular boot soles.

       I’ve also found that stalking in my socks is the only way to go when that “crunch” is too audible. The thing I do a lot nowadays is leave the stalking booties behind and carry only an extra set of thick wool socks. During that last 100 to 200 yards of the stalk, I remove my boots and wear the socks directly over my feet and pant legs for added protection. This offers the quietest step possible, and will be your only defense in lots of situations, especially when stalking mule deer in the high country. If you’ve found stalking in socks too tender for you, you won’t do well in killing big, high-country bucks. Be sure to build up some calluses on those tender feet by walking outdoors this next summer. You’ll be glad you did come deer season. <—J.B.>

 

Good technique is required to get close to open-country critters. The author shot this record-book-size woodland caribou after jogging to get in front of the animal. Joe Bell photos

 

An effective stalking bowhunter goes afield with all the necessary elements. This includes gear that’s durable and well-camouflaged (non-reflective), a high-quality binocular, kneepads, quiet footwear, and incredible patience.

 

Nearly every open-country stalk includes the act of crawling. It’s the only way to stay below radar from wary, super-smart public-land trophies.

 

Ninety percent of your shooting will be done from this position, so practice accordingly.

 

The author shot this mule deer after exhaustive stalking efforts. His quiet Russell stalking boots allowed him to get close, undetected.

 

Chris Denham, the author’s friend, arrowed this free-ranging wild boar after a long ambush. He was forced to think and move quickly, since the hog was covering ground in high gear.

 

The only way to effectively spot and stalk game is to use your binocular, constantly.

 

Don’t blow the final outcome of your ambush by getting caught drawing your bow. Practice drawing it while flat on the ground so you can slowly pop up and shoot.

 

When the sun is out, pay attention to your shadow; it’s your worst enemy. Travel in shaded areas only, and strike close to cover.

 

Don’t make the mistake of stalking game with heavy, noisy boots. Use cross-trainer shoes or boots with soft outsoles—ones with small or no lugs, which greatly dampen sound, especially across loose dirt and pebbles.