Stalking is a lost art among North American deer hunters.
Most successful hunters shoot their deer from a stand, either on the ground or elevated. The others kill their deer while still hunting.
There are some who will argue that still hunting is stalking and Webster^s dictionary will support their contention. However, I disagree. Still hunting is a somewhat aimless, but careful, movement through the woods in an effort to get within shooting range of a deer. Stalking, on the other hand, is selecting a particular animal and using cover, wind, eyes and ears to reach killing range.
I have never killed a deer from a stand and probably never will. I am not knocking stand hunting because for most hunters it is the most effective way to get their deer. Waiting in the confinement of a stand for deer to come within range is not exciting enough for me. To me the challenge is to creep into the deer^s domain and drag him out.
I have been accused of not having enough patience to hunt from a stand and I used to think there was some merit to this argument. However, I had a couple of experiences that taught me it takes more patience to stalk a deer than to sit in a stand and wait for it to find you.
The first incident took place on a nyala hunt in Africa. Nyala is a rather rare species of antelope with the same defensive characteristics of the whitetail deer. That is it has excellent hearing, a great sense of smell and sharp eyes that detect motion. It also has great speed afoot for a short distance.
My tracker was a middle aged Zulu, who went by the name of Benjamin. He was not unfriendly, but neither was he the most gregarious person I ever spent a week with. He grumbled about the weather, too much walking, and just about everything. But when it came to stalking, Benjamin deserved a lot of respect.
He didn^t move a muscle except those that control his eyes until he had carefully looked over the terrain ahead of him. If the roll of the land permitted it, he would move forward bent over at the waist at a rate of speed that had me gasping for breath. If an open area had to be crossed, it was one slow step, wait, look, listen and then another slow step. It might take 15 minutes to cover 15 yards.
Large open meadows were crossed crawling on our bellies. Never did Benjamin stand up straight during a stalk. If he was walking, he was bent over at the waist. When he stopped to give me a rest, we stayed in the kneeling position. Never was a standing profile presented during a stalk. When you think about it, a human walking erect can only look like a human.
What impressed me most about Benjamin^s stalking ability was his use of cover. Understandably, he kept as much cover as possible between us and the game. However, the way he checked the route ahead is what impressed me. Instead of standing and looking over the top of a bush, Benjamin would slowly bend sideways until his body was just about parallel to the ground. He would either look under the branches or around them. The important thing was that most of his body lines flowed in the same direction as the branches of the bush he was behind.
Benjamin checked the wind direction every few minutes when it was not blowing strong enough to feel. This hunt took place during the African spring and the wind direction was constantly shifting. The crafty tracker stayed aware of the wind direction and kept us going into or at least quartering the wind.
I returned from Africa with a much different idea of stalking. When I compared Benjamin^s techniques with my own still hunting tactics and those of other hunters I know, I realized we were minor leaguers when it came to stalking.
That same fall, I had an opportunity to observe another great stalker during a deer hunt in West Virginia.
I had spent all morning still hunting down a hollow and was working my way back up the hollow to meet my hunting partners for lunch. When I came to a spot that gave me a good view of the hollow, I decided to rest for a few minutes before continuing up the hollow.
I had been sitting motionless for about ten minutes hoping that a buck might come wandering down one of the trails on the sides of the hollow. I was just about ready to resume my trek up the mountain when I thought I detected some motion out of the corner of my left eye.
Slowly turning my head, I locked my vision on the spot where I thought I saw motion. There was nothing there except some mountain laurel bushes.
I stared at the spot for about a minute and was just about convinced my eyes were playing tricks on me. Then I saw the motion again. It was a reddish brown spot that moved a short distance behind the laurel bush and then remained motionless for about a minute. then it moved again. This time a head appeared from behind the bush. It was a bob cat.
When the cat cleared the bush, it went down the hollow towards me to get off the trail. Then the cat made a sharp left turn and crouching low to the ground moved about five yards until it came to a large rock.
I had no idea what the bob cat was stalking, but the way it was looking up the side of the hollow I was sure the prey was in a patch of wild grapes on the ridge.
Silently and one step at a time, the crouching cat moved from one cover to another. It must have taken 20 minutes for that cat to make its way about 10 yards up the side of the hollow to within about 20 feet of the grape patch.
All of the cat^s attention was directed at the grape patch as it stood motionless for two or three minutes.
Suddenly, the frozen cat was a blur as it sprung into the cover. There was not a sound that I could hear, but after a couple seconds the bob cat reappeared with a ruffed grouse in its mouth.
It trotted for a few feet and dropped the bird to the ground. It quickly put a paw on top of the bird, but it was obvious that grouse was not going anywhere.
As I sat there watching the unsuspecting bob cat use claws and fangs to devour the grouse, I thought about Benjamin and how much the bob cat reminded me of him.
Benjamin and that bob cat were excellent stalkers because their livelihoods depended on their ability to get close to game.
Just because we hunt for sport and fun should we be any less efficient?
I have a friend, who considers himself a good deer hunter, and he likes to brag about how much mountain he will cover in a day and how many deer he saw. He will cover ten miles or more in a day and see 20, 30 or more deer. Most of the time he sees the bouncing white tails. Once in a while, he will get a shot at a buck.
What my friend lacks is patience, which is required to see a deer before it sees you. Patience is also required to identify the deer and get in position to shoot if it is the one you want.
Over the years, I have let three or four bucks escape because I lacked patience. These are bucks that I saw before they knew I was in the area. In each case, I lost sight of them and had assumed they had moved off. In each case, they bolted off when I tried to move on to their trail. They were standing behind cover and took off when I moved. I am convinced that if I had held my ground or had used more stealth when I moved, one or more of those bucks would have not escaped.
Still hunting whitetails is one of the most difficult things to do in outdoor sports. If we stumble aimlessly through the woods, only luck can save us from failure.
I had killed 31 whitetails while still hunting before I had the chance to hunt with Benjamin. All of the deer where shot at distances of 70 yards down to five yards. I thought I was a pretty good still hunter. After I saw Benjamin and that bob cat stalking prey, I realized that I could be a lot better at the lost art. We all can.