I admit it. I’m not a Ninja, or a Navy SEAL, or any other such clandestine operative. So what do I know about sneaking up on anything, let alone hyper-alert game animals? Turns out, plenty. Why? Because I watch the animals I hunt, and with great care. Deer, in particular, know a lot about blending in with, and moving through, their environment with out detection. They have to, their lives depend on it.
Ground hunting in thick cover is my favorite hunting style. Few things are a bigger challenge. It’s just you and the game on equal terms, in their house. If you get it right, you’ve accomplished something special. Not to mention, it’s fun. Here are ten things I’ve learned from deer about moving through the forest with stealth. Consider it your $100.00 black belt lesson.
1. Sound “Normal”
When I first began to ground hunt, I had a paranoia about noise. I would walk as soft, and careful as I could. I’d cringe and think a few self-depreciating profanities every time I’d snap a twig, kick a rock, or crunch some snow with my foot. I wanted to become an auditory black hole in the forest. Despite my caution, even if I had the wind in my favor, I’d still jump deer long before I could get a good shot. What did they have, I wondered, ESP?
Then I began to watch, and more important, listen to deer in the off season. For stealthy critters who hide with pride, they make much more noise than you’d think prudent. Remember, these beasts live every second in their lives with the certainty something is out to kill and eat them. Yet they snap twigs, rustle leaves, knock hooves against dead fall, and dislodge rocks all the time. Turns out every creature in the forest does this.
What makes deer take notice is if they detect movement and there is no noise. Just one creature does that–a predator. Red alert! Red alert! All hands, battle stations! As soon as they discover you’re on the make, it’s tails high and full throttle away from you. It’s normal for an animal who’s unconcerned about their area to make some noises as they move about. Prey animals, such as deer, don’t mind it–let’s them know there’s something else around, but it’s not in a hurry or worried. So, walk with a slow, deliberate stride, but sound “normal.”
If you do make a loud noise, freeze. Watch close all around and wait a minute. I’ve seen deer do this all the time when they kick something hard and they think it’s too loud. If you bumped a critter, they’ll move right away. You might not see them, but you’ll often hear them.
If you do bump a deer but don’t see it, wait five minutes. Then proceed along your original path for 50 yards, turn ninety degrees and move parallel to the direction you heard the deer move, if the wind allows. Keep your eyes open. As I said, they tend to stop after a short run and check if they are still pursued. They also tend to run in straight lines.
Just don’t make any unnatural noise. Before I set out on a stalk, I take a few small hops up and down and listen for metallic clinks, or other, not found in nature, noises. If I rattle, I find the culprit and cinch it down tight. Rifle slings are real offenders, as are car keys, and ammo. I also give things I plan to carry on a hunt the “thump test.” Synthetic rifle stocks are a common culprit. If you give them a tap, they often make a drum-like sound. You either have to wrap them with something to dampen the noise or carry the thing with care so it doesn’t knock against anything. Also, wear quiet clothes. No crackly or swishy hard nylon fabrics.
2. Work the Wind
Noise is important, but scent is the most important factor in hunting. Animals have much better hearing than we do, but their noses are their primary sensor system. Despite this, I don’t use all the high-dollar scent cover products which have flooded the market in recent years. I’ve seen my dogs foil them time and time again. The herbivores I hunt have almost as good noses, and bears have even better. No matter how much scent kill you slather on, you are still an overgrown monkey in the game’s opinion. Your breath, sweat, hair, home, truck, and gear all betray you to them.
I assume they can smell me, so I make sure I know where my scent goes in the forest. I’m not too picky about noise, but I live on the wind, so to speak. When I arrive at a hunting area in my truck, I don’t just hop out, gear up, and get to it. I sit for a several minutes to observe the grass, bushes, and trees. I want to know the wind before I get out.
If the direction you plan to travel is also down-wind, you have to make some adjustments. You have a much greater chance the critters will detect you before you even set out, so prepare to look as far away as possible while you move. Spooked animals will often travel 50 – 200 yards and then stop to observe whatever disturbed them. Watch this zone with great care, you might just find dinner there. Animals can only smell you if you are direct down-wind, though. I once walked past a whitetail, not more than five yards away, who didn’t notice me because it stood just off center from where the wind blew my scent.
3. Avoid the Light
When deer move through a forest, they stick close to trees and stay in the shady spots as much as possible. The exception is when it is cold–real cold. If the sun’s out, they’ll linger in small open areas to get warm.
This means you have to move the same way. This is a character builder on cold days, because you’ll want to conserve body heat just as the deer do–those sunny patches will tempt you. You can’t give in, though.
Plan you route as a giant connect the dots puzzle. Move from tree to tree and try to stay in the shade as you go. This requires you to make a new plan every thirty to fifty yards. Don’t just march along, either. Linger beside trees at irregular intervals, just like the deer. Also, avoid low standing brush between the trees, if you can. It rubs against your pant legs with a distinctive sound. While I’m not paranoid about noise, I don’t believe you should make more than necessary, either.
4. Cover Your Face
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been close to deer and the conditions seemed perfect. I had the wind in my favor and I hadn’t budged a muscle. Yet, the darn beasties made me and scampered off before I could bring rifle to bear. While it’s not certain, I believe they get upset at human faces. We just don’t look like anything but human to them. The fact our eyes are set forward and close together gives us a predatory appearance.
I recommend you cover your face with something. Camouflage makeup done right should help, although it’s a bit dramatic when you’re filling up the old truck at the gas station, plus it irritates some people’s skin. If you don’t want the clean up hassle, try either a balaclava in a dark color–unless you’re in snow country–or a fine mesh face mask or bandana. Anything which breaks up your facial features.
5. Don’t Wave Your Hands
Perhaps the biggest mistake I see other hunters make when they are in the forest is rapid hand movement. It’s just unconscious for us. We scratch, swat bugs, and adjust gear without a thought. Trouble is, your potential dinner’s eyes key on movement much more than shape or color. As an aside, game animals don’t care if you wear hunter orange. This is a myth which I’ve busted time and time again when I’ve gotten up close to critters awash in orange. They do care if you move, though. Find out more on how to increase your hunting safety with orange here: Don’t Become a Statistic (Dramatic Video Shows Why You Should Wear Orange When Hunting).
Monitor all your movements when you’re on the hunt. If you need to move a hand, slid it up along your body so it doesn’t wave or break from your outline. Move slow, both to the spot you need to fiddle with and then back to the hand’s original position. I can’t stress this enough.
6. Watch Your Mouth
If you hunt with a partner, or two, take care if you have to talk to each other. Do not say anything unless it’s necessary. Then, if you must, whisper. Nothing spooks critters more than human speech. No other creature in the forest makes a similar sound. Although, coughs and grunts go unnoticed in many cases. Animals snort and sneeze from time to time, too.
Everyone in your party should learn the U.S. military’s standard hand signals. You can find them on the internet. These are used by soldiers anytime noise discipline is required. As I said above, when you use those signals, keep your hands close to your body’s centerline, don’t wave them about.
7. Act Like a Critter
If you think an animals has, or might, spot you, walk bent over at the waist. This will often fool them for a short time because it makes you look more like a quadruped than a bi-pedal monkey. You can sell it even more if you swing you head around a bit like you’re browsing on all the lovely foliage.
8. Eye Contact
When you get in close to an animal, don’t make eye contact. Most animals do this is if they are challenging for dominance or are about to attack. Look off-center from the animal and observe it with your peripheral vision. Also, if you’re close, they can see your eyelids blink. Deer don’t blink much, so you shouldn’t either.
9. Shine and Flash
Another thing many hunters don’t think about is shiny things. Those see-through scope lens caps always catch the light when they’re open, so you have to mind where the sun is and observe how they reflect the light, then adjust your rifle’s position to minimize the flash. Optics in general are big flash producers. You can put kill-flash covers over binocular and spotting scope lenses. A sun shade is a useful addition to your rifle’s scope. It reduces glare when you look through the scope as well as sun-flash. Also, give your clothes and gear a close look. Make sure all buttons, snaps, and buckles have a flat, non-reflective surface. Oh, and lose the sunglasses.
10. Blue is Bad
While orange doesn’t frighten game, the latest zoological research suggests deer and other prey mammals see blue quite well. Their eyes detect light much deeper into the ultra-violet spectrum, and blue hues light up for them like an airport beacon. Leave the blue jeans at home.
While much I’ve written here is based on deer behavior, it also holds true for most other species whether it’s elk, moose, bear, etc.
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