You might think it's impossible to stalk a whitetail buck, but, in truth, impossible is nothing.
The better your view, the better your chances for bedding a buck and making a successful stalk. A solid stand, secure and comfortable safety harness, and crystal clear binoculars are essential gear for this.
It had been my longest season to date. The hours of lounging in my treestands were piling up, but good shots at whitetails were not. When I did spy deer hair and heavy racks, they were out of range. Things were not going my way!
Finally, I decided to play chess with my stands by moving them to areas where I could see a lot of ground. The breeding phase of the rut was at its peak, and my hope was to catch a big battler moving a doe into some cover. If the deer would not come to me, I would go to them.
One mid-November morning, I snuggled into my stand well before daybreak. It was one of those clean, still mornings, and I had no trouble hearing frozen leaves crunching in the darkness. When daylight began filtering across the landscape, I went to work with my binoculars to find the source of that crunching, and it didn't take long before a doe appeared in front of the lenses, followed by a buck right on her tail.
Just as I had hoped, the thick-necked brute pushed his lady across an open field into an isolated weed patch, and before long I watched them bed right there. The first part of my plan was complete.
Mentally recording landmarks and mapping my route, I climbed down from my stand, and after circling to get the wind in my face, I began a methodical approach. I covered the first 200 yards by simply hunching over, but then I had to crawl on hands and knees and finally slither like a snake. From certain angles I could see the buck's rack poking out of the brush.
With each hard-earned yard, my anticipation grew, and upon reaching my final landmark, 30 yards from the deer, I did an equipment check and took a few deep breaths to regain focus.
Trail cameras help you discern the daily routines of deer, especially during the early season. Once you've grasped these routines, place observation stands to overlook as much ground as possible.
Then I stuffed my Quaker Boy grunt tube in my mouth, drew my bow, and emitted a soft grunt. When the buck stood to investigate the noise, my arrow hit him instantly. He tried to keep pace with his girlfriend as the duo bailed from the cover, but he collapsed after a 60-yard death sprint.
Many whitetail hunters would never think of making a ground assault on savvy bucks, but they're holding themselves back. Throughout the western plains states and parts of the Midwest, where tree cover is sometimes limited and visibility is good, you can spot whitetails and stalk them -- just like any other open-country game. Not only does stalking give you a fresh option, but it adds an element of excitement you'll never know in a treestand. In short, when bucks won't come to you, plan a ground assault.
Early Season Tactics
While bucks may not travel a lot during late summer, they do follow routines. In states where seasons kick off in September, some preseason scouting with good optics and well-placed trail cameras should reveal these routines.
Now, to get an aerial view, place observation stands to watch the bucks you have patterned. In particular, you want to overlook food sources and bedding areas. From the air you not only can see where deer bed -- standing corn, weed patches, cattails -- but you also can map out approach routes. Note plenty of landmarks. Once you develop a plan, burn it in your mind. Things will look mighty different after you get on the ground.
Before starting any stalk, get the wind in your favor, and check it throughout the stalk.
Big bucks leave plenty of sign when they move into an area. Rubs like this assure you that a good buck roams here. Now you just need to catch him in a compromised position.
For this, use scentless powder in a puff bottle. If the wind switches, back out! The last thing you want is to alert the deer and disturb their pattern. If the wind stays good, continue the stalk by moving from landmark to landmark. Now isn't the time to get lazy or take shortcuts. If necessary, hit the dirt. Many times I have bear-crawled or slithered like a snake for hundreds of yards.
Use your binoculars. You want to pinpoint the buck's exact location as far ahead as possible. If you see him in the same spot, your confidence will soar. If you do not, keep looking. He may have moved, and you need to relocate him. If necessary, back out and come in from another direction.
The Rut Approach
The rut, especially the peak-breeding phase, is undoubtedly the best time to stalk wall-hanger bucks. First, with one thing rattling through their brains -- breed a doe! -- they're less keen to danger than they were earlier. Second, they are most visible as they search for and trail does. Third, you could get multiple opportunities to test your stalking skills.
Again, observation stands are key. However, don't concentrate on food sources. Rather, hang stands where you can see as much ground as possible. In particular, look for areas away from major travel corridors where a wise old buck could sequester a doe. When a buck gets ready to "lock down" a doe, he doesn't want other bucks intruding. Veteran studs will seek out weed patches, isolated tree groves, cattail marshes, brush patches, and other fringe territory. Frequently I have watched bucks push does to these places and have seen them stand from the weeds to breed. This sets up the perfect stalking scenario -- deer in isolation, only two pairs of eyes, and two brains distracted from danger. Once you bed a duo, take your time. Most bucks will tend does for at least 24 hours.
Last season, my hunting companion Grafton Singer demonstrated the potential for stalking during the lock-down phase of the rut. Upon his arrival in Kansas, he heard lots of hunters complaining about how bucks were holding up with does and not moving by their stands.
Grafton Singer put the sneak on this big Kansas brute during the peak of the breeding cycle. The buck had moved his doe to a weedy ditch just off a creek bottom.
Grafton didn't panic. Instead, he adapted by strategically placing stands in areas where he could see a lot of ground. In particular, he focused on locations where he had seen bucks taking does in the past. Then he climbed up to watch.
And he didn't have to watch long. In fact, 30 minutes after climbing into his evening stand Grafton saw a monster stand from his bed and stretch in some thick cattails. With the wind holding perfectly, Grafton mapped out his approach, slithered down from his stand, and made the stalk. The result was a 150-inch Kansas bruiser.
A combination of depleted fat reserves and bitter weather will put bucks back on the groceries. This is good news, because it can make deer visible. However, snow will most likely crumple much of the cover around food sources, making stalking nearly impossible there.
This is when you must get into the bucks' bedrooms. Generally, I discourage this practice, but late in the game you sometimes have to pull out all the stops.
When stalking whitetails, you can't be afraid to get dirty. During the last stages of a stalk, expect to squirm like a worm. This is where you have to be in shape. Use your binoculars constantly to monitor your quarry, but don't be guilty of bobbing-head syndrome.
Still, you need to be cautious. Before you go snooping around, wait for a blanket of fresh snow when you can unravel fresh tracks and when deer will be most visible against the white backdrop. Man your observation stands in the morning to watch bucks moving from their feeding grounds to brushy, sheltered daytime beds. And then apply all your stalking skills. Late-season deer are back on full alert, and they have been educated by several weeks or months of hunting.
Rules of the Stalk
Regardless of the season, basic stalking rules apply. Start with camouflage clothing patterns that match the vegetation. Early seasons usually call for green patterns. During the rut in mid-November, patterns with browns and grays generally blend best with the dead vegetation. Come late season, snow camo is essential. Dark patterns against snow are worse than no camouflage at all.
Your hands and face are the most visible parts of your body as you stalk and raise your bow to shoot. You might get away with exposed hands and face in a treestand, but you won't get away with it on the ground. Wear camo gloves and facemask, or use camo cream on your face to conceal your shining nose and cheekbones.
To complete your concealment, use shadows to your full advantage. Sunlight will highlight every move you make, so try always to move through the shadows. This might be the most important rule of concealment.
Try to stalk on windy days. A steady wind in your favor is guaranteed to keep your scent from the deer. Yes, use scent-eliminating products, but don't rely solely on them. When you're on the ground, at nose level with deer, you have no leeway on scent. Equally important, a stiff breeze can cover a lot of noise. Fall foliage is dry and crunchy, and you will never be totally silent. Wind provides your best "noise camouflage."
Isolated weed patches like this are great places to watch during the rut. Bucks will "lock down" does in these secluded places prior to breeding.
Move an inch at a time, and use your binoculars. When glassing, look for an ear to twitch, an antler tip, a black nose -- anything that looks out of place. Too many times I have assumed something was not a deer -- only to have it stand and bound off. Assume nothing, check everything!
At the same time, avoid the bobbing-head syndrome. I have watched videos of myself and some of my buddies stalking, and we're constantly poking our heads up to see what's going on. That urge is overwhelming, but you must learn to resist it. Only glass when you are certain you won't get busted. The more you show yourself, the lower your odds for success.
Physical and Mental Conditioning
Stalking can wear you out, especially when you're toting a bow and wearing heavy clothes. And walking hunched over and crawling are hard on the back, arms, and knees.
If you're in poor shape, you'll get lazy and careless. A weightlifting and cardio routine before the season will prepare you for the challenges of stalking.
Every year I nag a good buddy of mine to get in shape for whitetail season. He always chuckles, "You just need to be in shape to chase elk in the mountains." Last year it cost him! He managed to stalk within bow range of a magnum buck, but his arms were trembling so badly from crawling he couldn't settle his sight pin, and he could only watch as the giant buck snorted and bounded off with his doe.
Watching from my treestand, I saw this Colorado buck bed with his doe in a weed patch. I crawled within 30 yards and tooted on my grunt call to get him on his feet. After the shot, he ran only 60 yards.
Stalking whitetails will test you mentally, and you must learn to control your emotions, such as negative bowhunter psyche. When you've stalked a long time and still can't see your quarry, you might start thinking the buck has moved or detected you and run off.
That's when you start hurrying the stalk. Resist! The moment you rush you make mistakes. Many times I have hurried stalks, only to find out the bucks hadn't spotted me or moved. After my rushed mistakes, however, they've moved quite quickly.
Other mental mishaps result from fatigue. Long-distance crawling can hurt, and the farther you crawl, the more your mind will tell you to get up and walk in a crouch. Don't do it! This is where physical conditioning meets mental conditioning. Do not get lazy. Stay focused.
I would say most hunters blow stalks once they're within bow range. As their hearts pound and breathing becomes rapid, they stop thinking. That's the time to go slower than ever. Personally, I like to stop, take some deep breaths to get my breathing under control, and then make a final equipment check to make sure my bow and arrows have come through the stalk in good shape. This routine calms my nerves. The k
ey is to develop a routine that settles you down so you don't rush the shot.
In the End
Some people think that stalking whitetails is a waste of time. Impossible. Granted, in typically dense whitetail cover it's not feasible because you cannot locate isolated, bedded deer. But in the prairies and croplands, you definitely can spot deer from afar and plan your stalks.
At that point, whitetails are just like any other game. Yes, they're wary, but they have only two eyes, two ears, and one great nose -- just like other big game. So, when the whitetails refuse to come within bow range of your treestand, it's time to plan a ground assault.
The author, an accomplished bowhunter, and his wife live in La Junta, Colorado.
Author's Notes: On my latest ground assault, I used a Hoyt AlphaMax 32 at 70 lbs. draw weight; Gold Tip 7595 Pro Hunter arrows; two-blade, 100-grain Rocket Meat Seeker broadheads; compact Nikon 550 laser rangefinder; Nikon's new Monarch X series binoculars; Cuddeback trail cameras; and Mossy Oak Break-Up fleece clothing. A few other essential items include good leather gloves and kneepads. I prefer the reliability and comfort of gel pads. Fleece boot covers help you sneak more quietly on dry, crunchy foliage.