The art of stillhunting

This huge buck was taken as the hunter moved silently along the Mississippi River. (Photo by Spencer Dietrich)

I had been waiting for this particular day for over a year. Not because of the date on the calendar, but because of the combination of weather conditions and the fact that it was during the late muzzleloader season. There are very few perfect days to stillhunt. Having one of them fall within deer season is a blessing.

The perfect conditions for a stillhunt do not happen that often in the winter. I prefer the sky to be overcast with the temperature well below the freezing mark. I like it to have snowed the night before and most importantly, I like no wind at all.

The cold dampness speaks for itself. If it is cold, the deer must move to feed in order to stay warm. The dampness helps cover my noise as I move through the brush and timber. The cloudy sky keeps bucks from bedding down early. No wind is a deer hunter’s dream come true anytime, but especially while stillhunting.

The clothing you wear while stillhunting is very important. Being prepared to move all day, as opposed to sitting in a stand, requires more forethought. Heavy, insulated boots that keep you comfortable in the stand will wear you out walking all day. The thick, padded coveralls that keep you warm in the stand will cause you to perspire while stillhunting. This is bad both because the perspiration causes more scent and if your underclothing gets damp, there is no way for you to stay warm.

I suggest you dress appropriately and wear a backpack to put your jacket in as the day warms. Remember, you may have to stand motionless for long periods of time when your hunt moves from a stillhunt to a spot-and-stalk hunt after you locate your target. Plan to be comfortable.

Perhaps now is a good time to discuss the art of stillhunting itself. There are not many true stillhunters left in the sport. Many people consider themselves stillhunters, but they are mostly just ground hunters that move around a lot. Stillhunting properly takes much more patience than the average person possesses.

It is slow and precise; there is no guesswork and little, if any, luck. A stillhunter works to find his target and then works to find his shot. These are both time-consuming, but the rewards for a properly completed stillhunt can be very satisfying.

Based upon personal experience, I see two to three times more deer while stillhunting than when stand hunting. I also see dozens fewer white flags while stillhunting than others do who walk around in the woods. I can recognize a stillhunter by how much ground he covers in a day. “I was all over this farm today,” is not a statement you will hear from a true stillhunter.

What I want to hear is, “It took me all morning to get through that 20-acre woodlot.” Now there is someone that spent the time needed to fully hunt an area. That is why the proper conditions are essential.

Getting back to that morning, the weather was near perfect. The sky was gray, and when there was a breeze, it was out of the west. It had drizzled through the night and the temperature would not see 40 degrees all day.

My plan was to stillhunt south along the Mississippi River. There is about 60 yards of swamp between the levee and the river. The deer live in this brushy area and cross over the levee to feed in the expansive grain fields of the Great River’s bottom. The stretch I would spend my morning in is about three-quarters of a mile long.

There are trails through the brush which help to make moving easier and quieter. I use them when I have to, but I would rather not. The does and young deer tend to travel along the base of the levee, while the bucks prefer the travel lanes right on the riverbank. I could easily walk right by a buck on the river if I was on the trail by the levee, and meeting a buck on the trail is a sure shot at no shot.

I sat at the levee base glassing the fields and openings, waiting for sufficient light to begin my hunt. The gray sky lightened slowly, and there was almost no breeze at all. I moved quietly into the brush and turned my hunt south.

My first encounter came quickly, less than 15 minutes into my hunt. I caught movement ahead of me, froze and watched a coyote come to the levee looking for breakfast. It did a little mousing and moved north, coming within 20-feet without spooking.

“This is a good omen,” I thought to myself. “If that coyote came that close, the deer will do the same.”

I moved less than 50 yards in the next half hour. The brush was thick in places, and I scanned every square foot as I moved. Stillhunting is a slow, methodical hunt, but the things you can see make it all worthwhile.

A flash of white caught my eye about 70 yards south of me. With binoculars, I picked out two small deer feeding in the swamp. I moved quietly and then spotted a big doe close to them. They were all very relaxed.

I stood and observed the deer and the general area for quite some time. I put my crosshairs on all three deer during the process, assuring myself that I could have taken my pick if I had wanted to. There were no other deer with the trio. Eventually their feeding took them up and over the levee.

It took me almost 20 minutes to get to where I first spotted the deer. I watched and listened and moved south again.

It was about 8 a.m. when I reached the narrowest part of the swamp, a natural funnel formed as the distance between the levee and the river was choked down to about 30 yards. This is one of my favorite places to put an archery stand, and I planned to stay at this spot a little longer than usual. This is one of the best things about stillhunting, you can stay as long as you wish.

After leaving the funnel, I continued slowly south and was watching a group of mallards work over the river when movement along the shore caught my attention. There was a deer on the trail on the river’s edge with its head down, and even with binoculars I could only make out a portion of its body. I did a small side step to get next to a big cottonwood tree to break up my outline.

The absolute split second that the buck raised his head, I knew he was a shooter. Once that was established, I tried to ignore his rack and started looking for a shot opportunity. He was about 80 yards out, through the brush, quartering toward me.

I quickly looked in front of him to see if there were any openings along the trail that would present a good shot. I saw a spot about 30 yards north of him, cocked my .50-caliber muzzleloader and shouldered it slowly.

The next 60 seconds seemed like 60 days. The buck was going about his business, unhurried. I fought the urge to put the scope on his head to look at the antlers. “Stay on his chest,” I repeated to myself, “stay on his chest.”

Just as he stepped into the opening he stopped and turned his head away from me to look south. In doing so, he moved his right shoulder out of the way, giving me a literally perfect shot at his vitals.

The .50-caliber filled the air with noise and smoke. Through the smoke, I could see the huge buck whirl and take an initial jump to escape to the south. His entire front end collapsed underneath him as he hit the ground. I quickly reloaded before approaching him.

Even though he had broken his right main beam some weeks earlier, he was still a massive buck with an impressive 12-point rack. The portion that remained measured over 135 inches.

This hunt took place on a perfect day under flawless conditions. Be on the alert for a similar day and try your hand at stillhunting. If you have the patience, you will be rewarded.

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