The following information on deer stalking comes from Chapter 5 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.
Thousands of deer hunters head for the woods every hunting season with the avowed intention of bagging a deer. Most of these hunters are indifferent as to how this is accomplished, but the true sportsman likes to know that the kill is the result of his own efforts and that it is not merely the result of an accidental encounter. The highest goal which he can aim for is the unaided stalking and killing of a deer, preferably one that is resting in a bed of its own choosing.
In cases of this sort, the deer has all of the advantages. It is in a position where it can watch all approaches, it is seldom asleep, usually on the alert, and it nearly always has several escape routes which it may use in case of danger. It is seldom possible for the hunter to locate these deer from a distance, so it is nearly always necessary for him to stalk an area where a deer might be located, with no sure knowledge that there will be a deer at the end of the stalk. This can be very discouraging to the hunter who has no idea of the probable resting places of deer, and even if he knows of these places, he may have to stalk several of them before he finds one which is occupied.
Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule which the hunter can use in order to locate these resting and bedding places. There is nothing to prevent deer from lying down anywhere they happen to be and they do this very thing during the night after feeding. During the daytime rest period, they seek seclusion where they will be safe from enemies and, to some extent, be protected from the weather. This being so, there is a large part of a herd’s range which the hunter may disregard when looking for bedding areas. Open fields, feeding areas, trails that are used by men, and even game trails are seldom used by deer as bedding places, but they may be used by the hunter as starting points in his search. Tracks found at these places will often indicate the general direction taken by deer on their way to their resting places.
It is seldom possible to stalk a resting deer by following its track to its bed, for it invariably watches its back trail. The hunter should use his knowledge of the area to which the deer seems to be heading, in order to judge where the animal might be located and then stalk that area or the most promising locations in that area.
Deer seem to be partial to low ridges when choosing bedding grounds and will often use them even when they are near well-traveled roads. Such places are almost impossible to approach from the road without detection by the deer. These locations should be approached from the opposite side, or the stalk should be made along the top of the ridge if wind or other conditions make the former approach undesirable. It is always best to try to approach any bedding area from an unexpected direction.
Another favored bedding area is in the low land near rivers, ponds and swamps. Deer often pick woodland meadows where the swamp grass gives them concealment. These places are difficult for the hunter to approach because of the grass and underbrush which cover such areas.
I have found quite a few deer which were bedded down on points of land that jut out into lakes and ponds. The hunter is often tempted to save steps by crossing the base of these points instead of hunting them. By doing so, he is very apt to pass up a good chance for a shot at a deer. Deer in these places will seldom take to the water when disturbed by man, but will try to run past the hunter in an attempt to reach the main land.
Points of woods which extend into fields and cuttings, similar to the points of land which extend into water, are often used as bedding places, but deer which are in these places are not restricted in their choice of an escape route. Deer in these places are difficult to stalk and are a real challenge to an experienced stalker.
I remember one deer which used such a place and I stalked his bed four times in one week in an attempt to bag him. He was there each time, yet I failed to get a clear shot. Each time that I jumped him, he used the same escape route, following a trail for at least a quarter of a mile. So I decided that, since I couldn’t bag him alone, I would station a friend on his escape route and when I jumped him, one of us would be sure of a shot. I tried this procedure, but I underestimated the deer’s intelligence, or its warning system, and when I started him he went in a northwest direction instead of northeast, as he had other times I jumped him. I never did get that deer.
As a rule, deer do not use the same bedding place day after day. They have many of these places over their range and use one that is near the area where they are feeding. If they stay several days in one part of their range (which is unusual) they might use the same bedding place while in that area. If I should jump a deer from its bed on one day and if the signs indicated that the same deer was in the same section on the following day, that bed would be the first place that I would look for him.
While many of these bedding areas are almost impossible to stalk successfully, the knowledge of their location will often enable the hunter to bag a deer by waiting in the late afternoon for the animals to leave their beds for their feeding grounds. If he is stationed in the right place, his chances of sighting a deer are good. I have shot several which were leaving one bedding place that has been in almost continuous use for a good many years and that I have never been able to stalk successfully. I do not enjoy hunting in this manner, simply because I lack the patience to wait without the assurance that deer will come my way.
When deer stalking, the most important thing for the stalker to avoid is the possibility of his scent alarming the animal. The only sure way to do this is to face the wind while hunting. Sometimes it is possible to approach an animal across the wind if the wind is quite strong and steady with no cross currents and eddies. If there is no apparent air movement, it is sometimes possible to approach a deer down the wind, if the hunter is able to move towards the animal faster than air carries his scent towards the animal.
Noise is the next thing which the hunter must avoid if he expects to stalk deer successfully. Some hunters think that noise will alert a deer as quickly as scent, and perhaps they are right; but I am sure in my own mind that deer can identify an odor with more certainty than they can a sound.
Very few men can travel the woods without making quite a bit of unnecessary noise. The breaking of dead branches instead of avoiding them is an unconscious habit with many men. Holding living branches until the hunter has past and then letting them swish back into place, makes more noise than most men realize. Avoid this noise by keeping the hands away from trees and branches except when necessary to protect the face and eyes.
It is often impossible to avoid body contact with trees and brush; however, the noise of such contacts may be minimized by wearing the proper clothing. Woolen cloth is the quietest material for woods wear and hard-finished cotton, corduroy, leather and rubber are the most objectionable.
The sound of footsteps can be reduced by wearing the proper footwear. It is almost impossible to travel quietly in the woods if shod in hard-soled shoes. Rubber is the quietest practical material for hunting footwear, but the soles should be soft enough so that minor irregularities in the ground may be felt with the foot. Tennis shoes and moccasins are very quiet, but soft snow and water make them uncomfortable. Furthermore, the average civilized foot cannot take the punishment which they give because of their extreme flexibility and because of their lack of ankle support.
The city man who wishes to stalk deer should practice the woodsman’s walk, if he wishes to be quiet in the woods. The stiff-legged, heel-and-toe gait of the pavement should be left at the end of the sidewalk. The true woodsman walks with the knees slightly bent so that there is no solid thump when the foot hits the ground. The ball of the foot touches the ground first and the whole foot comes in contact before the weight of the body is transferred from the other foot. The foot and ankle muscles are relaxed so that if the foot can feel a brittle stick under it, the body weight may be shifted to a part of the foot which will not break the stick. This walking on the muscles instead of on the bones is very tiring to the man who is not accustomed to walking in this manner, but it can be a very quiet method of walking; and with practice it can become a very effective way to travel over rough ground. Progress will be slow until this walking method becomes a habit, but I have seen many men who could travel through the woods at a dogtrot in almost complete silence.
If we travel quietly against the wind, the deer’s eyesight becomes the chief obstacle to a close approach.
Under equal conditions, a man’s eyesight is better than that of a deer, yet if the deer is motionless and the man is in motion, the advantage is with the deer. This is a two-way advantage. First, the deer can spot a moving object against and through a motionless landscape, and, second, the man’s motion through the woods gives him the illusion of standing still with the entire landscape in motion. Because of these conditions, the hunter should make frequent stops in order to scan the surrounding area and obtain a true picture instead of a distorted one.
Of course, a man who is deer stalking should keep some concealing object between himself and the deer. This is comparatively easy if the deer’s exact location is known, but if, as is usually the case, he is stalking an area where he suspects a deer to be hiding, concealment becomes increasingly difficult as he approaches that area. While concealing himself from one part of the area, he is apt to reveal himself to a deer which might be in a different part of that area. The only thing the hunter can do about this situation is to keep a close watch on the entire area so that he will see the deer as soon as possible. Usually there is enough intervening cover to permit the hunter to approach to a point which is within gunshot range of the deer, and then it is up to him to see the deer before it makes its escape.
If the exact location of the deer is known, stalking procedure is simplified unless the deer is in open country. In the latter case it is necessary to approach the animal from the back or, if this is not possible, to advance while the deer is not looking. This is practically impossible unless the deer is occupied in feeding.
It requires exceptionally good eyesight to spot a deer in its bed; however, it must come to its feet before running and this motion of rising is often the hunter’s first good chance to spot the animal. Some deer come to their feet and start running with almost the same motion, but if they are uncertain of the hunter’s intentions, they will often stand long enough for an aimed shot or possibly a closer approach. If the hunter should decide that an alerted deer might permit a closer approach, he should move in a direction that will take him past the deer at the desired distance instead of walking directly towards the animal. In cases of this sort, where the deer has seen me, I consider a stealthy approach as useless and I walk boldly, trying to create the impression that I am not interested in the deer but have other business in the woods. Deer will not always be deceived by this procedure, so the hunter should be prepared to shoot at all times after he has seen the deer.
In deer stalking, it is well for the hunter to consider the fact that a man’s eyes are usually over five feet above the ground, while those of a deer are seldom as high as that. This gives two different angles of sight and sometimes low branches will obscure a man’s vision while the deer is able to see under them and spot the motion of the hunter’s feet and legs long before the hunter is able to see the deer. This is often true of deer which are in their bed.
The only way to overcome this condition is for the hunter to take an occasional look from a position near the ground.
I have stalked quite a few deer which were in their beds. Most of them were merely resting and chewing their cud, but two of them were actually asleep. I watched one of these from a distance of about fifty feet for several minutes. It was curled into its usual sleeping position and the eyes were closed. As I watched, the deer’s head snapped erect, the animal came to its feet and it stood there looking at me until I moved and it had identified me as a man. Some slight eddy of air must have carried my scent to the sleeping animal and it was instantly alerted to its danger. This incident shows what a wonderful sense of smell these animals possess.
Perhaps it was taking an unfair advantage, but when I found another deer in almost the same circumstances, I shot it before it was aware of its danger. With the first deer, I was hunting for knowledge and experience; and with the second, I was out for meat.
Probably some of the other deer which I have stalked were asleep before I saw them and some sound or scent had alerted them to danger but not enough to cause them to leave their beds. I have found these sleeping and resting deer comparatively easy to stalk, but it requires a lot of time and concentration on the job at hand as well as trained eyesight in order to be successful. Many hunters cannot or will not do this. A friend of mine, who is an excellent hunter and who has killed his share of deer, tells me that he has never had a standing shot at a deer in the woods. They have always been on the move. This speaks well for his marksmanship and his eyesight must be good, but evidently his eyes are not trained to identify stationary objects.
Feeding deer are considerably easier to stalk than resting deer, mostly because their feeding motions make them easier to see and because they are partly preoccupied with their feeding. This is no reason for any slackening of caution while attempting to approach feeding deer.
The presence of tracks around an area is often a help in deer stalking, but if the hunter concentrates on these tracks, he is apt to miss seeing the deer until it is too late for an aimed shot. The idea of using tracks as an aid to deer stalking is not to trail a deer to its bed or feeding area, but to use these tracks to obtain some idea of where the deer might be located. Knowledge of habits and of the surrounding country is necessary for the successful use of these tracks and other signs as aids in locating deer without the need of following the tracks to them.
Another man and I were portaging from one pond to another on a late summer day. He led with a pack and I followed with the canoe on my shoulders. My view was obscured by the canoe and my eyes were on the trail in order to insure safe footing. When I saw fresh deer tracks in the trail, I began to speculate about where the deer might be going and why they were traveling at that time of day. I spoke to my companion and told him to watch for deer at a spring that was a short distance along the trail. When we came in sight of the spring, there were a doe and a fawn.
This is an example of the type of reasoning which should be used in order to take advantage of tracks while deer stalking. I knew the location of the spring. I knew that the deer would not be moving at that time without some reason. It was not feeding time and the deer were walking, a fact which indicated that they had left their beds of their own accord. The logical reason for such actions was to obtain a drink of water.
I would not advise a hunter to stalk the nearest spring whenever he saw a fresh deer track, because each individual case presents a separate problem and each case requires a different solution.
The successful stalking of bedded deer is a task for the expert—the specialist of the hunting fraternity. The novice will have more success in stalking feeding deer. This should not deter the novice, or restrict his deer stalking activity. He should attempt all types of hunting, for this is the only way that he can improve his ability to the point where he becomes an expert.