Upon first hearing the term “still hunting,” you’d be forgiven for assuming it means hunting from a stationary vantage—even the classic deer-hunting vantage of a treestand. Actually, still hunting is an active, roaming form of hunting: the practice, very simply, of walking around to find your deer or elk, rather than waiting for one in concealed ambush.
That said, there’s a lot of stillness about still hunting, as you’re not going to have much luck landing your quarry if you’re simply bashing around the woods willy-nilly. The sort of walking you do as a still hunter has a completely different pace and rhythm than an everyday hike: You’re adopting the searching movements of a roving predator, which necessitates a lot of pausing, waiting, and listening.
Let’s get into some of the nitty-gritty of still hunting, which can open a whole new world of challenge, adventure, and pleasure for any bowhunter.
Why Still Hunting?
Along with spot-and-stalk techniques, still hunting is a commonly practiced method for pursuing mule deer and elk in the West, but a more foreign concept to many whitetail hunters in the East. But it can be a highly successful approach there given the abundance of timber cover, which helps a wandering hunter stay out of sight. And some spooked, holed-up bucks are more easily found by the bowhunter willing to cover some ground, rather than the one who hunkers down in one spot.
Besides increasing your odds of success in certain situations or landscapes, still hunting confers many other rewards. It has primal appeal: going out and searching for game, relying on your backcountry travel and tracking skills. It requires a pinpoint alertness and awareness of your surroundings that can make the wilds come alive more richly. And hours of still hunting can add up to darn good exercise, too, even if you’re not huffing and puffing (which isn’t conducive to sneaking up on keen-eared prey).
Still Hunting Equipment
Probably the three most important tools for still hunting—well, aside from your bow, of course—are a good pair of boots, a good pair of binoculars, and reliable navigation devices. On the latter count, nothing beats a topo map and compass; you should always carry these in the backcountry, even if you also have a fancy-schmancy GPS on hand as well.
You need binoculars to scan far ahead (and far behind) you, both to look for deer and elk and also scrutinize the lay of the land and get some advance warning of wind shifts.
In terms of boots, keep in mind you’ll be covering a lot of off-trail ground: You want sturdy, supportive hunting or backpacking boots that provide good traction and protection on a range of terrain. Making sure your footwear fits well and has been adequately broken-in goes (hopefully) without saying.
You’ll want a good pack as well, one that’s been savvily loaded with proper weight distribution in mind. A lower center of gravity—achieved with heavier items placed lower in your pack—is generally what you want when traveling cross-country. Make sure weight’s evenly distributed in your pack: If you’re off-balance, you’re more likely to stumble, which means noisier going as well as the risk of injury.
Prepping for Still Hunting
It’s a great idea to closely study topographic maps and aerial photographs of the area you plan to still hunt before you suit up and head out there. You want to identify habitat likely to attract deer and elk, for example, and you also want a sense for the kind of topography and land cover you’ll be traversing. Terrain and vegetation features, after all, function both as potential obstacles and potential aids to your hunting, beyond the influence they have funneling animal movements.
The Art of Still Hunting
To get an idea for the tempo of still hunting, think of yourself as a puma on the prowl—or, actually, as a deer or elk itself. Both predators and prey, after all, move about in similar stop-and-start fashion, pausing often to look, listen, and scent the air.
You want to move as quietly as you can. Despite your best efforts, you’re going to make noise, but you want to conceal that noise as much as possible. You can conceal it by hunting on a windy or rainy day, or by hunting along noisy rivers and creeks. But you can also conceal it by paying attention to its rhythm. Thumping along with steady footfalls is liable to alert any and all critters in the vicinity to the presence of a human. Take slow, careful steps across “noisy” substrates, such as thick dry litter or hard-crusted snow; pause after you snap a twig or otherwise make a loud noise. Slow everything down, and stop frequently to scan and listen—sometimes for minutes on end. Do so in particular when approaching transitions in land cover, such as a forest giving way to a meadow, or a dense doghair stand opening up into open woodland or savanna.
The wind is just about the most important factor to be keeping in mind while out still hunting—a no-brainer, sure, but learning to read and use the breeze takes lots of practice. You can ruin an afternoon of still hunting by letting your scent bump an elk herd or wily whitetail buck out of the area. Try to stay downwind of high-value habitat patches, and use dense vegetation and landforms as olfactory buffers.
Speaking of buffers, you also want to do everything you can to break up your outline out there. Trees, thickets, tall grasses, rock outcrops, and stands of mature corn make natural corridors to creep along. Overcast days cut down on that pesky shadow you cast, making you that much less conspicuous.
The slow pace and fine-tuned awareness of still hunting lends itself to spotting a flicking ear or tail in the far distance, or hearing a snort or a hoof stomp. It also means you’re likely to zero in on plenty of sign, from tracks and scat to rubbings, browsed vegetation, and bedding sites. Gauge the freshness of such evidence, and you may be able to actively track down the object of your search.
Practice Makes Perfect
You can practice still hunting all year round by honing your skills at quiet cross-country travel, concealed approaches of animals (done judiciously, of course—you don’t want to harass them), and—perhaps most important of all—the moment-by-moment alertness that can be very difficult to sustain for hours on end. But maybe even more than a deer, it's that cultivated alertness in the great outdoors that may be the greatest reward of still hunting.
Archery Equipment - Archery Supplies - Archery Gear - Archery Accessories
Leader Bowhunting supplies and bowhunting gear for 35+ years