Over- and Under-Estimating Big Bucks
Any seasoned hunter will tell you, “NEVER underestimate a big deer!” I agree, but experience also tells me that ‘NEVER’ really means ‘SOMETIMES.’
I have spent up to seven hours stalking big bucks, and other times, I’ve barreled right in on the animal, either because I was losing light or he was distracted by something.
I’ve also watched hunters watched hunters stalk directly at a deer or elk in plain view, thinking he was invisible because he’s wearing camouflage! I’m not joking! You should’ve seen the look on the animal’s face just before it jumped up and ran away.
What it boils down to is that every situation is different. You can’t judge the current situation on the last one, whether it worked out or not. In bowhunting there are just too many variables.
Big bucks are extremely wary…or at least most of the time. On rare occasion you’ll still catch a buck being lazy or carelessly feeding along. But most times you won’t be able to get inside the buck’s 60-yard security bubble without using extreme caution. Within this bubble a buck’s senses are exceptionally acute. This is where critical decisions make or break your hunt.
Below is a list of situations that either cause me to speed up my approach, or sloooow waaaay down:
When to Speed Up a Stalk
- It’s getting dark. Assuming you won’t be able to relocate your target buck later on, you’d better roll the dice and make your move. I’ve seen a lot of stalks end in dark failure. If it’s the last evening of your hunt—for example—you will have no choice but to make a move. Even if you have to walk straight at him, it’s still better than doing nothing.
- The buck is about to unbed. Finding an unaware, bedded buck is a Godsend. If he it’s early and he just bedded down for the day, you’ll probably have several hours to implement a stalk strategy. But if he’s been bedded all day, you’d better make your move. Can you get close enough for a shot before he stands? I hope so, because when he stands you’ll likely be pinned down.
- The wind is about to change. If the wind is blowing steady in your face during a stalk, you’re golden. But wind can change at any moment. If the wind is starting to swirl, you’d better speed up your stalk. Wind direction changes more often in stormy weather or with thermals: in late morning it begins to rise, and in the evening, as the sun begins to set, it cools and goes downhill. Anticipating wind changes is probably the most important factor in speeding up or slowing down during a stalk.
- There is cover noise. I’ve used every possible noise for cover including wind, flying grasshoppers, squirrel barks, jets and planes, buck fights, etc. Anything that makes noise–other than you–will help you get closer faster. Wind rustling through the trees or brush is the most common cover noise. It’s also important to pattern wind. For example, at higher elevations winds are mostly non-existent early and then kick up between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. In the evening winds often die down precipitously just before sundown.
- The buck is distracted. Distractions range from buck fights to antler rubbing to squirrel chatter; basically anything that distracts the buck away will give you a chance to move in. The best distraction is when he’s raking a tree with his antlers. Bucks are practically blind and deaf when they head is buried in a tree
When to Slow Down a Stalk
- When the buck beds down for the day. Once a buck beds you’ll likely have several hours to get close, so take your time and move with the wind or other cover noise. It’s usually best to wait a couple hours for the buck to start sleeping before making a move. Usually the buck will rise up and re-bed at least once before really dozing off. So the longer you can wait the better.
- The wind is blowing steadily in your face. If you’re lucky enough to be hunting during a stretch of steady wind, you can keep your stalk slow and methodical. Unless there’s unsettled weather, wind will prevail from a certain direction for several hours of midday.
- The ground is noisy. See how quiet you can be while sneaking twenty yards across a forest floor covered in dry pinecones, gravel, or pine needles. Dry conditions can be a nightmare, especially in thick cover. Oftentimes it’s simply impossible to stalk close to a buck. Fortunately, there are a couple things that can help you. First, take your boots off and stalk-in-socks. Second, wait for cover noise like wind or jets. Dry, hot conditions often bring flying grasshoppers to life. Their loud, short-burst flying noise is the ultimate cover noise when you need to get one step closer. Worst case you can always scoop sticks and brush out of the path with your hands.
- The buck is facing you. If you’re trying to stalk close to a buck that’s facing you, you probably can’t move at all. If you can see the buck’s eye, it can see you. However, if the buck’s face is partially hidden then a super slow-motion stalk is possible. Deer have a hard time seeing fine detail and slow motion. Technically, if you could move slowly enough, you could literally walk right to a buck without him seeing you.
These are just a few examples of when to speed up or slow down a stalk. What it really boils down to is common sense and experience. It also helps to spend some time observing and studying your prey. What are their strengths and weaknesses? The more you understand your prey, the better you’ll understand its limitations.