Because of the extreme wariness of big bucks, ambush hunting is the most effective style of bowhunting. In close-quarters situations, whoever moves first–you or the deer–is at a disadvantage.
In very thick brush or noisy terrain, ambush hunting might be your only option. This is why so many whitetail hunters sit tree stands. For mule deer, however, hunting from tree stands or ground blinds is only minimally effective because mule deer are so unpredictable. Therefore, ambush hunting is most effective only after you‘ve patterned a buck and are able to sit near prime feed or trails without being detected.
Ambush hunting is also a great option for novice hunters who haven’t mastered extreme stealth yet. It’s also a good technique in desert areas like Southern Arizona where sitting water is a viable option.
Still-hunting is the second most effective hunting method. Still-hunting is where you move very slowly through the woods while stopping frequently to glass and listen for movement. Still-hunting takes a lot of practice to master.
When still-hunting you must vary your approach speed as terrain changes. Whenever you come to a rise or break from heavy cover, stop and glass ahead. While still-hunting, try to keep to the shadows as much as possible since deer have a hard time seeing into shadows.
The goal of still-hunting is to be non-existent. That means hunting against the wind while remaining perfectly silent. Different ground conditions will dictate the speed that you can travel. Still-hunting works best on soft dirt or wet substrates. When the ground is dry and crunchy, try to step on large rocks, logs or soft dirt patches whenever possible. If you continue to get busted while still-hunting, revert back to ambush hunting.
Spot and Stalk
Spot-and-stalking is where you glass up an animal at a distance and then implement a strategy to stalk close. Spot-and-stalk works best in more open terrain where you’re able to sit and glass for unsuspecting animals that move between cover.
A successful spot-and-stalk strategy means planning the best approach based on wind and cover. In most cases the terrain will look differently as you close in on the animal. So it’s best to pick out prominent landmarks along the way, like a large boulder or dead tree. When covering very long distances it can also be helpful to take a reference picture before stalking just in case you get turned around.
Ultimately the hunting style you choose depends on specific hunting conditions, terrain, and the method you’re most comfortable with.
Maybe I’m just impatient, but I prefer still-hunting over ambushing. I really like the freedom to move around and cover lots of ground. The majority of my trophies were taken while still-hunting, but in most cases I was lucky to either see or hear the deer before it saw me. It also helps to have thousands of hours practice.
Most of the time I will incorporate a hybrid-style of hunting that alternates between ambush and still-hunting. Basically I still-hunt around prime areas, and if I encounter a likely travel route I’ll plant my butt in the shadows and sit ambush for longer periods of time .
Although most of my bowhunting takes place areas too thick for long-range glassing, I still rely on spot-and-stalk techniques when the occasion arises.
Spring black bear season is fast approaching, so today I’d like to offer my top 10 tips for bagging a black bear spot-and-stalk style.
When I first started bear hunting back in 2012, I studied everything I could find on black bears. I also spoke to several biologist to learn more about bears and habitat. Interestingly, much of the theoretic data I collected proved wrong. For instance, one article stated that early morning was the least productive time to spot bears. But in my experience I saw just as many bears early as late. One biologist mentioned that bears absolutely hate the rain, but I ended up shooting my first bear in a steady rain storm. Go figure.
Ultimately, spot-and-stalk archery success comes from boots on the ground and relentless real-life experience. The following are the most important lessons I learned when hunting bears early on.
Spot and Stalk Black Bear Top 10 Tips:
1. Food is Everything: Someone once said that black bears are just big hairy pigs. They eat, dig, and root around constantly, rarely holding still for very long. Since they’re so distracted, it should make them easy to hunt, right? Kinda. Like deer, bears feed for a while, then bed down for a few hours and repeat. The good news is that bears are easy to spot and generally found out in the open.
Spring bears primarily feed on new grass shoots, wild onions, clover, dandelions, and other spring offerings. It is imperative to talk to your regional biologist to find out what the bears are primarily feeding on in your area.
As for time of day, my advice is to hunt bears like deer: Get to a high vantage before first light and start glassing steep, grassy, south-facing slopes adjacent to old-growth forest (used for bedding). Of the nine bears I encountered last year, most were spotted in the early morning or late afternoon.
Even in the best units, you’ll likely glass many miles before actually seeing a bear. If you can’t glass up a bear, keep moving. Get away from busy roads, explore remote canyons, and cover as much ground as possible. Bears are solitary animals and are spread out across their range. This leads to tip #2.
2. Look for Sign: If glassing fails, the next step is to locate an area that looks “beary” and look for sign. You’re looking for large piles of black or green dropping, claw marks on trees, tree trunks rubbed smooth with hair attached, dirt diggings, tracks in mud, turned over logs and other items, and dug-in tracks (see photo below). I’ll break these things down separately as we go, but basically you’re just looking for concentrations of bear sign and focusing your efforts there.
The most common sign you’ll encounter is droppings, aka scat. Droppings come out wet and green, then quickly oxidize to black (within 12 hours in warm weather). If you’re not finding droppings, keep moving.
3. Examine the Trees: An area dense with claw-marked trees is a good indication of a likely bear hang-out. Black bears–especially cubs–like to climb trees which leaves claw marks in the bark.
Bears also rub on trees just like deer, and they always have their favorite rub tree. Rub trees occur near trails or bedding areas and are generally conifers with easily identifiable, smooth spots with hair stuck to it.
4. Watch for Tracks: Unlike deer, bear leave few tracks because their foot pads are wide and soft which spreads their weight out. Most bear tracks are found in snow, mud, or soft dirt.
Another strange phenomon I found was “dug-in” tracks. Dug-in tracks are frequently found near bedding areas. Rather than soft tracks, these are trails that bears use every day while traveling from feed to bed. Because they step in the exact same spots it creates staggered depressions in the ground. (see photo below)
Bear tracks will help you judge the size of a bear. Basically the main pad (front or back) of a mature bear (sow or boar) will be 4.5 inches or wider. Sow tracks generally don’t get bigger than 4.5″, but a big boar will stretch up to five or six inches.
5. Locate Bedding Areas: Bear beds are similar to deer beds and are usually located in thick stands of trees not far from feeding areas. Bear beds often look like large nests, where the bear pushes branches and ground cover to the outer edges of the bed. Bears also like to bed on the cool, dark north-face slopes near the tops of ridges. Also, just about every bed I found had multiple piles of scat nearby.
6. Watch for Items Turned Over: What the heck does that mean? Rocks, logs, and cow pies turned upside-down. This is something I never read, but everywhere I found bears or bear sign I found multiple items turned over. A rock lying next to a depression in the ground where it previously lied is most common. In springtime, bears are primarily herbivores, but they really love protein from insects, grubs, mice, and other animals hiding underground. You’ll also encounter occasional diggings. Diggings consist of a random two or three-foot holes dug into the dirt where the bear went after a squirrel or other animal.
7. The Triple “S” of Bear Behavior: Secretive, Shy, and Slippery: Assuming you’ve found a good feeding area with lots of sign, there’s still no guarantee you’ll find a bear. On several of my hunts I found areas littered with bear sign, but no bears anywhere.
Bears are slippery! They have a bad habit of disappearing right in front of you. They mosey behind a tree and they’re suddenly gone from the world. They are such quiet animals and chronically secretive. They are very shy and secretive because they simply don’t want to be found.
Being patient is the key to bear success. When a bear finds a good feeding area/hillside, he’ll likely stay on it for several days. If you’re in a good location, or if you glassed up the bear earlier in the day, he’ll likely re-appear sooner or later in the same general area.
8. Watch the Nose: Bear hunting is technically easier than deer hunting because unlike deer, bears have relatively poor hearing and eyesight. However, the bear’s nose is equal to or better than a deer’s nose. Simply put, if he smells you it’s game over, so always hunt according to wind direction. Be sure to use a windicator often when searching for or stalking bears.
Note: Bears have short attention spans. If a bear sees or hears you, hold very still and he’ll likely forget you were there.
9. Watch the Weather: Just like deer, bears avoid heavy rain or snow. However, a light rain doesn’t seem to bother them. Hungry bears will happily brave the elements… and bears are always hungry! In my experience rain was not a factor, but snow and freezing temps were real bad news.
On two separate occasions I spotted a bear one day, and when the snow moved in, it disappeared from the mountain. This is especially a problem in the early season (April and May) when the bears are living close to their dens. When the snow flies, they head back to their dens and won’t emerge again until the weather gets better. It’s much easier for them to just go back to bed and wait for brighter days.
10. Know the Anatomy: Unlike hooved animals, bears carry their vitals (heart/lungs) further forward in their chest. When a bear is broadside the front shoulder blocks the vitals. Therefore, you must time your shot for when the front leg is moving forward. I learned this the hard way by trying to squeeze an arrow too tight to the shoulder. My arrow hit the bear’s big, powerful shoulder which stopped my arrow short of the vitals. Fortunately he swung around to face me and my second arrow sailed under it’s chin and into the chest. He didn’t go too far, but I was lucky. Fortunately bears don’t react the same way as deer; they’re more likely to stay put after a poor shot instead of instinctively sprinting away.
I hope you found these tips helpful for your spot-and-stalk bear hunt. I realize that the majority of bear hunters prefer using dogs and/or bait, but in my experience there’s nothing more exciting. challenging, or rewarding than getting it done on the ground the old-fashioned way.
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.