What is stalking?
The young Ranger sneaks through the forest like a jungle cat, with all his senses fully alert, his feet making no more sound than a dry leaf falling to the ground. In his hands he carries an ash spear. His nostrils twitch: Which direction is the wind blowing from? Does he smell the musk of a male deer? He freezes and glares into a thicket that grows before him. Through the tangle of branches he spots an antler. The antler moves as the animal grazes, confirming his suspicions. He quietly steps around the thicket, one careful step at a time, with awesome patience. At last he sees the stag in full view; its head is lowered as it plucks plants from the ground. Suddenly the Ranger freezes again as the stag raises its head to look around. The beast sees nothing but a statue of a man, and it continues grazing. With the young man’s heart pounding so loudly he is sure his quarry can hear it, the Ranger steps forward again until he can impale the stag with his spear…
Stalking is the art of hunting by using stealthy movement to get close to a prey animal. Stalking can be used to enhance the hunting experience, or simply as a non-hunting sport in an of itself, to get close to and observe nature.
So, if you are a hunter, your options for hunting techniques are fairly broad, including stalking, still-hunting, stand-hunting, blind-hunting and drive-hunting, but you probably have settled for stand-hunting, or hunting from a elevated perch in a tree, waiting or luring a buck into walking to within range of your hunting weapon. This is a convenient and often successful method, reliant on modern gear rather than special wilderness knowledge and skills. You may also be bored by your current hunting method, and be interested in a more challenging and exciting hunting method. This book is your guide to a challenging and rewarding ancient method of hunting!
If you are not a hunter, you may certainly stalk game as well! Most of the thrill in hunting remains in seeking game animals, and very little in the actual kill. So you can simply strive to get as close to game animals as you can, using primitive methods, and dispense with the slaughter. This sport, which we may christen “sport-stalking” involves all the wilderness skills that civilized people have lost, and requires us to virtually become wild beasts ourselves in the quest to get closer to the wild beasts of the forests. Be advised, this is a very challenging sport; you may practice it for years without fully mastering stalking. On the other hand, the struggle itself is very rewarding, and will put your closer to nature than you have ever been!
So, unlike most hunting books, no time will be spent on weapons and gear, or on game butchering and packing methods. Let others expound on those matters. We are intent on learning one thing: stalking game.
What is our quarry?
For our purposes, we will discuss three big-game animals as worthy challenges for our efforts:
- The white-tail deer
- The mule deer
- The black-tail deer
These animals are currently thriving in every state of the US, and in Canada as well. That is, you have either one or the other of the above listed deer species. If you are lucky, your state may have populations of both. In some areas, populations of deer are not great enough to warrant hunting, but remember: you don’t have to hunt to stalk. You’re a sport-stalker! Nevertheless, check with your local fish and game regulations before starting out.
Other animals include American elk (wapiti), moose and caribou. Other game animals such as pronghorn antelope, and big-horn sheep, inhabit terrain (mountains, open plain) that may be unsuitable for our techniques. But you are certainly welcome to try! These animals will have different habits and different levels of wariness, and the lessons learned here may not entirely apply.
If you are in Europe, you may have access to species such as the red deer, roe buck and fallow deer. Other hunting grounds, such as Africa, naturally have completely different game animals. There is, however, no reason that the basic principles taught here, cannot be applied.
Sport-stalking as described in this manual will require a number of different behaviors out of you that you are probably not accustomed to. I will break down the sport of stalking into individual, easily mastered components. Learn these one at a time, they will put you on the path to becoming a full-fledged sport-stalker.
You will need access to various areas and classes of wilderness in which to practice your skills.
The most obvious place to stalk big game is where they are being hunted. Check with your local gun shop or hunting supply store, or look up your state fish & game department for details. Usually the nearest BLM land or national forest are the most popular hunting spots. If you are interested in hunting and have one of these areas nearby, then you need search no further.
Since sport-stalking is not necessarily hunting, we can practice stalking in the public hunting lands mentioned above, but at other times of the year rather than the posted hunting season. This means less interference with hunters, and often a less guarded attitude among deer populations.
In most areas, you will find public lands where there are deer, but for one reason or another (nearness to cities, not enough deer), they can’t be hunted. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t be stalked!
Keep in mind that state parks and the like may prefer that visitors stay on the trails, and if so this would put a cramp on your stalking activities. Too many people visit such parks; the erosion caused by off-trail hiking would quickly erode the landscape to a point where it would no longer be wilderness, but merely wasteland. And you wouldn’t be interested in going there; the deer sure wouldn’t be there for long, either.
Aside from stalking as such, you need to find an appropriate place to practice stealth skills and woodsense. State Parks and other areas where hunting is prohibited can still be used to practice these skills.
Stalking for hunters
Obviously, if you intend to use these stalking techniques in actual hunting, you need to pay attention to your local fish and game authorities as to the where, when and how of hunting.
Hunting with spears may be illegal in your local area. Check with your Department of Fish and Game before thinking of trying it.
Also check on the local definition of “Harassment of animals”. Stalking without hunting may fall under this category in your jurisdiction.
Fitness for stalking
Walking the woods can be a strenuous activity if you are not fit. Walking miles up and down hills in search of game, stepping stealthily over uneven ground, crouching and waiting, moving as quietly as possible through dense thickets, over sloping ground, freezing in any given position when the game is spotted, this can take a lot out of you. It would not do to have a heart attack when you are in the woods alone!
The more likely danger is in walking back from an adventure in the woods exhausted, rather than exhilarated.
If you are at a high risk for any kind of heart problems, then the wise thing to do would be to check yourself checked out by a physician before hiking into the woods alone.
You have a many options for achieving a better level of fitness, ranging from joining a health club, to taking a half-hour walk three times a week. Since the main point of sport-stalking is to develop a familiarity with the wilds, you might as well be exercising in the wilds.
If your territory is close enough to visit it several times a week, then the best place you can exercise is on those trails – this will familiarize you with the lay of the land, the weather at different times, the animals that live there and how they behave.
Your next best choice would be to find a park or some other wild-like location nearby where you can hike a few miles up and down hills. A more realistic option may be to go to the woods once a week, and to walk a few more times a week someplace around your neighborhood, whether or not it’s in the city or countryside.
If you belong to a health club, don’t waste the opportunity; make sure you exercise your leg muscles and your endurance, and still try to get into the woods whenever you get a chance, say once every weekend. Don’t count on a treadmill to realistically simulate actual hill-walking.
When we get to the sneaky, stealthy part of stalking, walking slowly and quietly, you are going to wish that you had developed strong leg muscles. Include these leg exercises in your workout: squat, leg press, leg extension, calf raise. Work for muscle endurance – perform 12-15 repetitions per set.
Ever get lost in the woods? It’s not hard to do, especially for those not raised in the wilderness. The more time you spend out there, the better you will get at finding your way, and soon you will be as at home in the woods as you are on the streets of your hometown.
Meanwhile, you will be a “tenderfoot”, to a greater or lesser degree, and at risk of getting lost in the woods, or at least not finding your quarry. My mission would fail if one of you went out to a wilderness area, got lost and died of exposure – it does happen, and such a tragic end does not have to happen.
The best gear you can carry is a map and compass; they’re fairly light. Add to that something lighter – the knowledge of how to use them, and you should be okay. The time when you can tell directions by the moss on the tree (and yes, that does work, depending on climate, but the moss generally grows on the north side) and the stars, this will all come in time with practice.
Knowing which way is north is seldom enough to keep anyone from getting lost. A savage tribesman can look into the woods and be able to discern the lay of the land – where the hills are, and where the valleys are – from just a glance. It’s hard, however, for civilized folk to do, especially in thickly wooded areas. It comes with practice as well, but we have a modern tool to help – topographic maps. Reading these is a skill in itself, but easily learned.
How quietly can you walk? Not very quietly, if you’re like most of us. In our day-to-day civilized lives, we spend very little time attempting to walk softly, except for those stereotypical situations where we are sneaking home late at night, trying to keep those asleep at home from waking. Say for example you have a job that often sends you home late at night.
This is still not the same thing. It’s one thing to take off your shoes, and step quietly a few feet over carpet or bare wood floors, knowing exactly where your furniture is, and trying not to wake a sleeping human or two. By contrast, the sneaking we’re talking about involves walking much longer distances, over ground you haven’t seen before, loaded with sticks, dry leaves and gopher holes, and last but not least, attempting to surprise an animal that is not only wide awake, but one of the more alert animals in the woods!
Let’s look at the earlier example. The first thing your do is try to eliminate unnecessary noises from your person – in the cliché, it involves taking off your shoes. I am certain that many aboriginal hunters throughout prehistory have taken off their moccasins – if they ever had them – when they went hunting. We will later look at many other similar preparations for actual hunting. As a “tenderfoot” you probably cannot simply lose your shoes and be perfectly happy in the forest. If you can, more power to you, but it is not entirely necessary.
Look over what you have on your person, and find extra things that are likely to keep you from being as quiet as you can. Drop the backpack, and other extra gear such as canteen, binoculars, camera. Remove your coat, if you have one and can do without it. Examine your clothing if there are any parts that might add noise – tuck in your boot laces, put your keys and pocket change somewhere else, don’t wear corduroy pants, and so on.
As a beginning exercise, find some rough ground. It doesn’t really need to be in the deepest wilderness in the world – sometimes mere backyard landscaping is good enough to practice on for now. Rough ground, overgrown grass, weeds and other plants, dry leaves, and twigs, all serve as obstacles to your stealthy progress.
Now be quiet, listen, and walk. If you’re walking normally you will make a racket. Be aware of this, and you will be on the first step towards becoming a skilled stalker.
Let’s start again. Lift up one leg and gently touch the ground with the heel of that foot down in front of you. Do not put any weight on that foot at all – you are still basically standing on one foot.
Slowly roll that forward foot all of the way down to the toe, starting the outside part of the foot, until the sole of the foot covers the ground evenly. You should still have all your weight on the back leg, and your thighs may be beginning to ache. Now gradually transfer half of your weight onto the front leg.
That was very quiet, and it was also very slow. It’s easy to lose your balance halfway through this woodland ballet. I confess that I’ve ruined many a stalk by stumbling – and it does get better with practice.
A common Hollywood cliché involves stepping on a stick and breaking it, alerting the monster or bad guy. In reality, sticks underfoot are among the many enemies of stealth, as are dry leaves, and even old knees cracking as they bend. I’d like to see that in a action movie!
When you begin stalking deer through the bush, you will often find yourself in situations where you are not only stepping over fallen tree branches, and up and down hills, but also under overhanging limbs at the same time. The game trails left by our four-footed quarry will not usually allow easy travel by an upright human. So you must work towards eventually practicing stealth on the very game trails that you hope to encounter deer.
At any rate, make it a personal quest to look for little rough areas of “mini-wildernesses” wherever you find yourself – without trespassing on private property. Try not to look too suspicious: creeping around in your neighbor’s backyard late at night may be good practice, but don’t give someone cause to call the cops!
Stalking is a way of moving so slowly and soundlessly in the woods that your presence goes completely undetected. The native American were so skilled at stalking that they frequently confounded white people by appearing in their midst, apparently from out of nowhere. Even John Muir, who was hardly a stranger to the woods, was amazed one morning when he looked up from his notes to discover that an Indian had sneaked into his camp unseen and now stood only a few steps from him—"as motionless and weatherstained as an old treestump that had stood there for centuries."
- Tip: If you need to sneeze (whilst also needing to be quiet), hold your nose and breathe steadily through your mouth until the feeling passes. If you absolutely have to, then sneeze into your sleeve to muffle the sound as much as possible.
- Tip: If you need to cough, then hold your breath. Drink some water from your canteen. The feeling should soon pass.
If we simply slow down, no matter where we are, we begin to notice little things that we have no time to see in our typical busy lives. How tragic it must be to live one’s entire life, and miss the drama and comedy of nature! When I walk in a state park nearby, I can see California quail in the brush, turkeys moving in groups on the hill. Meanwhile, joggers fly past, families chatting away on their cell phones, out of touch with the magical world of nature that gave birth to us all oblivious to everything but the most obvious experiences.
A hawk frightens a bluejay, who dutifully makes a great show to draw the predator away from its nest, chattering and knocking seeds from the treebranch. A flock of hungry sparrows land on the ground and feast on the windfall of seeds. A mockingbird sings the songs of other birds and beasts it has heard, displaying its worldliness. Its newest tune: the sound of a chainsaw! Slow down and notice. There is a symmetry, an order and logic and nature. Many people find it immensely comforting.
Here is your assignment: go to your territory, or any other semi-wild area, and find a place where you can observe a large area of surrounding forest without being disturbed by other people. Try to find a place where a deer-trail opens into a clearing from heavy brush. How do you know it’s a deer-trail? Look at the ground; there should be deer tracks, and the opening in the brush should be just big enough for a big buck. It doesn’t matter what time you visit, you’re just scouting for now.
Ishi was an American Indian who, in the early part of the 20th century, was brought to modern culture as the “last wild Indian”. He came under the care of the anthropology department at the University of Berkeley in California. Various anthropologists learned much by studying Ishi:
In hunting deer, Ishi was particularly careful in the observance of several essential precautions. He would eat no fish on the day prior to the hunt, because the odor could be detected by deer, he said; nor would he have the odor of tobacco smoke about him. The morning of the hunt Ishi bathed himself from head to foot, and washed his mouth. Eating no food, he dressed himself in a shirt, or breech clout. Any covering on the legs made a noise while in the brush, and a sensitive man rather favored cautious walking.
Come back the next time, fully prepared to lose at least three hours at the one spot that you scouted previously. Get out of bed before dawn, take a shower, rinse all soap smells thoroughly, dress in clean wilderness clothes in subdued shades. You want to be there before sunrise.
Just make yourself comfortable in whatever way you need to. Have a odor-free snack beforehand, use the restroom, be prepared for a sit. Bring a pad to sit on if wet, cold leaves are not to your liking. Don’t make any sudden movements; in fact don’t move at all if you can help it.
- Tip: A trick to add to your repertoire: when you want to look at something that is not in your immediate field of vision, your natural tendency is to move your head. Humans move their heads a lot, so they appear to be like nervous little birds. Excessive head movement can spook animals – indeed many times, your head is the only thing that is visible above cover. Try to depend on the movement of your eyes to look around instead, while keeping your head still.
By moving your eyes alone, you can scan almost as much territory as you can by moving your head – and as an added bonus, since you won’t be scaring game away, there will be more to see.
As you continue to sit still, often in the first fifteen minutes, without humans stomping around and hollering, you may hear a bird song that you have not heard previously. This is the all-clear signal. Presently, more birds will call. Birds and other beasts have been hiding quietly until the human noises stopped – they think they are alone and safe.
As the sun rises, little grey birds may begin dropping off the branches to forage in the leaves and detritus of the forest floor. For a few hours, the forest will be alive with activity: dawn is the most active period for most woodland creatures, so you are in for a show. After a few hours, when the sun has fully risen, you will probably notice a drop-off in activity. As in all of this, much will depend on the community of plants and animals in your area, as well as the particular season.
The main thrust of this drill is to spot deer, to find out what species lives here, whether they move in groups or singly, and whether they stop near you to feed, or if they continue to some other area. But, rest assured that you will see more than just deer.
You may hear an animal moving, but, because of undergrowth, be unable to tell what manner of beast it is. Relax – chances are it won’t eat you! Later, you can ask the park ranger or your local library about just what it was that shared the woods with you then – or you can do the research yourself, and fill the ranger in on the news later. Resist the urge to get up right away and chase after it. Even if the beast is gone, there is likely plenty of evidence left.
Once the forest chatter has died down and you’re about to leave, look for recently disturbed ground near where you noted the wild creature. It takes a real trained eye to distinguish animal tracks, unless they are laid on bare earth. It’s also hard to tell exactly what kind of animal. As you look at the detritus or grass, fallen leaves, and whatever vegetable matter that appears to have been stirred up, try to imagine what the detritus may have looked like before it was disturbed. Then try to imagine what it would have taken to stir it up like that. Presently you may begin to visualize tracks. It’s something like one of those optical illusion games, where you may be looking at one thing, but see one of two different things, depending on how you look at it.
If you can’t see anything, use your imagination to draw a small circle around the spot and look around the circumference of that circle. Notice anything there? If not, draw another, larger, imaginary circle and look for prints outside of that. Continue until you have a good idea of where that creature was headed.
The next step is to try to follow the trail. You will be using your eyes 10% of the time and your imagination 90% of the time. The payoff is when you see where the animal has stepped on some bare ground, and left a clear print. Take a picture or make a sketch to take back and research, but above all, try to remember the relation between the tracks in the detritus previously, and the clearer print in the soil.
Another good time to observe game is at sunset. Try sitting out during both sunrise and sunset in the same area. Find out if some animals in your area – especially deer – prefer the dawn or dusk.
- Tip: Allow your eyes time to adapt to the darkness – for most people, the reaction takes about fifteen minutes.
A whole new tribe of beasts comes out at night, as if they are clocking in on the night shift. You may not know any of them except by their sound – or a night-vision device. Yes, you can use a gadget like this to learn about wild animals, but once you begin depending on it, you will no longer be a primitive hunter.
Wouldn’t you be like some sort of tourist from another planet who leans out of his spacecraft and takes a laser shot at one of the passing animals? In some intensively hunted areas, deer are becoming nocturnal. As hunters continue to blaze away at them on a regular basis, some of the deer – the smart ones at any rate – move into the high hills. They restrict their activities to evening and early dawn – confident, apparently, that most hunters are still in bed.
Make notes on what you see and hear when the sun has gone down. Much of it will be unfamiliar to you, and maybe a little creepy until you can distinguish the sounds and the dimly seen forms of opossums, owls and bats.
Where do deer hide by day? As you observe and stalk more and more in the woods, you will discover spots – often between dense bushes – where the plants on the ground appear to have been trampled flat by some large beast. This is a deer bed. When a deer crouches down in this spot to rest, its brown coat hides it, especially if it is in heavy brush.
This can vary by deer species: the white-tail deer is a master at hiding in dense brush, while mule deer and black-tail deer prefer steep slopes where humans cannot climb. Of course, this varies by subspecies, local conditions, and even individual deer. Young bucks may simply run, the older and wiser bucks may leave for the hills several days before the start of the hunting season, and some simply find a good bit of cover and stay put in the deer bed, confident that those humans don’t have eyes tuned to the wilderness. They obviously haven’t been hunted by primitive hunters lately.
The deer’s antlers, if any, appear to be nothing more than bare tree branches, until it moves, that is. In time, you will develop the eye to distinguish a deer from its camouflage, and approach it closely without its knowledge, possibly close enough to make meat with a spear.
For humans, our most important sense is our eyes. Most of the information about our world comes to us visually – at least the information that we pay attention to. We also accept some information through our ears, but like our vision, that depends on whether we pay attention to the information. We can also train ourselves to tune in to smells, but never as well as most other animals. Indeed, most animals will smell you before they see you – this is an adaptation to the forest, where the visibility is low.
Take your time, lose track of time, get to know the deer; find out when they come, when they come as groups, and when they come individually. Find out what they eat, and where and when they drink. In time you will even begin to recognize individual deer in your territory!
On that subject, primitive hunters like Ishi are known for smelling their quarry before they see it, or even before the beast sees them. Especially during rutting season, deer – and even fawns – have a complex system of communication via scents secreted via a number of scent glands all over their bodies. Once you get a whiff of it, you will probably not forget it – the memories for that sense are buried very deep in the human brain. Yes, once you start stalking game by smell, you are becoming a real primitive hunter!
Try to imagine what it may have been like trying to get close enough to one of those fragile, nervous beasts to spear one of them and drag it bag to the tribe. When you do see a deer, you may see it, but not notice it right away. Some of the greatest hunters are known for their ability to see. Those people may have average eyesight, but they also have the ability to peer through a tangle of brush and branches, see a piece of a deer, and recognize it. Through a tangle of branches, can you see the brown muzzle of a buck? There, see a branch? It’s not really a branch but an antler!
You want to have a chance of seeing the deer before it sees you, and that is half the battle.
Try to use available cover to your advantage – remember you’re supposed to be the animal with the brains! Maneuver yourself so you can get as close to the animal as you can without breaking cover – all while staying downwind, and walking soundlessly, too, of course. If it was easy, then it wouldn’t be worth doing, now would it?
If you’re in luck, you will catch your deer when it is browsing, or eating vegetation. For most species of deer, when they are eating, they cannot watch for predators, so they will periodically raise their heads and scan for – stalkers like you. That’s when you freeze. As long as you freeze, the deer will probably not see you. A deer’s eyes are evolved to respond primarily to movement. So freeze: don’t even move your head to look around. Don’t stare your quarry directly in the eyes either. Just be calm and patient; take your time.
- Brown, Tom, Jr.. Tom Brown Jr’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking.
- Halls, Lowell K. White-Tailed Deer: Ecology and Management.
- Heizer, Robert and Kroeber, Theodora. Ishi, the Last Yahi, A Documentary History.
- Robert, Monty. The Man Who Listens to Horses.
- Van Dyke, Theodore S. The Still-Hunter.