Stalking Tactics That Work
Bowhunting on foot is the ultimate challenge. Even if you are deadly from a stand, actively moving at ground level requires a whole different set of skills. Here's how.
Foot hunting has always been my favorite. I grew up chasing blacktail deer in the rugged hills of northern California, where taking any kind of stand would have been a joke. Animals were too scarce and wandered too randomly to make ambush an option. So I started honing my bowhunting skills at an early age with boots on the ground.
Stand hunting can certainly be lethal on a few of our continent’s 29 types of big game. I have shot more than a dozen pronghorns from pit blinds beside water, many whitetail deer from tree stands and ground enclosures, and more than one elk near seeps or springs. But given a choice, I prefer stalking or still hunting. Hunting on foot can be deadly on a wide variety of animals in a host of different habitats, and it certainly requires more dedicated skill. I do possess the patience to sit for hours when this makes sense. But in most cases, the procedure is what I call “waiting for an accident to happen.”
Sitting in a tree can be fun, with nature and wildlife all around you. But crouching in a pit blind or pop-up dome is often about as stimulating as watching a TV with the power turned off. Unless there’s a steady parade of critters like thirsty antelope at a waterhole, a long wait can put the most dedicated archer to sleep.
Most bowhunters I know do it for the challenge. If you want MAXIMUM challenge, the logical choice is slipping around the woods. This is the only method that lets you regularly take species other than waterhole pronghorns, deep-woods whitetails, and baited black bears. With rare exceptions, mule deer, blacktail deer, wild sheep, moose, caribou, elk, and most other big game are best hunted on foot.
In 2018, I had the good fortune to bag three pronghorn bucks by spot-and-stalk. I have not sat for pronghorns over water for almost 20 years, but I still manage to harvest one or two antelope each year by sneaking around.
Pronghorns are the acid test for a foot hunter. They live in open terrain, and they possess the best eyesight in the animal kingdom. Here are three tactics I used to shoot those antelope last year. The following tips will help you hunt any kind of animal by tiptoeing around.
Choose Your Ground
Terrain sometimes picks a bowhunter, and a bowhunter sometimes picks terrain. It’s always better to be the “picker” instead of the “pickee”.
For example, I located two huge antelope in mid-September of 2018. My home state of Wyoming is known for exceptional pronghorns, and I know a few cherry places to go. I figured both 2018 bucks would flirt with the 80-inch record-book mark…bigger than any antelope I had ever shot. It has been my goal for several decades to bag a buck over 80, so I was excited by seeing these two.
These large pronghorns lived in very different places. I liked the looks of one better than the other because he had dramatically ivory-tipped horns and very long prongs. But that “goat” hung out in a huge, sweeping basin with almost no up or down to the landscape.
I stalked “Old Ivory” for six days, but never got close. His harem of does or his own keen eyes busted me every time. I was wearing faded, well-washed camouflage, and was literally on my belly most of the time. But that buck’s terrain had picked me, and the countryside kicked my butt.
Finally, I walked away from Ivory and went after “Playboy”. This second antelope had equally long main beams, slightly shorter prongs, no ivory tips, but noticeably better horn mass. There were more than 30 females in this guy’s harem—hence his nickname—but all those eyeballs were compromised by the broken, ravine-sliced hillside where he lived. There was water in every draw, so hunting from a stand would have been impossible even if I had wanted to.
In less than three hours on the very first day, I managed to slip down a gulley, crawl between Playboy and his girls, and ambush him as he circled to chase an estrous female. The key was solid dirt between him and me until he walked around the point of a ridge. I was already at full draw, and his phenomenal eyesight did not have a chance to save him.
My 2018 Wyoming pronghorn officially gross-scored 81-3/8 Pope and Young points, with an official net score of 80-6/8. Mission accomplished!
They Can Always Smell You
Scent mitigation tactics can make a difference in some stand-hunting situations. But trust me. There is no way an active foot hunter can eliminate human scent. There’s too much body odor seeping out as you move and perspire.
Pronghorns are not known for their hyper-sensitive noses, and they might not smell nearly as well as critters like deer, elk, bear, and wild sheep. But I’ve never been upwind from a pronghorn—even several hundred yards away—without the critter smelling danger and running away. I shot my big Wyoming antelope in 2018 by sneaking downhill with a strong midday updraft in my face. If I had tried a stalk from the bottom side, I never would have set up the shot.
When it comes to big game, the nose always knows. An animal might doubt a slight movement you make or a tiny noise under your foot. But human scent is a neon danger sign in brilliant, blinding color. Animals “see” most clearly with their noses, and never doubt what their snozzles tell them.
Always hunt in an upwind or cross-wind direction. Stay away from dramatically choppy terrain that swirls air currents like cream in a stirred cup of coffee. Avoid mountain slopes in mid morning and late afternoon when downdrafts and updrafts tend to falter and shift. Wind can be your strongest ally or your worst nightmare. It depends on how you manage each situation.
One other note. Nothing is ever for sure with breezes. The quicker you sneak, the less likely you are to get busted. Every minute of indecision during a stalk increases the odds you’ll catch a contrary puff of air that ruins your day. This is usually the foot hunter’s dilemma—hurry up but be careful.
Do Not Give Up
Most foot hunts are doomed to failure. Get used to it. The wind shifts, an unseen animal pops out and nails you, foliage or terrain peters out before you get close, you step on a twig that cracks like a pistol shot, your target simply wanders away…the list goes on and on.
I average 7 or 8 stalks for every buck antelope I bag, and it is often double that. I shot a nice 170-plus mule deer in Alberta, Canada in 2018 on my 7th attempt at that same buck. My Montana mule deer that same year was a 184-inch beauty that required only 6 stalks over three days. I felt lucky it took so few tries at those mature and wary trophies.
On such multiple stalks, it is often the case that I am forced to back away without the animal ever knowing I was there because moving ahead becomes impossible. You don’t necessarily need to blow a stalk to realize it will not work.
Foot hunting with a bow is difficult, and you should never give up. The challenge is invigorating, and if you keep on trying, something good will happen sooner or later!