I couldn’t believe it. I had done it again. Complete and utter failure. Another blown stalk on the same big buck, maybe this deer-hunting thing just wasn’t my game. This was the second time I had a chance at a stalk on the same 30-inch deer. A 30-incher would have been a pretty darn good reward for a solo sixteen-year-old, public land, DIY hunter. I would have to wait nearly another 15 years to get another crack at one. But this time it was over for good. The buck finally had enough of me and scurried over the ridge top into the next unit. Three days of tinkering with this high-country giant was more than could be expected. A records book typical buck would have been outstanding for me but it was all over. I thought it just wasn’t meant to be, if I only knew then, what I know now.
As painful as it may be for me at this point, let’s outline the seven tips, tricks and tactics that I failed to master as a young hunter. These simple points will help you learn to hedge your bets on your next stalk. All seven of these valuable lessons cost me numerous bucks at an early age, don’t let them happen to you.
- Play It Safe- When you plan your stalk, always, always err on the side of caution. Just remember, finding a big buck or bull is nearly 65% of the equation. Don’t erase that 65% by pushing it on a foolish stalk. Once you have found the buck or bull you’re after, play it safe and wait for him to make a mistake. Sometimes that mistake can take days to materialize, particularly in the high country or on a bowhunt. If you find yourself in a situation where the variables start to drift toward the unpredictable or risky, just stay put and remain patient. Nothing lasts forever, even bad luck and swirling wind. Keep calm and refer to rule #7.
- Stalk Only When it’s in Your Favor- Timing of the stalk can be as important as the details of the stalk itself. Many a time, I’ve found myself hunkered down in a holding pattern, 500-yards below the ridgeline a big bull is feeding on, for hours waiting for the thermals to change. A few times the thermals even failed to settle before darkness fell over the ridge forcing me to play it safe and pull out to try again another day. The initial stalk is all about the plan, the wind, the sightline and the path. The final stalk is usually as reliant on timing as it is the wind direction. I try to never, under any circumstances execute a final stalk if the odds are not in my favor. That means, a good, out of sight sightline, a steady wind in my face and a good landmark to shoot for that offers a good rest and out-of-sight view. Think of it this way, it’s like a boxing match, tick for tack, it’s all about the strategy of keeping the odds in your favor and out of favor for your target. And trust me, it won’t take much to flip the odds against you in the backcountry. One slight swirl of the wind or an unaccounted for cow or spike can easily take you out of the game completely.
- “Be the Job,” Patience, Patience, Patience – The three P’s of success when it comes to stalking trophy big game. The patience play was extremely hard for me to master when I was younger. It can be tough, even excruciating for a younger, more inexperienced hunter to simply lay there and watch a big old buck or bull for hours or even days through a spotting scope waiting for the right time to make a move. It just takes time for things to materialize. Sometimes you just have to wait for that big high-country buck to move off that peak or drift down the bench below the big open basin where you can get close enough to make a good shot. There’s no real shortcut to this, you just have to be patient. Patience really is a virtue. It doesn’t come natural for most of us. It’s a learned skill that must be constantly worked on throughout our lives. It does get easier as we get older, I can tell you that much. On occasion you may find yourself within shooting distance of a bedded buck or bull. When this does happen, you guessed it, be patient. In my experience a big buck or bull will only lay in one position for about two or three hours before needing to get up and adjust his position. The old school method of throwing a rock or whistling can be a very dangerous proposition indeed. About 30% of the time the wary old battler will have a sixth sense you are there and stand up on the run. This situation is far less than ideal and I almost always prefer to let the buck or bull stand up on his own before I take the shot. The risk is just too high to do it otherwise.
- Watch from a Safe Distance- The hunter always has the advantage if the buck or bull has no idea they are even there. That’s why so many guys, like myself are so reluctant to call a big bull elk. Once he knows you are in his domain, he changes his behavior, which causes the tables to turn on you. This is the stay put and remain patient part. I like to observe a big buck or bull for as long as it takes from a safe distance. This can be as far as two miles in some circumstances and generally not closer than 700 or 800 yards away. I find that in most situations, a good distance is about 1,200 yards or the equivalent of about ¾ of a mile is sufficient. This distance will give you the flexibility to move around somewhat, whisper to your partner, pack up your spotting scope and prepare for the stalk undetected.
- Don’t Get Too Close- Is there such a thing as too close? For a bowhunter there probably isn’t. But for the rifle hunters among us, yes, there is such a thing as too close. I try to plan my stalks to end up between 200 and 300 yards away from the target. Too many times I’ve found myself accidentally within only 75-yards or less of a big buck or bull only to have the situation blow up in my face. Once you get that close a big mature animal will have a sixth sense which will alert him to your presence often before you even have the time to make a mistake. The ultra close range, up close and personal type encounter just doesn’t give you the flexibility to adjust your stalk or shot set up, often times forcing you to make a hurried, off hand shot at a traveling target. Like my wife would say, “No Bueno.” On the other side of the coin, the mindset that you need to shoot long-range in most practical big game hunting situations is purely a myth. Even the biggest of the big bucks and bulls will allow you to get close enough for a good ethical 300-yard shot, if you’re patient and stalk properly. I’ve been blessed with over a dozen Boone and Crockett qualifying trophies and not one of them was taken beyond 450-yards. The average take yardage on all 12 was only about 186-yards. Not exactly what most of us would consider ultra long-range. Stick to your guns, be patient and don’t get lazy on the stalk. If you feel the uncontrollable urge to shoot ultra long-range you might consider doing some bowhunting. You might come out the other end with a different outlook on stalking. I know bowhunting has made me a much better rifle hunter in more ways than one.
- Play the Stalk and Shot Out in Your Mind- As you already know by now, this is as much about mental fortitude as it is about physical aptitude. As soon as I begin my transition on the initial stalk, I start playing the scenario out in my head over and over again. Will I get it completely correct, probably not, “caca” happens. But I believe this not only opens my mind for the unforeseen but it also helps to get my mind acquainted with what’s about to happen. Stick and ball sport athletes use this method of near self-hypnotism all the time. Along with this, it’s very, very important that you develop your own unique pre-shot routine. I have a very structured pre-shot routine that I go through nearly every time I set up to make a shot at my target. A consistent order of events, and unique way of doing things in the final moments leading up to the shot. Steps such as how I load my gun, how I set up on my rest, slide the safety off, focus on the shoulder, exhale, straight squeeze the trigger and a calm smooth follow through, followed up by a shell jack and follow up shot if necessary. Going through this pre-shot routine in your head while stalking is very critical to consistency, accuracy and an avoidance of costly last minute mistakes.
- Don’t be Afraid to Eat the Tag- This is much easier said than done, right? In my career I have eaten some very good tags. During my earlier years, I was a total basket case when the thought of eating a good tag came to mind as a seven-day hunt rolled into day six. The panic in my mind, made me hunt different. Hunting from a panicked state of mind basically undoes everything previously written about in this article. Pretty soon you will find yourself trying to stalk a bull with the wind at your back or going straight at a buck across the middle of the basin instead of going around and coming in from above because it’s faster. It’s purely mental once you remove the fear of eating a tag you can stick to your guns and hunt like you should, clear up to the end. Unfortunately, it takes a few good, hard tag “eats” to get used to the taste.
Playing it safe when it comes to a stalk is the secret sauce. Once I finally began to master this mindset instead of panic and indecision mastering me, my odds of success on stalk-to-shot climbed to nearly 80%. And trust me, the 80% world is a much more comforting place to operate in than the 50/50, coin toss world I used to be accustomed to.