Lesson 1: Cover your faceOver the summer, our family was out camping, and we noticed a small herd of deer wandering through the campground. Our three kids figured they'd practice some stalking (they were pretty bored), so they put on their camo shirts and pants, and snuck off towards the three does and the forked-horn buck that were grazing about 100 yards from our campsite. The results were predictable - the deer were tame enough to let them get within about 20 yards, but too smart to let them get closer.
But afterwards, our eldest decided that he wanted to practice stalking me. The game was that I would pretend to just be staring off into space, occasionally looking around, and if anything he was doing was obvious, if I saw him making a clear movement or if something about his presence jumped out at me, he had to start over.
And I actually learned something while being stalked by an 11-year-old that I hadn't expected: his face and hands really showed up. He tried sneaking in on his belly, and from 20 yards I couldn't distinguish his camo clothes at all. But his pale face and bare hands were almost luminescent compared to the dark foliage around him, and were by far the most noticeable part of his body.
That was when I bought all three of us ghilly hats and camo gloves.
The hats look pretty ridiculous, and they fog up your glasses, but they hide your face well, break up your form, and maybe just as important, they keep out the mosquitos. (They're almost worth it just for that last.)
Lesson 2: Stop movingWhen you spot a deer, the very, very first thing you want to do is simple: stop moving. Period. Freeze. Don't move a muscle, until you figure out what's going on and have made a plan.
Surprisingly, this can be harder said than done. My first instinct is apparently to shrink back behind the nearest cover. But that movement into hiding attracts a deer's attention, and has cost me several opportunities. In contrast, when I've just stayed still, even when the deer totally had me, it generally didn't spook.
When I was hunting down in southern Oregon this last September, Chris Zornes and I were approaching a watering hole where we were hoping to setup for the evening. We were early enough that we weren't expecting to find any deer there, but about a hundred yards out, we spotted five or six deer milling around the hole. They were all does and fawns, so far as we could tell, but we still didn't want to spook them off. We stayed at a distance until they appeared to leave, then moved closer.
About 40 yards out from the hole, downwind, I was moving from one clump of brush to another, when two does and a fawn suddenly walked out from some brush near the hole, and I was caught totally in the open, moving. This time, at least, I managed to freeze, and went motionless. The lead doe caught something, and stared at me, but didn't spook. When she looked away for a moment, I moved slowly to put a small tree between us. It wouldn't hide me complely, but at least it would break up my form. The three deer stayed there for several minutes before the lead doe finally got suspicious and cut a circle around behind us, to get downwind. She was about 10-15 yards away when she finally got a whiff of our scent, and then she (and the rest of the herd) bolted.
The next day, I didn't exercise as much control, and ended up blowing a stalk. I'd jumped a doe and a small buck, but the buck stopped about 80 yards away on a hillside, and after a few minutes, I watched him settle down under a tree. He had an excellent view of the country around him, but after some thought, I was able to work out a path that would keep me mostly downwind and mostly screened to within 30 yards, which is about my range for an ethical shot. So I got down on my belly, and started crawling. I'd closed to 50 yards, checking periodically to make sure he hadn't moved, when I had to cross an open area. There was some brush blocking his view of that opening, so I started slowly crawling forward. Several feet out, I glanced his direction, and realized that he'd stood up and moved a few yards. From this new vantage point, his view wasn't blocked at all, and he was staring right at me. Without thinking, I scooted back behind the nearest bush - maybe the dumbest thing I could have done. He looked at me for five seconds, and then disappeared up the hill. I don't know if freezing would have kept him from getting spooked, but pulling back certainly put the icing on the cake.
Lesson 3: Look for the other deer
Lesson 4: Screen your formWhen you're looking through the forest for deer, by far the easiest thing to see is movement. After that, it's something distinctive, usually their ears, sometimes their tail. But if the deer is motionless, in the shadows, and they're screened by some brush, they're surprisingly hard to see.
The only benefit is that this can also work in our favor. Animal brains recognize movement, and they recognize form, so when you move slowly (it has to be very slowly), and break up your form, you can make it much harder for them to realize there's a human standing there. When stalking a deer, if you keep something between you and your quarry - a rock, a tree trunk, a small bush - even if you're partially visible, you have a much better chance that the deer will look right past you.
To drive this point home, I recommend that you try sneaking up on someone in the woods sometime. (Not your wife. Not if yours is anything like mine and you don't enjoy sleeping on the couch.)
Down in Oregon, Chris and I had split up to do some still hunting - he was going to take one ridge, and I was going to take the other. An hour or so later, I saw that he'd crossed over onto my ridge, and was walking up towards me, maybe two hundred yards away. He sat down to glass, and I decided to see how close I could get before he spotted me. I knew it couldn't be very close, because I had to cross a whole bunch of open area, but I figured I'd give it a shot.
I approached him from the side, walking slowly, in the open sunlight. There was a small tree about 15 feet to his right, and I put that between us. As I walked he glanced a time or two in my direction, and I thought for sure he'd spot me, but he gave no sign of recognition, so I kept moving slowly, putting my feet down as quietly as I could. After 10 minutes or so, I was standing just 15 feet from him, behind the tree, and I had all the reward I could hope for when I stepped from behind the tree and watched him jump half out of his skin.
Absent a buddy who's not paying attention, try sometime to see how close you can sit to a well-traveled trail, without the hikers seeing you. I've had folks out scouting pass 10 yards from where I was sitting, lightly screened, without noticing I was there. (I've also been the guy feeling the surge of adrenaline when I realize there's another hunter sitting only a short distance away.)