Smooth Moves

The art of the stalk.

No matter what your choice of weapon in the field, you will eventually have to close the distance between you and your quarry to within its effective range. If you’re hunting with a modern center-fire rifle, that may be 300 yards. If you’re carrying a traditional longbow, your range may be less than 20. Sometimes, the best way to accomplish this goal is by letting the animal close the distance to you. However, game often has other ideas, and many experienced hunters feel that closing the gap on your own represents big-game hunting in its purest form. 

The success or failure of many stalking attempts is often determined before the hunter begins the approach. If an animal detects your presence before you detect his, the game is usually over before it gets started. Avoid this pitfall by moving slowly and carefully, maintaining constant awareness of the wind, and using your own eyes, often aided by good optics, to spot game beyond the distance from which it can spot you.

Game animals survive in the wild by detecting predators via one of three means: vision, hearing, and smell. Helpful hint: they are better at all three than we are. Let’s explore how the offense can best the defense even when the odds are stacked in the prey’s favor.

Our eyes may be our own keenest sensory organs, but they’ll never match those of the game we’re hunting. First, recognize that animals’ eyes are more likely to detect movement than to recognize your form. Move only when a terrain feature obstructs the quarry’s line of sight or when it is feeding with its head down or otherwise distracted. If the animal’s head is up and alert… freeze. 

Camouflage clothing can help with concealment during archery season, but don’t make the beginner’s mistake of thinking it renders you invisible. It doesn’t. You’ll still have to stalk carefully. Because of safety concerns, Montana law requires all big-game hunters to wear blaze orange during the general season.

Take your time before setting out on a long stalk. Use your optics to determine as nearly as possible where you need to be for the shot. The terrain will all look different once you’re underway, so commit a series of reliable landmarks to memory before you start to move.

When the goal of the stalk is to get within rifle range, the animal’s ears are unlikely to be a problem. At bow-range distances, though, silence is critical. Walk carefully and think about foot placement before every step. One crunch from a pinecone underfoot can make a lot of hard work unravel quickly. Unless I anticipate hiking long distances in rocky terrain, I’ll choose soft-soled boots over heavy lug soles, because they are quieter. Clothing choice is critical. Newer synthetics offer excellent comfort and insulation, but their exterior shells are often too noisy for close-range operations. If you can hear your sleeve brush against your jacket, an elk can too. Nothing is quieter than wool. 

This factor is usually the hardest for novices to grasp, simply because the human nose is so insensitive compared to those of big-game animals. Deer, elk, and especially bears rely on their noses as their primary means of detecting danger. I’m not a believer in cover scents or elaborate pre-hunt rituals designed to eliminate human odor. No matter what you do, you’re going to smell like a hunter, and nothing smells worse to an elk.

There is only one way to prevent a game animal from detecting human presence with its nose: keep the wind in your face. Experienced hunters are always aware of what the wind is doing, even if at a subliminal level. A simple wind indicator—a squeeze bottle filled with corn starch or a feather tied to a bowstring—will help when wind direction is less than obvious. Learn to understand daily thermal currents in mountainous terrain. On long-distance stalks, make an educated estimate of wind behavior at your destination before you start walking.

Overcoming all of these obstacles to success is difficult, but hunting is supposed to be a challenge. A well-executed stalk can be a thing of beauty, no matter which party ultimately wins the timeless contest between predator and prey.

Don Thomas roams the world on writing assignments, usually about hunting, but always finds his way back to his home in Montana.