TWO STEPS, STOP, SCAN, REPEAT
STICKING TO A PROCESS CAN MAKE THE DIFFERENCE ON YOUR STALK
Sometimes you notch your tag because you're lucky, sometimes you notch your tag because you're good. In reality and after years of hunting, I've learned that you need a bit of both. Developing and sticking to a good process during a stalk can make the difference between capitalizing on a fortunate opportunity and watching it bound over the next ridge and out of your life.
"He's gotta be within 60 yards", I thought to myself. It was obvious that the buck and his doe had relocated, but I had no idea how far away. I knew that this was one of those times that I had to be disciplined with my process if I was still going to have a chance.
A few years ago in November, I was back in my birth state of South Dakota to bow hunt whitetails in the rut. This would be my first year bowhunting some close family's property in the western part of the state. Rolling hills of prairie grass, if you can even call them hills, only enough Cottonwood trees to count on one hand, and the occasional meandering dry creek bed is all there was for the Whitetails to hide. Finding bucks was easy, but getting in bow range was a completely different story.
The Target Buck
It was instantly obvious that this particular morning was different from the previous two we had spent there. In the ag field where we had consistently seen large groups of 30-50 deer, there were only a few dispersed gangs of 3-4 deer.
Being uncharacteristically cold and foggy, I figured they must be hidden, bedded just out of sight somewhere in the area. What I would find out within a few hours is that the cold snap and a few hot does had kicked the rut into full gear. Overnight, bucks had started to single out does and push them out of the ag fields and into the vast rolling prairie in the back part of the property.
Just before heading back for our typical late breakfast, we glassed up a buck doing just this, about a mile south of us, way out in the prairie. I quickly recognized him as the buck I had missed just the evening prior when my release had gotten hung up on my homemade ghillie suit while trying to take a shot.
I knew this was the biggest buck on the property that year and that this could be the only time that he wasn’t surrounded by dozens of other eyeballs. After we watched the buck corral the doe into a dry creek bed and lie down below the level of the prairie grass, I marked their location and we headed back into town. My dad had an old friend to go see, so I had to test my patience and wait until midday to start my stalk.
At 1 pm I was finally able to make it back and I parked the truck behind the only hill tall enough to hide it. Then I started off alone on the one-mile loop that would keep me downwind and out of sight until I could get to the small hill that was eroding away into the dry creek bed.
As I got within about 250 yards, I slowed my walking pace and really started to look for any deer that might be in the area. Nothing has ruined more stalks than a doe or small buck bedded in the wrong spot. This time, I got lucky. Although I did end up bumping a small buck at about 200 yards out, he angled off in a safe direction.
I pulled out my phone and checked the pin on my map and then immediately crouched down quickly. Somehow, I had accidentally gotten within 15 yards of the edge of the hill without realizing it. I was TOO close and I wasn't ready. I backed up about 25 yards then carefully slipped off my backpack and boots while a steady breeze covered my sound. I pulled on my ghillie suit, my Stalkasins, nocked an arrow and reached forward to check that my broadhead was screwed tight. I took a deep breath as I rolled over onto my knees and slowly stood up.
With my handheld release hanging from my d-loop, I carefully edged towards the bank where I would be right above the buck with about a 25-yard shot.
After what felt like 10 minutes, I slowly peaked over the edge of the cut bank while gripping my release tight to make sure it didn’t clank on the side of my quiver and spook the buck. It didn't take long to start to feel that pit in my stomach... There was nothing there. I had as good of a vantage point as possible from the top of this hill and I couldn't see anything but grass. Had I spooked them by getting too close and I just didn't hear them run off? Had another buck come and stirred the pot in the middle of the day and pushed them away? "No, no. Be positive!", I thought to myself.
"He's gotta be within 60 yards". It was obvious that the buck and his doe had relocated, but I had no idea how far away. I knew that this was one of those times that I had to be disciplined with my process if I was still going to have a chance.
After several days of bowhunting this flat, frustrating terrain, I knew this might be my only shot. Sticking to my system, I took two careful steps, always stopping with my left foot forward, leaving myself in the proper shooting stance as a right-hander. Then, before taking two more steps, I pulled up my binos from my chest, supporting them on the top cam of my bow and took at least 5 slow seconds to scan the grass around me. I was looking for an antler tip or ear flick; anything that would let me locate them before they knew I was there. I continued to repeat this process, two steps - stop - scan - two steps - stop - scan as I made my way along the top of the hill that overlooked the creek bed.
Sure enough, after about 7 minutes, it happened. I had just taken two steps and was reaching for my binos to scan again when I saw a flash of movement coming up out of the grass. The doe had sensed me and quickly stood up to run away. I immediately dropped my binos back into my harness, grabbed onto my release and began to pull. I knew he would stand up at any second.
Right as I hit my backwall, I could see his antlers rising up out of the grass. In the short three seconds that he took to ponder my strange, ghillie suit shape, I estimated the yardage, settled my 50yd pin just a few inches low on his vitals and pulled.
I couldn't see the arrow fly, but I heard it hit with the sound of a deflating basketball. He bolted away, chasing the doe and disappearing over the small rise. I threw off the hood of my ghillie and held my breath as I waited. A moment later, the doe reappeared at about 100 yards running away from me at full speed.
Seconds ticked by but I never saw the buck reappear. After about 15 seconds I knew it was over. I was in disbelief. I had actually done it.
I only had to take about 15 steps until I saw a white antler shining in the grass. He had only gone about 30 yards. I just stopped and stared for a few moments as that unique feeling of accomplishment and completion waved over me. Finally, I had been ready to take advantage of such a split-second shot opportunity on a buck.
As silly as it can sometimes feel to stick to such a rigid system, it just flat-out works. Try varying the number of steps you take in between scans. For example, when you're still 120+ yards away, you can take as many as 10 steps between scans, but staying disciplined can mean the difference between spotting a buck that has changed beds or being ready to draw if something unexpected happens.
Having a system forces you to slow down, calm yourself and focus when the natural tendency is to move faster. Improve your odds, develop your system and have more success.