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Sunday, April 17, 2005

My top ten tips for still-hunting

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 16, 2005.)
Abandon your normal gait and learn to move through the woods like ooze.
Among all the deer hunting methods taught in books, videos, TV programs, and even "schools" for hunting, the method that is most neglected is the old-fashioned art of still-hunting. The only book I know of on this subject is old enough to have been Theodore Roosevelt's favorite. Published in 1904, it's called "The Still-Hunter," by Theodore S. Van Dyke (1842-1923), a literary associate of the great hunter-President.

In light of this 432-page tome, any attempt to teach still-hunting in the space of 700 words is both ambitious and feeble, and to pretend to instruct what I'm still learning is pure vanity. Yet, the situation we are in is an opportunity to do something positive to increase success and enjoyment. So, I humbly offer what I've tried and am still trying, with one caveat: it is impossible to learn still-hunting except by doing it.

Videos by their very nature can't teach it. Books (or to be more exact, the one book on the subject) are no replacement for experience. And, picking up tips and tactics from me or from other more experienced hunters is no substitute for practice. With that said, I offer my top 10 tips for still-hunting as a starting point. If you want more let me know and, closer to deer season, I'll deliver.

(1.) Still-hunting is like learning to walk again. The way you've walked for 20, 30 or 40 years doesn't lend itself to still-hunting. Abandon your normal gait and learn to move through the woods like ooze.

(2.) Choose opportune times. If it's afternoon, expect to see deer preoccupied as they move to feeding areas. If it's raining, get excited. If it's snowing, get very excited. These weather conditions make the forest floor very quiet, and in the snow your fluorescent orange isn't as noticeable to deer as it is in brown woods.

(3.) You need to focus. On a stationary stand, you can afford to daydream because when a deer enters your field of view, he is unlikely to notice you. In still-hunting, you must be much more alert because you are entering the deer's field of view. That's backwards from what you've been doing.

(4.) Realize that deer may be moving, too. Deer will often move into your field of view, so continually scan the entire perimeter of the area visible to you.

(5.) Stop often. When you stop, do not expect to use a tree for a shooting rest. No tree will be in the right position for a shot in any possible direction, and making that your intention will risk too much motion. Learn to use a shooting stick that you can quickly and quietly employ from a standing position. (Contact me for information on a good one.)

(6.) You will inevitably make sounds, but should never fall into a cadence. Natural sounds in the woods are random. When the sounds or motions you make are in a pattern, you will alert more deer.

(7.) Use your ears. If a squirrel begins to chatter or a bluejay screams, you can be sure something disturbed them. It was probably you. Stand still until everything settles down.

(8.) Keep your eyes up. While you're moving is not the time to be looking at the ground. Decide while you're standing still where your next 2 or 3 steps will fall.

(9.) Use topography to your advantage. If you're near a streambed, use the sounds of the water to cover your sounds. If you're on a bench, don't skyline yourself along its edge. Rather, move in a zig-zag pattern and peek over the edge periodically. You'll be surprised how often you spot bedded deer.

(10.) Keep the wind in your face. This must be your first priority, and it's way easier said than done. The wind doesn't have to be hitting you head on. It can be as much as 90 degrees from your left or right, but if you can't feel it on your face, deer will smell you and you've lost the game.

Van Dyke said that still-hunting, "the greatest and most important branch of the whole art of hunting has, I may safely say, been totally neglected by the great body of writers upon field-sports." It's still being neglected a hundred years later, and the person who becomes a good still-hunter joins an elite fraternity.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

It's hunting season for deer antlers

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 2, 2005.)
Some hunters are so charmed by antlers that they spend hour after hour looking for sheds.
Bones. That's all that antlers are. Those ornaments on the buck's head that he wears proudly, fights with, and (if he avoids hunters, cars and coyotes) sheds annually so that he can grow a larger, finer pair are mere bones. They are the only bones worn on the outside of an animal's body, the only bones that regenerate, and their function is unlike that of all other bones. Rather than providing structural support for the body's organs and systems, these bones are weapons, status symbols, and they play a role in regulating the social order. It's no wonder antlers are fascinating, and it's no wonder hunters have a mysterious attraction to them.

Many people don't realize that deer antlers are deciduous. Like leaves on an oak tree, they are a buck's annual project that ends up on the forest floor. The oak loses its leaves in the fall, and deer lose their antlers in the late winter or spring. Whitetails, mule deer, caribou, elk and moose all live in that annual cycle of growing, hardening and shedding antlers. By contrast, the headgear on goats, sheep, and antelope are horns -- permanent, continuous growths that are not bone but keratin, the same substance in your hair and fingernails.

As testosterone levels in the buck's body diminish, the bond between antler and pedicel (those bony knobs on the skull from which antlers grow) decays. At some point, the bond is unable to support the weight of the antler, and it drops or sheds. Some hunters are so charmed by antlers that they spend hour after hour looking for sheds.

For antler aficionados, early spring is the time to find dropped antlers. Here in northern Pennsylvania, finding an antler is a rarity mostly because the prime time to find them is the small window of opportunity between snow-melt and green-up. That time is now, and the way to find them is by scouring feeding areas, bedding areas, and the trails between.

By early May, the explosion of forest foliage hides antlers from human eyes while nature recycles them. Mice and porcupines find them and chew on them for the minerals that are locked up inside. Nothing goes to waste.

If you are to find them before some four-legged critter does, a few suggestions are in order. It pays to know that deer do certain things that make dropping more likely at certain times and places. Antlers are most likely to fall when the deer makes a sudden move, such as the head-bob that whitetails are famous for. Bumping against something can also cause an antler to fall.

In searching for sheds, consider bedding areas first. While the deer is at rest, the antler is less likely to shed. But when the deer lurches forward to get his feet under him, he'll move his head suddenly, possibly causing the weight of the antler to reach its tipping point. Also, any time a deer makes a quick jump, such as when climbing a bank or vaulting a fence, he may lose an antler that is ready to fall.

If a buck worms his way through a wire fence or ducks under low-hanging limbs, he may bump his antlers. The jerking movements of scissoring off and pulling grasses and browse can cause antlers, precariously tipped forward because the deer is in a feeding posture, to fall. And interactions with other deer -- playing, sparring, and maintaining social courtesy spacing between animals -- can provoke sudden movements that prompt antler dropping.

In my four decades of deer hunting, I've made several excursions to the woods in search of shed antlers, but never found any until last spring when I found 5, all in the space of 2 hours. That experience encouraged me to try more shed hunting. But one thing bothers me. I'm afraid I may have used up all of my shed hunting luck in those 2 short hours. I'm hoping I don't have to wait 40 years before I find any more.