BY: JOHN DUDLEY
In my opinion, the most exciting and overwhelmingly rewarding type of bowhunting is spot and stalk. Sneaking within bow range, and getting a shot on a big game animal, tests every ability and skill you have as a bowhunter. You have to strategize and constantly adjust your game plan in order to get close without getting busted. Then, when a split second of opportunity presents itself, you have to execute a flawless shot under pressure. I’ve been fortunate to take over a hundred animals bowhunting this way. My goal with this article is that you learn from my mistakes so the next time you’re on a spot and stalk bowhunt, you can strike like a bowhunting ninja!
1. FOCUS ON YOUR FEET
Silence starts with your feet. I always have options in my pack to silence my steps. Invest in some sneaky feet boot covers or bring thick wool socks that will help you stay stealthy quiet as you creep within range. Often, I pack a pair of soft-soled shoes or Crocs® along with my feet coverings so that I can be quieter than with boots when closing the distance before going to my socks. If you don’t have to worry about sharp objects, then bare feet with thick socks is the ultimate combination and my preference. This allows you to feel everything beneath your feet so that you can navigate the terrain as quietly as possible.
One of over two dozen bears taken on a wool sock stalk.
2. CONCEAL YOUR FACE
Your face is perhaps the most exposed part of your body as it is front and center of the action. I have always relied on face paint to help conceal my face. It’s easy to use, always ready to go, and never in the way. Whether you use face paint or a face mask, the point is, conceal your face. Remember, animals spend their entire lives in the surrounding you are hunting them in. When an animal sees the shine of a bright face, they know that is something out of the ordinary and they will be on alert immediately.
3. THE RIGHT CLOTHING
Be sure to choose a camo pattern that blends into your terrain from a distance. Some patterns look good on the shelf, but if you look at them from 50 yards, they simply don’t work. I rely on the effectiveness of the Gore™ Optifade™ Technology utilized in the Sitka® camo patterns. Besides the actual camo pattern, you need to make sure your clothing is made from a very quiet material that doesn’t “swoosh” or sound like a plastic bag blowing through the brush. For me, I also never hunt without my HECS® Steathscreen layer.
4. SILENT AND EASY TO USE CHEST HARNESS
Another critical gear choice is a quiet binocular and rangefinder chest harness that keeps these items close, allowing you to constantly glass and confirm distance. By choosing a chest harness system that lets you crawl and quickly raise and lower your glass without noise is imperative. I always have my binoculars at the ready so I can continually look at the animal to confirm the direction it’s laying, where it’s looking, where it’s moving to, and to understand the contours of the terrain to use to my advantage. Binoculars are the only way to truly see all of this. Avoid a harness with Velcro or noisy cables and figure out a way to have your rangefinder very close to your release hand so that you can quickly range and clip on the string to fire.
Jocko Willink and John Dudley heading in to battle the bulls with binos and rangefinders at the ready in their Sitka chest harnesses.
5. ADD ADHESIVE SILENCING PRODUCTS
Another gear choice that will make or break your spot and stalks are adhesive fleece, moleskin or the soft fuzzy side of Velcro. These noise-deadening “must haves” are perfect to silence any piece of your gear. I always cover the inside of my riser shelf with fleece so that there is no way my arrow can bang or click. I have also used it on things such as release aids, roller guards and belt buckles to prevent noise from accidental contact against anything else hard.
6. ALWAYS KNOW THE WIND
Perhaps the most critical of all equipment is a good wind checker. This is something that you cannot live without. You will need it to be easily accessible as you will constantly be using it to confirm wind direction as you make your moves. It’s my opinion that if you aren’t playing the wind while hunting, you shouldn’t be hunting at all.
Dudley maneuvering his stalking position on a giant Colorado Mule Deer based on wind direction.
7. UTILIZE CONTOURS AND SHADOWS
Using the contours and shadows of the terrain you are hunting will be a key factor to your success as a spot and stalk bowhunter. Often times, the contours of the terrain you are hunting are more pronounced than they may seem at first sight. By moving just slightly one direction or another, could be all that it takes to put a small contour of the land between you and the eyes of the animal you are stalking. Staying in the shadows is also critically important to stay concealed. The brightness of the sun is Mother Nature’s spotlight and can wreak havoc when trying to make your moves on a stalk. Take time to analyze your surroundings, making sure you are utilizing any contours and shadows that may be available on your approach to the animals you are hunting.
8. THE FINE LINE BETWEEN FAST AND SLOW
What I’ve learned over countless numbers of spot & stalk attempts is that you must learn the fine line between when you need to go fast and when you need to go slow. Understanding these moments is something that I’ve learned from making many mistakes by moving too fast when I should have been slow and moving to slow when I should have been fast. It is something that becomes an instinct and that you will start to learn to trust your gut on.
9. PUMP THE BRAKES
The time to be slow starts when you first spot the animal. Scan the terrain looking at the big picture so you can make an effective plan of attack. A common mistake people make is moving in too quickly. This is especially true on morning hunts where it is common to try to locate animals and then make a stalk while they are moving back to their bedding area. My experience is that a morning animal is many times unpredictable in both its direction and speed of movement. In fairly open country, where you have the ability to watch the animal bed down, you are much better off. This will allow you to formulate a solid plan to slip in quietly after it’s bedded.
I’ve learned that an animal’s head movement is a great gauge of how your speed should be. If an animal’s eyes have any chance to see you, go slow! If an animal’s head is still, then most likely it is either looking, listening, or both. Experience has taught me that when an animal is alert, its head is perfectly still. Likewise, if an animal’s head is moving, it is usually at ease. When I stalk, I try to use my peripheral vision to see where I’m stepping and what is around me while keeping my eyes fixated on the animal’s head. If its head is moving, then I am moving. If its head stops, I instantly freeze! Many hunts are blown in that instant when you look away from the animal and it suddenly picks its head up while you are finishing your last half step. In that split second, you have blown it. By maintaining eye contact with the animal’s head, you greatly reduce that chance of error.
Another example of when to be slow is when the wind is dead. Many times, the wind comes and goes in stages. Pay attention to this and learn to move when the wind blows and be still when the wind settles. This not only covers your sounds, it also masks your movement by the trees and bushes blowing in the wind. The animals that I have found to be more susceptible to slow stalking are deer, turkeys, goats, moose and sheep. They tend to travel from food sources to their beds in shorter distances and are many times in more open areas. There will certainly be times with these animals when you need to be fast to cover ground, but most of the time, patience and slow movements will be the key to your success.
When you enter the red zone, every movement and sound is magnified tenfold.
10. HIT THE GAS
For animals like Bears, Hogs, Elk, Javelina and Caribou, they typically tend to be on the move walking and grazing. Expect them to be moving faster than you realize. When hunting these animals, my thinking is simple: A. Get an object between you and the animal. B. If their head is moving, you should be moving. C. If they are feeding or looking away, cover ground. D. Keep a solid backdrop behind you to prevent your silhouette from being exposed on the skyline.
When stalking, always watch your steps avoiding anything that moves or makes noise and constantly be checking the wind. The more time it takes to move in on an animal, the greater the chance the wind will change. If you feel the wind switch, you need to be ready for the shot if you are within range, because you may only have a very short window of opportunity to shoot. Success I’ve had bowhunting elk, more times than not, is because I took control with fast, methodical stalks rather than calling to the bull. This greatly reduces the risk of him moving to me with the wind and terrain at his advantage. It also doesn’t alert him or draw his focus on locating where the calls are coming from. Spot and stalk elk is an awesome strategy, especially in call shy areas.
Dudley with his eyes fixated on a bull elk while making a quick move to better his stalking position.
When I do everything right on a spot and stalk, the sense of accomplishment surpasses anything I have done as a treestand bowhunter. A successful spot and stalk demonstrates that you are a bowhunter with the total package. It means you have out smarted the eyes, ears, nose and mind of the wild game you have pursued. I am proud of all my trophies, but the ones that really stand out in my mind the most, are the ones when I played a perfect game. It’s like a flawless game of chess. I am certain that if you put into action what you’ve learned here, you too will be exclaiming…CHECKMATE!