Ground Pounders EXPERT ADVICE ON HOW TO COME DOWN FROM THE TREES AND HUNT ON YOUR OWN TWO FEET

"I sometimes fear that we have lost track of the concept of pursuit; it seems that we have become so preoccupied with success that we have rushed right by the very core, the very heart of hunting." --Fred Asbell Stalking & Still-Hunting: The Ground Hunter's Bible

When John Madsen wrote, "It was hunting with all the fat rendered away, and reduced to clean white bone," he was talking about the sore-legged pursuit of cagey late-season pheasants. But this also speaks to the essence of ground hunting: stalking, still-hunting and the nearly lost art of how to fashion a makeshift blind using only the materials Mother Nature lends you.

Back in the Stone Age, hunting on the ground was what put meat on the spit and antlers on the cave wall. There's no greater thrill, no form of hunting more pure, than to play an animal up close and "on the level." Still, the majority of hunters--especially those in the deer woods east of the Mississippi--feel more comfortable playing "wait and see" perched in a tree. And why not? Tree-stand hunting is deadly effective and (can we just come out and say it?) easier, at least when compared to ground hunting, where the learning curve toward proficiency is commonly held to be somewhere between too much trouble and downright impossible.

"People have said to me, if stalking works so well let's see you go kill a deer in the woods right there. That's really, really stupid," says Fred Asbell, author of the book Stalking & Still-Hunting: The Ground Hunter's Bible (available from www.cabelas.com). "Granted, some places can be difficult, almost impossible to move through quietly, but there are also places where putting up a tree stand is pointless." Tree stands, ground blinds, drives, stalking and still-hunting all have a place in the hunter's bag of skills. Making it on the ground means taking the hunt to the hunted. It starts with the belief that regardless of geography, when conditions are right there's no better place to hunt than on the ground.

A WALK IN THE WOODS

After 15 seasons still-hunting whitetails in southern Arkansas, Cliff Shelby has put the sneak on more deer than he can count. He challenges the notion of what constitutes "perfect conditions" for still-hunting when he quips, "Pretty much anytime I can slip away." He has successfully still-hunted at all times of day and under circumstances that most hunters would consider futile. "I've crept up on deer when the woods were so dry the leaves were crunching under my feet like cornflakes," Shelby says.

The beginning still-hunter will have the best chance of spotting undisturbed game creeping through transitional zones between feeding and bedding areas when the woods are soggy quiet or just after a fresh blanket of newly fallen snow. The best times are morning and evening, when deer are naturally on the move or being pushed around by the usual troop of bumbling hunters. The rest of the time a little creativity must come into play.

Undisturbed animals make noise. Squirrels scurry and wild turkeys scratch. There are sounds of other deer walking, hooves trampling, acorns falling and tree branches snapping. "In dry, crunchy conditions I've done quite well sneaking up on deer by shuffling along like an armadillo rooting through the leaves," says Shelby.

Certain woodsy sounds are okay as long as they're not the bipedal crunch...crunch of a man on the prowl. Out West, where hunting remains largely a foot pursuit, some ground hunters recommend carrying a walking stick to serve as a "third foot" for better balance when silently picking a path over uneven, brittle terrain. Using a walking stick in dry conditions produces an un-humanlike third step. A staff also makes a good rifle rest should the opportunity for a shot present itself.

Bowhunter Fred Asbell accomplishes the same illusion of sound with a technique he calls "deer walking."

When he takes a bad step or when silent forward momentum is no longer possible--perhaps when closing the last few yards before the shot--he plants the ball of his lead foot first and follows it by snapping his heel down smartly. The result is a quick, lighter-sounding crunch-crunch that sometimes confuses four-footed critters into thinking another of their kind is milling about.

Obviously still-hunters should aspire to flow soundlessly from tree to tree when woods-walking. Shelby says there's a lot of good advice on how to do that in famed tracker Tom Brown's books on tracking and stalking.

While you sometimes hear a deer coming before it hears you, most often they seem to materialize after the flickering of a tail, the wink of an ear or the sudden white flash of an antler tine. Typical of all proficient ground hunters, Shelby says that nearly every deer he's ever taken has been first spotted while he was standing absolutely still, just watching. In this game, the hunter's eyes have it. This is why forward progress on the ground is measured in a ratio of feet to hours: Figure one mincing step for at least five minutes spent dissecting the surrounding terrain with a handy binocular. Beyond a pair of soft-soled boots and wool or fleece outer garments, a good binocular is the only essential gear for still-hunting.

Use the terrain. Shallow-running streams and standing corn are two avenues a hunter can always use to creep soundlessly through areas where deer are concentrated. Dry creek beds and small, wadeable rivers often course through swampy tangles and suburban woodlots, the kind of natural bedding areas where whitetails in particular feel safe. Likewise, getting into cornfields with the deer, especially in the evening, and prowling like a puma between the always-rustling rows is a deadly technique for getting up close.

If a deer makes you first and spooks, stay put. Shelby's experience is that deer are curious creatures. If they're uncertain of what exactly startled them, they'll either return to investigate or stand stock-still and try to identify the potential source of trouble. After a few minutes, they'll go back to milling around.

"I never make eye contact with an animal that has made me," says Shelby. "With my rifle slung barrel-down over my shoulder and pressed tight to my body, I also try to move through the woods with my legs in close to keep my shape as 'together' as possible. Another thing I've had some success with is to walk directly at the deer in an open field--head-on instead of a more circuitous route. Often, you're able to get closer. It must appear to them like you're just getting taller."

THE RIGHT STALK

A bull elk bugling in the green wash of an alpine meadow; a black bear clawing over a charred stump in old burn; a river-bottom swamp buck bedded in a tangle of alders awash in the noonday sun. All common scenarios, yet when it gets down to the business of stalking and how to make the quietest approach, no two hunters have ever done it exactly the same. Narrowing the space between hunter and prey is an effort that is always unpredictable and dynamic. Every step must be negotiated without a snap, crackle or pop.

It's when you finally spot the quarry that the delicate work of closing the distance begins. The animal should be bedded down for the day or moving in a direction--perhaps in following a valley, hollow or river bottom--that will permit you the time to try a little end-run maneuver. Obviously, the direction of the wind is a major consideration. You should be mindful of not only how it's blowing near you, but also how it's swirling around the animal. Note specific landmarks that will guide you to your quarry should you drop out of visual contact. Whenever possible, keep out of sight during the stalk by using large boulders, trees or any hills, cuts or dips in the terrain to hide your approach until the last possible instant before the shot.

Above all, study the animal and the area in which it has holed up, and be realistic about your chances. This is especially vital in mountainous terrain, where hours can be wasted attempting to stalk an animal that is either too far away or has wisely chosen a resting place that makes it unapproachable.

It seems somewhat paradoxical that the attributes that make a good still-hunter--among them patience, caution and persistence--are not necessarily traits that best serve a hunter once game has been spotted. Good stalkers are fearless and aggressive, too. The same hunter faced with an agonizingly slow belly-crawl through bramble bushes and across muddy creek bottoms must also know when to move, and move fast. Sometimes a stalk might start out looking like a footrace.

Judy Kovar of west-central Illinois, a bowhunter with more Pope and Young whitetails to her credit than any other woman, remembers one such encounter. After spotting her sixth trophy buck (she currently has seven) along the edge of a cornfield running parallel to a brushy ravine, Kovar ducked into the brush to intercept the deer. She sprinted the length of a ridge only to arrive face-to-face with the big-racked buck, which simply turned and trotted away.

After noting his route of travel she set off again, this time coming around to a logging road. She began to still-hunt and the buck soon appeared just ahead of her, looking back over its shoulder. Kovar waited for the deer to come and ended up taking it with one arrow at 15 yards.

THE GROUND HIDE

A dark-haired northern Cheyenne Indian, Kovar is not surprisingly a still-hunter at heart. One record-book black bear, a mountain lion and all seven of her record-book whitetails were taken on the ground, most often with the use of some sort of blind.

Rather than use bulky, commercially made hunting blinds, Kovar likes to keep it simple and improvise whenever she can. With a pair of pruning shears, any blowdown or brush can quickly and silently be made into a hide. While still-hunting she pauses dozens of times along her route, for anywhere from five minutes to upward of an hour, using any available cover to conceal her human form. Sometimes these so-called "mobile blinds" are nothing more than a tree.

But instead of putting her back to the tree, Kovar puts the tree between her and the suspected path of an oncoming deer. "I will also use the terrain, any deep ditch and sometimes the hole left after the wind has uprooted a tree," says Kovar.

Kovar is also fond of ghillie suits. Just as many hunters fall into the trap of judging a spot by the availability of good trees in which to hang a tree stand, you don't want to do likewise on the ground by passing up a perfectly good ambushing site because of unsuitable cover for building a blind.

"I took my seventh Pope and Young whitetail last fall using a ghillie suit from Sleeping Indian Designs," Kovar says. The buck was a non-typical 11-pointer weighting over 330 pounds with a green score of 172 gross. Kovar suspects that it would have spooked if she had used a commercial blind or other elaborately constructed setup.

"It was like cutting the trail of a ghost," she says. The ghillie suit allowed Kovar to move wherever the buck left the most promising signs, yet still kept her concealed without having to disrupt her surroundings.

Ground hunting will probably not suddenly transform you into a more successful hunter. But if nothing else, getting comfortable on the ground will help you to look at the woods differently, opening your eyes to a host of new possibilities this hunting season.

STILL-HUNTING TACTICS It's the middle of the day and conditions are hot and dry. Does still-hunting make sense? You bet. This buck is bedded in the center of a sprawling tract of hardwoods. A typical stalking situation: tough but not impossible, depending on the wind, your knowledge of the hunting area and the wise use of your natural surroundings to mask noise and movement.

ROUTE A. THROUGH THE PINES When the rest of the woods is a minefield of brittle leaves and sticks, walking under pines is usually a softer and quieter option. Make it to the creek and you're almost home free.

ROUTE B. UP A CREEK Running water, high banks and typically thick streamside brush will offer the closest shot.

ROUTE C. THE CORN Rustling and tall, October corn stalks offer the fastest route, though a shot from the cornfield and into the woods might be difficult due to unseen brush between you and the deer.