get in the zone

Too far, you tell yourself. You just don't have the confidence to make such a long shot at the trophy animal you see in the distance. But why should that stop you? There's almost always a way to close the gap between you and the animal you're pursuing. You just have to be careful and patient. Here are some tips on how to get close to some of North America's most hunted big game.

Whitetails Of all the big-game species in North America, the whitetail deer gets the nod as the savviest. If any animal could be suspected of having the ability to reason, it would be this one. The whitetail is high-strung, with a type A personality. It has super senses--its nose, ears and eyes are so finely tuned a hunter must be a master ninja to get close to one on the ground. If it weren't for tree stands, far fewer whitetails would be taken.

To make the stalk on a whitetail you've spotted, note the wind direction and keep it in your face. You're likely to be in a hardwood forest or farmland, where there are leaves and brush on the ground. Pick your route prudently, planning every step. Know precisely where your boot will meet the ground and make every effort to step on rocks, logs or spots devoid of noisy leaves. Inch along, moving when the deer lowers its head to feed and freezing when it lifts it to look. Whitetails are notoriously wary, so expect it to constantly jerk its head up to survey the surroundings.

A feeding deer is the easiest to stalk because it's distracted. If you're dealing with an alert deer that hasn't quite got you spotted but knows something is up and is staring in your direction, there's only one thing you can do--freeze. Don't move a muscle, even if you feel your legs cramping. If you move, forget about the deer: it will be off in an instant and won't look back. Because the deer is looking at you, you'll likely want to lower yourself slowly to the ground, where you can be more concealed. Or you might want to ease behind a tree, rock or log. Don't.

An alert deer might study you for 10 minutes or more. That's a long time, especially if it catches you with your foot off the ground or your body in an awkward position. If you remain still and the deer finally breaks its stare, be extra cautious as you move. Stay low and out of sight until you're within range. As you make the final approach and get ready for a look, rise up carefully with your gun to your shoulder and your finger on the safety. The shot might be quick; you may have only seconds to react.

Muleys Compared to whitetails, muleys are often considered stupid. That's a mistake made by people who haven't tried stalking a mature buck on its own turf. Because mule deer live in country that's more open than the whitetail woods, you might spot your quarry at a great distance, perhaps a half mile or more. I've found that muleys have a 600-yard buffer. Stay outside that buffer and your presence will be tolerated, at least briefly, before the deer decides to wander away. Get inside and you'll witness the mule deer's unique bounding style of running, called stotting.

Since you're likely to spot your quarry from afar, plan a route to get within shooting range, considering wind and available cover. If you're in typical sagebrush habitat in uneven terrain, try to memorize the stalking route by noting landforms and unique natural features, such as distinctive clumps of brush, old fence posts, etc. When you circle around to get into range, your perception of the land will change. You can easily get confused. The landmarks that you spotted earlier might not appear in the same order from your new vantage point.

If you spook the deer, chances are they'll head for the next zip code when they bound over a ridge, but always assume that they haven't gone very far. If they ran like they were scalded with hot water, you've probably lost them. But if they walk away nervously, or trot and stop here and there, they might settle down after a few hundred yards. Rather than follow the same route they took when they went out of sight, check the wind and make a big circle so you can come at them from another angle. Spooked deer warily watch their backtrails.

Elk You can count on elk being in herds, unless it's the breeding season, when satellite bulls go solo. Because bull elk vocalize during the breeding season, you can pinpoint them from a distance and then make a stalk without seeing them first. Be aware, however, that you could be stalking another hunter blowing a call.

Typically, you want to call to the bull to coax it within range, but some herd bulls cannot be called. Their first impulse when hearing your bugle is to drive their cows away from you, believing you to be a rival. In this scenario, it's often best not to bugle at all, but to sneak in for a shot. Remember, however, that you're dealing with many eyes, ears and noses. But there's one small advantage in stalking a bunch of elk. The herd is often noisy and might not hear you advancing. To better your odds, don't make a direct stalk toward the bull in open areas, since he might be surrounded by cows. Instead, hang back at the edge of the cover where you believe the bull to be and try to softly cow call him in your direction.

In the event that the breeding season is over and you spot elk at a distance, make your stalk using the terrain to your advantage. You'll probably be in mountain country with plenty of vegetation around, so you should have enough landscape to work with. If a cow or two are alerted and stare at you, wait until they calm down and turn their attention elsewhere. If they seem really spooked and you can ease into cover without being spotted, try blowing softly on your cow call, reassuring them that you're another elk. There's no need to blow the call as you continue the stalk, unless the elk are badly alarmed. Nervous cows will keep their noses in the air, sorting out the scents for danger.

If a cow or bull barks, it's over, but you might have several seconds to make a shot. Since they're in a herd, they'll often mill around nervously until an old cow takes the lead and gets the heck out of Dodge. Elk can be spooked or terrified. If they're spooked they might run several hundred yards, stop and look around. If terrified, they'll take out your tent, clothesline and dirty laundry as they charge through camp, heading for the next county. Forget those elk, unless you're simply looking for an excuse to get some exercise.

Bears If you spot a distant bear and prepare for a stalk, first do everything you can to determine whether it's a sow with cubs. You won't want to shoot a mother sow, since young cubs might not survive on their own. As a matter of fact, it's also illegal to shoot a mother sow practically everywhere bears are found.

Another factor to consider before making a stalk is whether the bear is what you're looking for. If you're hunting in late spring, glass it with a spotting scope to check for rubs. Some bears are almost hairless on parts of their bodies. If size is important, you can make the routine assessments--look for small ears, a sagging body with a belly close to the ground and a heavy, blocky head; just don't kid yourself into thinking you can make accurate evaluations at a distance. Get as close as possible for a better look, although even then it can be hard to tell.

You've probably heard that a bear has a terrific nose and great hearing, but lousy vision. That's basically true, but I wouldn't be so careless as to stalk a bear without considering its eyesight. Make believe the quarry is a whitetail buck and do everything you can to make a quiet stalk. Your bear will likely be in a clearing surrounded by timber, or else you wouldn't have spotted it in the first place. Keep in mind that time is of the essence. If the bruin finishes feeding while you're stalking and heads into the woods, you might not spot it again. When stalking, drop out of sight, plan a route using the wind to your advantage and get moving in the timber. Be quick. Bears often feed in a meadow only briefly before moving on to another one.

Don't waste time by making frequent stops to peek out to look for the bear's presence. Only do this once or twice to make sure the bear is still there and your stalk route is still workable. If the bear appears to be moving steadily toward the opposite edge of the meadow, and it's a big meadow that would require an exceedingly long shot that you don't like, consider trying to ambush the bear by intersecting its apparent travel course. Watch the way the bear feeds to help figure out what it might do. If it walks along slowly, taking bites of grass here and there, it may be moving on and out of sight. But if it appears to be digging or working over a rotted stump or log, it may hang around for a while. If you're fall hunting and the bear is feeding on berries, it's likely to be in the area for some time. The toughest bears to stalk are in the Pennsylvania and Virginia woods and other Eastern hardwood forestland. Pat yourself on the back if you get close. You'll have earned the accolades.

Pronghorns This is the champion runner in North America, clocked at speeds of 55 miles per hour, but it's also a wizard at seeing things at a distance. The pronghorn has incredible vision; its eyes have 10 times the resolution of yours or mine.

Unlike other animals that hide in cover when spooked, pronghorns will stand in the open, looking for danger. Cover hampers their ability to see and run. That being the case, you might not have adequate terrain or vegetation to screen your approach. That's one of the reasons I choose broken country to hunt in. I can sneak at will and move in for a shot. Some hunters look forward to taking a 400-yard shot. I don't. I'd rather earn my pronghorn by sneaking within 50 yards.

There are places where it's virtually impossible to make a stalk, such as a table-flat prairie where there are no contours, gulches or creases you can crawl along unseen. But in many places, the layout is not as foreboding as it might at first seem. You need to really study the lay of the land to come up with a viable stalk route. It might mean crawling commando-style, your rifle cradled in your arms as you ease through the cactus.

Stalking a buck with a harem of does is a major challenge, since those incredible eyes are always at work. Before you make your stalk, determine exactly where you want to end up for the shot. As you move forward, don't ever rise up to look again. Stay low, committed to your goal. Use the wind to your advantage; in the prairie it's almost certainly blowing. Most likely the winds are prevailing westerlies and fairly constant, which gives you the advantage of always being downwind if you position yourself correctly.

If there are barbed-wire fences nearby, remember that pronghorns don't like to jump them. They can and will, but they prefer to cross at a gate or a spot where they can crawl under the lowest wire or between the wires. You'll see by the tracks where they like to cross. Keep that in mind when you stalk. If the herd spooks, it might head for a popular crossing.

top tips

Here's the skinny on what you need to do to make a proper stalk on a variety of big game.

WHITETAIL

1 Note the wind and keep it in your face as you move on a deer.

2 Pick your stalk route carefully to avoid noisy brush and leaves.

3 Don't move a muscle if the deer looks your way.

4 Keep low and concealed until ready to shoot, then rise up with your gun already shouldered.

MULE DEER

1 Use cover and terrain to make an approach. Stay in the shadows when possible.

2 Note landmarks such as fence posts or lone trees to keep oriented.

3 If the deer seem nervous, back off and approach from a different direction.

ELK

1 Move slowly if you suspect a bull is with cows. You might have to avoid many eyes, ears and noses.

2 Elk are often noisy, so you don't have to worry as much about making noise yourself.

3 If a cow gets nervous, blow softly on a cow call to calm her.

top tips

BLACK BEAR

1 First watch the bear through optics to make sure it's not a sow with cubs.

2 Bears often browse on the go, so be quick about moving in close.

3 Bears don't have great eyesight, but they can still spot you in the open.

PRONGHORN

1 Stalk using shallow depressions. Crawl when necessary.

2 If a stalk isn't possible, anticipate where the antelope are headed. Then back off and move into position to get a closer shot along their line of travel.