Spot and Stalk: How to Strike Like a Bowhunting Ninja

Video stalking whitetail deer with a bow

There’s nothing more exciting in bowhunting than a successful spot and stalk. Sneaking within bow range of big-game animals tests every predatory and shooting skill you’ve got.

It is a game of being fast, yet being still at the same time. You must have stealth. You have to strategize and constantly adjust your plan. Then, once you are there and a split-second of opportunity presents itself, you must execute a flawless shot under intense pressure.

I have been fortunate to take nearly 100 animals via spot and stalk, including costal brown bear, record whitetails, mega mule deer, hogs, turkeys, black bears, mountain sheep, antelope and elk.

What I am going to do is let you learn from my mistakes so the next time you are on a spot-and-stalk hunt, you can literally strike like a bowhunting ninja!

The Right Gear

Successful spot and stalk starts with the right gear. The most important thing is silence in your clothing and your gear. This starts with your feet. I always carry some Rancho Safari Cat Prowlers in my pack. These fleece booties slip over your hunting boots and dramatically reduce the sound of your movements.

Sometimes I even pack a pair of soft-soled shoes to use with the Cat Prowlers so I can be even more quiet and mobile than with boots. If you don’t have to worry about cacti or jagged rocks, bare feet with thick socks is the ultimate stealth.

For 13 years I have gone to British Columbia for spot-and-stalk black bears, since baiting isn’t allowed there. At camp, they call me “bare-footing Dudley,” because as soon as I locate a bear I want to shoot, my shoes come off.

It makes all the difference, and several of the more than two dozen bears I have arrowed this way have been taken at less than 10 yards.

Next, you should consider your clothes and your equipment. You want clothes that conceal. Be sure to choose a camo pattern that looks good from a distance. Some patterns look good on the shelf, but if you look at them from 50 yards, they look like a black stump.

Open patterns seem most effective, and even leafy suits work great if they aren’t too noisy. Besides the pattern, you need to make sure your clothes are very quiet. I prefer fleece or wool, and although at times those materials may be a little warm, they are very quiet. On windy or rainy days, your clothes don’t matter as much, but on calm days, it is absolutely critical that you can move in total silence.

Another critical gear choice is a binocular and rangefinder harness that keeps them close by and at the ready. During a stalk, you will constantly be glassing and ranging your quarry. Choosing a harness system that lets you crawl and quickly raise and lower your glass without noise is imperative.

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I constantly have my binoculars at the ready so I can continually look at the animal to confirm the direction it is facing, where it is moving to and also the contours of the terrain.

I like to be able to see if the animal’s eyes are exposed to me or shielded by something. Maybe it is even looking the other way. Binoculars are the only way to truly see all this. Avoid a harness with Velcro or noisy cables, and figure out a way to keep your rangefinder close to your release hand so you can quickly range and clip onto the string to draw.

The final gear choices that will make or break your stalks are adhesive fleece, moleskin or the soft, fuzzy side of Velcro. These noise-deadening items are perfect to silence any piece of your gear that tings or clicks. I always cover the inside of my riser shelf with fleece so there is no way my arrow can be heard.

I also have used it on my release aid, roller guard or belt buckle so I can accidentally bang it on the metal of my roller guard without sound.

Finally, the most critical of all equipment items is a wind checker. This is something you can’t live without, and you should use it often to monitor the wind direction. It’s my opinion that if you aren’t playing the wind while hunting, then you shouldn’t be hunting at all.

Be Fast, Be Still

What I have learned through literally hundreds of stalks is that you need to learn the fine line between when you need to be fast and when you need to be still. There are times when you need to wait and proceed with slow, methodical movements. But there are also times when you need to go and — make no mistake about it — you need to do it NOW.

Understanding these moments is something I learned by making many mistakes. It is something that becomes an instinct and something you have a gut feeling for. Let’s discuss a few common scenarios that illustrate my point.

Proceed With Caution

The times to be slow start with when you first spot the animal. This is a great time to plan a strategy, scan the terrain and look at the big picture. I think a common mistake people make is moving in too quickly.

This is especially true in the morning. For example, on spot-and-stalk deer hunts, it is common to try to locate animals in the morning and then make a stalk when you see them moving back to the bedding area. My experience is that a morning animal is unpredictable in direction and speed.

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In fairly open country where you have the ability to watch the animals and bed them down, you are much better off doing so. You can then formulate a solid plan and have time to slip in quietly using the wind and terrain. Since the animal is already bedded, their position will change only minimally when they stand to stretch.

Watch the head movement of an animal for a great gauge of how your speed should be. If its eye has any chance to see you, it is a time to be slow. If its head is still, then most likely it either is looking, listening or both. Experience tells me that when an animal is in any way alert, its head is still. Likewise, if the head is moving, then it is normally eating, walking, rubbing or anything else they do when at ease.

When I stalk, I try to use my peripheral vision to see where I am stepping and what is around me. Still, my eyes are fixated on the the head. If the head stops moving, 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 a step. Just that quickly, you’ve blown it. By maintaining eye contact with the animal’s head, you greatly reduce that chance of error.

Another example of when to be still is when the wind is dead. Many times, the wind comes and goes in stages. Pay attention to this and learn to move only when the wind is blowing. Strong gusts provide great cover not only for your sounds but also your movements.

By moving when the world around you is moving, you have a much better chance of not being seen. The animals that I have found are more susceptible to slow stalking are deer, turkeys, goats, moose and sheep.

They tend to travel from food to bed in shorter distances and are sometimes in more open areas. These animals typically stay in their beds for extended periods and spend a little more time looking around. There may be times these animals move fast and cover a lot of ground, but most times patience will pay off.

Get Movin’

Animals such as bears, hogs, elk, javelina and caribou tend to constantly be on the move. They are range animals that tend to walk and graze. These are animals you should expect to be fast. On my spring bear hunts, I know the bruins that come out to graze in the fresh, green grass are typically going to feed for short periods of time.

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Their stomachs are still small at this time of year, and they can’t gorge themselves like later in the year. With this in mind, when I spot a bear, I need to be ready to move quickly.

My thinking is simple: get some kind of cover between the animal and I. If the bear’s head is moving, so am I. If the bear is feeding or looking away, I am closing the distance. And if I can keep a solid backdrop behind me, I’m doing it because it prevents being skylined.

The real key here is not exposing yourself. By keeping some kind of an object between the eye of the animal and myself, as well as behind me, I have been able to get away with making up a lot of ground quickly.

I watch my steps and avoid rocks, sticks, ice or anything with a crunch. I continue to check the wind when I stop and have my rangefinder at the ready while moving. One thing I have found with the wind is that the more time it takes to move in on an animal, the greater the chance the wind will change.

You need to continue to be aware of this, and as soon as you feel that switch, you need to be ready for the shot because you may only have a one-second chance.

I have been very successful as an elk hunter. More times that not it is because I take control with a stalk instead of calling to the bull. I believe this greatly reduces the risk of him moving toward me with the wind and terrain at his advantage.

It also doesn’t alert him to my presence and draw his focus on locating me. Spot-and-stalk elk hunting can be an awesome strategy, especially on call-shy bulls.

The Proof is in the Freezer

When I do things right on a stalk, the sense of accomplishment surpasses anything I have done as a treestand hunter. It shows you are a hunter who possesses the total package — one who can not only do the homework and be ready for the shot but who also has the skills to put himself in position to get the shot.

It means you have outsmarted the eyes, ears, nose and mind of your quarry.

I am proud of all my trophies, but the ones that really stand out in my mind are the ones I took after playing a perfect game. It’s like a flawless game of chess. I knew exactly when to be fast and exactly when to be still.

I knew when to wait and when to strike. I am certain if you remember what I have told you today, then you’ll surely be in position for the last word — checkmate!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>