Still-Hunting, R.I.P.

gun and bullet box on fur

A noble art, slipping away.

by Terry Wieland

CLARE IRWIN WAS THE MOST AT HOME in the woods of any man I’ve ever known. When I met him he was a small-town bank manager, a thin man in his 50s who started hunting around our place in the 1920s. Forty years later he took me under his wing, a gun-struck teenager, and we went deer hunting my first time.

There was five inches of wet snow. The big hit on the car radio was the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall,” and we heard it half a dozen times as we drove north into the lake country. Clare’s son was with us, too. We came to a place where Clare had had good luck over the years. “Follow this ridgeline,” he told me, “until you come to the end of the lake. I’d sit there for a bit. Let things settle down. Keep an eye on where the creek flows in at the north end. They like to cross there. You’ll see tracks, with this snow.”

Then Clare went one way, his son went another, and I was on my own in the gray November woods with a deer license, my spiffy Marlin .35 Remington, and instructions to meet back here by dark.

It would be nice to record that I shot a big whitetail that day, that they cut my shirttail off or smeared me with blood. In truth, the closest I came was the sight of hoofprints in the snow, and not many of those. It would be 27 years before I shot a white-tailed deer in Ontario.

What I did get that first day, I realized much later, was more valuable: Clare instilled in me his own hunting philosophy. I became, and remain, a still-hunter.

In Africa, it’s “walk and stalk,” but we call it “still-hunting,” although many today don’t know what that means. Some interpret it as “sitting still,” like stand hunting, which it most assuredly is not. No one knows for certain the origin of the term, but it’s been called still-hunting for at least 150 years. The best explanation is that still is derived from stealth—stealing through the forest, watching and listening.

This is how we imagine Daniel Boone. It’s the highest manifestation of hunting skill, and we all aspired to it. Today, it is all but dead. For white-tailed deer, still-hunting has been replaced by stand hunting, usually over a feeder or food plot. And if you’re with an outfitter, chances are he wouldn’t allow you to still-hunt even if you wanted to.

What has happened? There is no single explanation. A combination of circumstances has conspired to all but obliterate a method of hunting that is the most fascinating and, potentially, most rewarding of all.

Jack O’Connor shot his first moose, still-hunting in Alberta. For a week, he and his guide climbed mountains and glassed, to no avail. Finally, O’Connor tried something different. Camp was near a long creek in thick timber, so O’Connor set out alone with just a rifle and his quietest boots. He worked his way up the creek into the wind, rousted a moose, followed his trail, and got him.

This is big game hunting in its purest form, pitting your stealth and knowledge against the animal’s instincts and keen senses. It demands patience and attention to the wind. The hunter needs to understand animal habits and read the messages left by not only the quarry but also the weather and even the buds on the trees. The final part of the sequence—and not the easiest—is making the shot count when you get an opportunity.

Two years ago, in Alaska, I was hunting moose, riding up the mountain and glassing. After a few fruitless days, I decided to emulate O’Connor, figuring that even if I didn’t find a moose, I would see some interesting country. First, however, my guide required an explanation of exactly what still-hunting was.

“Oh,” he said, “you want to spot and stalk.”

Fine, a rose by any other name. He insisted on going with me, though, and also on carrying packs with anything we might need if we shot a moose, got lost, or broke a leg. By the time we set out, we were outfitted for a 20-mile route march, and achieved about the same degree of stealth. Two hunters together cannot still-hunt. It doesn’t work. We saw some country, but that was all.

It’s hard to blame the guide. He was, after all, responsible for me. Nor can one blame him for not knowing how to do something he didn’t grow up with. A cowboy from Wyoming, he knew about hunting on horseback, glassing from mountainsides, and sitting over a bait. Unfortunately, this is typical.

Part of the problem is that relatively few of us today are taught how to hunt, and how to act in the field, by our immediate elders. I was lucky in that regard. No one in my family hunted, but I had Clare Irwin, and after our first hunt together, we stayed in touch for the next 25 years.

rifle and bullets
No rifle is more associated with still-hunting white-tailed deer than the Winchester ’94. Combined with great deer cartridges like the .30-30 and .32 Special, the old ’94 was perfect for the purpose, and defined deer rifles for a century.

Clare’s rifle was a Winchester ’94 with a Lyman tang sight, and no better rifle for still-hunting has ever been invented. Another good one is the Savage Model 99E, in .250-3000. And the little Mannlicher, of song and story. There used to be lots of good rifles for still-hunting.

Today’s rifles are not just poorly suited; they actually discourage it. Heavy and bulky, burdened with oversized scopes, they don’t carry easily in the hand, which is where you want your rifle when you get a sudden shot. It can be carried across your chest, like a quail gun, but only for short periods. So, instead, it’s slung on the shoulder, which effectively puts it (and you) out of action for an opportunity where split seconds count.

This is   nbjust a logistical obstacle, though; the real problem is more far ranging. Today’s deer hunter may hunt in a state forest or on BLM land, but when there are a lot of other hunters about, by far the best thing is to find a vantage point, sit down quietly, and wait for their blundering about to move the deer to you. If you hunt private land, the owner may or may not want you wandering loose. He will either limit your access, or tell you to go and sit in a prepared stand.

Organized, commercial deer camps, in states like Kansas or Texas, are even more restrictive. Most put you in a stand and tell you not to move out of it, no matter what. If you shoot at a deer, you’re supposed to call on your walkie-talkie, and a guide will come and track it. They are deathly afraid you’ll get lost, fall and hurt yourself, or otherwise behave like a city dude, any of which can lead to a lawsuit. Heaven forfend.

My old friend Clare actually used two guns. The aforementioned ’94 he carried when he was seriously hunting deer; the other was a 12-gauge pump. He liked to put a shotshell in the chamber, backed up by a slug. If he flushed a grouse, he was ready for it; if he spooked a deer, a quick stroke of the slide and he was ready to shoot.

In later years, Clare became more of a moose hunter. He took early retirement from the bank, got his pilot’s license, and ranged far and wide. Twice, his plane went down and he survived; one time, he cracked it up in the Alberta Rockies, and it took him two days to walk out, living on what he shot.

He told me about it the last time I saw him. I was hunting from our old camp when he set his floatplane down in the bay. It was an unexpected visit, but most welcome. We hunted together for a few hours, and then he took off to get home by dark. He wasn’t rated for instrument flying.

Clare was carrying the same old ’94, and leaned it against the same old woodpile. For all I knew, he wore the same old army jacket, and the same old rubber boots. None of which mattered. He was still the master. I was still learning.

“I don’t really care if I get a deer,” he told me. “I just like to be up here, hunting them.”

It was the most valuable thing he ever said to me.

To quote Robert Ruark, “Some folks are luckier than other folks.” If Wieland didn’t become the best still-hunter on the planet—27 years between deer is a long time—he did learn to love the hunting.