Can You Spot and Stalk Whitetail?

How to Score on a Mature Whitetail Buck with Spot and Stalk

· Spot and Stalk Fundamentals,Whitetail Deer

Can You Spot and Stalk Whitetail?

So you’re sitting in your stand and see the biggest buck of your life out of range. He beds down and doesn’t show any interest in coming your way. What do you do? Whitetails are smart. They are so alert and ready to leave at a moment's notice. This makes them one of the most challenging animals to spot and stalk. Not necessarily because of terrain, but because of their wariness.

You can spot and stalk whitetail deer. Many record book archery bucks have been killed using spot and stalk hunting methods. Whitetail deer are spot and stalked successfully by bow and rifle hunters who make the decision to move when they would not have harvested deer otherwise.

When deer are staying out of range you have two choices, continue to be a spectator or get into the action. This is a decision you will have to make at some point in your hunting experience if you spend lots of time in a stand, or watching deer from a distance. This article is here to answer questions that people ask about spot and stalk deer hunting, and also to give tips for success instead of spooked deer.

The biggest fear that most hunters have when hunting a big whitetail is if the buck gets spooked you may never see him again. That’s why when attempting a spot and stalk whitetail hunt you must weigh the factors and make stealthy, thought-through moves to get into place without sending the buck to the next county.

gnarly looking mature buck in full rut during spotting

How Do You Spot and Stalk Deer Hunt?

Now we are getting into the nitty gritty. Nothing like getting right into it. Spot and stalk hunting whitetail deer is actually quite simple in theory, but is very complex in execution. Here’s what I mean.

Spot and stalk hunting has really two fundamental aspects that never change: Spotting and stalking. The rest is dynamic and changes with every situation. No two spot and stalk hunts will be the same. Locations will change, thermal activity will be different, wind and weather will change, and last but not least, the deer will change. But this post isn’t about what will change but what to do to be successful.

Spotting whitetails usually happens in one of four ways. Purposefully glassing an area, spotting the deer from the road, seeing a deer on the way into a hunting stand, or watching a deer from a stand. Seeing sometimes is the easiest part of the hunt.

Now it’s time to plan. A seasoned spot and stalk hunter will tell you that there is a good time and a bad time to set up a stalk.

Location, Wind, and Time

So what should you look for before attempting a stalk? First things first. Is the location of the buck a place that you can access easily enough that you won't spook him right off the bat? An example would be a buck bedded on a hillside where you could somewhat easily get above him, see him clearly, and make a shot. Why get above him? We will get into that in a minute. Additionally, you want to make sure that the buck is comfortable and not likely to move.

The second probability factor is wind conditions. Is the wind blowing in a direction that would allow you to access the area the buck is in without your wind blowing to him? Deer are always tuned to the wind. A young deer may need to put two things together, wind and sight, sight and sound, or scent and sound, but a mature deer only needs one thing: a feeling he is in danger. One slight whiff of human scent and he will disappear.

You need time to stalk a deer. I remind myself when I am stalking an animal that it has nowhere else to be and is only telling itself to stay alive. If you approach a spot and stalk hunt as a project to complete ASAP you may find yourself discouraged and upset at the end of the season. Deer don’t care that you need to be at work in an hour. If you have something scheduled in a short amount of time, you would be better off waiting till the next day, or rescheduling whatever you had planned.

Trying to force something to happen will normally lead to bad results.

Big whitetail out in the open closign the distance on a spot and stalk hunt.

Stalking Route, Distractions, and Cover Noise

You need a good route to the deer. Preferably one that you will be able to occasionally look and see that the buck is still there, but for the most part is out of his sight and mind. I will happily walk an additional half mile to make sure I don’t spook an animal on the stalk. I prefer to stay out of likely deer areas until I am ready to make a kill because I want to avoid spooking a deer that will run to where the buck is and end up spooking him out of the area. Every place is different, just think your access through.

I always like the animal I am stalking to be heavily distracted. If it’s a black bear, I want him to be head down and eating something. If it’s a mature whitetail buck, I want to see him preoccupied with a doe, or taking a nap. Not that it is impossible to have success with an undistracted deer, but the odds are definitely in his favor.

Noise is one of your best friends as you move in for a shot, especially with a bow. Just enough wind to cover the sound of your clothing, the pitter patter of a light rain to soften the noise of brushing up against tall grass, and things of the like will work in your favor. Cover noise is a determining factor for me on a bow hunt. If there isn’t enough cover noise I am not likely to attempt a stalk.


Thermals can make or break your hunt so I made a complete section for it here. As a young hunter, I failed to realize how thermals worked even with favorable winds. Thermal air movement occurs by an uneven heating of the earth’s surface. What does that mean to us? When a hilltop gets sunlight in the morning, the air starts to heat up, and heat rises. This creates a vacuum, pulling air from the valleys up to the hilltops.

Even if the wind is moving from the hilltop to you, there is still the chance that your scent could end up traveling uphill as the wind ebbs and flows. You will likely see the wind shift as the morning continues.

In the evening the opposite happens. The air starts to cool and generally settles into the valleys.

So what does this mean? Airflow may not be a straight line. The wind could be going straight down into the valley from where you are standing, but at the bottom of the valley, it will likely be flowing with the grade turning the wind further downhill.

In our example we talked about being above a buck that was on the hillside, that’s because the stalk was staged in the morning when thermals are pulling the air from him up the hill. A favorable thermal situation is one that will pull the deer’s scent to you and your scent away from him.

photo demonstraiting thermal movement in the morning

What Is the Best Time of Day to Stalk Deer?

This answer ties into the last section about how to spot and stalk whitetail deer. Thermals are the defining factor for the best time to stalk a deer. If the deer is bedded at the bottom of the hill, the morning is the best time to stalk in above him. If the deer is bedded at the top of the hill, the evening when thermals start descending is the best time to move in below him.

I think the most successful time I have experienced for spot and stalk whitetail hunts is mid-morning. This is mostly because we will see the buck bed down in the earlier morning hours, and after watching him for a while determine he is not likely to leave there for the rest of the day. That’s when we start to make a move.

The evenings are slightly more challenging because you have a fairly limited amount of time to move into position. Deer move the most at twilight when the sun is below the horizon but there is still light. If the deer gets up and moves away while you are attempting the stalk you will have to figure out how to head him off or call off the stalk.

So in my opinion the best time to stalk whitetail deer is in the mid morning after winds and thermals have stabilized.

Unrestricted movement in the evening pulls scent downward as the earth's surface cools.

Should I Walk Around While Hunting Deer?

Generally, you should not walk around when hunting whitetail deer, especially if you are after a mature buck. There is the chance that you could spot a deer before it spots or hears you, but in most circumstances, hunters end up bumping deer they can’t get a clean shot at, and spread scent through prime deer territory which discourages deer from moving back into the area.

You may be thinking, “Ok then how do you stalk a deer?” There is a big difference between setting up and planning a stalk vs taking the gun for a walk in the woods. If taking a gun for a walk is what gets you out and excites you, then by all means do it and enjoy it. I can say without a doubt that lots of deer are taken with this method of hunting, but if you are unsuccessful you can greatly damage your ability to harvest a mature deer in that area in the coming days and weeks.

Notice I said mature deer. Young deer seem to continue to use areas that they were bumped out of, but a mature spooked buck will likely leave the area for a while. Sometimes you will never see him again. Ok, back to stalking deer.

The main difference is this: stalking is pursuing an animal that you have a definite location on, and have determined a reasonable probability of harvesting. Everyone knows you must be in the right place at the right time. If you see a stationary deer and the conditions are in your favor, it's the right time. You just need to get to the right place without spooking everything out of the area.

How Do You Spot and Stalk Deer in the Woods?

Stalking deer in the woods is sometimes easier than out in the open. I have witnessed my hunting buddy use trees to his advantage as he moved from tree to tree, keeping himself hidden from sight while quickly and silently covering ground. Spotting them can be challenging, but in my experience spotting a deer in the woods usually happens from a treestand, or on the way into the stand.

In “big woods”, with mature trees, the game is to keep trees between you and the deer until you are within range and can take a clear shot. In woods that have thick underbrush or underdeveloped trees, lowering your level to stay out of sight while moving forward will help you get into shooting position. Look for dips and small rises that you can hide in or behind as you close the distance, and avoid climbing over something that will skyline you, or make you plainly visible.

All of the other tips we gave in the section on how to stalk whitetail deer apply to this situation too. Once you learn the basics well, even though every hunt is different, you will find that making decisions becomes easier, and the execution will be more confident.

How Soon Will a Buck Return After Being Spooked?

The saddest part about a spot and stalk whitetail hunt is when it ends watching a massive rack disappear into the brush after a blown stalk. The reality is that this happens. We’ve seen a mix of results in this situation. The buck could end up right back in that same spot the next day, or he could be gone forever. It seems to come down to how spooked he is when he leaves.

Did he know exactly what was happening, or did he sneak out quietly not entirely aware of your presence but knowing something was up? This could be the difference between a second opportunity or a blown season. Chances are that a buck that snuck away will come back into the area as soon as he knows the danger is gone. Mature bucks seem to have a sixth sense. He will likely approach the area very slowly and be on high alert.

One mistake I see in this situation is a hunter deciding to turn and walk out of the area nonchalantly. Chances are, that buck is still very close and waiting to see what is going on. You may need to wait carefully for an extended period of time before leaving the place you stalked into. If it’s in the evening. You may be waiting until it is pitch black. It’s the game we play, and it’s worth trying to be good at it if we want a second chance!

broken image

Make the Harvest

I’ll be completely honest. There are very few hunters that have a 100% kill rate on spot and stalk hunts. If they do, chances are they only did it once and it worked. For every successful hunt I have had that ended with a notched tag, I probably had three encounters that ended with disappointment.

Spot and stalk hunting is an art form and you only really learn it by doing it. That's why an article like this can only do so much and only cover a few situations. I can talk about fundamentals, but getting down to a blow by blow complete strategy only happens on the tail end of a hunt which is why my podcast is so cool. I go through hunts that I have had in the past, and break down what worked and what didn’t. Simple as that.

It’s free to hunters who are looking for more in-the-field info that will help them be more successful and fill more tags.

If you liked this post please follow this blog to be updated and be entered for upcoming giveaways and discounts on gear. I am happy to share everything that I know and continue to learn and share more. Go get that monster whitetail. Now how would you answer if someone asked, “Can You Spot and Stalk Whitetail Deer?”