The quick, frenzied crack and clatter of antler against antler was unmistakable. My first thought, someone had slipped onto our Henry County lease, that a trespasser was rattling.
It was the third week of October, about 10:30 on a Wednesday morning eight years ago. A cool, steady breeze had tempted me out of a treestand — steady meant no traitor swirls to carry my scent, and the wind pulling at the branches and leaves would mask both sound and slight movements. At the time I was in the early stages of what is now a full-blown addiction to hunting on the ground — OTG as fellow GON editor Brad Gill branded it — which to me is more exciting, more fun, and far more rewarding than sitting in a tree.
The poacher was being a bit dramatic, a tad overzealous, I thought. Not the loudness so much, but how fast the antlers clicked together. Then my thoughts turned quickly from poacher to two real, live, and angry bucks. I was very near a true buck fight, two grown bucks really going at it. Twigs and branches snapped, hooves pounded, and the quick, back-and-forth rustle of leaves left no doubt of the situation.
The fight stopped suddenly. Seconds later a thick-bodied buck with a short-tined, 100-class rack trotted within 15 yards of me, its tongue literally draped out the side of its mouth.
As the buck disappeared into the thick pines, I took a pair of antlers out of my backpack and rattled aggressively. Instantly I heard a deer running toward me, only to stop inside a curtain of thick hardwoods, then the sound of quiet, deliberate steps. What I assume was the other buck — the winner of that Henry County fight, I like to think — was slowly moving downwind of me. There was nothing I could do but wait and hope for some luck, but it wasn’t to be. I never saw that other buck.
In the years since that day in the woods, I’ve had countless other encounters while hunting on the ground. Very few resulted in a deer. But the close encounters are some of the most-vivid, exciting memories I have of my time in the deer woods.
Such is the paradox of trying to hunt deer from the ground. If you want to maximize your odds of success, climb a tree. My affliction is even worse in that I usually hunt with a bow.
If you are blessed, as I am, with good hunting land, there is enough opportunity during Georgia’s long season to enjoy the experiences of hunting on the ground and still get meat for the freezer. My family requires four deer a season. It is a good year indeed when one of those four are taken with a bow while hunting from the ground. Last season, my wife’s concern about the empty freezer grew until she finally bought some ground meat at the grocery store. I broke out the .30/06 and found a ladder stand.
This year on October 8 I was lucky enough to take a doe while bowhunting on the ground. That success will only fuel my affliction. Our second deer may be a while in coming, but in the meantime, I’ll continue to gather hunting memories that to me wouldn’t be the same had I been 20 feet up a tree.
Just two weeks ago I was again hunting on the ground on my Morgan County property, about 40 yards downwind of a pair of big white oaks. Underneath the trees, I had found some huge deer droppings. The wind wasn’t perfect for setting up within a bow shot from the white oaks, but I picked a spot where I had a good lane if a deer was coming to the trees from an area of thick hardwoods.
I cleared out the leaves at the base of a big sweetgum and sat down. I had a couple of big trees about 10 yards in front of me between my spot and where I hoped a deer would pass — having cover to draw a bow is critical, and big trees that completely block a deer’s view are about the only thing I’ll set up behind.
As the sun crept below the trees, I began to hear a quiet rustling of the leaves behind me. It sounded like a deer, and I quickly moved up on my knees and turned to face that direction to get ready for a potential shot. Almost instantly I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, to the right — from the direction I had been facing. A doe literally walked straight at me to within five yards. The doe stopped dead in her tracks, but the wind was in my favor. She gave a half-hearted little snort and bounced away about 10 yards, then began to make a slow circle around me. I couldn’t move.
I listened as the doe walked directly behind me, then around my left to where I could cut my eyes and see her long neck stretched out, staring at me as she stepped stiff-legged. Her curiosity ended abruptly, and the doe bounded away, and I quickly drew my bow. As I had hoped, the doe stopped again about 20 yards away. But she was facing directly away and never turned as she slipped away into the thick woods.
Two things from that unforgettable hunt: one, had I taken a climber I almost certainly would have been tracking a doe that night — in fact I might have been tracking a huge-bodied, gray-haired deer that I saw just before dark under the white oaks. Two, having that doe all over me on the ground is an experience I wouldn’t trade for a better chance at killing that deer from a stand… give me another month with no additions to the freezer.
Are you beginning to see why I call this OTG fascination an affliction?
It began during my first trip to Colorado bowhunting for elk and mule deer. It’s all on the ground out there. I absolutely loved it. When I got back to Georgia, I began to dabble in this endeavor with whitetails.
About that same time in my life I had two brushes with gravity. One was an idiotic skydiving incident. I’ll spare the details other than that I highly recommend you never accept an offer to jump out of a plane, and that I had what the regulars called a “mal,” as in chute malfunction.
The second idiotic brush with gravity involved a climbing stand in a grove of Henry County white oaks. A light rain was falling, I was late, and daylight had begun to spread over the open hardwoods as I attached my stand to a small hardwood we called “The Killing Tree” because it was in such a good spot. In my haste, I forgot two things — one, that I had used my climber last on a bigger tree, and I didn’t reset the bolts for the smaller tree; two, I didn’t attach my safety belt on the way up. Once I had climbed up about 18 feet, I stood up on the bottom platform and “seated” the stand by stepping firmly with my weight.
The next thing I knew my stand was a foot off the ground, my feet still in the stirrups, my hands still gripping the top climbing portion of the stand. The bottom part of the stand had bitten into the tree as the trunk widened at the bottom, the back V bar digging into the tree. The result was like a shock absorber. Other than leaving the skin off my knuckles on the tree trunk from my hands still holding the top portion of the stand during my quick descent, I was perfectly fine… except for a newfound respect for gravity. In other words, I’m now a bit afraid of heights.
I will hunt from stands, with a safety belt. Most of the deer I kill are from stands. But I also spend a lot of time OTG, and there are some things I’ve seen and learned in the deer woods while hunting on the ground that could help someone wanting to try this method of hunting. Be forewarned. I am no expert. If you’re looking for a how-to article from someone who really knows how to hunt, talk John Seginak into writing more articles.
Another warning — if you start to get into hunting on the ground, your deer processor might start calling to make sure you haven’t taken up golf or moved out of state… and at the same time you might just get addicted this OTG thing.
Still-Hunting: A Painfully Slow Walk to Nowhere
My favorite way to hunt OTG is to move from here to there… makes me feel like an Indian as long as I don’t think about the release around my wrist and the compound in my hand.
When I say move, it’s really a misnomer. I don’t move far, and very few times have I been moving and seen a deer. It has happened, and as long as you see the deer first, you’re still in the game. One time I even shot a doe with my bow that I first saw when I stepped around a big tree. She was 60 yards away feeding on muscadines, and in retrospect they must have been fermented, because I was able to move slowly — only when she was facing directly away or there was a tree trunk between us — to within 25 yards and made the shot.
Every other deer I have shot OTG I first saw while I was not moving, and I let the deer move to me. I move from point to point, usually about 10 or 15 yards at a time, then I stand, but only when I’m standing against some cover like a big tree, and only when there is some type of cover out in front of me that will let me draw my bow if a deer appears. Between these points, I move quietly, but not necessarily slowly, because the last thing I want is to be caught in a position with no chance to shoot if a deer is heading my way. Before I move to the next point, usually I’ve been standing still at least five minutes, more often 10 minutes, and some hunts I might just stay in one spot for hours.
Here’s my routine that involves some little quirks that make me slow down.
First, I always hunt with binoculars. Before I move to the next point, I scan the woods with the binoculars in every direction, even behind me. I take my time and really look into and beyond thick cover, and I want to be pretty dang sure there’s not a deer that’s going to see when I move to the next tree. It takes some time to do this, which is a very good thing. Sometimes I see a deer, other times I hear a deer. The key is that I’m not moving. If I have a good view from the spot, I’ll do the binocular thing again. If it’s a really good-looking area, I might scan the woods over and over again.
Then I count to a hundred.
Why I started doing this I’ll never know, but before I move to the next point I always count to 100, slowly. This little quirk has paid off several times. That extra minute and 40 seconds has been the difference in me being caught moving between trees and me still standing there and detecting a deer first. If during my count I hear something that might possibly be a deer, I stop counting until I’m absolutely sure it is not a deer that I heard. Then I start my count over again.
And so it is that I can spend an entire morning still-hunting and never actually get anywhere.
When and Where for OTG
The ideal conditions for hunting on the ground, for obvious reasons, are when the woods are damp and there’s a moderate, steady breeze. The wind is the key. If it’s swirling, climb a tree, a tall one. Steady wind is your friend.
If the woods are extremely dry, you’re usually better off climbing a tree. There are times when you can still-hunt in dry conditions. The Henry County land we hunted for a decade was bordered on one side by I-75. The constant roar of traffic made it possible to move without deer hearing you. A flowing creek can also have the same effect, though it’s not as much of an advantage, and you have to be much more careful about making noise as you move. Sometimes I’ll wade a shallow creek, shuffling slowly without lifting my feet so I don’t make noise in the water. I’ve also had success still-hunting in pines, but in young pines it can be very difficult to draw on a deer without getting popped.
Damp woods are best, but you don’t always have to wait on a rain. Often, especially in bow season and early in gun season, the mornings are ideal for still-hunting because the woods are often damp from the overnight dew.
I would never still-hunt on public land, not only for my own safety but because I wouldn’t want to walk up on a hunter who has painstakingly carried a climber deep into the woods only to look down and see me.
Take a Seat
Other than a deer, the next-best sight when I’m still-hunting is a good-sized log. After a few hours on your feet, it’s time to sit for a spell. Sometimes I’ll hunt from the ground with the intention of staying in one spot. Usually I scrape the leaves away from the base of a tree and sit.
Jeff Young of Monroe also has some experience hunting from the ground, and he’s tried the “pop-up” ground blinds as well as hunting without a blind. In Jeff’s opinion, the blind will spook deer if you’re not careful.
“They always stop, stomp, snort and do the headbob as soon as they see it. The deer know what’s in their woods and notice changes. If someone set up a big ’ol blind in your living room, I’m pretty sure you’d be suspicious.”
Jeff recommends that if you want to use a blind to set it up at least a couple of weeks before you want to hunt it, so that the deer aren’t bothered by the new addition to their landscape. On public land, where Jeff does most of his hunting, he doesn’t have that luxury, so he relies on good camo from head to toe. Deer not smelling you when you’re 20 yards away on the ground is also important, and Jeff uses an odor neutralizer, but usually not a cover or attractant scent product.
“Deer don’t get curious about what they cannot smell,” he said.
Picking the right spot to set up on the ground is very important.
“I like to find an area with a good intersection of trails and set up about 10 yards off the intersection with my back to a big tree or deadfall. In a spot where a big tree has fallen, I may even set up in the stump hole. The object is to have a background outline larger than your body, bow and gear. I also try to be sure that there is some sort of obstruction between myself and the trail. This allows me a point where I am not in the animal’s line of sight when I start my draw. Using either a folding stool or even a dove bucket works much better than sitting on the ground when bowhunting. It makes drawing much smoother.”
For bowhunting from the ground, Jeff recommends a Vertical Advantage, a bi-pod that mounts under your bow’s stabilizer.
“You can set the bow right in front of you, and it’s ready to just pick it up and draw. I also like a Whisker Biscuit rest so I don’t have to worry about the arrow slipping off. When using a firearm, I sit as low to the ground as possible.”
Jeff had a final word of advice for hunting deer on the ground, and it’s something I’ve seen time and time again as well.
“Many times the deer will notice your form. You must have more nerve than the animal,” Jeff said. “It may do a little stomp or sudden headbob to try to get you to flinch. It really gets special when you have big deer blow at you from 10 yards away. You might be surprised at how many deer I’ve had go from full alert back to browsing simply because I refused to flinch. Of course I’ve been busted too many times to count. Win, lose or draw, hunting from the ground down on the deer’s level where you can hear it breathing and really watch its mannerisms is a super thrill that you just don’t get 20 feet up a tree 100 yards away.”
See, I’m not the only one. Ultimately, deer hunting is still about results — meat is important in my house. But it’s also about maximizing my enjoyment, and I do that by making it more fun, more challenging, and more rewarding. For me, that’s up close and personal — OTG.
Anyone need a slightly used climbing stand?