Trail watching, or stand hunting, is a science and an art and to illustrate that stand hunting is the most popular and productive method of deer hunting. After years of personal reflection and discussion with other hunters, I have come to recognize distinct phases in the personal evolution of a trail watcher. I will describe them in this article, illustrating each phase with a case history of a hunter in that phase. There are five phases, and hunters may progress through them in an orderly fashion or skip a phase completely. Severe weather or discouragement may cause a regression, but most hunters will stay in one phase consistently. They will move up to higher phases as their age and hunting experience increase, and as they are exposed to good role models.
Phase One: The Driver
A sixteen-year-old boy is deer hunting for the first time. He is told by his father and brother to stand near an oak at the edge of a small pine plantation. His hunting partners walk away and circle the grove, preparing to make a brief deer drive. Shortly after they leave, the boy begins to feel cold. His hands become stiff He takes off his mittens and puffs warm air between his fingers. He moves a few steps to one side so he can lean against the tree. He stamps his feet to warm them. In a few minutes his partners emerge. The boy eagerly volunteers to make the next drive. Standing is cold and boring; he thinks to himself He wants to move those deer. Let me say at the outset that I am not being judgmental about these phases.
The driver phase is not bad. The boy is an eager hunter, despite his impatience, and he is a valuable member of his hunting party. He represents the future of hunting and his desire to see and move deer is wonderful. But he is not a trail watcher. He will see a lot of tails and he may get a shot, but he won’t be as successful as he will later on when he matures as a deer hunter. He also won’t be a bow hunter until he is able to stay on stand.
Basically, the phase one trail watcher doesn’t figure it’s worth it. He doesn’t want to be on stand. He fidgets and fusses, twists and moves. He has no mental barrier against cold or other discomforts. He only stays on stand because of peer pressure—someone tells him to stay put until they return. The phase one trail watcher has only external control; left to his own devices, he will move from spot to spot, driving deer.
The phase one deer hunter has little confidence in the deer trail he watches, partly due to inexperience and partly due to inadequate preseason scouting. He will leave a stand if not immediately successful, for example, after the first hour of the deer gun season. I know phase one hunters who take a stand and proceed to fidget, even smoke, saying in effect, “I don’t like being on stand, and I don’t care if I see deer or not because I’m planning to leave soon anyway!” If you are a phase one Driver and want to change, take heart.
With a little self-examination, experience and effort, you can move into phase two. If you don’t think it’s worth the trouble, you can still be a deer hunter. In fact, the rest of us welcome you. We need you in the woods so you can put on a drive for us. You’ll get the exercise, we’ll get the venison. You’ll get tails; we’ll get heads—antlered heads. What’s that, you want to hear about the next phase? But we need you where you are! Oh well, if you must know ...
Phase Two: The Stander
A twenty-one-year-old man watches a small, brushy ravine on the second day of deer gun season. Last year he shot a deer here while standing on a drive and his scouting confirmed a good deer trail at the bottom of the ravine. While it was difficult for him to wait on stand during opening day, he forced himself to remain quietly concealed. He had been rewarded by seeing several groups of does, but he saw no antlers. This morning he arrived on stand a bit late and a large deer (actually a ten-point buck) bounded into the ravine before he could get a good look at it. The morning air is very cold, and his toes are numb. He endures several hours, but in the afternoon he takes a different stand. The big buck picks his way through the ravine that evening, sniffing for danger. He walks past the hunters empty stand, stops for a minute, then continues on.
Our phase two hunter has the right idea. If he had been a little more persistent, either arriving earlier or staying later, he would have had a chance to collect a nice buck. But the stander is not yet sold on the benefits of such persistence. He is tolerant of stand hunting because he has discovered that it works. This type of hunter will stay put for a while, then will move out, especially if the weather is bad or other hunters aren’t moving deer. He doesn’t believe in his stand. Phase two trail watchers are opportunists. If there were some other method which worked better, they’d switch in a minute. They enjoy moving and driving more than watching. The behavior pattern typical of phase two hunters is stand jumping. They spend two hours on one stand, three hours on the next and one hour on the next, with no good reason for the switching except the change of scenery. A phase two hunter welcomes disruption. He climbs down from a tree stand happily, stretches and is on his way.
Phase Three: The Stalker
A thirty-year-old woman who is an experienced hunter moues slowly down the fire lane, bow in hand. At a crucial turn in the path, she stands for ten minutes as if frozen, listening to a rustling of leaves. When she finds the noise is squirrels instead of deer, she walks slowly on, arriving at her stand in the late afternoon. Again she remains silent and still, waiting patiently. An hour passes. A fork horn buck approaches quietly and The Stalker draws her bow. She holds her sight on the area where the deer will be in the open. The fat little buck walks into the opening and The Stalker releases. The arrow strikes home. She is elated and relieved, no more hunting this year. Some of you may be thinking, “This type of hunter is good enough for me.” The Stalker is a good hunter; there is no doubt about that. But she or he could do better. The Driver is impatient; The Stander is a driver who is more tolerant of standing, and The Stalker is a stander who moves slowly and switches stands less and thus can sometimes catch a deer unaware. The Stalker uses the right techniques, but his or her heart is not on stand.
A phase three hunter enjoys movement too much. The Stalker will take a stand, but enjoys walking more, although at a much more sedate and productive pace than phase one or two deer hunters.
Again, I am not being critical of The Stalker. Stalkers are not able, however, to stay on stand when the going gets tough. They will find an excuse to move, and even if that excuse is a legitimate one like lunch, the phase four and five hunters would not succumb to it. They bring their lunch. Phase four and five deer hunters stay on stand regardless. You’ll see what I mean. They are the iron men and women. They may not bring home more deer than the stalker, but they are more likely to bring home the big ones. They are the true trail watchers.
Phase Four: The Sitter
A forty-year-old man in the prime of his hunting years sits on stand. A bitter cold, northwest wind blows and it is the last weekend of the deer gun season. He is alone in the woods—there are no other hunters to moue the deer. He has waited on the same stand day after day, knowing that a large buck has been using the area consistently. Twice he saw the animal, but both times it was out of range and visible for only a moment He is waiting for this one deer, this particular deer, so he clings tenaciously to the tree, enduring the gusts which chill him to the bone. He thinks of other things, disciplines his mind to concentrate on the dim deer trail and sits stubbornly. He is patient beyond belief He will sit in the same stand tomorrow, the final day of the season, if the buck doesn’t come today. Snow settles into his collar and his beard is frozen solid. The phase four trail watcher is a stoic sitter.
This hunter has determined that sitting is the best way to hunt, provided he’s on the right trail, so he clings to his perch day after day. He may be wrong sometimes and may switch stands every several days or so, but he is likely to be consistently on stand. He hunts all day even during the bow season, especially during the rut. He learns the personalities of various deer and he hunts for trophy bucks. It is not easy to be a phase four Sitter. Besides a high pain threshold and incredible patience, a phase four deer hunter is a perfectionist. He will pass up shots even a phase three hunter would take. He wants not just an open shot, but a picture-perfect shot. He wants an eight-point buck not a six-pointer. He is of the right stuff. But he is too much in love with the hunt, too concerned with the quarry to relax and really enjoy. It is all pain and only occasional gain for The Sitter. Like The Stalker, he can only be content once he has a deer, but unlike The Stalker he has mixed feelings about getting a deer. Then the hunt is over and the phase four trail watcher doesn’t want the hunt to end. He is on his way to phase five.
Phase Five: The Watcher
A fifty-five-year-old man who suffered his first heart attack two years ago is on stand. A very experienced hunter, he’s killed many deer from stand with bow and gun. Since his heart attack, however, he is less intent on killing deer and more intent on seeing them.. It is the second month of the deer bow season and the autumn sun is warm. He relaxes on stand and drinks in the scenery around him. The woods are auburn. Geese fly overhead and he eyes the flock, wondering where they’ll be tonight. He has been on stand many hours, since dawn, and he watched the sunrise and listened to the woods wake up. He has learned that each deer season is a gift which he can’t take for granted. He hears a sound in the leaves. His eyes move slowly, finding the doe and fawn. He doesn’t draw his bow. They are not his quarry today; he has come to watch more than to kill and he will stop watching only if a very large buck interrupts.
The Watcher is a Sitter who has moved into phase five by enjoying instead of enduring the outdoors. When it is cold, he listens to the trees crack and imagines what it must be like for the chickadees which flit from branch to branch. He still enjoys the hunting, but he’s not just waiting for a deer, he’s waiting for anything. Any change in weather, any animal or bird, any contour of the landscape will enthrall and reward him. His discipline is not only of the mind but of the spirit: he considers himself part of the plan for this piece of creation, fits himself in and takes it all in. Part of his ability to watch rests in his recognition of his own mortality and the preciousness of his time outdoors. He needn’t be old, but he must have passed through at least several of the phases of driving, standing, stalking, and sitting.
Watching is a learned art, a practiced science. Odds are you are well on your way to being a Watcher if you are reading this. It is a personal evolution this process: these are the phases of trail watching we must pass through.
One day you will be sitting on stand, a cold drip at the end of your nose, and realize you have been there for six hours and have enjoyed every minute.
You will be a whitetail deer hunter.