Spot and Stalk Whitetail Tactics: 10 Tips to Take a Big Buck with a Bow

I love spot and stalk archery hunting for whitetails and for good reason. I have killed my two highest scoring whitetail bucks on spot and stalk hunts with archery equipment. Spot and stalk hunting is a technique I have employed more frequently over the past several years. While I’ve had some success, I have had my share of failures, too. Below, I share my favorite 10 tips to take a big whitetail buck on a spot and stalk hunt.

Spot and Stalk Whitetail Hunting
The Author took this buck on a spot and stalk hunt in 2019.

1. Pick Suitable Terrain

Spot and Stalk Deer Bow Hunting

Picking the right terrain is critical for increasing the odds of a successful spot and stalk whitetail hunt. My ideal stalking ground has elevation changes interspersed with pockets of cover. I leverage elevation changes for long range glassing. Once a target buck is spotted, I utilize terrain and the interspersed cover to stay out of sight and close the distance. Country with abrupt elevation changes makes long range glassing more difficult and provides wary bucks hidden travel routes. Too much vegetation cover makes relocating bucks difficult and too little cover increases the odds of getting picked off when closing the distance. States like South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, Western Iowa, and Montana are ideal choices in my opinion.

If I had to describe my ideal spot and stalk terrain, I’d like 3-4 foot tall CRP with Christmas tree sized pockets of pines every 20-50 yards, similar to the terrain pictured above.

2. Understand the Areas Bucks Frequent

Spot and Stalk Hunting Tips

On the second day of Montana’s 2021 archery season, I stalked to within 50 yards of a bachelor group of bucks feeding in a weed field. A few minutes later, I arrowed a 138-inch buck at 7 yards. How did I end up there? I knew the property from previous scouting and hunting, and I knew that this weed field provided a preferred early season food source. I also knew the areas bucks frequent in the early season – bedding and feeding areas.

When I spot and stalk whitetails in the early season, I look to move in transition areas between bedding and feeding. A wind advantage is a must, so I travel into the wind or a crosswind. Contrary to some old wives’ tales, whitetails will generally travel from bedding to feeding areas regardless of wind direction. However, it is extremely common for them to skirt the downwind side of food sources in the evening to scent check the food source for danger. Whitetails display similar behavior in the mornings when entering bedding areas. Bucks generally travel back to preferred bedding areas regardless of wind direction. However, they often “j-hook” when entering bedding areas, an observation popularized by Dan Infalt of the Hunting Beast. What’s a j-hook? A deer walks adjacent to its bedding areas, walks past it, and then hooks back and enters the bedding areas with the wind in its face. The path taken adjacent to the bedding and then looping back into the wind resembles the letter “J”, and hence the term “J-Hook”. Why does a buck do this? Any predator scent trailing a deer on its morning trail will follow the trail. Since the scent trail is upwind of the bedded buck, this gives the buck his first chance to escape. Once the predator passes the bedding area, the buck has the opportunity to visually see the predator, which offers it a second chance to escape.

Understanding the concept of the “j-hook” bedding entry can provide a great opportunity for morning spot and stalk hunts. I often find buck bedding areas during post-season scouting or have knowledge of them from previous in-season experience. Entering a bedding area from a “back door” on a morning hunt and slowly maneuvering into position on the fringe of a j-hook trail is a tactic that can produce big buck sightings. Water access via waders or kayak provide stealthy access on these types of hunts without polluting the transition area between food and bedding with ground scent.

3. Work the Wind

This one goes without saying, but it needs to be said. Whenever I hunt whitetails with archery equipment, working the wind (and thermals) is paramount to my success. Even the most fanatical scent control regime is no guarantee of defeating the incredibly sensitive nose of a whitetail. In my experience, big bucks simply will not tolerate human scent and they don’t stick around long once they detect it. When spot and stalking, I first consider the travel routes I expect the deer to take (See Tip #2 – Understand the areas bucks frequent). Then I look at the forecasted wind direction for the area, and then I make a plan of access to take advantage of the forecasted wind direction. However, I cannot recount how many times the forecasted wind direction and the actual wind direction at my hunting location have differed. This is incredibly frustrating as a treestand hunter, and one of the biggest advantages for the spot and stalk hunter. Adapting to changing wind conditions is much easier on the ground.

I carry two different wind checking devices. The first is the puff bottle, which I place in one of the side pouches of my binocular harness. The second is a container of dried milkweed silk. Dry milkweed silk (with the seed removed), will travel long distances on even mild air currents, and its bright white color provides a visual reference much longer the quickly dissipating powders in a puff bottle.

Once I’ve verified the wind conditions on the ground, I’ll plan my route based on the wind direction and expected deer travel routes. Almost always, I can find a way to work into the wind or work with a crosswind.

If you’d like to gain an advanced understanding of wind, thermals, and all the factors that can influence wind and thermal conditions, check out Podcast Episode #8 with Erich Burkentine. Erich is a wildland firefighter with over 20 years of experience, and he has a next level understanding of all things meteorological.

4. Slow Down

Spot and Stalk Hunting Tips

When I am spot and stalk hunting whitetails, I spend the majority of my time spotting, not stalking. I am stationary when I spot the overwhelming majority of deer I see while spot and stalk hunting. My typical routine involves glassing from a vantage point (if available) for the first part of the morning for up to an hour in an effort to locate a buck.

If I am unsuccessful during my initial round of glassing, I begin to move through the property, into the wind or on a crosswind, perpendicular to known or suspected buck travel routes. How far I move each time depends on a few factors. The first factor is the density of the vegetation and my line of sight in the terrain. The farther I can see, or the more open terrain, the more likely I am to make big moves. If I am satisfied that I have scoured the landscape with my binoculars and not turned up any deer, then I will move into the wind, almost to the edge of the area I have been glassing. Once on the fringe of the original area I glassed, I will post up and begin glassing again. Speaking of posting up…

5. Utilize Cover, Shadows, and Terrain

One of the single biggest mistakes I believe people make on a spot and stalk hunt is taking an easy route from point A to point B or being a little too carefree in their approach.

Plan your route. Have a backup plan if your initial plan fails.

Once I spot a buck worth pursuing, I plan a route. What am I looking for? Changes in elevation, cover, and shadows. I want to conceal my movement by putting terrain (e.g. a hillside or knoll) between myself and the buck, or I want to travel in a ditch to get as low as possible. When terrain isn’t available, I am looking to move from one piece of cover to the next, and I am purposely moving in a way to keep whatever cover is available between myself and the buck to obscure his line of sight to my position. Lastly, to the extent possible, I am trying to remain in the shadows as often as possible to conceal my form and movement.

Even with the best planning, things change. Whitetails, especially rutting whitetails, are an unpredictable bunch. That’s why I always try and have a contingency plan. Whenever possible, avoid routes that put you “all-in” on a stalk where it will be hard to make further moves due to a lack of cover or losing the wind advantage.

6. Glass, Glass, Glass, and Then Glass Some More!

Spot and Stalk Whitetail

Glassing is the name of the game when it comes to spot and stalk hunting. My chances of success skyrocket when I get the jump on a target buck by spotting him well before he’s ever aware of my presence. As discussed in tip #4, I spend a good portion of my spot and stalk hunts spotting and relatively little time stalking. My glassing technique centers around glassing grids from near to far. Moving deer are the easiest to spot, so I will grid for movement first. If I don’t see movement, I will really focus on glassing for antler tips and white spots (usually the inside of a whitetails ears or the rings around their eyes) as white spots are the easiest to identify among a sea of earth tones. Bring your patience, as spotting a buck first is a major component of success.

7. Use a Bow Mounted Decoy

Decoys have applications outside of the rut. During non-rut phases, a bow mounted decoy like the Ultimate Predator Stalker Decoy has given me a few extra seconds, critical for getting to full draw.

During the rut, a ground level decoy can be deadly. Especially when the decoy is combined with calling sequences like rattling, grunting or doe bleats. The combination of the auditory input and the visual can be unbelievably effective. With the Stalker Decoy and rattling horns or grunt calls, I have called in multiple bucks across open terrain. In the past, without the decoy, I have had several bucks hang up outside of bow range. When they come in investigate a calling sequence, they expect to see another animal, and when they don’t, they get very suspicious and usually hang up out of bow range.

8. Grunt call, Doe bleat and Rattling Horns

As noted in the decoy tip above, having an auditory element in combination with a decoy while ground hunting can be a killer combination. Calling from a treestand has several problems, most notably, bucks often come in silently and they almost always circle downwind to investigate the source of the sound with their noses before exposing themselves. When hunting from a treestand, I believe a lot of hunters get busted by the buck before the buck ever gets within bow range.

Knowing that bucks usually approach from downwind, one of my favorite tactics is to call and then immediately move 30-40 yards downwind to regain my wind advantage on any bucks responding to my calling sequence and circling downwind in the process.

Another tip is to wait an adequate amount of time after a calling sequence. As mentioned, bucks often come in cautious, choosing to investigate the source of the calling from downwind. This can take some time. I’ve had bucks come in as long as 30 minutes after a calling sequence, and 30 minutes is now the minimum amount of time I wait after moving to my downwind position after calling. Speaking of my downwind position, I don’t call until I am in a position to capitalize. I need adequate shooting lanes; I need to be able to move to a piece of back cover (usually an evergreen tree or large trunked hardwood).  I setup on the shadowed side of the cover whenever possible, and I immediately deploy my laser rangefinder to range any landmarks nearby, so I don’t have to range again if and when a shooter buck appears. Also, whenever possible, I try and draw my bow before the buck comes completely into view. This is critical when not using a decoy. However, I have been able to carefully draw back on several bucks when using the stalker decoy after the target buck has already spotted the decoy.

9. Cover Your Face

Spot and Stalk Hunting Tips
Jordan Kurkowski with a camo face and a great buck from the ground.

In my opinion, one of the most overlooked aspects of spot and stalk hunting is an uncamouflaged face, and I’m not alone in that thought. During Podcast Episode #2 with Jordan Kurkowski, one of the most proficient ground hunters I know, Jordan stressed the importance of a camouflaged face. Jordan prefers face paint. I prefer a mask, such as those built into the Sitka Lightweight Hoody, or a separate piece of kit like a spandoflage headnet. Whatever you choose, make sure your face is covered on any spot and stalk hunt.

10. Tag team

Grab a buddy and a bow mounted buck decoy and bow mounted doe decoy during the lockdown phase of the rut. Put the buck decoy on the shooters bow, and place the shooter with the buck decoy between the doe decoy and where buck movement is anticipated. Perform a calling sequence within earshot of lockdown hideouts like thickets, CRP fields or along the edges of water sources and wait at least 30 minutes. If a buck appears, the combination of a buck with a doe will drive him crazy and is almost guaranteed to bring him in to challenge the buck decoy, which is why the shooter should have the buck decoy on his bow and be positioned closer to expected buck movement.

Your Favorite Tactics?

Try employing these tactics this Fall, and they could increase your spot and stalk success and your adrenaline! Let me know your favorite spot and stalk tactics in the comments below!

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