Woodsmanship, the Lost Art of Hunting
By Steven W. Barnett, Wildlife Biologist
While perched in a climbing tree stand on a December deer hunt in north Alabama, it became apparent that an understanding of woodsmanship as it relates to hunting was all around me. First, this region of Alabama typically experiences peak rutting activity around Christmas. Realizing this, part of my pre-hunt scouting effort was focused on locating fresh scrapes and rubs. Knowing that the rut is occurring is not part of woodsmanship, but knowing where to look for rutting sign is. Therefore, old woods roads and habitat transition areas that typically serve as staging areas for rutting bucks were inspected. For the site hunted, the staging area was a mixed pine-hardwood edge sandwiched between a young pine plantation and a hardwood creek bottom. A string of scrapes dotted the landscape on both sides of the creek bottom, connected by several merging deer trails.
The hunting experience described above illustrates that woodsmanship for a hunter may be defined as understanding the behavior of a game species at a specific time and location. This understanding culminates in the hunter’s ability to “read the sign,” or described another way, “interpreting an animal’s behavior based on the sign it leaves behind.” A game animal’s behavior is dictated by habitat preferences for available forages/cover and reproductive cycles at specific times of the year. Someone does not need a college degree in wildlife to link animal behavior and woodsmanship skills to become a more proficient hunter.
So, how does all this relate to the “lost art of hunting?” Many hunters define a day of deer hunting as driving to within a short walking distance of a box blind, climbing in, and staring at a grass patch for the last couple of daylight hours. To others, it may be following a GPS track from a vehicle to a ladder stand waypoint without noticing freshly eaten white oak acorns at a location where the ladder stand needs to be. There are times when a stand overlooking a wildlife opening is quite effective as a harvest aide or using a GPS to navigate the woodlands is helpful. However, being versatile in hunting methods by nurturing woodsmanship skills will promote a more effective hunter.
Woodsmanship is more than just recognizing sign; it requires a certain level of interpretation. This understanding helps a hunter envision the behavior of the animal that was “standing in the track” earlier. Tracks, to illustrate the point, usually indicate general direction of travel, but a woodsman will ask the question, “Where was the animal coming from and going to, and why”? Habitat types and seasonal preferences play a huge role. It may be a young pine plantation with a broomsedge understory that affords deer concealment for bedding cover and an adjacent white oak ridge littered with acorns for feeding in the fall. Or it may be a creek bottom where an old gobbler roosts before flying down to strut for his harem of hens in a large, bordering pasture in the spring. By exercising woodsmanship skills, you can accumulate clues from the landscape to develop a keen sense of productive hunting set-ups.
I would be remiss by failing to mention that part of the definition of a woodsman is, “skilled at traveling in the woods.” This includes the ability to travel in the woods without getting turned around or lost. With the use of a compass and the technologically advanced GPS, there is little excuse for most hunters to become lost. Modern technology and mechanical equipment aside, the woodsman-hunter should be acutely aware of landscape features and not rely solely on a GPS. Be mindful of a stealthy approach by moving slowly, quietly, and being a careful observer. One may develop tunnel vision by constantly looking down at a GPS screen and prone to injury from stepping into stump holes. I’m not knocking the use of navigation aides because I use them too, but keep it in perspective and stay in touch with your surroundings. After all, for a hunter, woodsmanship equates to reading and interpreting sign, not GPS tracks.
Our hunting heritage is grounded in the early frontier where woodsmanship skills were of paramount importance for wild game to be placed on the dinner table. Using these same skills today will help us all become more effective and knowledgeable hunters. In addition, mentoring woodsmanship to future generations of hunters will ensure this art is not lost.
For more information, contact Steven W. Barnett, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, 30571 Five Rivers Boulevard, Spanish Fort, AL 36527; phone 251-626-5474.