Drive Hunting

Drive Hunting

The Folsom site at Wild Horse Arroyo. Near the end of the Ice Age, hunters using sophisticated stone spear points slaughtered a small herd of bison here. They were almost certainly using drive tactics.

The term drive has nothing to do with vehicles. Instead, it is used to describe the strategy of chasing game toward waiting hunters. It is an ancient method that requires careful coordination between multiple individuals. In fact, linguists and anthropologists have postulated that the challenges of drive hunting may have helped spur the development of human language; our early African ancestors needed a way to coordi-nate their hunting activities, and so they learned to talk. Here in North America, the archaeological record abounds with the evidence of successful drive hunts. The Folsom site, in northeastern New Mexico, revealed the remains of more than twenty Bison antiquus (an early ancestor of the modern buffalo) killed by Ice Age hunters who drove the animals into an arroyo and then slaughtered them with spears. Across the Great Plains, from southern Texas to southern Alberta, there are dozens upon dozens of locations where Native American hunt-ers drove buffalo over cliffs—sometimes hundreds or even thousands at a time. Some folks might argue that these “buffalo jumps” don’t really represent game drives as we understand them today. It was the cliff that did the killing, they’d say, not hunters. But a careful examination of these sites reveals the opposite. It is common to find great abundances of arrowheads—sometimes thousands—mixed among the slaughtered bones at the bases of the cliffs. It seems that the cliffs usually did little more than injure the animals. Hunters did the rest. Today, drives are used effectively on several big game species, ranging in size from javelina to elk. It’s the only hunting strategy in which you’re actually trying to spook your quarry. It can be exciting, fast-paced, and sometimes quite hectic. In a perfect situation, two hunters are all it takes to orchestrate a drive; one guy goes into a thicket to spook up the quarry, the other guy kills it when it comes running out. But in reality, drives aren’t usually so precise. Instead, they are built around a number of unknowns, and these are addressed by the use of additional hunters.

It’s often going to take more than one guy to find your quarry and get it moving in the right direction, and it’s often going to take more than one guy to cover the possible escape routes. Realistically, most drives require between four and eight hunters to do things right. Each hunter in a drive is assigned a role, either as a pusher or a stander. Pushers are responsible for getting the game up and moving, usually by walking through areas of thick bedding cover. Sometimes the pushers will get shots at game that they’ve kicked up, but it’s usually the standers who get the shots in. These are the hunters who are responsible for covering the escape routes used by the quarry, which is where most of the action typically occurs.

Whitetail deer are particularly conducive to drive hunting. Here, a group of hunters in Wisconsin celebrate after conducting a successful deer drive that has produced dozens of whitetails over the years. 

It’s probably no surprise that most hunters prefer to be standers. But it’s the pushers, at least the good ones, who deserve the respect. Instead of blindly walking through the woods, trusting that he’ll scare out game and that it will go in the right direction, a pusher needs to engage in constant analysis. He has to let his movements be guided by the terrain and the available evidence of animals. If he’s doing a deer drive and he sees some semi-fresh deer beds beneath hemlock trees, he’ll veer out of his way to pass beneath every single hemlock in the woods. He’ll also alert the other pushers of his find, so they can do the same. And if he cuts a fresh track, he’ll dodge off course to follow it. If that track goes into a particularly dense thicket that might hold the deer, he’ll enter the thicket in such a way that the deer is likely to bound away in the direction of the standers. And if the wind is blowing toward this thicket as he approaches it, he’ll adjust his course so that his odor doesn’t arrive ahead of him and potentially spook the deer out in the wrong direction. What’s more, the pusher remains on high alert at all times for a critter that has detected the standers and attempts to double back and make its way through the line of pushers. In addition to these considerations of strat-egy, the pusher needs to be a disciplined worker who’s willing to bust through the nastiest briar thickets and brush-choked hellholes that Mother Nature can throw his way. Obviously, there is more to being a stander than just shooting at game. A good stander approaches his role in a drive with some of the same care and thoughtfulness that an ambush hunter uses when picking his location. When hunting a species with a sensitive nose, such as deer or elk, he positions himself with a mind toward the wind so that he’s not letting his odor reveal his position to the game. He anticipates potential shot avenues and makes sure that he’s got enough room to maneuver and get his weapon in position. He remains extremely alert, watches in all directions, and expects sudden surprises. Most important, he main-tains a constant awareness that his hunting partners are out in front of him somewhere, and he never even thinks about taking a shot that might send a bullet or arrow in their direction. At this point, it’s helpful to take a look at a couple of hypothetical drives, one for whitetail deer and one for elk. While no two drive scenarios are the same, these two illustrated examples (see this page) will give you an idea of the thinking that goes into a drive.

Consider these examples and then apply the methodology to the situations that you’ll encounter on your own hunts—regardless of what you’re after or where. The first is a whitetail drive in a classic farm country setting of mixed croplands, woodlots, and wetlands. The hunters know that late-season deer tend to seek shelter in the thick brush and cattails around a small pond, as well as along the brushy ditchrow that separates the lower fallow field from the south cornfield. The two pushers (red routes) will push out all the bedding areas while the two standers cover the most likely escape routes. Since this is late season and the deer have already been subjected to some hunting pressure, they will want to stick to cover as much as possible once they 117 spook. The pushers have considered this and positioned themselves accordingly. Here’s another drive situation, this time for elk. Bear in mind, however, that elk drives are not nearly as easy to pull off as deer drives. The vastness of the country and the steep topography make it hard to anticipate the movement of an elk herd. But this situation will help shed some light on the general sort of thinking that goes into a drive as you factor in topography, cover, and the known habits of the quarry. In this scenario, the elk are thought to be bedded in a smallish patch of evergreens near the top of a mountain slope. This particular patch is worth driving because it has a natural border (cliffs and scree fields) at its upper end that will keep the elk from going straight up and over the mountain. The hunters are aware of a heavily used elk trail through the saddle and another traversing the sage-covered opening heading to another patch of timber. Maybe the most important part of pulling off this drive is the ability of the standers to get to their locations without alerting the bedded elk. This might mean a wide loop up the backside of the mountain, requiring a couple of hours of hiking. Once the standers are in position, the pushers start at the lower end of the timber. As the pushers zigzag through the timber, their scent is carried uphill by a rising thermal. It is important that the pushers traverse the hill completely to ensure that their smell wafts up through the entire section of timber. It is the scent of humans that will drive the elk out, not the noise or sight of a pusher. The elk will sneak out, following the known escape routes through the saddle and along the trail. If everything goes right, they will pass within easy range of the standers.

Drive scenario: Whitetail dear

The more you experiment with drives, the more you’ll see that each particular game drive is like a jigsaw puzzle: it may be hard to put together the first try, but it gets easier and easier each time you do it. The most effective drives are perfected over many seasons of hunting. Eventually, through success and failure, you learn what the animals in a given situation are going to do—even if you never really understand why they do it. Such lessons are learned from direct observation of the animals themselves, and also by checking for tracks in the snow or mud after an unsuccessful drive. Doing so, you might find that an animal went off in a completely unexpected direction and never came near your standers, or that it passed within easy shooting distance of your standers but avoided attention through the intentional—or just lucky—use of slight dips and rises in the landscape. Through these investigations, and through direct observation of the animals, you’ll learn that animals in a particular area favor certain ridges and shun others, or opt to travel on one side of a creek and not the other, or tend to cross a field on the north end rather than the south end. You can then incorporate these lessons into next year’s hunt—hopefully with deadly results.

Drive scenario: ELK


1. Don’t drive a particular area more than once or twice a year. If you do it too often, you’ll force the animals that are using the area to abandon it.

2. When it comes to deer drives, save them for the last day or two of the season. By then, more deer will be hunkered down in the thickest, least accessible regions of your hunting area, which are the best areas to drive. Also, you won’t have to worry about the drive impacting your ambush hunting prospects.

3. The standers on a drive should sneak quietly into their positions and maintain absolute silence when there. No talking, no coughing, no fidgeting around. If animals detect the presence of the standers, they will choose an alternate route of escape.

4. One pusher can do the job of four if he uses the wind to his advantage. Rather than walking through an area to scare out deer, let the wind carry in your scent and do the work for you.

5. Consider your weapon and ammunition before a drive hunt. Because your quarry is likely to be moving, set variable-power scopes at low magnification levels so you can find game in a hurry through the lens. For fast access, cradle your firearm rather than slinging it over your shoulder. And keep extra ammo ready, so you don’t need to dig for it in a moment of panic.

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