By Drew Henry
I was raised hunting white-tailed deer with my dad in eastern Montana on the Milk River, primarily from a tree stand. My hundreds of mornings and nights spent patiently waiting for that bruiser to walk past me have resulted in some great successes, even more great mistakes, and whole lot of lessons learned. When I told my dad I was writing an article with a few of my favorite tips and tricks, he was less than excited. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked me bluntly, as if everyone who reads this was going to run out and accomplish everything he had worked so hard to teach me. Sarcastically I replied, “I’m a decent swimmer, but if Michael Phelps gave me some pointers, would I be able to instantly win the gold?”
As hunters, we naturally hold our secrets close to our chest; unwilling to give others a perceived head-start on our hard work. But, it is no secret that a hunter doesn’t simply read an article on hunting and become consistently successful; they must work hard and spend countless hours in the field, making their own mistakes. So, knowing this fact, and likely frustrating my dad, here are a few of my favorite tips for hunting these elusive creatures from a tree stand.
Stand location and access
It has been said time and time again, but a topic as important as stand location is worth repeating. When placing a tree stand, most hunters do a good job at noting things such as natural deer funnels, bedding and feeding areas, and any sign of activity such as scrapes and rubs that will help you determine where to set up. However, one thing that is often overlooked by hunters is stand accessibility. Ideally, you should be located in a spot that can be accessed without any deer knowing you are in the area. Remember, you will never come to full draw on a big buck if you bump him on the way to your stand. But, what if there are deer on the field already when you arrive or the only spot for the stand is in a place that you will undoubtedly bump some deer?
I often use a very simple technique; hale a taxi. Ask someone to drive you directly to, or as close to, your stand as possible. Deer see and hear vehicles on a daily basis and are much more habituated to them than to humans. When they see your pickup coming, they will usually jog back into cover and watch the pickup intently. This is your opportunity to secretively hop out and climb up your tree, all while they continue to watch the pickup as it drives away. If there are no taxis available, and you have a sufficient distance to travel on foot to get to your stand, try to run in short intermittent spurts between hiding cover, making sure you move only when the deer appear to be calm. You can also make a small grunt or bleat to add to the realism. Deer are accustomed to the sound of other deer, especially fawns, tromping through the woods every day. What deer don’t often hear, and makes them nervous, is the nice rhythmic sound of human footsteps slowly working through the woods.
Wind and Scent
Obviously, everyone should try to hunt an appropriate wind. I try to hunt an edge; a river, fence, dirt field, ditch; anything that will keep a minimum amount of deer on your downwind side for very long will give you an advantage. However, it is inevitable that you will be winded. All the scent cover tricks in the world won’t keep that doe from picking up on your morning burrito breath, your daughter’s hair spray, or the stale wet dog smell in your pickup. One of my favorite tricks to use to avoid this situation is what I call “wind saturation”. I carry a bottle of fox urine (coyote, raccoon, or whatever your pleasure will also suffice) in my pocket at all times in the stand. If a deer is approaching my downwind side, I slowly begin to saturate the air with a mist of urine. Countless times I have had deer catch my wind and begin to investigate, only to slowly walk away with a confused look on their face. I may burn through a few bottles of urine a season, and yes the sporting goods guy is starting to give me funny looks when I return for more, but I get winded far less often than I once did.
I don’t believe in falling for every scent control gimmick on the market, remember, a deer will definitely smell you at some point. However, I am a firm believer in limiting my scent by using scent free soap for body and clothes, and hanging my camouflage in the trees or shrubs in my yard to air out over night. Also, try storing your camo in a sealed container with local vegetation and crushed charcoal to limit any unnatural scent.
You are a hunter dang it and you are tough! The early season is exciting, and prepping stands can really get you going. Once in a while though, that excitement may convince you that the slight angle on that stand won’t really matter, especially since the deer will be funneling past you by the hundreds. Believe me, after a couple of chiropractic visits, you will wish you had taken the time to make it comfy. If the angle on the tree is weird, find a log, or better yet bring in a small section of 2×4 to place between the bottom of the stand and the tree to level things out. You will not regret it, no matter how tough you thought you were.
Shooting lanes and Tree Trimming
After hanging the perfect stand in the perfect tree, you will undoubtedly be forced to trim some shooting lanes. Creating lanes that will give you greater shot opportunities and increase the chances of a quick clean kill are crucial to a tree stand hunter. But, remember that carbon arrows are not pickup trucks. So, why can a pickup fit through that shooting lane? Being realistic about how much lane you need to shoot through will keep more vegetation between you and a deer’s eyeball. This becomes very important in the fall when the leaves are all lying on the ground.
A conservative tree trimming mindset is also important when clearing your stand of obstructions. Nobody wants to bump their bow on a tree limb when coming to full draw. But, many hunters, including myself, forget that a good backdrop of cover and branches is almost always better than great cover in front of them. Be conservative and try to leave as many branches around you as you can; branches are much easier to remove later than to replace. If you do need to replace branches, or add branches where there were none, try wrapping a tie down strap around the tree and shove branches in between the two. You can even use tree stand steps to balance some extra cover.
Clear a trail, Block a trail
Remember, deer are creatures of habitat and ease. That is why deer trails are such a great indicator as to where they are walking most often. You don’t need to rely completely on a trail to bring your buck into shooting range. If you can break their habits, or make life easier for them, you can take advantage of the situation. If there is a well used trail that is out of your range, dragging a fallen tree across the trail may force a deer out of their habit, and into your lap. Conversely, if your chip shot trail at 20 yards is being underused, try removing any leaves and branches, making it easier for a deer to travel in silence and be more comfortable coming past you in range.
Know Your Range
In today’s world, we are blessed with high tech rangefinders that can be purchased at reasonable prices. They have become a critical piece of hunting equipment, and have allowed for more clean kills than ever before. However, if you are completely reliant on using your rangefinder before you will even consider drawing your bow, then this blessing can soon become a curse. To alleviate this need, try ranging stationary objects, such as a tree stump, fence post, or rock, so you can reference these distances when the moment of truth arrives. Also, for even more range clarity, try hanging small pieces of colored tape from nearby trees. I use green for 20 yards, orange for 30 yards, and yellow for 40 yards. This will allow you to know the range in multiple locations quickly, without needing your rangefinder, and without needing to be an expert at the game Memory.
Remember, the only sure way to success, is to get out in the field and make some mistakes of your own. Hopefully these tips will help you in your quest for a great white-tailed buck, and perhaps eliminate a couple of painful mistakes.