Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Choosing and Using Blinds and Stands
Blinds and tree stands are all the rage with today's hunter. Used for almost all big game species, ground blinds and tree stands, not to mention freestanding hides are huge on the deer hunting scene. These portable structures are the cats meow. All sorts of blinds allow us to essentially vanish inside a tent or box-like structure. Stands allow us to hunt at an elevation less easily recognized by game.
Ground blinds are becoming very popular. Manufacturers catering to the discerning hunter offer a bevy of different designs. Most are the pop-up portable style, but some are so elaborate that they take some doing to get them in place. Today's blinds are camouflaged to allow the hunter to virtually disappear. Some are even constructed of scent-elimination materials thereby masking human odor.
Likewise, more of us are taking to the trees than every before. Why? Simple - tree stand hunting works. More deer are harvested each year from stands than by any other method. A well-placed stand allows the hunter to avoid a deer's direct field of vision while also using thermals to carry scent away from the immediate area. Commercial stand manufacturers have capitalized on our propensity to climb trees, acknowledging the fact that stand hunting is by far the most effective way to outsmart and ambush unsuspecting game. Knowing when, where and how to situate a tree stand can literally make or break a hunt. Through trial and error, I've learned some significant 'dos' and 'don'ts' when it comes to stand placement. And let me tell you, I've experienced the best and worst of stand hunting. I've been lucky enough to take exceptional trophy class animals with little time at all invested on stand, but I've also invested hundreds of hours perched high up in a tree with nothing to show for my efforts but a sore rear end.
Regardless of whether you use a gun or a bow, as a ground blind or stand hunter you quickly learn to consider seasonal timing and the lay of the land. The biggest challenge most of us face is limited time and pressure from other hunters, so we do everything we can to place our stands in an area with the greatest chances of encountering game. This is the "odds factor". In simple terms, whenever you explore new territory or even the lad you hunt on a regular basis, do everything you can to tip the odds in your favor. Consider trail intersections, ridges, natural movement corridors, funnels, and sometimes field edges. As you scour the area, make mental and literal notes on topographic maps to identify which spots might be high, medium, or low odds locations for blinds or stands.
Every now and again I get creative and make a blind out of natural cover. I find an ideal location, cut the necessary trees and branches and craft a natural ground blind. It's usually no more than three feet or so in height and can often accommodate a couple hunters. I generally make it big enough to put a folding chair inside. On the upside, I like natural ground blinds because the scent of the cut leaves and branches helps to mask my odor. The downside is that unless it's constructed under the canopy of a big evergreen, it doesn't offer much protection overhead.
This is where commercial blinds are ideal. Several manufacturers are making a variety of portable pop-up and hub-style ground blinds. Most are so portable in fact, that they can be erected in less than a minute. Perhaps best known among North American hunters are the Double Bull products (www.doublebullarchery.com) and those made by Ameristep (www.ameristep.com). Each of these well-established companies makes different lines of blinds, all of which are constructed of camouflage fabric with a variety of shooting windows. Different styles have variable dimensions, but all are designed with a specific purpose. Several weigh as little as a few pounds, with few weighing more than 24 pounds. I own several different portable blinds and my favorite have shooting rails built into the internal frame.
Aside from portable pop-ups, many hunters are turning to freestanding tower or box blinds. Often dubbed shooting houses, most are little more than a box (roughly 4 ft. x 8 ft. in dimension) with windows, mounted on an elevated frame - a tripod or other elevated structure usually standing anywhere from 10 - 16 feet tall. Some models are little more than an elevated platform with a swivel seat and shooting rail mounted on top along with a camouflage skirt that surrounds the shooter.
Regardless of which style of blind you prefer a nice advantage of having walls and a roof over your head is protection from the sun, wind, rain and snow. Likewise, the ability to add a portable heater is always welcome in extreme cold conditions.
Most years I attend the Shooting and Hunting Outdoor Tradeshow (SHOT). At the most recent show I was blown away yet again by the sheer number of tree stand options on the market. To mention them all in this article would be impossible. They can best be described in three main categories: Climbers, ladders and lock-on stands. Each designed for a special purpose it's up to the hunter to determine which product best meets their needs.
Climbing stands have long been a favorite of many hunters, partly due to the fact that no accessories are required to put up the stand. They can be carried on the hunter's back and put up or taken down in a matter of minutes. They can take a little getting used to and you do have to be careful using them, but as a rule, they are comfortable and compact. Generally designed in two pieces, one is a platform that you stand on and the other is a seat. By placing alternately standing on the platform and raising the upper section, then rotating to do the opposite, the hunter eventually makes their way up the tree. The downside of climbers is that they can only be used on trees with no protruding limbs. The upside, and it's a big one, is their portability.
Over the last two decades I've hunted out of many different tree stands. Some were very uncomfortable, most were alright, but I can say with confidence that I have my preferences. My own favor for most situations goes to River's Edge tree stands, particularly their portable lock-on models. In my opinion, they are extremely well-built, durable, comfortable and reasonably lightweight. As a professional outfitter for Alberta whitetails and black bear, I've come to learn that almost every hunter has their own preferences when it comes to stands. Some like them big, while others like them small. The one thing everyone does like is stability and that's why I use Rivers Edge stands. They are undeniably the most solid stands I've ever tried.
Some tree stands have every accessory known to man, i.e., bow holders, shooting rails, back rests, etc. I'm not a big fan of all the bells and whistles because I often have to carry my stands in, on foot, the better part of a mile. Each stand has a different weight rating, so be sure to check to see if it is suitable for your size before use. Aside from this, be sure to consider the mounting system, i.e., does it come with a t-screw for hanging the stand? Does it use heavy duty ratchet straps, and so on?
Another consideration is climbing the tree to put up the stand. The difficulty with most portable stands is the need for steps or a ladder of some sort. I like to use portable screw-in steps so that I can vary the height to maximize shot opportunities. Several portable step and ladder products are available from different manufacturers. To simplify your search for stands and or accessories, check out the Cabela's or your local Bass Pro Shops.
Almost all stand manufacturers today make each of the three styles of stands. I've found that Gorilla ladder stands are particularly good and I also own several 14-foot Cabela's ladder stands as well. I even have an inventory of lock-on tree loungers that I use together with the ladders. The biggest advantage to the loungers is comfort. Mine and many other models have a thick padded reclining seat and a padded shooting rail. The worst thing I hear from hunters who use them is that they're too comfortable. Translated, this means they sometimes fall asleep on stand.
Ladders are great options. Yes, they can be cumbersome to carry into the woods, but they are simpler and less time consuming to put up. Ladders and stands can be purchased in a variety of heights and sizes. Many ladders are built as just the ladder and top platform. Others are available with a full platform, tree stand, and even shooting rail as part of the ladder itself. In recent years manufacturers have even made tree stands that accommodate two hunters.
Considering Your Blind or Stand Location
Determining where to put your blind or stand can be done the hard way or the easy way. The most thorough is the good old-fashioned approach - lace up your hiking boots and start walking. If you're not interested in burning calories, you can begin with the academic approach. Keeping in mind that deer and other ungulates are attracted to two things - specifically food and protective cover - you can analyze aerial photographs to identify likely movement corridors, feeding areas and bedding areas. Aerial photos afford a bird's eye view that often clarifies hunches. By looking at actual photos of the area, you will inevitably pinpoint good areas for a blind or stand.
The most important types of habitat structures to look for include heavy cover for bedding, funnels, ridges, valleys, bottlenecks for transitional movement, and of course the best source of readily available food. Hunt long enough and you eventually realize that almost every decision you make when pursuing individual species is based on forage. If you're hunting deer, you can't go wrong focusing on the most protein-rich food source. For instance, in the agricultural areas of western Canada, locating alfalfa or pea fields adjacent to good cover can produce awesome opportunities. Most hunters have grown accustomed to focusing on these food sources at daybreak and dusk hoping to catch a rare glimpse, and maybe even get a shot at game. Case in point, how often have you seen blinds or tree stands in likely looking spots right on the field edges? I would suggest that 80 per cent of bow hunters limit themselves big time by doing just that.
By placing stands on the edge of a field, hunters restrict themselves to a very small window of opportunity that is most often accompanied by very low light conditions. Yes, they have probably identified an exit or entrance trail connecting the heavy cover to the open feeding area, but the game they are after doesn't spend much time out in the open during daylight hours. This is not to suggest that field edge stands don't have a place; quite the contrary in fact. Sometimes a field edge can be the best option available, but rarely is this true outside of the first couple weeks of the early bow season. By considering all options, you quickly learn that there are plenty of other places that can produce better and more frequent opportunities under better light conditions.
When and Where to Set Blinds and Stands
Learning when and where to place and hunt your blind or stand is a skill that can only be learned through first-hand experience. Whenever I place a blind or stand, first and foremost I determine whether it will be used for bow or gun hunting. Archery stand sites require clear shooting lanes out to approximately 40 yards. Those used for rifle hunting may be placed greater distances from trails or along cut-lines with the objective of maximizing visibility and providing the best possible shot opportunity.
Placing blinds or stands along heavily used trails, or near water holes or mineral licks is common practice, especially for bow hunters. Blind sites and stand sites for rifle hunting requires greater visibility out to as much as 400 yards. While I like to zero in on high traffic areas, I prefer to set up along wide cut lines, clear cuts or clearings that have evidence of lots of movement either along, across or around these structures.
At this point, attention to detail is critical. Whenever possible, set your blind or stand in position as much as a week prior to hunting that location. Most importantly consider whether you want to hunt that location as a morning or evening spot. Secondary, but worth considering, is the prevailing wind. If you are able to avoid sending your scent toward the game you're after, do so.
A common mistake made by many hunters involves building permanent blinds or stands. Unless we're setting up on an established food plot or consistent travel corridor, permanent blinds and stands may not produce the same from year to year. Certainly there are locations that produce annually, but this is not always the case. Environmental and other factors such as available food sources manipulate movement from one year to the next. It's up to you to determine which factors affect the game and adapt accordingly.
Timing is also important. Blinds or stands that produce well in the early season, may not work that well in the late season. In fact, early and pre-rut movement is often very different from peak- and post-rut movement for most ungulate species. Learning to identify peak- and post-rut areas can make all the difference in the world. For deer in particular, identifying rubs and scrapes can help narrow your focus. So too will identifying areas of heavily used multiple intersecting trails near these active rubs and scrapes. This can even be taken one step further during the peak of the rut. By identifying active primary scrapes when secondary scrapes are abandoned, you can often pinpoint the perfect ambush location.
Once you've determined your site of choice, knowing how best to position your blind or hang the stand can again make or break the shot opportunity.
Where you place your blind or stand will first be determined by whether you are hunting with a bow or a gun. Archery requires much closer range shot opportunities. As a rule, if I'm looking to get an up-close-and-personal look at game, I'll set up approximately 20 yards off of the trail(s) I'm watching. If I'm using a rifle and my effective shooting range extends out to several hundred yards, I'll look for ridges or hilltops with the greatest vantage point overlooking heavily used travel corridors. If I'm setting up on a cut-line, I'll sometimes set up my blind or ladder stand right on the edge or at the end of the line to maximize visibility. Likewise, on field edges, I have found corners or hidden bays or coves to be the best producers.
As for portable tree stands, some hunters like to position their stands relatively low and others prefer to go as high as possible. There are pros and cons to each. As a rule, I like to place my stands anywhere from 16 to 20 feet up in the tree. This height can serve to carry scent away from the immediate area while also elevating the hunter just out of the animals' immediate field of view.
Place a stand too high and shot angles can create tough conditions in which pivoting the upper body can be difficult. Chances of wounding game in this scenario increase dramatically. Place your stand too low and you defeat the purpose of being in a tree.
I generally mount my portable stands close to, or between, the trails I'm hunting and ideally within 20 yards of trail intersections. Preferring close encounters, I plan for a 15- or 20-yard shot. On the other hand, some folks like to be further away, mostly to avoid detection.
As for the tree itself, I've sat in stands secured to everything from spindly spruce trees over bear bait to hefty aspens over deer scrapes and even big old pines near mineral licks. Hands down, my favorite is always a huge spruce tree. Not only do they help conceal movement, but they provide a solid backdrop to break up your image against the skyline.
If you already use blinds or stands but are frustrated with the lack of game you're seeing, consider the aforementioned. Don't hesitate to relocate, and most of all - take the time to properly scout your area. Beyond these basics, remember to always consider safety. Do your best to position blinds well away from anyone else's line of fire. Likewise, always use safety harnesses when climbing trees and sitting stands.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.