Today, the vast majority of deer hunters take to the trees. So popular is this movement that an entire industry has evolved along with a paradigm shift in how hunters approach the deer woods. Despite the effectiveness of tree stands, some ask if this strategy is creating a new generation of unskilled reactive hunters. More to the point, there are pros and cons to hunting from the trees, but in the end, it's hard to deny its effectiveness. Let's take a look at what it means to get high on whitetails.
The Elevation Advantage
Tree stand hunting offers distinct advantages, not the least of which involves displacing us from a deer's direct line-of-sight and smell. Along with technological advancements over the past few decades, the hunting masses have capitalized on high odds for success by adopting tree stands. Arguably the most popular whitetail hunting strategy, North American hunters have advanced stand hunting to levels never seen before. In turn, manufacturers are cashing in on our propensity for taking to the trees, big time!
Despite the positives and yes, even a few negatives, there's no arguing the benefits of today's stands and strategies for using them. Even still, there are skeptics among us who feel that stand hunting facilitates an unfair advantage. Some even go so far as to suggest this movement is nurturing a generation of otherwise unskilled hunters. As we take a closer look at tree stand hunting whitetails, you can decide for yourself. Regardless of personal opinions, it's tough to argue that getting high on whitetails continues to pay big dividends for those who understand when, where, and how to use tree stands.
Why do tree stands work so well? If you use them, you know the answer. Very simply, well-positioned stands put the hunter above a deer's line of sight. If you're out of sight, then you're potentially out of mind. If a buck doesn't know you're there, then its business as usual in the world of the whitetail and movement is uninhibited.
A whitetail hunter's best friends and worst enemies are wind and thermals. Find yourself upwind of a buck's nose and chances are you'll send him into the next county well before you ever see him. Elevate your scent so that it bypasses his nose, and the tables are likely to turn. It's a simple equation; if a deer is able to smell you, the game is over.
New Jersey hunter, Ray Goetz, with a nice whitetail taken from a
ladder stand during the heat of the November whitetail rut.
Skilled or Unskilled?
Unfortunate but true, for many whitetail hunters, tree stand hunting is the only way they know how to pursue deer. Put these folks on the ground, and many don't know where to begin; give them a tree stand, and they'll produce every time. Considering the number of deer we harvest each year from stands, one argument suggests we're becoming efficient with this technique. Ask any professional guide or outfitter specializing in hunting trophy whitetails, and nine out of ten will tell you stand hunting far outperforms any other strategy for taking the really big bucks.
So the question remains, are tree stand hunters skilled or unskilled? On one hand many of us have lost our ability to ghost through the woods, read sign, and capitalize on fleeting shot opportunities - and all because we no longer hunt that way. As a rule, many of us, particularly the bow hunters among us, use tree stands exclusively for our whitetail hunting. Conversely, there is a compelling argument that suggests tree stand hunting is a skill in and of itself. In my mind, I'll even go so far as to state that truly effective stand hunters must possess the unique ability to read sign and understand the world of the whitetail in ways that many still-hunting sportsmen don't necessarily require.
I believe consistently successful tree stand hunters are in fact among the most skilled. It's one thing to haphazardly mount a stand and get lucky once or twice. It's another to be able to read sign like tracks, trails, droppings, rubs, scrapes, and more to effectively capitalize on the highest odds locations for stand placement. Further, truly effective stand hunters carefully study seasonal movements and gain a comprehensive academic understanding of the lands they hunt, with a specific focus on buck-to-doe ratios, understanding bedding areas, feeding areas, and transition zones.
Pros and Cons
Tree stands and I have a love-hate relationship. I like them because tree stand hunting is effective. I've taken more big whitetails from a tree stand, than by any other method. But, to be transparent, I'm not a big fan of stands because I'm impatient. I am easily bored and often like to make my own opportunities. Even still, I religiously sit on my perch high up in trees every fall because I know it's my best chance to take a big buck. Why do I do it? I know, hands-down, that trophy bucks have an uncanny ability to sense a hunter's presence and that elevation increases my chances of seeing them.
Hunting tree stands has allowed me to learn more about deer behavior than any other whitetail strategy. I've invested thousands of hours in stands. During that time I've been able to observe countless deer along with many other game and non-game species moving about in their natural environment. Unaware of my presence, they have gone about their activities not knowing I'm there. Yes, there is enormous educational value in this. Waiting on stand, for hours on end, affords the hunter a rare glimpse into the natural world; a privileged look at animals moving and interacting in their environment undisturbed. Every encounter and observation compounds to build my skill sets as a whitetail hunter.
On the negative side, no matter how one looks at it, tree stands can be dangerous. Climbing trees and perching myself high above the ground requires a commonsense approach. Falling is not an option. In turn, extra safety gear must be worn and, to be frank, extra gear is the last thing I want to carry out into the woods. Likewise tree stand hunting requires investment of time and resources. Today's stands require investment; most obviously a cash outlay to acquire them, but also an investment of time and energy to choose ideal stand locations, and then install and remove them.
There are pros and cons to getting high on whitetails. Do it
safely and the benefits usually outweigh the risks.
Getting High and Comfortable
To hunt whitetails from a tree stand requires patience and that can translate to long hours on stand. Manufacturers have acknowledged this and gone to great lengths to make stands as comfortable as possible. I shake my head whenever I look in a Cabela's or Bass Pro catalogue. Just when you think they can't possibly invent anything new, sure enough, someone comes up with a unique twist that makes theirs the latest and greatest. From ladder stands, to climbers, lock-ons, multiple-person stands, stands with blinds, stands with shooting rails, and more - the list is long. Tree stands are so advanced that many even have padded reclining seats and padded shooting rails.
While comfort is certainly a consideration, in my view the three most important features are practicality, strength, and durability. Each year I wander the aisles at the annual Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show (SHOT). Most major tree stand manufacturers are there exhibiting their products and it's a great opportunity to check out the latest and greatest and ask questions. While every hunter has their own preferences, I remain a firm believer in simplicity. For my own use, I'm a big fan of Rivers Edge (www.huntriversedge.com ) lock-on stands, largely because they are strong, reasonably comfortable, they have a basic design, they're safe, and they're affordable. As far as climbers are concerned, Ameristep (www.ameristep.com ) is my top pick, mostly for the same reasons.
Ladder stands and loungers like this one are commonly used with today’s whitetail
crowd; the primary reason being comfort for those long sits on stand.
If you want to take to the trees and get high on whitetails, the most important step you'll take is finding a place to hang your stand. Whitetails, while considered creatures of habit, are elusive. First determine if that tree stand site will be used for bow or gun hunting. Archery stands require clear shooting lanes out to as far as 30 or even 40 yards. Placing stands along heavily used trails is common practice for bow hunting. Those used for rifle hunting require greater visibility out to as much as 200 yards or more. While high traffic areas are usually attractive, I prefer to set up rifle stands along wide cut lines, power lines, clear cuts or clearings that have evidence of lots of movement along, across, or around them.
Every property requires evaluation. Deer hunters must choose stand locations
wisely based on travel corridors, suitable trees, and safety.
Most importantly consider the time of the season and whether you want to sit the stand as a morning or evening spot. Secondary, but also important is prevailing winds. Make every effort to set up in a tree where the prevailing winds will carry your scent somewhere other than the deer's anticipated direction of approach. The most important 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. Early season, set up between bedding and feeding areas. As the rut heats up, focus on areas frequented by doe group in heavily used travel corridors. In the late post-rut season, focus on placing stands close to the best food sources.
Setting stands at a height of 16-20 feet and within 20 yards of a primary scrape like this
can produce great results. Incidentally the author’s wife arrowed her buck over this scrape.
Once you've chosen a general site and a suitable tree, knowing how best to hang the stand can again make or break the shot opportunity. Stand height is a more critical factor for bow hunters than gun hunters, due to the necessity for close range shooting. Place a stand too high and shot angles can create difficult conditions in which pivoting the upper body can be difficult. Chances of wounding a deer in this scenario increase. Place your stand too low and you chance getting busted; in fact defeating the purpose of being in a tree. I generally mount my archery stands close to, or between the trails I'm hunting at a height of 18 to 20 feet. Preferring close encounters, I plan for a 15 or 20 yard archery shot. On the other hand, some folks like to be further away, mostly to avoid detection.
Give it a Try
If you're frustrated with not seeing deer and you've never tried tree stand hunting, then it's time you did. Don't know where to begin? Take a trip you're your local hunting shop. Ask lots of questions and be sure to tell them Kevin sent you.
The author’s wife with a nice whitetail she arrowed from a tree stand at a distance of 15 yards.
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.