Dawn is still an hour away. You go through your checklist, making sure you've packed and properly arranged all your hunting equipment. You have spent months scouting, clearing shooting lanes and hanging stands, and you're hoping all of it will pay off today.
It's opening day of the archery deer season, and you feel like a kid in a candy store. You creep like a Navy SEAL to your treestand, being careful not to step on dried branches or anything else that will let the deer know you're in their domain.
As you approach the tree that you'll be spending some quality time with over the next few hours, all you find are a couple of cut straps laying lifeless on the ground — your treestand is gone!
If you've ever been a victim of treestand theft, you can relate to the above scenario. Unfortunately, treestand theft is an all too common occurrence.
"It happens on a fairly regular basis, especially in areas with heavy hunting pressure," said Dean Molnar, assistant chief of the Law Enforcement Division for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR).
A few years ago, I had just obtained permission to hunt a new area. The landowner assured me that he'd never had a problem with trespassers, theft, or vandalism. Unfortunately, I didn't take some simple precautions to prevent my stands from disappearing, and it cost me. I lost two hang-ons and two sets of climbing sticks.
Sadly, most stands are stolen by other hunters. As a result, many people avoid talking about the subject for fear of casting a negative light on hunting, or on our fellow bowhunters. To make matters worse, most treestand thefts aren't reported to law enforcement.
"Hunters often don't file a complaint because they feel foolish or believe that nothing can be done about it," said MDNR Conservation Officer (CO) Bobbi Lively. "They also make it too easy for other hunters to steal their stands."
Let's take a look at how to prevent treestand theft, and what to do if you suddenly become a victim of theft.
States don't keep records on treestand thefts, making it impossible to measure the problem. But talk to just about any CO or veteran hunter, and you'll quickly learn that most know at least one hunter who has had their hunt ruined before it even began because someone walked away with their stand.
Anyone who has ever been a victim of treestand theft knows the heavy toll it takes on a hunter's wallet, hunting plans, and sense of security. The perpetrator didn't just take something from you — they violated the sanctity of the hunt.
The truth of the matter is that the only surefire way to prevent treestand theft entirely is to never leave a stand in the woods when you're not using it. If a thief wants it bad enough, he'll get it. The good news is that most treestand thefts are crimes of opportunity, and not carefully planned capers.
"Most people aren't going into the woods looking for treestands to steal," said Treestand Manufacturers Association President John Louk. "They're just in the area, and if they see one available, they're going to take it."
As a former criminologist, I can tell you that a treestand thief is no different from any other thief. They tend to be lazy, and don't like working hard for anything, including your treestand. The key to preventing theft is to make your stand difficult to steal. Here are some ways to do this:
Conceal your stand. Set your treestand deeper in the woods, away from heavily used trails or places where your stand is easy to spot by a hunter walking by or by using a pair of binoculars. If a thief doesn't find your stand, it can't be stolen.
"Most bowhunters are avid hunters who conceal their stands well so the deer don't see them," added Lively. "But I still see a lot of hunters on public land who only walk in about 100 yards and place their stand where it's easily found."
Lock it up. Place a good, strong cable lock around your stand and attach it to the tree. Today, many treestand manufacturers also produce treestand locks to prevent theft. Unfortunately, some of them are thin and can be severed easily with a good pair of bolt cutters. They're also usually colored black, making them difficult to see from the ground. If a thief finds your stand, you want to make sure he sees the lock securing it to the tree.
Doing this makes the thief think twice about climbing up to your stand and trying to sever the cable securing it to the tree. I personally use a heavy log chain to thwart would-be thieves. Those worried about noise can buy a $15 can of rubber coating and apply six to 10 coats on the chain.
Take your climbing aid with you. After prepping your stand, remove the bottom two portions of the climbing sticks or ladder and take them with you. Doing this will not only deter treestand theft, but also prevent your climbing sticks or ladder from being stolen as well.
Set up a camera. Trail cameras won't necessarily prevent theft, but they can provide valuable evidence that a theft occurred. A few years ago, Indiana hunter Glen Ransbottom had a ladder stand stolen by two guys off of his small slice of deer-hunting heaven. His camera caught the thieves hauling the stand away. The defendants claimed they were just moving their stand and accidentally wandered onto Ransbottom's property, but the jury didn't buy it.
"It was satisfying that justice was carried out and they got nailed for what they did," said Ransbottom. "I don't care if you own one acre or 1,000, someone going onto your property and stealing something really burns you."
The only problem with using a game camera to prevent theft is that it's also a highly desired item, so it must be hidden and secured with a strong chain and lock. When setting up a camera, think like a thief to determine the most likely route he'll take to and from your stand. Place your camera along that route, 25 or 50 yards from your stand. Attach it to a tree 15 feet off the ground, and point the camera downward to photograph anyone passing by. Many of today's trail cameras are painted camouflage, further helping to conceal them from potential thieves.
As I noted, unless you take your stands with you at the conclusion of every hunt, it's impossible to prevent theft 100 percent of the time. So what do you do if the unthinkable happens and your stand is stolen?
Getting It Back
Not surprisingly, most stolen stands are never recovered. But there are things you can do to increase the likelihood of law enforcement finding your stand.
Mark it up. Before hanging a stand, put your name, driver's license number, or some other mark on it to identify you as the owner.
"Place the identifying mark in two places on the stand; one that's easy to find, and one that's not," suggested Molnar. "Once they've found one label and scratched it off, most thieves will stop looking for other identifying marks."
Immediately report it. There's little authorities can do if you wait until the end of the season to report your stand stolen. File a complaint as soon as the theft happens, and include a detailed description of how your stand differs from others. Be sure to include your stand's exact location, even providing GPS coordinates, and let a law enforcement officer know when you put the stand up, how long you've been hunting the area, and if you've been a victim of theft before. All this information can help the police identify when a theft ring is operating, which does occasionally happen. Because stands are mostly made of metal, some thieves trade them for cash at recycling centers.
Play detective. If your stand's gone, look for evidence that may help solve the crime.
"Nine times out of 10 there's a footprint, garbage, a unique tire track, or something else left by the perpetrator that can be used as evidence," said Lively.
Be observant, and try to remember anything unusual you saw in the area recently. Did you notice a parked truck that wasn't there yesterday? Talk with neighbors to see if they've noticed any unusual activity. Report any anomalies to the police.
Go online to social media sites and public marketplaces (e.g., Craigslist) to see if anyone is selling a bunch of treestands. Again, if you uncover any evidence, report it to law enforcement.
Keep your eyes and ears open. Many stand thieves immediately turn around and use the stand for hunting. If your stand is stolen off of public land, check out any stands you find while hunting to see if one of them is yours.
Like poachers, stand thieves love to talk about their loot. Listen for any scuttlebutt you may hear in the local coffee shop, sporting goods store, or anywhere else hunters like to congregate.
By taking a few precautionary steps to prevent theft, or by taking action if your stand does get stolen, you can ensure that your stand winds up in your garage after a year of heavy hunting.