July 15, 2016
Treestands give you the edge in ultimate invisibility, but only if you set them up properly. At the moment, my treestand setup wasn't giving me the "invisible man" qualities I'd hoped for.
The buck below me had sauntered into my mock scrape setup with comfort, but once in the trap, he did an owl-like neck swivel that landed him and me in a stare-down duel.
Seconds later, without my having a chance to draw back an arrow, the buck bolted like a looter carrying a new widescreen TV. What caused the buck to suddenly look up from the steaming estrous scent I had placed in the mock scrape upon my arrival? I hadn't moved. The wind was still in my face. Did I stand out that much in the creaky cottonwood?
After climbing down from the perch at midday, I looked back up from the buck's perspective. My treestand stood out like a bison blocking traffic on New York's 42nd Street. With my form in it, how could a buck have missed the misplaced ambush site? Putting my bow down, I immediately started looking for another tree and got busy moving the stand for a later hunt.
Treestands are the trail cameras of their time. When they were first introduced commercially, they provided the ultimate in ambush concealment. Archery whitetail success soared, and like modern trail cameras, they made you a better hunter.
But as deer become educated to hunting pressure and actually begin searching for hunters in trees, you need to put more emphasis on hiding your treestand over simply hanging it in a solid tree.
The placement of your treestand plays as vital a role in your overall camouflage as the actual camouflage pattern you don. Hide it right, and you'll be able to get away with more movement. Deer will have fewer opportunities to spot you hiding in the foliage, and your shooting options will increase.
For a surprise whitetail attack to succeed, location is everything. Your scouting will reveal terrain features such as creeks, ridges, saddles, hedgerows, mast trees, and other elements that attract and funnel whitetails.
Narrow necks of timber connecting large woodland blocks, plus whitetail-gratifying croplands, can be scouted firsthand or via Google Earth.
A primary location is key, but having a network of backup stand sites inventoried gives you options for unpredictable winds, sudden whitetail pattern changes, and unaccounted-for surprises, such as a landowner's ambition to suddenly cut firewood near your honey-hole. Once you have several hot locations scouted, begin shopping for that textbook-perfect tree.
Ideally, it should sit along a major trail or pinch point. Use your trail cameras to verify travel consistency near the tree. If at all possible, point your trail camera to the tree candidate to see which direction of travel the deer exhibit the most. This gives you information on how to set up for a quartering-away shot.
Exemplar trees should be 10 to 20 yards from the trail. If you have it too far from the trail, you risk losing shooting lanes due to other vegetation and tree obstructions. Clip a tiny branch with a broadhead, and your arrow could zip off target. If you have it too close, you may set yourself up for a straight-down shot, which can be fatal, but could also result in a hit that only takes out one lung.
Your tree should be in a position to benefit from seasonal, prevailing winds. As you scout, be conscientious of compass points and how they relate to autumn winds. Your backup scouting can cover locations when the wind decides to do a 180-degree twist, but your main trap should be set for the winds that occur almost daily during the season.
The tree should be mature, with an umbrella-like canopy. Trees with octopus-like limbs give you ample options on where to place your stand. They also provide more cover. Large limbs can obstruct the view of deer below, and the leafy canopy also conceals until Mother Nature removes the leaves at midseason.
Finally, mature trees don't sway as much as younger trees supported by spindly tree trunks. If and when a strong front blows through with gusty winds, you don't want to have to be judging both range and lead from a swaying tree.
FOCUS ON CLUSTERS
After location, you need to begin pinning down the tree that has "the right stuff." You've likely heard the phrase "melt into a crowd," and that same philosophy holds true with treestand placement.
Putting your stand up in a single tree in an opening, or even along a field edge, may set you up for scrutiny from below. Instead of risking a lost shot opportunity, look for a cluster of trees.
A group of trees, whether in the open or in the middle of a timbered pocket, gives you additional camouflage and allows you to blend into the crowd. Clusters have more limbs, more leaves, and more cover for a whitetail to have to pick through to find you.
If you hang your treestand properly, it will melt into the existing backdrop and not create alarm like the time I hung a treestand in a lanky ash tree out of sheer frustration over failing to find a better option. The first doe to come under the stand looked straight up, snorted, and raced away as if the Wolf Man was in pursuit.
"The location of your treestand plays as vital a role in your overall camouflage as the actual camouflage pattern you don. Hide it right, and you'll be able to get away with more movement."
Clusters of trees provide more than just a good hideout; they also open up options for shooting opportunities.
Despite your efforts to hide your treestand, you should be ready for all of a whitetail's senses to root you out, particularly as you draw an arrow for the shot. By setting up your stand in the midst of a cluster, you create blind spots for arrow-drawing opportunities.
If I can't set up in a cluster, I always try and set up with at least one tree between me and the expected meeting location. That one tree serves as my focal point, and when a buck steps behind it, I'm drawing an arrow so I'm ready when he steps out on the other side of it.
There is one remedy if you can't find a cluster of trees — look for a fork in the tree. Large forks in the center of the tree are fairly common, particularly in mature trees. The various forks provide the same blind-spot qualities as several trees in a row.
A farm I hunt in northern Kansas has scattered oaks within the interior woodlands, and they offer the perfect ambush site with their large-girthed limbs. In a good year, they are also a coveted food source.
To ensure a buck pauses after passing behind a blind spot, I ease over to shooting lanes and mist estrus or deer urine in the exact location where a buck would step out from behind a tree. That way I can draw an arrow without being seen or sensed, and when the buck emerges on the far side he stops in a distracted fog, giving me precious seconds to release.
Do you have a location in mind? Is there an ancient oak nearby? If so, it's time for setting it up, and your next decision is how high to go.
It never ceases to amaze me how low some bowhunters hang their stands. High stands may strain your acrophobia limits, but they do provide positive results.
First, they put your form out of a whitetail's peripheral vision. Elevation also puts your scent in a stream slipping high and away with the right wind. Even if your scent does eventually pool down to deer level, it will likely be hundreds of yards away, and not alarming a buck right under your stand.
Lastly, higher up means farther away, and distance can make the creak of a stand or the clink of metal mix harmlessly with the rustling leaves and whistling winds.
Since I have the privilege of working on several hunting shows, I also have the responsibility to camouflage my videographers and their platforms. Keeping that in mind, I traditionally place my stands a notch higher than average to help conceal twice the movement present on a single-hunter site.
To see how out of whack I was with the real world, I polled several of my outfitter friends on the average height they place treestands to hide clients. I found out I wasn't too out of touch with reality.
The most common height was approximately 20 feet, with a few reaching up to 25 feet. Few exceeded 30 feet in height, and if you've ever sat in a stand that high up, you know why — it's freaking high!
In addition to the phobia possibilities, extreme heights create extreme shot angles, which can result in less-than-lethal shots. One-lung hits are a distinct probability.
Even if you don't put a treestand 30 feet up in the tree, you could unintentionally put it that high by placing it along a steep hill or ridge, increasing the height distance to the target. Keep terrain in mind since it will add height and distance to the target.
In several of my hunting hotspots, I actually nudge the treestand higher as the season progresses. Why? In the early season, thick foliage limits my shots, so I like to be lower where I can duck, bend, and lean to shoot between leafy limbs. As frost invades and the leaves fall, I bump my stand up a few feet to use height over foliage as my main concealment veil.
You can further add to the concealment character by simply holding in your inner gardener. By trimming less and leaving more of the foliage intact, you provide yourself additional camouflage for blending purposes.
Of course, this leads to a give-and-take proposition. By taking more vegetation, you open up additional shooting opportunities. It doesn't pay to stay concealed if you can't get a shot at a passing buck. Taking too much vegetation opens up the possibility of being spotted.
Removing foliage and then being hit with the crash of leaves later in the fall can leave you feeling nervously naked in the woods. My solution is to trim early when the foliage canopy is at its peak.
An early ruckus in the woods, say in late-summer or early autumn, is also forgettable to the local deer population. During this chore, open shooting lanes adequately, but only cut enough for ethical shots and to avoid arrow deflections. By leaving the majority of flora in place, you'll keep hidden, even when the last leaf drops.
For big trimming chores, I like to use a telescoping saw and pruner. This tool comes in varying lengths and can reach branches 12 feet or higher, plus you can strap yourself into your stand and use the tool to cut branches at treestand level that are just out of reach from the ground.
For last-minute trimming, I always keep a quality trimming saw like Gerber's Exchange-a-Blade in my daypack. Team that up with a ratchet-style pruner, available at hunting stores or gardening centers, and no limb stands a chance.
The following season after my stare-down disaster, I moved my stand into the fork of a giant cottonwood surrounded by a cluster of younger trees. Three trails merged just before the stand, giving me options on bucks arriving from multiple locations.
Older cottonwoods have minimal trimming requirements due to their weak limbs that snap in abnormal winds, so trimming took only minutes to ensure my bow didn't bump anything during the shot. Nevertheless, the crotch held a dozen leafy branches to keep me hidden.
How well did the setup work? A bachelor group of bucks sauntered by one October morning, and although two split off of the main trail, three passed underneath. Despite my best efforts to blow the trap by having to turn 180 degrees with a mature buck underneath and bumping my binoculars and knocking them onto my treestand seat, the bucks never spooked, and seconds later a 16-yard shot cemented my newfound skills for a treestand disappearing act.