By Brian K. Strickland
It was hot, stifling hot in fact as I eased down the trail toward my setup. Even though the evening shadows were lengthening, temperatures still hovered around the century mark. It was obviously not the ideal time for a bowhunt, especially if whitetails were on the agenda. But when it’s summer and even too hot to go fishing, it’s a great time to chase wild pigs, and the Piney Woods of East Texas is full of them.
My goal was two-fold. I wanted to slap an arrow through the side of some excellent table fare, and also get it done with a device that has long been on my radar to try — a tree saddle. For the most part, I have been a traditional treestand-style hunter since picking up the bow nearly 20 years ago. But as I have ventured deeper into some of my hunting haunts — both on public and private ground — I’ve grown tired of lugging stands and all the other “necessary” gear we tend to convince ourselves we need. As I shinned up the tree and got tethered in under the thick canopy, I realized that maybe I had grown wiser with age as I leaned back, got comfortable and let the evening hunt unfold.
I had heard and read about tree-saddle hunting for many years, and I’ve even told myself more than once that I had to try one. Although it's certainly unconventional, the more I studied and talked to other hunters about them, I concluded that a tree saddle might be a tool worth considering if your style of hunting is from an elevated perch.
Although tree-saddle hunting has grown in popularity the past few years, it’s really not a new concept. In fact, the idea was first spawned by the Green family in the early 1960s. By the mid-80s they took that idea and developed the Trophyline Tree Saddle brand. Today, they are on the cutting edge in the growing tree-saddle community, and as the company has added other accessories like platforms, tree steps and even a tree-saddle pack, their footprint is expanding.
I was honestly a little skeptical the first time I flirted with a tree saddle. Having a 6’5” frame and touching 240 pounds, I’m not the most agile person, and would even consider myself a little on the clumsy side at times. However, the more I played with one and got comfortable with it in the tree, as well as my ability to position myself for various shot angles, I quickly began to see its benefits.
One of the first things I realized the moment I started slipping up the tree and maneuvering around is that it’s completely safe. As soon as your feet leave the ground you are secured to the tree with the lineman’s rope. Once you get to your desired height, you keep the linesman’s rope in place while you transition to the tether. Once that is secure, you remove the lineman’s rope, lean back, and let the saddle do what it is designed to do — provide 360 degrees of shooting opportunity in a safe and secure environment. To be honest, you can’t say that about a traditional treestand.
As Shawn Ferguson, co-owner of Trophyline Tree Saddles, explained, “A tree saddle is the only thing available today that keeps you completely secure the moment your feet leave the ground and the second that you return; there’s really nothing like it.”
The second thing I noticed is that it is extremely comfortable. My Trophyline Ambush Lite has a flexible, hammock-style design that acts more like a cradle than a padded seat, allowing me to sit for hours with ease. Even while practicing different shot angles and learning to maneuver in it, I was comfortable once I found my sweet spot. Because you can reposition your feet and legs, as well as your height and distance from the tree by adjusting the tether rope, you can easily find the ideal position for your body type and make changes as needed. I also like the Ambush Lite’s loose-fitting 2-inch leg straps. I’ve never felt pinching or discomfort, and because of their width they don’t dig into my legs.
Although safety and comfort are huge benefits when bowhunting from an elevated perch, without question a tree saddle’s mobility is its most important attribute for the bowhunter. Not only is it extremely light — it comes in at just 2.1 pounds — but it easily stores in a backpack with your other gear, or you can wear it to your set-up as well. In fact, the whole system only weighs 4.1 pounds. This eliminates the weight of a hang-on treestand, as well as the noisy bulk that often comes with hauling one though he woods. More than once I’ve cringed at the sound of brush slapping against metal as I’ve tried to sneak into an isolated spot, as well as the echoing clang of bumping metal as I've tried to set up a stand as quietly as possible.
Adam Fox, retired professional baseball player and avid whitetail bowhunter summed it up best.
“Mobility is what tree saddle hunting is all about,” he said. “And it’s hard to deny how valuable that mobility is when it comes to hunting mature whitetails.”
Growing up hunting the vast Allegheny Forest in southern Pennsylvania, he’s spent plenty of time sneaking into the right spot. Needless to say, public land whitetails are in his DNA and the 6-year-old Pennsylvania brute he arrowed last year is just one example.
Hiking in more than a mile to a secluded spot he felt the public land monarch was hiding in, Fox slipped in under the cover of darkness and quietly got set up in his Trophyline Tree Saddle. With a couple of scrapes nearby and the rut in full swing, he tickled the horns together shortly after sunrise. You’re always a little surprised when the ghost-buck you’ve been after slips into view, but when he stops to doctor a scrape in bow range, that surprise quickly turns into elation. Besides making a solid shot, Fox insists the mobility and quiet setup his tree saddle provided were huge factors to his success that early November morning.
Another aspect of the tree saddle’s mobility is its versatility once you are in the tree. I’ve already mentioned that with a little practice the tree saddle provides you the ability to shoot virtually 360 degrees. That same versatility can also be used to hide your silhouette and subtle movements from an approaching deer as well. Simply keep the trunk of the tree between you and the deer and ease around the tree as the deer moves. Slight movements can also be easily disguised, especially when you need to draw you bow.
This same versatility also extends to the types of trees you choose to hunt from. A hang-on stand requires a relatively straight tree, as well as one with enough space around branches to effectively make the shot. Splits and slight angles are acceptable with a saddle, and even preferred sometimes to provide better concealment. Tree saddles can also be used in relatively skinny trees, as well as fat, older ones. Also, with the able to pivot and lean away from the tree, you can shoot right around a limb that you may have trimmed if you were in a normal treestand. In the end, you’re able to trim far less and utilize those branches as concealment to keep you undetected.
Lastly, I've got to touch on flexibility to the hunter. Whether you like the run-and-gun approach and want to be extremely lightweight and mobile, or have a tree already set up with steps before you get there, the tree saddle is perfect. Many saddle hunters like to use a platform to pivot from, but because of its flexibility using a couple screw-in or strap-on steps is fine as well. When it comes to hunting from a tree, there is very little a tree saddle doesn’t offer. The only thing left for you to do is make the shot, and with a little practice, you’ll be ready in no time.
It wasn’t long after leaning back and settling in that I heard the tell-tale sound of approaching pigs. As was the case this time, it usually starts with a few guttural grunts, snapping of brush and the occasional squabble between foes as they establish their pecking order. However, before I knew it they magically appeared beneath the hot summer canopy.
As they rooted around scarfing up every kernel of corn, all I had to do was pick one out, swing into position and make the shot. As if I had practiced it a hundred times before, the release was flawless. In short order, I was left with the distinct commotion of scattering pigs, but this time my success came from a tree saddle and I could not have been more pleased.