My buddy Mark and I call the spot "Dead Doe" because we found a dead doe nearby when hanging the treestand. Obviously we aren't an imaginative pair, but we have managed to position our share of killer stand setups on the Minnesota property we hunt. And Dead Doe is one of our best. Despite its name, the spot is an absolute buck magnet. During the past two seasons alone, our hunting group has killed three mature whitetails there, and two more (including a Boone and Crockett Club candidate) were shot at and missed. We've lost track of the almost-a-shooter bucks that have passed by Dead Doe and were left to grow another year. It's one of those deer stands that's so good we have to force ourselves not to overhunt it.
Fortunately, we have several equally good setups on the same property. Mark and I force ourselves to find these spots, not only because we love to get tight to big deer, but because it's our job—well, sort of. You see, Mark and I manage this lease, while other members of our hunting party pay the bills. Their job is to finance the hunting venture and our responsibility is to put in food plots, enhance habitat and hang treestands. During a typical season, Mark and I will hang dozens of stands. It can be a painstaking process, but the rewards—in the form of bucks seen, bucks harvested and just plain hunter confidence—are worth all the effort. Here's the five-step plan Mark and I adhere to when prepping a killer deer stand.
1: ANALYZE TERRAIN
Finding rubs, scrapes, beds and feeding sign is certainly important when picking stand sites. Unfortunately, these clues reveal only partial information about mature buck movement. While a big rub, for example, certainly indicates that a nice buck lives in the area, that spot might not be the best place to kill that buck. In fact, it might be one of the worst! Here's why.
Though old bucks often visit rubs and scrapes with maddening unpredictability, they rarely move through the landscape in a random fashion. Rather, they're channeled—or funneled—through it by terrain features. Sometimes these funnels are obvious, such as a creek bed that wanders through farm fields. But most funnels are more subtle, such as a slight dip in a CRP field, a line of brush in otherwise open woods or a hogback where two or more ridges meet. Sometimes such places are lousy with buck sign—but often they're not. They will, however, indicate to me a specific place where a buck is most likely to move through his world, and that's where I want to hang my stand.
It takes a lot of study, observation and experience—and often a bunch of boot leather—to identify such spots. But it's worth the effort, and Dead Doe is living proof. Though there are rubs and scrapes nearby, you can't shoot to any of them from that stand. Yet time and time again, bucks walk past Dead Doe because three converging ridges, a logging trail and two small depressions funnel deer right past it. Had we ignored these terrain features and set up on the hot sign, many bucks would pass by out of range, and some we wouldn't see at all!
2: GET MISSION-SPECIFIC
Once you've chosen a stand tree, it's time to answer an important question: When's the best time to hunt this spot? How well you address this issue is critical to your success. Some sites are no-brainers, of course. Place a stand near a food plot or field edge, and the best time to be there is during the afternoon. Conversely, the gnarly end of a timbered ridge is a likely bedding area, where the best hunting will occur during the morning.
Some spots beg deeper consideration, however. One of the best places to kill a big buck is a secluded transition area between bedding and feeding spots, where whitetails are often active both morning and afternoon. But when should you hunt such a spot? Each stand provides its own answers, with the prime clue being a sound approach/exit route that's unlikely to spook deer (see No. 3, below). For example, we have an excellent transition-area stand on an oak flat on our lease. Though I'm confident that bucks wander past it morning and evening, we never mess with it during afternoon hunts. The flat is just close enough to dense cover that any attempt at slipping in there for an afternoon hunt would surely alert bedded deer.
It's important to consider season phase as well as time of day. Some spots—especially big-buck bedding areas—are simply unhuntable until the rut nears. Though we hang treestands in these areas, we do so prior to hunting season and never return until we feel we can catch a big guy returning to bed late. Food plots also require intricate timing. Soybeans, corn, turnips, brassicas—all have highly specific “windows” when they're most palatable to deer, and when we wait for the perfect conditions to hunt these food sources, our success rates go way up.
3: MAP A ROUTE
Experience has taught me many hard lessons about hunting whitetails, but one clearly stands out: No matter how "killer" a spot looks, the stand I hang is only as good as the approach/exit strategy I devise. If I consistently bump deer as I come and go, I can turn O'Hare International into a deserted landing strip after only a few hunts.
The challenge seems simple, really. On morning hunts, it's paramount to avoid feeding areas, as whitetails will be scarfing their last few snacks before hitting heavy cover for the day. On evening hunts, entry routes to stands must skirt bedding areas. Mess up on either account and you're literally scaring the very deer you're hoping to hunt that day.
Several years ago I helped a friend hang a morning treestand on a secluded bedding area on his farm. The place almost shouted “Big Buck!” and I was confident my buddy would score. But the rut was nearly over when he told me he'd yet to see a single buck at the spot. I was dumbfounded until I quizzed him as to how he walked to his stand. “I don't walk far,” he confessed. “I drive across the corn field and park within 200 yards of the tree.” That corn field held the very deer—including several mature whitetails—that should've been traveling back toward my friend's stand each morning!
The problem with mapping effective entry/exit routes is that they usually involve more effort than taking a direct path to a stand, vehicle or camp. Most of the routes we devise include not only covering extra distance to loop around bedded or feeding deer, but seeking out cover or terrain that hides the three S's: silhouette, sound and scent. I won't lie and say I relish walking a longer, more difficult path than a beeline to my destination, but the effort is well worth it, as our best spots continue to produce throughout the deer season.
4: PREP FOR THE KILL
Among my chief pet peeves (of the deer hunting kind) is not being able to shoot at an in-range deer from a treestand. I'm continually amazed at the number of deer hunters who'll take the time to hang a treestand, but not trim adequate shooting lanes. Most of these folks, I'm convinced, are guilty of giving deer way too much credit for critical thought. “If I cut this branch,” these hunters figure, “that buck will come through, know it's missing, and spook.” In most cases, this is pure nonsense. And in most others, who cares if the buck does notice the branch is gone? If whitetails spooked every time something changed in their world, they'd do nothing but run 24 hours a day.
Mark and I clear shooting lanes at most of our sets with a chainsaw. No, we don't raze wide swaths you could bomb through on an ATV. Instead, we select several likely trails or spots where we're most likely to get a shot and then we take out any limbs or small trees (with landowner permission, of course) that might get in the way of an arrow or bullet. The best way to get this done is to hang a treestand and then have one “shooter” sit in it while the other guy remains on the ground with the saw, selectively removing obstructions. I'm convinced this quick, efficient process creates less disturbance than if we went in with a little brush pruner and hand saw, delicately plucking limbs and twigs, leaving human scent all over the trees and ground. Better yet, our shooting lanes last for several seasons, and we rarely have a buck come through that doesn't present a shot.
After the lanes are cleared, we leave the stand (assuming it's a hang-on portable) and the steps or ladder in the tree, as we hunt a large chunk of private ground where theft isn't a real issue. We also like to mount a screw-in bow-holder and leave a pull-rope at each set. These kinds of details seem small, but we've found they're not only convenient, but allow us to reach the stand, scale the steps and get set up without making any significant noise. If you like to hunt with a climbing treestand, simply clear any interfering limbs, mark the tree, and you're done.
5: KEEP IT SAFE
Some hunters believe the primary purpose of an elevated platform is to help you kill a deer. These people are confused. The primary purpose of any treestand is simply to keep your frail body from crashing to the earth! Safety should be the primary concern in every setup. Inspect every stand to ensure that all mounting hardware and parts are in good condition before you hang it. Use the stand according to manufacturer's instructions. Pull each stand at the end of the season for storage/maintenance and to avoid damage to the tree. And never climb onto one of those ancient wooden platforms erected by another hunter, even if it's in exactly the right tree. I know there are guys out there who can build a solid wooden stand that will last for years, but I haven't met one of them.
The same care should be taken with steps and ladders. When using screw-in (where legal) or rope-on treesteps, place them no farther than 18 inches apart so you don't have to reach with an extended foot as you climb or descend. Always choose a live tree with tight bark before mounting any steps, climbing sticks or ladders. Attach a haul line, situated about head-high from the stand platform, from the tree trunk or a nearby limb, so you don't have to bend over to reach it as you haul up your bow/gun and gear. And, of course, wear your safety harness on every sit, no matter what. I simply can't hunt without knowing I've done everything I can to be safe up there.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
When I started my deer hunting career, I placed as many stands as I could, in an often random fashion, praying that one or two of them would be productive. In hindsight, my approach was similar to that of a novice bass fisherman who casts to every conceivable spot on a lake, hoping to tempt a fish to strike. But experience has taught me that a “less is more” approach is more productive. I walk my hunting ground extensively, trying to pick out the handful of spots where I believe a big buck will be vulnerable. And then I do my best to place each treestand as meticulously as possible, using the five-step approach described above. I don't guess right every time, of course, but when I find a place like Dead Doe, it's worth all the effort.