By Russell Thornberry
-- There's an old adage that says, "Your most important choices in life are your dog, your hunting partner and your wife" ... not necessarily in that order. Having diligently pursued those critical life choices, I am happy to announce my total satisfaction with all of the above. However, there is one more critical choice that faces every serious bowhunter; one that ranks right up there with the wife and the dog. It's trees! Yes, you've got to choose the right trees.
To me, once I have the general pattern of a buck settled in my mind, I am really hunting for the "perfect" tree from which I will execute my ambush. Finding that perfect tree is as exciting and rewarding as putting the sight pin behind ole mossy's shoulder. That perfect tree is as much a part of bowhunting success as the right broadhead, the right bow sight, etcetera. In many ways the perfect tree is even more important than all the rest. It doesn't matter what kind of tackle you use if your ambush site is wrong.
I used to think that just getting elevated was the issue, but I have since found that there's much more to it than that. Some trees are naturally cooperative while others are downright mean. Knowing the difference can save one a lot of agony. Here's my criteria for the "perfect tree," along with some of the lessons that influenced my choices.
The perfect tree for a treestand hunter should offer plenty of natural canopy cover. Large, sprawling conifers such as pine, spruce, or fir trees are always my first choice if they are available. It's so easy to tuck yourself in among their bushy limbs and needles, and they allow you the luxury of wearing green-based woodland-style camo, regardless of the season. The fact that these trees are green all year saves on extra camo expenses for hunters who hunt in coniferous forests. Nowhere do I feel more concealed than in a treestand, swallowed up by the bushy arms of a giant conifer, and nowhere have I been more perfectly concealed for an ambush. Deer simply don't find me there.
Another bonus offered by coniferous trees is their natural odor. A strong pine or spruce scent naturally spreads throughout the area, offering an element of natural cover scent.
For those who hunt where there are no evergreens, take heart, canopy cover comes in many forms. In the early fall, when leaves are still on the trees, any tree may offer ample canopy cover. However, when the leaves fall, a well concealed stand may be left out in the wide open. This is where limb structure is so important. Choose the oldest, most mature tree possible. The older trees usually have a longer, heavier limb structure. Being surrounded by large limbs offers excellent concealment, even after the leaves are gone. Try to become an unnoticeable part of the tree itself.
Regardless of the type of tree, it is important that shooting lanes be cut well in advance of hunting season. Fresh cutting emits a stronger than usual odor from any given tree, and that stronger odor will alert deer to the fact that something has changed ... something is different. They will respond with new caution, if not suspicion, and that may be all it takes to spoil the movement pattern of the buck you are hunting.
In my traditional treestand locations, where I can depend on the travel patterns of deer from one year to the next, I do my trimming in mid-summer. Then I carry all the fallen limbs and branches away from the immediate area. My stands are set up at that time and when hunting season comes, there's nothing left to do but climb in and wait. For optimum results, make sure that there is nothing new or different in your hunting area when you begin hunting.
Using the Wind:
Obviously there's more to picking the perfect treestand location than just canopy cover. In fact, it's a rather complex matter overall, with numerous factors to consider. Some of those factors are: dominant wind direction, rising or setting sun, and surrounding landscape.
Wind direction demands two points of consideration when choosing a "right" treestand location. The hunter must first consider how the wind will affect his trip to and from his stand site. He doesn't want to broadcast his own scent to the very deer he is hunting. Such a mistake will alert deer to your presence and will subsequently move them away from your chosen hunting area. Approaching your stand with the wind in your face is ideal. If this is not possible, at least be sure the wind direction does not broadcast your approach.
The second wind consideration deals with remaining undetected when in the treestand. Ideally, the hunter wishes to be downwind of the deer he wants to shoot, so that his scent will not flow toward the target. Unfortunately, this option is not always available. Should you have no option but to sit upwind of your target zone, there are several things that may help overcome the problem of being detected.
Greater stand height will elevate your scent plane. For this very reason I generally sit at an elevation of 25 feet or more! I know that sounds high, but I have tried all elevations from 8 feet on up, and this is what works best for me.
Consider the thermal flow of the air. It follows the sun. Mornings lift your scent, but in the evening, when I do most of my bowhunting, the thermals are falling. This is another reason for greater treestand height. Your scent will drift on the breeze, if any exists. If the evening wind is strong, it will carry your scent a great distance before it drops enough to be detected by a deer's nose. In fact, a strong breeze may even dissipate your scent before it hits the deer's scent plane. A light breeze, on the other hand, will allow your scent to drop faster.
Picture your own scent as a feather being dropped into the breeze. A strong breeze carries the feather well away from you as it falls, while a light breeze lets it fall more immediately to the ground. With this in mind, select a stand site that will force the deer under, rather than into, your scent stream.
For example, if you know your buck is traveling along a creek bank or a lake shore, you may set your stand within bow range, upwind of his travel route. If you are well elevated and within 15 or 20 yards of his runway, you can be sure your scent will flow well above his nose. Natural barriers such as creeks, lakes, roads or open fields, cause deer to travel along specific, dependable corridors. Knowing this, you can risk an upwind stand site, as long as it is 20 yards or less from the travel route and at least 25 feet above the ground.
Influence of Topography:
Another factor that influences treestand placement is topography. My own rule is that I always want to hunt from the height of land. Among hills and ridges, the bowhunter does not want to be in a tree that is eye level with a neighboring hilltop or ridge. There's no point in being elevated if you are not truly above the deer you are hunting.
Some of the meanest trees I have ever known lived on the tops of hills and ridges, right where I wanted to set up my treestand. My "flatland" habit of choosing the largest tree available taught me some valuable, if not frightening lessons. You see, when you pick the tallest tree on a hill or ridgetop, it is guaranteed to catch the full force of the wind. Surrounding, shorter trees cannot shelter the tallest tree from wind, and subsequently, it rocks and rolls like the mast on a sailing ship. On a couple of occasions, because of choosing such a tree for my stand site, I had to hang up my bow and hug the tree with all my might to keep from being tossed right off my seat.
I don't recommend treestand hunting in high, dangerous winds, but it pays to be prepared for the unexpected. Try to choose a solid, mature tree, but make sure it's not appreciably taller than the surrounding trees which offer a natural windbreak and ALWAYS WEAR YOUR SAFETY BELT!
The position of the sun is critical when selecting a proper treestand site. Nothing is worse than hours spent in a treestand with the sun glaring into your eyes. I always set up my treestands with the sun to my back, but with ample canopy behind me so that I am not silhouetted against a bright sky.
Morning and Evening Stands:
While sun position is a key factor in the designation of morning and evening stand sites, there is yet another factor to consider when establishing whether your stand site will be best suited for use early or late in the day. In the morning darkness, you want to slip into your stand as quickly as possible with minimal movement so that the deer will not detect you. In the afternoon you can travel by daylight to your stand without the risk of bumping into your intended prey in the dark. So, morning stands, short walks; evening stands, longer walks.
It is important to understand that some stand sites are strictly morning stands while others are strictly evening stands. For example, a stand site close to a food source such as a grain or alfalfa fields would be best suited for evenings, since the deer are not likely to be in the fields during broad daylight. This enables the hunter to approach his stand site in the open while the deer are still bedded in the timber. It doesn't matter how long it takes him to get to his stand because he's got all the time he needs. When it gets too dark to shoot, the deer are probably in the field, so you can climb down and exit unnoticed through the timber.
Approaching the same stand in the morning might be disastrous. An approach across the open field would spook the deer already there from their night feeding. It is common for deer to bed in the same fields where they feed until sunrise. Older, wiser bucks may return to their bedding areas while it is still dark, thus eliminating an approach through the timber. This setup is an "evening only" stand site.
A good morning stand site is one that can be reached quickly with the least amount of travel on the part of the hunter. It is best for such a stand site to be located well away from food sources, but on an easily accessible return route from food to bedding cover.
I am reminded of such a stand site only 300 yards behind a friend's ranch house. The deer cross a sparsely wooded pasture enroute to an alfalfa field, about a half-mile to the east of the house. Since the pasture they cross is very open, the larger bucks do not cross until it is black dark. At the first sign of dawn, the bucks start heading back to their bedding area in a buffaloberry thicket along the Red Deer River. By the time they pass among the cottonwood trees in the flat, it is light enough to see. When I hunt on that ranch, I stay in the rancher's house. Long before dawn, I slip out his back door and within a few minutes I'm in my treestand.
This stand site has produced numerous trophies for me and several of my hunting buddies over the years. At first light of day the action is on. You could sit there forever in the evening and never see a buck worth shooting. It's simply a natural morning stand. After the first hour of daylight, all the deer will have passed through this corridor into their bedding area. I can leave the stand as simply as I approached it, without disturbing a single deer. The key is this: the stand sits in a transition zone rather than a feeding or bedding area. Transition zones offer excellent morning stand opportunities.
Once all the other considerations have been made, and you're ready to hang your stand on the "perfect tree," you must consider which way your stand will be facing in relationship to where you expect to see game moving. I recommend that you sit or stand with your back to oncoming game so that it is impossible for them to see you until they have actually passed by your treestand. In this position you will have the tree between you and the incoming game. By the time an animal is clearly visible to you, it will already be within easy shooting range and quite probably offer you an excellent broadside or angling away shot. It takes some discipline to sit with your back to incoming game, but this is overcome with experience.
Comfort is important when sitting for long hours in a tree. Being able to move around a bit stretches muscles and extends the all-critical staying power. For this reason, I try to position my stand with one or more major limbs right beneath the foot platform. In so doing, I afford myself some optional foot rests which allow me to extend my legs from time to time into different positions. This is a luxury during marathon stints in my stand. Such stand placement allows the hunter to remain sitting for longer periods without having to stand to stretch his legs. In short, more staying power - less total movement.
Try to position your treestand so that you face your intended target. Although you can never be 100 percent sure of where your deer will appear, an educated guess based upon experience will dictate which direction offers the best odds. The object of the exercise is to be pointed as directly at your target as possible when it appears. This will eliminate the need to shuffle or turn in your stand before you can take your shot. Nothing exasperates me more than having a buck right below me and having to turn around in my stand before I can shoot. The "treestand shuffle," as I call it, may catch the eye of the buck, or it may create a minute noise that spoils the trap.
I have trained myself to shoot from a sitting position so that I do not have to stand up when I hear game approaching. In fact, I hunt from a stand with a swivel seat, which enables me to adjust my angle with a mere push of one foot. I can easily rotate quietly in my stand in a fraction of the time it would take me to stand up and shuffle my feet into the required shooting position. In addition, by remaining seated and swiveling into position, I create only a fraction of the total movement otherwise required, and I can get to my shot much faster. I have taken several animals from my swivel seat stand that, otherwise, I would have never been able to get a shot at.
As you can see, "perfect" stand sites don't grow on trees ... at least not on all trees. The considerations for a perfect treestand site are sometimes complex, but there is no magic in picking the best one. It's all a matter of common sense. You simply have to have a little more of that than the buck you are hunting.