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Hunting on High

In addition to providing a better view, a well-placed treestand can make it harder for deer to see and smell you.

By Russell A. Graves

The date scrawled across the back of an aging photograph that hangs on my shop wall is still legible: 11/19/89. In the photo, I am 19 and in my grandfather's barn as I proudly pose with my first white-tailed buck. A couple of hours before my dad snapped the photo, I sat perched in a treestand in the cool November mist 15 feet above a well-worn trail.

The stand, which still exists, rests on a huge forked tree branch that radiates from a stately post oak. Planks of Wolmanized two-by-fours bridge the gap between the forks and provide a platform on which to sit. Stretching all the way to the ground is a homemade ladder fashioned out of the same material as the platform and wired to the tree to keep it from falling away from the behemoth should the well-placed nails slip.

Earlier in the day, I carefully slinked up the ladder and settled in. At the time, I'd already hunted from treestands dozens of times. Occasionally I would hunt from the ground, but I always felt more immersed in nature when I was among the trees. Often, fox squirrels sidled up beside me and chirped angrily when they recognized me as an intruder. Blue jays, crows and other birds constantly lit in limbs around me, seemingly unconcerned with a human juxtaposed halfway up a tree. Being among the trees offers a completely new perspective and affords a view of the landscape that you cannot get from the ground.

I love hunting in treestands and shy away from ground blinds and box blinds as much as I can. Sure, I sacrifice some comfort, because sometimes I sit in cold and damp weather, but for me, being intimate with nature as a nice, fat whitetail sneaks below is a hard experience to beat.

Selecting the proper stand

When I started hunting back in the mid-1980s, portable treestands were just coming into vogue among deer hunters. A few manufacturers cranked out mass-produced models, but many of the stands were heavy and hard to carry around. As recently as the late 1980s, most hunters in the northeast Texas woods where I hunted still climbed into permanently affixed wooden stands.

As interest in bowhunting gained momentum in the late '80s and into the 1990s, an aggressive market for portable stands emerged. Responding to the burgeoning demand, manufacturers quickly developed schemes to utilize metals like aluminum and fabricate the material into lightweight stands whose portability rivals any other hunting accessory. With portability, hunters can react quickly to variables such as changes in wind direction and shifting feeding areas. As the treestand market developed, three types of portable treestands emerged: ladder stands, hang-on stands, and climbing stands.

Of the three types of stands, ladder stands are usually the heaviest and most bulky to carry. However, they can be among the most versatile. Ladder stands work on a larger variety of trees than either climbing stands and hang-on stands. In order to secure the stand to a tree, most ladder stands employ a chain or ratchet-type strap that secures the stand to the tree's trunk.

Although bulky and less portable than other tree stands, ladder stands are superior for a number of reasons. For example, getting in a ladder stand is relatively safe because most have wide ladders that make climbing easy. Ladder stands typically employ wider platforms that are more comfortable if you plan on sitting for long periods. Additionally, the stands often come standard with a padded bar that doubles as a safety restraint and gun rest. In terms of price, ladder stands with a platform run from $100 to $200 and will get you anywhere from 12 to 20 feet off the ground.

Hang-on stands are perhaps the most portable, and arguably the most versatile of all the types of treestands. They fit in virtually any tree that grows straight up and hang at heights from mere inches off the ground to as high as a tree will allow. Furthermore, many hang-on stand models weigh less than 10 pounds and support weights up to 275 pounds.

With hang-on stands, you must buy separate climbing equipment. Steps that screw into trees are popular on private land where no restrictions on their use exist. On public land such as the Pat Mayse Wildlife Management Area in Lamar County, the use of spikes or screw-in steps is prohibited. Therefore, hunters there must use strap-on tree steps or strap-on ladders to access their hang-on treestands.

For the record, hang-on stands run from $50 to $200 at most major retailers.

The last type of portable treestand, climbing stands, employs tree-gripping lugs that allow users to climb trees as high as they'd like and position the stand where it's most advantageous. Incredibly comfortable, climbing stands have many of the same advantages as hang-on stands without the use of steps.

One of the shortfalls of climbing stands is that their use is limited to straight growing trees with no low limbs. However, climbing stands shine in pine forests or ash bottomlands. On price, $140 to $300 will get you climbing.

Location, location, location

"The three things I look for when placing a stand are concealment, good ambush zones and wind direction," confides Tyge Floyd, a Dallas-based professional video-grapher and owner of an Internet-based hunting marketing firm. "When I choose a stand location, I want thick vegetation behind me to help me blend in with the surroundings so I can move slowly without being spotted."

Floyd ought to know. He has hunted big game all over the southwestern United States and has arrowed record-book-class elk and white-tailed deer using treestands. He explains that he likes to look for areas that serve as natural speed bumps for wildlife. Often, he'll hang his stands close to an interior fence line or creek where animals pause before crossing. The tactic, he says, buys him extra time to get a shot away.

One of the biggest factors that dictates Floyd's stand placement is wind direction. White-tailed bucks have a super-sensitive nose and Floyd considers that fact every time he climbs in a stand.

"If you don't have the wind in your favor, the chances of taking game from any stand are slim. I always pick a stand where the wind will blow my scent away from the direction I think the deer will be coming. If the prevailing wind is from the south-southwest, as it is so often in October, I like to hang my stands north-northeast of my targeted ambush zone. If the wind is wrong for a particular stand, I move somewhere else."

Brandon Ray has a slightly different take on stand placement. Ray, an outdoor writer and photographer from Claude, Texas, has taken 20 Pope and Young class big game animals because of his bowhunting acumen.

"When I'm deciding where to hang stands, I scout and try to determine where deer funnel through a specific area," says Ray. "Often I try to watch an area - a panhandle river bottom, for example - with binoculars so I don't spend any more time than necessary in the ambush area."

Ray reminds me that spending too much time in an area alerts deer to your presence and may push them away. He also says that in areas where glassing is impractical, look for well-worn trails or gather intelligence from landowners on where they've been seeing deer.

"I try to home in on spots where the terrain funnels deer to a specific area like a creek crossing or a low spot in a fence leading to an agricultural field," he says.

Ray says that for bow stands, he'll place his stand within 30 yards of a funnel but moves back as far as 100 yards when hunting with a gun.

Concerning elevation

When determining how high to hang a stand, Ray uses the vegetation as his guide.

"For stand height, I go as high as I can to be out of sight while still trying to stay as low as possible," explains Ray. "In other words, if the tree has sufficient leaf cover or a dense canopy, I'm comfortable hunting from a 10- to 12-foot ladder stand or hang-on stand."

Ray concedes that the higher you go the less chance of a buck scenting you. However, he believes a combination of quality cover scent, full camouflage and timing your movements when a tree or leaves obstructs a deer's vision makes hunting at lower levels very effective.

Floyd's take on treestand elevation is the opposite of Ray's.

"My stands are typically as high as I can get them - up to 20 feet off the ground," Floyd explains. "The number-one reason I hunt high is scent disbursement. The higher I am, the less likely a buck will bust me, since my scent is disbursed over a wider area. Being high up in a tree also affords me some invisibility because I don't think deer look for danger coming from 20 feet above them."

Ray and Floyd both agree that they like the portability that treestands offer. Because of treestands' relative affordability, both employ multiple stands on a piece of property and don't hesitate to move their stands if needed. Each hunter agrees that being flexible and thoroughly scouting a property is essential for success.

"When you're hunting mature bucks you'll typically only get one chance at him - particularly inside bow range. If he smells you or sees you, the odds of getting another opportunity at him from the same stand are slim to none," emphasizes Ray. Therefore, he never takes the wind direction for granted and is constantly cognizant of his scent.

"I never take chances with the wind, and I always reduce my scent as much as possible by using cover scents and wearing clothing that mitigates odor. Additionally, I carefully plan my entry and exit routes from my stands to avoid spooking deer."

Ray is also a big proponent of preparedness in the stand by packing snacks and water for a long day of waiting. He reports that one of the first things he does when climbing into a stand for the first time is employ the use of a laser rangefinder to predetermine distances. He will laser the distance from his stand to rocks and trees in the area so that when a deer does step out, he won't have to calculate distances at a critical moment.

Hunting in the trees is rewarding. The successes of Brandon Ray, Tyge Floyd and countless other hunters ought to serve as testament. Treestands are an affordable and extremely versatile way to pursue Texas big game and work especially well for getting you close to game.

Although I have never downed a recordbook buck, I keep climbing trees and trying. Whether I hunt with a gun or a bow, the chance to be close to nature is what drives me afield. For me, nature doesn't come much closer than when I'm standing on a platform that's strapped to an ancient oak.

Safety in the Stand

In 2000, the International Hunter Education Association reported that non-firearm-related treestand accidents led to 20 deaths nationwide. Although that number sounds alarming, hunting from treestands is indeed a safe tactic. Like many outdoor activities, though, you should always be well prepared ahead of your trip. Before heading afield, follow these simple rules to make sure your next treestand hunting trip is a safe one.

Precheck your equipment at home

Before you even load your stand in the truck, take some time to look everything over. Check the welds and make sure that none of them appears cracked or broken. Then, check to make sure that the bolts that hold parts of the stand together are still tight and haven't lost any nuts. Finally, check the cables and straps and make sure they aren't frayed or rusted so they won't break when weight is applied.

Dress rehearsal

After you're satisfied the stand is in good shape, hang the stand a couple of feet off the ground and climb up in it to make sure everything is as solid as it should be. With the stand hung low in a tree, stand on the platform, sit on the seat, then bounce up and down on it, trying to see if the straps, welds, or bolts may be in danger of failing. Testing the stand in this manner, listen for metal slapping against metal or any other rattles that may spell trouble. When the hanging test is over, go over the stand again and check the construction again.

Always have three points of contact

Once your stand hangs in the tree from which you intend to hunt, you should take special precaution when climbing the tree. Stand manufacturers like Gorilla Treestands make a climbing harness that straps around the tree and affords a measure of safety from falling when climbing. The bottom line is that any time you are climbing, always maintain three points of contact with the tree. By keeping two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand on the tree at all times, you'll significantly reduce your chances of falling.

Use a safety harness

Once you've settled into your stand, always wear a safety harness. Even the shortest falls can result in injury, so it's best not to take chances. In the past, safety belts were common but full-torso safety harnesses are the best bet today. Safety harnesses will cradle your whole body if you fall and won't slip off as a belt can.

Maintain a short tether

When you wear a safety harness, make sure you're attached to the tree by a short tether. As a rule, you should only have enough tether to allow you to sit down in the stand while the line attached from your harness to the tree remains taut. The idea behind a short tether is that if you fall, you don't want to plummet several feet before you stop. Ideally, should you slip and fall from your stand, you won't fall far and will be able to get back on the platform easily.

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