August 26, 2004
The best whitetail properties have far more than one thing in common.
I can still remember the oak tree stand nestled in a thicket of honeysuckle and briars and close enough to a bottleneck to intercept any buck that passed through. It has been many years since I last laid eyes on the ambush location, but it will never be forgotten. You see, that stand site was partially responsible for the harvest of no less than seven whitetail bucks, one of which hangs on my wall. Today, I consider the oak tree site to be a bowhunting legend.
It's no big secret that some stands produce repeatedly while others do not. Every seasoned bowhunter has a few favorites that seem to come through during a particular portion of the hunting season. I've never found an ambush location quite as hot as that oak tree, but there are a couple of others in my neck of the woods that are well on their way.
There are several reasons why some stand sites produce more often than others. Before getting into the components of the perfect ambush location, I would like to make one fact very clear: It is never just a well-used trail or perhaps a food source that makes a stand produce year after year, although they may contribute to your success. Instead, it takes a combination of ingredients to make the perfect ambush location.
HOT DEER TRAILS
I have never met a bowhunter who didn't spend his scouting time looking for deer trails. After all, most deer are harvested close to a runway. However, I'm not so sure that setting up a stand by a deer trail offers any guarantees, particularly if you are interested in seeing a mature buck. On the other hand, locating the right trail can certainly get the ball rolling in the right direction.
First, consider that many veteran bowhunters seldom depend upon master trails for success. Master trails are those major runways that are as old as the hills you hunt, and they are also the easiest to spot simply because they probably existed before you began hunting. But this does not mean they will provide consistent action. On the contrary, most major deer highways are not as dependable as most secondary trails. Mature bucks in particular often avoid major runways for obvious reasons.
Secondary trails, which may or may not connect to master trails, are often better choices for stand sites. These trails also come and go. For instance, if deer are attracted to a seasonal food, or perhaps a particular thicket that serves as a bedding area, secondary trails may be found leading to them. The bowhunter must simply determine if a secondary trail is consistently used. Fresh rubs and scrapes are natural indicators, as well as the surrounding cover. The more cover, the better the trail.
Secondary trails, as well as some master trails, may offer the best ambush locations when they pass through funnels and bottlenecks or along fencelines. The oak tree stand previously mentioned was situated at one end of a natural corridor. This bottleneck served as a connecting point from one thicket to another. When a buck traveled through the bottleneck, he would usually pass by within shooting range of the oak.
During the last couple of years, I have traveled to hunt in Illinois. Never have I seen so many funnels, bottlenecks and travel corridors in one area. Some hunters who are accustomed to hunting the big woods may become discouraged upon seeing this type of terrain. The limited timber definitely shifts the odds in favor of the archer, however. Of course, many of the funnels are hotter than others.
Keep in mind, in order for trails to provide action consistently, they must serve a purpose, whether visiting a bedding area, food source or simply to offer the bucks the necessary cover to get from Point A to Point B unseen.
TERRAIN AND PRESSURE
When hunting in the bow zone of Alberta a few years ago, I relied on the fringes for many morning hunts and each evening hunt. There was little or no hunting pressure, and the bucks did not mind walking an open field to get wherever they wanted to go. Many of us, however, find ourselves sharing the woods with other hunters. We also know that most bucks, particularly the old-timers, will spend their time traveling thicker areas in daylight hours. Thus, you can assume that pressured areas call for finding stand sites in the thickest cover.
Thick areas discourage many hunters because shooting opportunities are limited. As for me, I seldom let it bother me. I usually clear about three shooting lanes (clearing too much is one sure way to spoil a perfect setup) and settle for less visibility. I may occasionally have a buck pass by that does not offer a shooting opportunity, but it beats the heck out of sitting on an open field or in open hardwoods.
Foliage is another consideration. Last year, I found the perfect early ambush location in the hardwoods when the woods were still thick and green. A secondary trail led from one ridge to another. While positioned between the two, I spotted a few different bucks, including one trophy class deer. The location remained hot up until the frosts arrived and the foliage diminished.
Hunting pressure should also play an essential role in the height you place your stand. The more hunting pressure there is, the higher you need to hunt. Equally important is using the terrain to your advantage when using the stand.
GETTING IN AND OUT
There was a day when I used to tromp into a stand by taking the easiest route. I occasionally do so today but only if the route keeps me from being detected. Even the perfect stand site can quickly be ruined once a mature buck knows that he is being hunted.
I would also suggest you avoid walking deer trails just because they are convenient. Regardless of where you walk, you are sure to leave human scent behind. Renowned bowhunter Myles Keller once told me he wished he could drop out of the sky and into his stand. We know this is not possible, but we can decrease the human scent we leave near our stand sites by not visiting them consistently.
Before determining the best way to get to and from a stand site, you must know the area. Once you do, you can choose travel routes. Normally, you may find that more than one route is needed. For instance, common sense tells us we should not walk through an agricultural food source in the predawn hours when walking to a stand, or through the same field after dark since deer may be in the field. It also makes sense to walk through the agricultural field after the morning hunt ends simply because deer would not be in the field. This is a far better thing to do than passing through a thicket, although it may offer a shorter walk.
THE MORE STANDS, THE BETTER
I own about eight tree stands, all of which find their way to a tree each deer season. My wife manages to use two or three, but the remainders are placed for me. If you are wondering why a guy would need four or five stands, I can tell you without hesitation. The more I have to choose from, the better the hunting.
I have never been a believer in the old saying, "Stick with a place and it will pay off." In fact, I believe that sticking with one stand will surely decrease the chance of bumping into a mature buck. You will leave less scent in a given area by not being there day after day.
Also, because wind direction is never dependable, you can make it a point to hunt where the wind is favorable. That is providing you have a selection of stand sites to choose from. You can rest assured that a stand site will not produce when the wind is wrong.
I also believe that we spook far more deer than we realize when traveling to and from stands. You can assume that deer see us more often than we see them, at least when we are on foot. I firmly believe the best hunting happens the first two or three times I visit a stand. Investing in a few stands is costly, but the investment is worth every penny.
RIGHT STAND FOR THE JOB
The bowhunter is fortunate to have so many tree stands to choose from. There are ladder stands and an array of climbing and fixed-position stands available. Naturally, one must select the type of stand that is right for them, keeping comfort and safety in mind.
There are also a few other considerations. First, consider the possibilities of theft in the area where you intend to use your stands. This may have some bearing on whether you want to use ladder or fixed-position stands. You should also consider noise, convenience and weight.
I have had a few portable stands stolen over the years, but I still insist on using them because they are there and ready to hunt when I arrive on stand. Most of my fixed-position stands weigh 10 pounds or less, can be packed in easily and quietly hung in place. Of course, using portable stands also means you will need to use steps or a ladder.
Climbing stands, though some are quieter than others, always make some noise when you go up and down a tree. This noise occurs at prime time, either early in the morning as you go up the tree or at dusk when you come down. But climbing stands do have their place. There are times when I locate a potential hot spot that I want to hunt right away. All I have to do is grab the climber and put it into action.
I emphasize the importance of using several stand sites. However, it is not unusual for a hunter to get stuck in one location. We're all guilty of this act, particularly when we see a wall hanger from a given ambush location. We want to go back time and time again, assuming the same buck will show. Unfortunately, being stuck in one hot spot is a sure way to cool it down quickly.
You should also realize that any stand site is seasonal. By that, I mean that most hot ambush locations will produce only for a limited time. For example, a food source that attracts whitetails may be active for a few weeks — or days. I have found pockets of acorn trees that attracted deer for two or three weeks. Once the acorns stop falling, though, the activity comes to a screeching halt.
Finally, I suggest you give up on a stand site as soon as it dies. Keep it in mind for the following season and remember the period when it was hot.
Let's face it; you have only so many hours to spend sitting in a tree stand, waiting on the right buck to show. Therefore, the moment an area dies you should move on and not waste valuable time reminiscing the past.
You could say there are two primary factors involved in stands that always produce. You must first locate an ambush location that has the potential of being a producer. Finally, you must hunt smart to keep it producing. This season, I will be out there looking for one of those locations like the oak tree stand. I may or may not find it, but I'll sure have fun trying. As long as there are whitetails roaming the woods, there are sure to be some stands that always produce.