By Eddie Claypool
I’ve always been a big believer in the old adage, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” In other words, when it comes to consistently harvesting mature whitetail bucks with a bow, you must be creative and adaptable — able to hunt them however circumstances dictate. In terms of treestand placement, that means using every scouting technique available to identify the most likely areas for an effective ambush.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the strategies that have helped me locate, prepare and hunt productive treestand locations.
Location, Location, Location
As with any endeavor involving real estate, the key to a good stand comes down to three things — location, location, location! It goes without saying that the possibilities are virtually endless; so, to find your “right spot,” you’ll need to employ every scouting method in the book.
I like to start my scouting efforts online via Google Earth or any other online mapping tool and then follow up with hours of in-the-field examination. To help simplify your scouting process, here’s a handy rule I’ve found true over the course of decades of whitetail hunting from coast to coast: 25 percent of a given area receives 75 percent of its deer activity. When evaluating terrain this way, you can quickly rule out many marginal areas and, just as quickly, zero in on the smaller zones where most of the activity occurs.
To do this, you’ll want to scour your chosen locale for three key components: bedding areas (security cover), feeding areas and travel routes. By narrowing your scouting to these fundamentals, you’ll find it much easier to see the “big picture” of how deer move across the landscape. Simply connect the dots between bedding areas and feeding areas and then inspect the travel corridors in between to find the best ambush locations.
Next, it’s time to scout these travel corridors on foot. As you do, slow down and carefully consider the topography and ground cover. You’ll see that the “lay of the land” is the controlling factor that dictates the routes deer use to move between bedding and feeding areas. Now, it’s your job to find the best spots along these routes for a successful treestand location.
You may have noticed that until now I haven’t mentioned any of the things we typically refer to as “deer sign” — rubs, scrapes, tracks, scat, etc. That’s because while such sign can prove useful when it comes to fine-tuning your stand placement, I don’t get too caught up in chasing sign when initially scouting a new property.
So, if I’m not placing my stands based solely, or even mostly, on sign, what are the ingredients that make a great treestand location?
Access Is Key
No discussion of treestand placement would be complete without addressing the most basic requirement: a place to put one! In other words, do whatever is necessary to secure access to good hunting ground and then wear yourself out learning everything you can about it.
Whether hunting public land or private, it’s been my experience that, simply by spending a lot of time exploring the habitat, I’ll eventually develop a “feel” for how the local deer interact with the terrain. In doing this, I’ll soon be able to pick the best spots to achieve my goal of killing the best bucks in the area.
There’s nothing more satisfying than figuring it all out on your own and then executing a plan that ends with a buck in the truck. Hey, what more can a dedicated DIY guy ask for?
When you’re assessing a potential stand site, there are numerous factors to consider, such as wind direction/scent dispersal, known deer travel routes, the ability to get into and out of the area undetected, the position of the sun, available background cover in the tree and many more. Rarely will you find a tree that checks all the boxes, and if you do, hang a stand there immediately!
More often, you’ll locate a number of intriguing possibilities that seem to have advantages in some areas and drawbacks in others. Since we want to prioritize stand locations by how effectively they’ll provide productive shot opportunities, it’s only natural that there will be some educated guesswork involved at this stage of the process.
In the end, all you can do is go down the checklist of desired qualities and see if a spot passes muster. Weigh the pros and cons of each tree under consideration. How does the prevailing wind direction move through the area in relation to expected deer approach and exit routes? What will the thermals be like on a calm morning or evening? Are there any natural barriers to discourage deer from getting downwind of your chosen tree? If not, can you make some? Does the tree offer good background cover, or will you be skylined? Does the tree offer good “shootability” of the surrounding area, or will much trimming be required? Let’s take a closer look at some of these issues and how we might address them effectively.
Many times, as I mull over all the particulars involved in evaluating a certain tree, I see too many shortcomings. In those cases, I simply move to another nearby candidate and repeat the process. I can usually find a tree that will measure up; other times, I have to simply admit that the spot isn’t going to work out as-is. Can I “make it work” with a bunch of off-season cutting/trimming? Can I create “acceptable” conditions for now with just a minor amount of trimming? I make such assessments in relation to the time of year the task is presented, always opting for caution during hunting season, for obvious reasons. On the other hand, if I find a new spot during the off-season, I’ll often grab a chainsaw and go to work, clearing the area as much as I desire.
Next, I look for a best-bet entrance/exit route. I’ll often spend a good deal of time creating and/or enhancing a low-impact route to my stand. I want to be able to slip in quietly for at least the last 100 yards or so. Use a rake or leaf blower to clear debris from your path.
Creeks and/or ravines are also ideal access options. If there is a possibility of accessing my treestand by boat, or by using waders, I’m in. Numerous times, I’ve spent an hour or more cutting steps into a steep, muddy creek bank in order to be able to climb up to the base of my tree. Additionally, I always insist upon scraping all the debris away from the bottom of my tree so I don’t make unwanted noise while organizing gear before and after climbing. Yes, you could say I’m a bit of a stealth nut!
When it comes time for the actual placement of the treestand, I often find myself sweating the details in this department, too. In an ideal scenario, my treestand will be about 20-25 feet off the ground with excellent background cover to break up my silhouette. I’ll be facing north so the sun doesn’t shine in my eyes. I’ll also be facing so as to have most of my shooting opportunities to my left, as I’m right-handed. I’ll have my backpack hanging at an easily accessible height, immediately to my left, and my bow will be hanging in front of me, slightly left, within easy reach. I’ll be situated in an extremely comfortable treestand, providing me with the ability to remain happy all day long. My choice in this department is the Millenniun M100U Ultralight.
OK, since we know that such a perfect scenario is rarely, if ever, attained, what are our options? As I said earlier, adapt! If it’s an excellent spot but you may have to sit in a manner where you’ll be facing the sun for a good portion of the day, be sure to wear a brimmed cap. If you can’t come up with a low-impact entrance route to your treestand, consider getting there a couple of hours before shooting light to allow everything to be at peace by dawn.
The single greatest factor that will determine the productivity of a chosen treestand location revolves around the amount of time you spend in it. Take a lunch, extra clothes, a book or whatever else you need to be comfortable and occupied for an all-day sit. This approach has paid me great dividends over the years, with about 25 percent of all the mature bucks I’ve taken coming between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. This has proven especially true on public ground; go in deep, find some thick cover and let the other hunters push deer to you!
Finally, never fall into the trap of thinking you’re above making mistakes. It’s inevitable that we occasionally make bad choices in treestand placement. When that happens, simply yank the stand, move to a new spot and try again. Remember, every failure is a learning opportunity, and even in a great deer-hunting area, it’s rare to set up a “perfect” treestand on the first try.