It is very rare when the first tree you select for your stand is actually the best one in the area. The best stands evolve over time, ideally over the course of several seasons. Each year, you learn something new about how deer move through the area and how your own coming and going affects their natural movement.
I am going to use my own best stand as an example of how this process works. It started on a whim, but over the course of four seasons, it evolved into the best spot I have ever hunted.
I started hunting this spot in 2009. The setup is a one-acre food plot on the edge of the timber attached to a long, narrow tail (probably another 1.5 acres) that circles around and cuts back into the same timber. So, the total field is about 2.5-3 acres if it is all planted, which it almost never is. Unfortunately, this long tail is hard to keep thriving because the trees suck the moisture out of it during all but the wettest summers.
That first year, I made the common mistake of setting up where the deer come from. Many deer follow the long tail — the skinny finger of the field jutting back into the woods. They follow that tail around to the larger portions of the field where crops grow.
Of course, I wanted to be right in the middle of the action. So, I set up back around the corner where the finger entered the larger plot. I had a good wind advantage there, with my scent blowing over the top of a valley to the north of the finger. As long as I hunted it on a south wind, I was fine while in the stand, but this location presented two challenges.
First, the finger runs east/west, and the perfect south wind normally comes with warmer conditions. Those are not always good for maximum deer movement. If I tried to hunt it on the other side of the finger, on a north or northwest wind, my scent would have blown right to the larger plot.
You want your best stands to be huntable on the winds that normally accompany cold fronts. In the Midwest, as in most areas, those are northwest winds. This spot was not good for anything out of the northwest.
The second strike against this stand is typical anytime you set up right where the deer come out. At the end of legal hunting time, I had a major problem. Deer that had already gotten past me and entered the larger plot, along with any additional deer that approached the larger plot from other directions, were between me and my truck.
Getting out of that stand without the deer knowing about it was really tough. I would have been fine if I had someone to come and bump the deer off the field with a truck or ATV each evening I hunted there, but I didn’t have that luxury. I had to try sneaking out, and the deer knew I was there as soon as I started moving in the noisy shagbark hickory tree. The spot would have worked if I could have gotten out of there without bumping deer every time, but, again, it would have only worked on warm-weather winds.
I hunted the spot several times. I even nearly killed a really nice 8-pointer on Nov. 22 that jumped the string.
Starting in late December of 2009 (the tail end of Year One), I moved to a cedar tree near the larger part of the plot where I noticed most deer ended up feeding. I could hunt that on a west or northwest wind. The power of observation and evolution had taken its first tentative step forward.
That same big 8-pointer showed up one evening and I almost got him again, but a group of coyotes cleared the field before he got within bow range of me.
The cedar tree was right next to where the deer fed most often, and it was very rare that I could hunt it for any length of time before the many wary deer that fed there would see my big profile up in that little tree and spook. That was pretty much it for Year One; a few lessons learned and one tentative adjustment made.
Even with those successes, though, I wasn’t hunting the spot effectively. Too many deer were aware that I was hunting them.
Going into Year Two, I decided I needed to hunt closer to where the deer ended up, not where they came out. Still, I didn’t want to be right on top of them because they would see me too easily.
My solution was to select a different cedar tree between the first stand I selected on the finger and the spot where the deer most often ended up. It was around the corner from the tail, so I could hunt it on the northwest wind I wanted for maximum action.
I reasoned the deer would be walking past this spot and not hanging up there to feed. They would not be so likely to see me in the tree because they were passing through.
That reasoning actually worked out pretty well. A friend shot a nice 10-pointer out of the stand, and my son shot a good buck from it during the youth season that year, but the biggest problem again came when it was time to climb down and get away. There was no way to pull it off with all of the movement and noise needed to climb out of a cedar tree.
I knew I was getting close, but it still wasn’t perfect. Back to the drawing board!
The light bulb in my slow brain finally sparked to life at the end of Year Three. The solution came to me after my son, Drew, killed a really nice buck during the gun season. We were hunting in a cloth ground blind under the cedar tree that was right next to the place where the deer ended up feeding. So, if you are following along, this is the tree I was in back in December 2009, two years earlier, when the coyotes ran my big 8-pointer off.
The deer were all around us and had no idea we were there. The key was the ground blind. It allowed us to hunt the spot without being seen by all of those wary eyes only a short distance away. However, there was still one major challenge — getting out of there at the end of legal shooting time. It took another season before I solved that riddle.
The final solution fell into place during late summer of 2012 when we put a Redneck Blind on a 10-foot platform right in the line of cedars; in fact, right above the spot where Drew killed the buck the prior December.
Now, I had the necessary shot angle for effective bowhunting. I had an enclosed blind to keep the deer from seeing me while on stand, I had the wind I needed to hunt cold fronts effectively and I finally figured out a way to sneak out of the area at the end of legal shooting time.
My exit strategy involved piling a bunch of cedar branches into the platform of the blind that would completely screen me from the field when I climbed up or down the ladder. As long as they didn’t see me silhouetted when I sneaked out of the door, I could usually make my way down the steps quietly enough to get out of there without bumping deer that were just 30 yards away.
It is actually fairly difficult to pull this off, but it can be done. You just have to move very slowly so you don’t make a sound. As long as the deer don’t see you or hear you, and the wind is right, they don’t even know you are around.
Since then, I have killed many really good bucks from that blind. It is by far the best spot I have ever hunted for whitetails — no other spot even comes close — but it took me four seasons to finally figure this one out.
First, I learned that without a perfect exit strategy, any evening stand near food sources will be flawed. The deer will know you are there as soon as you start climbing down.
Second, I learned you want the ability to hunt the best winds (usually those that come with cold fronts) when you are hunting your best areas. That can take some doing, as not all spots set up well for all winds. Time and creativity can make a way if you keep studying your options.
Third, I learned blinds are far superior to treestands when hunting the edge of feeding areas. The deer are concentrated in those areas and are there for so long that it becomes very difficult to hunt there without being detected.
Fourth, I learned you can sneak away from a feeding area if the situation is perfect (a heavy screen of brush) and you move slowly enough.
Tweaking stands is a learning process that takes time. It is hard to rush experience. Even after you put up what you think is an awesome stand, don’t get married to it. Never stop weighing your options until years of experience have confirmed you are in the absolute best possible tree in the area.
If you take nothing else from this article, at least understand you will rarely find a great, long-term stand site in the first tree you hunt. Most often, these diamonds in the rough result from several years of watching, scheming, fine-tuning and tweaking.
Even though your hunting area may not have the best stand in the country, you can be sure there is one stand that’s better than all the others. Your job is to find it. If you don’t know whether you have such a stand, then you’re not in it — keep looking!