Introducing children to the world of elevated bowhunting
Ultimately it's up to the parent or mentor whether a youngster is ready to hunt out of a tree stand. Be honest about their ability to climb safely and effectively.
The wind was perfect and the scene was set. Three does broke through the brush 30 yards to the east and slowly made their way to within a few feet of Tyler's shooting lane. As a father I had waited for this moment since the day we brought him home from the hospital. Years of dreaming and preparation had finally materialized into reality. It was an experience I will never forget. It changed my hunting priorities and revitalized my passion for the sport.
Watching Ty methodically go through the ritual I had introduced him to was thrilling. He held his ground, patiently waiting for the lead doe to take the last few steps. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she stood at 15 yards broadside in the open. Nothing but air stood between Tyler and his first deer. He drew, shot and missed! My heart sank and I felt horrible for Ty, however, while I was feeling badly for him he was pulling another arrow from his quiver. The shot from his bow was so quiet that the doe only took a small hop and stood again.
Again Ty drew, shot and this time hit his mark, which sent the doe bolting back the way she came. We backed out and took up the trail a couple hours later. Ty told me it felt more like a couple of days. After a short tracking job we celebrated the momentous occasion with high fives, laughing and a big hug. "Dad," he said, "This is one of the best days of my life." I cannot tell you how much joy and satisfaction that one statement gave me--I was an extremely proud and happy father.
One of the keys to Tyler's success that day was his ability to hunt from an elevated position. Swirling wind and slight movements tend to have less of an effect if you are 15 to 20 feet in the air. We had spent many hours in preparation including practice climbs up and down trees of various sizes, 3-D shooting from a 15-foot platform, studying shot placement, watching hunting videos, etc. Before we ever set foot in the woods I had a high level of confidence in Ty's ability to safely ascend a tree with his climbing stand. We still had one hurdle to get past and then we were on our way...
Allowing my wife's "little baby" to climb 15 to 20 feet up a tree with a weapon in tow was not an easy sell at the outset. To say that it took a little convincing is to put it mildly, an understatement. Of course, her main concern was, and still is, safety. What if the tree stand breaks or slips, what if he loses his balance, what if he gets too nervous and forgets what he is doing and falls, what if... and on and on it goes. Now that I am on my fourth child out of six that will eventually ascend a tree in pursuit of whitetail, my wife has gained a measure of assurance in my ability to protect the kids and bring them back safely. We approach tree stand safety with the following key points in mind.
Tree Stand Safety 101
Safety begins with attitude and brings up an important thought. Before dragging your child out into the woods and ushering them up a big tree it would be a great idea to first ask--"Do you want to hunt out of a tree?" Of course they do, right? Not the slam-dunk that you would think. My middle daughter Rebekah shocked the life out of me this year when she declared that while hunting from a tree stand is tolerable when the situation requires it, she would much prefer a ground blind. She has already been hunting for three years and I just learned this!
Make sure they have a desire to be in a tree before you get started. If your child is preoccupied with not wanting to be in a tree instead of focusing on safety then the chances something may happen increase. This is also a good place to cover another very important issue with kids and hunting--your attitude. That's right, your attitude. It can make all the difference in the world for your child now and in the future.
Determining what kind of equipment will work best for a young hunter is important. Climbing stands can become second nature to a child, but they need to practice and to understand exactly how to use the stands ensuring safe climbing every time.
Too often I have been on group hunts where a father expected too much of his son, ended up angry and said things I'm sure were regretted later. It destroys the spirit of the hunt and any chance of a carefree, good time. Keeping things light and fun rather than tense and high pressure is a recipe for success and good memories. The important thing to remember when choosing the style or intensity of hunting for your child is that it isn't about you. It's about them and for them.
My tip for a pleasant outing is rather than focusing only on the animal you are pursuing take notice of the entire theatre around you. Use the opportunity to teach them about the type of trees that surround you and the other creatures that scurry below or fly above. Enjoying the total experience with no pressure will instill a deep sense of contentedness and satisfaction in them that will keep them coming back for more.
Are They Ready?
Your child must possess the physical wherewithal to safely ascend a tree. Is your child coordinated, strong, and basically in good shape? These are all things I considered with each of my children before their first time up. My oldest daughter Rachel is part squirrel and could climb just about any tree with her bare hands. She handles climbers, lock-ons and ladder stands with confidence and apparent ease.
All of my archery hunters can and do climb trees, however, one gets more attention and help from me while setting up and climbing because they are somewhat less coordinated and strong. Some states allow children to start hunting at a very young age and this is where you may run into the limit as far as physical ability is concerned. If your child is small and struggles to reach steps or pull themselves up, you may want to stick to a ground blind for a year or two while they gain the size, confidence and coordination necessary to ensure safety.
The Right Equipment
Proper equipment serves to protect. Improper equipment may cost you dearly. Many years ago I invited my girlfriend, now my wife Jennifer, to join me on a trip to select a few stand locations and clear shooting lanes (not very romantic, I know). She stayed down on the logging road as I pushed my way up the ridge through some brush. I was using a climbing stand to quickly check out the lay of the land in hopes of finding a good vantage point to hang a lock-on. Since I was just going to go up, take a q
uick look around and come back down I thought a safety belt wasn't needed.
The climbing stand only had a standing platform so I had to hug the tree to ascend and descend. On the way back down I got to within a few feet of the ground and decided to just jump off the platform, however, when I released my grip on the tree the stand shifted and I lost my balance falling straight backward. The fact that my feet were still in the climbing straps may have been a blessing or may have made the whole predicament much worse.
No matter which style of stand your child prefers, a properly fitting safety harness is a must. Tension on the home front about whether to introduce a child to tree stand hunting can be greatly alleviated by employing properly used safety equipment.
I found myself hanging upside down with my head no more than two feet from the ground and my feet and legs locked in a position that would not allow me to twist to either side. You are probably thinking, "Just do a sit-up." I thought the same thing and at the time was in great shape, let me just say that a sit-up from that position with limited mobility and zero momentum should be left to Olympic gymnasts. Not wanting to appear like a total idiot by having to call Jen for help I gave it all I had and finally did the most strenuous sit-up of my life and freed myself.
There are two things that could have prevented this scenario. First and foremost is a safety harness. A harness would have only let me fall so far and would have provided a rope/strap that could be used to pull myself back up. Second is the use of a proper stand. A stand that requires you to hug the tree keeps your weight forward, closer to the tree, and does not allow you to seat the platform securely.
It also kills the abs. A proper stand reduces the toll on your muscles and allows your upper body to get some distance from the tree thereby permitting you to apply weight toward the rear of the platform resulting in a more solid position. The bottom line is that we owe it to our selves, our children and our significant others to use the most effective safety equipment on the market. We have come a long way since the days of single belt fall restraints that were ineffective and at times dangerous.
We now have a good selection of systems that are technically designed to offer real protection in the event of a fall. My children use two different styles including the Seat-O-The-Pants FastBack Cub and Hunter Safety System's Lil' Treestalker vest. Both are designed specifically for small stature hunters and both meet all of the same safety standards that their adult counterparts are required to meet.
Many adults will use a fall restraint system only after reaching their desired hunting height, however, it is a good idea to be protected as soon as your feet leave the ground. The Fall Guy 20+ Retractor, which acts much like the seatbelt mechanism in your vehicle, and Seat-O-The-Pants Climbing System, which includes a 30-foot rope and easy-to-use Prusik Knot make this task not only a possibility but uncomplicated as well.
Tree stands, regardless of type, should be in good shape and free of any visible defects. If the stand is old, rusted or structurally compromised in any way throw it out and purchase a new one. Safety is number one and safe equipment is essential.
As a lead-in to the next point I want to mention that a double occupancy tree stand is a vital tool in training young hunters the ins and outs of the sport. You are sitting close enough that instructions can be quietly whispered in their ear even when game is within range.
Teach Them Well
Education and practice make for safe climbers. It is difficult enough for an adult to unpack their gear, set up a tree stand, attach a safety harness and safely climb a tree on their first cold, dark, pre-dawn outing of the season. Expecting a youngster to do the same is a recipe for disaster. Before the season ever starts it is time for class. This is your opportunity to educate your son or daughter on the proper use of their particular stand, the safety gear that is to be used and any tips or tricks to make things go smoothly. For example, if using a climbing stand, teach them to make small incremental elevation changes on the way up and down the tree, teach them to use their harness from the moment their boots leave the forest floor until they return again regardless of the stand type.
According to Jerry Demeyer of Integrated Safety (makers of the Fall Guy Safety System) over 75-percent of all falls occur climbing the tree or getting in or out of your tree stand. Once hunting height is reached teach them to properly position their harness anchor point on the tree so as to minimize any initial trauma associated with a fall. Teach them to never hurry! There will be other days and more opportunities. No matter what type of stand they will be using have them ascend and descend five to 10 times so they get a good feel for their stand. It is during these times that they will learn to overcome many of the challenges thrown at them.
As a parent or mentor you want to use every available resource to educate and reinforce good practices. If possible, take advantage of the many online resources offered. Online educational tools include various informational portals including those from individual tree stand manufacturers, state regulators like the Minnesota DNR, and the Treestand Manufacturers Association's online Treestand Safety Course at www.tmastands.com. According to the online Treestand Safety Course 82-percent of those involved in reported incidents involving a tree stand were not wearing a fall restraint system. For links to all 50 official wildlife agency Web sites and their educational resources visit www.huntinfo.org.
As a parent/mentor you have an awesome opportunity to introduce a youngster into a sport that has done so much for so many. Through bowhunting, businesses have been built, families have come together, countless friendships have been forged, individuals have discovered solace and satisfaction and children have found a community they can relate to and trust. They trust you to teach, help and protect them.
With that in mind, consider carefully the challenges a child will face if permitted to hunt from an elevated position. Think it through from A-to-Z before you ever step foot in the woods. Check attitudes and motives, gauge physical ability, outfit them properly, teach them the ropes and then let them practice, practice, practice. Once you are confident in their ability to safely maneuver their way up a tree is time to take advantage of all that tree stand hunting has to offer--greater success and a view of the forest like no other.