By Andy May
I first learned about tree saddles nearly two decades ago. The year was 2003, and several bowhunters in my area of Michigan were touting the significant advantages saddles offered over treestands. They were also killing some pretty nice bucks. Their success couldn’t be denied, and to be honest, the advantages they mentioned made perfect sense. As a dedicated DIY whitetail hunter who understands the importance of mobility and stealth, I decided I needed to find out for myself.
My first saddle was one of the original Trophyline models, and it didn’t take me long to realize that saddle hunting fit my style of mobile bowhunting like a hand fits a glove. As someone who loves seeing new ground and readily embraces the challenge of tackling new areas, a tree saddle is a great tool that significantly reduces the weight and bulk of the gear I need to hunt from a tree. For the next two seasons, I hunted from that saddle exclusively. And you know what? I shot several deer from it and felt a lot more stealthy than I did in a hang-on stand. Despite that, I never could really get comfortable in my saddle, and honestly, the comfort factor bothered me more as time went on, to the point that I found myself “toughing out” my saddle sits.
Little by little, I started to gravitate back toward my lightweight hang-on stand and climbing sticks, with my saddle gathering dust in the garage. Every once in a while — when I had a particularly long, hard hike to a remote hunting destination — I would pull the saddle out for spot duty. Other than that, I figured my saddle-hunting days were numbered.
Fast-forward to 2018, when I was able to try out a saddle from a new saddle company called Tethrd. I had a friend who owned their original saddle, the Mantis. After hearing him rave about it and seeing it weighed a mere 15 ounces, I thought it might be time to revisit the tree saddle. I finally got my hands on the Mantis and was amazed at the build quality and the weight. Not only was this saddle pounds lighter than my original, it was also much more comfortable! The Mantis was designed by a group of longtime saddle hunters who came together to build the exact saddle they wanted. I dove back into saddle hunting 100 percent, and in 2018, I was able to kill two mature bucks during the last few weeks of archery season.
Now in my second go-round with saddle hunting, the advantages they offered were even more apparent than ever. Here’s a brief rundown of the major ways I believe they are superior to a treestand setup.
Personally, the greatly reduced weight/bulk of a saddle setup versus a hang-on stand and climbing sticks is the No. 1 advantage to saddle hunting. No longer did I have to shoulder an awkward stand on my back or deal with the noises it could make or the difficulty it posed in maneuvering through thick, brushy areas where big bucks live. With my saddle, I felt sleek, streamlined and super-stealthy — perfect for slipping into a buck’s bedroom.
As any treestand hunter knows, there is always a roughly 45-degree “dead spot” on the opposite side of your tree where it is difficult or impossible to get a shot. Sure, you can set up your stand to take advantage of deer that approach your stand from the most likely directions, but there always seems to be a good buck that slips in where you least expect it, resulting in a lost opportunity. With a saddle, I can (barring obstructions such as branches and brush) shoot 360 degrees around the tree by easily swinging around on my tether and pivoting into position. As I already noted, deer don’t always (or often) do what we expect; so, it sure is nice to have that option of 360-degree shooting when needed.
Use the Tree as Cover
The ability to use the trunk of the tree you’re in as cover between yourself and approaching deer is one of saddle hunting’s biggest advantages. I typically set up on the back side of the tree from where I expect deer to approach. This way, I can watch that direction simply by peeking my eyes around the tree while keeping my body mostly hidden. As deer travel past, I can slowly pivot around the tree if necessary, all while keeping the tree between me and the deer. This is a huge advantage, especially in two scenarios I often encounter.
One is in mature hardwoods with an abundance of straight, tall trees with no branches below hunting height. No longer do I have to look like a giant, unnatural lump 25 feet up the tree trunk. On a recent out-of-state hunt, I found myself hunting a stand of tulip poplars with bare trunks. There were a lot of deer in the area, so the challenge was beating the eyes of non-target deer while I waited for a shooter buck to walk within bow range.
After glassing a nearby winter wheat field and seeing more than 30 deer, including several shooter bucks, I knew where I needed to be. Around noon the following day, I went up into the hills above that field and found a nice terrain funnel coming off a ridge where I suspected the deer were bedded. That evening, I saw 24 deer. Unfortunately, they passed just out of range, but I did lay eyes on a truly mature buck with a very unique, tall, 6-point rack. It is very rare to see a 6-pointer that big, so as soon as I saw the buck, I decided to go all in on trying to kill him. The next evening, I adjusted my position, but the huge 6-pointer again managed to give me the slip, adjusting his travel path to the opposite side of the ravine. However, I did have a number of other deer work past me at ranges of seven to 50 yards. By keeping the tree trunk between me and them, I was able to make it through the hunt undetected even though my tree offered nothing in the way of natural cover. This was critical, as getting busted in this location would have ruined my hunt.
On the third evening, I moved again, setting up where the big 6-pointer had walked the night before. This time, everything was perfect, and as I saw the buck drop off the ridge and head in my direction, I knew I would get my shot as long as I remained undetected. There were several deer in front of my target buck, including a nice, 3-year-old 8-pointer. They all worked past me without a clue, as I hung 25 feet above their heads. As the big 6-pointer closed the distance, I slowly pivoted around the tree for the shot, came to full draw and settled my pin. My arrow found its mark, and one of my most memorable hunts ended with an extremely satisfying saddle success.
The second scenario when using the tree as cover is a huge advantage is when you are set up at a low height. On public land where trimming trees is illegal, or in sensitive areas where cutting shooting lanes could cause too much disturbance, I’ll often set up anywhere from one to 15 feet off the ground, depending on what height offers me the best shooting angles. By using the tree trunk to shield me, I often have close encounters with deer even when they are virtually at eye level. The buck in the lower photo on page 36 is a perfect example; I shot this Michigan buck last season while set up in my saddle just 10 feet off the ground. I killed the deer at a mere five paces from the base of my tree, and he had absolutely no idea I was there.
Of all the climbing methods available to hunt from a tree, a saddle truly is the safest option because I am connected to the tree from the time I leave the ground until the time I return to it. While ascending and descending, I use my lineman’s belt. Once I’ve reached hunting height, I attach my tether to the tree trunk and clip into my saddle bridge before removing my lineman’s belt.
In addition to being connected to the tree at all times, a saddle also supports your full weight at all times. In the event of a treestand fall, your safety harness is designed to catch you as you’re falling, but a saddle is already supporting your weight, essentially preventing you from falling in the first place.
Ultimate in Versatility
As a DIY hunter who hunts multiple states every year, I am constantly exploring new areas. Some, I pre-scout, but most of the time, I just show up and hunt on the fly. I hunt everything from prairie ground with sporadic, lone trees to river bottoms to big-woods hill country and more. I love tree saddles because they are extremely versatile and work well in all these areas and in any scenario I am likely to encounter!
On any given day, I am as likely to hunt from the ground as I am 25 feet up. So, what I love about the saddle is I can wear it in and be ready to tackle whatever I encounter without having to carry in 10-15 pounds of additional gear. I can set up five feet off the ground or 30 feet and be completely hidden. I can hunt from the ground if the situation calls for it, or even stalk a bedded buck in a CRP field, all while wearing my saddle.
Any serious DIY hunter knows that every location, type of terrain and situation poses its own unique challenges. With my saddle setup, I feel like I’m ready for anything!
Is Saddle Hunting for You?
I’m obviously a huge proponent of saddle hunting, but as for whether it’s a good fit for you — well, that’s a question only you can answer.
If you are a private landowner who only hunts on your own ground, and you have designated food plots and stand locations, I can understand why you might opt for a comfy treestand or ground blind. However, if you are like me and enjoy traveling, hunting new areas and staying mobile, I think you will find real value in a tree saddle setup. With the advancements in saddle design over the past few years, comfort is no longer an issue. In fact, many saddle hunters will tell you that hunting from a saddle is more comfortable than any commercial treestand available.
Some hunters have converted to 100 percent tree saddles, while others still use treestands, too, saving the saddle for when they have to dive deep into a buck’s core area on “run and gun” hunts. Regardless of your situation, I believe you will find a use for a tree saddle — it’s simply too good of a tool not to have it in your whitetail arsenal.