Our guide to tagging trophy bucks from up in the air
Hunting from a treestand is a popular and proven strategy for ambushing wary whitetails, but there's a lot more to consider than simply climbing the sturdiest tree in the forest. Whether you're hunting from a store-bought stand or a homemade job, here's everything you need to know to maximize your chances for success.
Where you choose to hang or build a stand plays a huge role in your hunt's success. That means you need to spend some time afield, searching for deer signs—rubs, scrapes, runways, bedding areas, watering holes and favourite food sources—to learn how and where the deer live. Aerial photos and topographical maps also help unravel the secret lives of local deer. I find that photos taken when the forest is leafless are best. The print should be at least 11" x 14" and laminated so you can take it afield; use a felt-tip marker to note places you find deer sign. Over time, this will become an irreplaceable reference tool. You could also hire a local pilot to take you up for a one-hour flight. The perspective gained from this vantage point is not only unique, but also very useful when trying to understand the lay of the land you hunt.
When selecting a new stand site, make sure you take into account the prevailing wind. Sometimes it's worth the time and effort to hang two stands on opposite sides of a field. That way, whichever direction the wind is blowing on the day of your hunt, you'll be certain to have one of them downwind of your quarry.
What's the best height for a treestand? I've seen stands close to 30 feet up—what a view! These are best suited for gun hunting, as the elevation creates too long of a distance—and too great an angle—for an arrow to be effective. Generally, the preferred height is 15 feet at the footrest. This places the hunter above the deer's normal line of vision, and it's compatible for both bow- and gun hunting. For additional concealment, and to allow you to move around more without being detected, you can also quickly fasten camouflage netting or evergreen branches around the stand. When setting up, it's essential to have unobstructed shooting lanes in all directions. Even though whitetails tend to follow the same paths, it's impossible to guarantee where that mossy-horned buck will appear. You can easily clear the lanes, which only need to be a few feet across, by trimming branches and saplings. This is especially critical when bowhunting, as one branch can considerably alter an arrow's trajectory.
The most important factor to consider when choosing where to hang a stand is safety. A fall from a treestand, whether from eight feet or 30, can cause serious injury. Ensure your stand allows for a safe climb up and down, and always wear a safety harness.
Some prefabricated treestands come with their own metal ladders, while others are more portable—you simply step into them and inch yourself up the tree. Keep in mind that if you use one of these so-called climbing stands, you'll need to cut away any branches. Ideally, select and prune the trees you plan to use before the season gets underway. Otherwise, be sure to carry a small handsaw with you. Homemade wooden stands, meanwhile, tend to be more spacious, but hauling lumber into the bush can be a bit of a workout. It's best to build these stands in the spring, before the forest greens up and the blackflies and mosquitoes start to appear. Because there's no foliage, you'll also be able to visualize the same shooting lanes you'll have during the fall deer season. Always use pressure-treated wood for the flooring and braces, and keep in mind that you may have to replace weakened or rotting timber every few years. Whether you buy a stand or build your own, you want one that will allow you to sit motionless for hours at a time. And the more comfortable you are in the stand, the keener you'll be to hunt from it.
Where to hang out
If you find deer sign around any of these locations in your hunting area, you know you've found a good place to set up your treestand. Now all you need is patience and persistence.
Fields of corn, clover or alfalfa offer the ultimate smorgasbord for whitetails. By setting up your treestand in the most quiet, out-of-the-way corner of one of these fields, you should be well placed for an early-morning or evening hunt. A stand hung among oak or beech trees, meanwhile, can prove to be a successful watch any time of day—the mast dropped by these trees each fall is as sweet as candy to deer trying to bulk up for the winter. Many hunters also create their own food plots, tucked away in a secret forest opening or field corner. By planting a mixture of preferred greens in the right location, hunters can offer up an irresistible buffet for deer.
All deer have favourite trails for travelling back and forth between their bedding and feeding areas, often using the same paths year after year. Sure, the deer can still show up just about anywhere in the forest or along field edges, but they do routinely rely on certain, trusted runways, which are typically the most direct routes.
A good place to set up is where the terrain narrows, resulting in a smaller area of secure cover for the deer to pass through. Such funnels may include a finger of woods jutting into a field, a beaver dam or a narrow valley in the hardwoods—anything that squeezes the animals into a tight corridor. Sometimes, you can even create your own bottleneck. On one of the properties I hunt, for example, there's an old wire fence just inside the woods from an abandoned apple orchard. Since the fence was no longer in use (I made sure of this), I cut out a four-foot section; in no time at all, the deer started to pass through the opening when entering and leaving the orchard. Deer always prefer to travel the route of least resistance, and this way, they no longer had to jump the fence.
A woodland stream is an ideal place to ambush deer in the middle of the day. Before selecting a tree for your stand, check for tracks in the exposed earth along the water's edge to zero in on where the deer prefer to drink or cross the waterway.
Look for a stand of conifers in a low-lying wooded area, or a dense thicket, along the edge of a swampy wetland. When selecting a tree in one of these locations, choose one you can get to quietly. And be sure to arrive early in the morning, well before the deer have returned from their morning feeding—there's no point heading to a treestand in a bedding area if the deer are ahead of you and already settled. The odds of being able to sneak in without spooking them are slim at best.
Recognizing the popularity of treestands, the hunting industry has responded with a wide variety of models to choose from. Here are some of the major manufacturers.