Tree Stand Blacktails
September 24, 2010
Hunting deer from up above isn't just an East Coast phenomenon anymore. Blacktail hunters are finding that portable tree stands can be highly effective as well.
by Cal Kellogg
The morning was more than 40 minutes old and still nothing had moved save a large bobcat that drifted below me at first light. My dad and I, along with our good friend Roger Thieling, had climbed into tree stands in a common drainage well before daybreak. Our stands were situated about a quarter-mile apart and out of sight of one another.
The air was charged with excitement as I sat 20 feet off the ground scrutinizing the brush-studded saddle below. The first storm of fall had struck the day before, and it had rained hard for much of the night. The area we set up in was about 1,000 feet below the snowline. A dusting of snow on the high ridges told me the deer should be on the move. But where were they?
Two sharp reports suddenly split the still air a good distance up the ridge above our stands. Knowing that blacktails could be headed my way, I focused on the far side of the saddle. Several long minutes passed before I caught the first flicker of movement through the cover. Presently, six does and two bucks trotted from the cover, one buck a forkhorn, the other a nice 3-pointer. When they reached the bottom of the saddle, the does turned to follow it into the safety of the canyon below, the bucks in tow. The 3-pointer's plans were spoiled when I drove a 154-grain slug from my 7mm through his chest.
As I sat watching my downed buck, three shots rang out to the west in the direction of my dad's stand. I later learned that about 40 deer had poured through the ravine Dad and Roger sat watching just after they heard me shoot. They filled their tags with a second 3-pointer and a fat forkhorn. These bucks joined a long list of fine blacktails that have fallen prey to the tree-stand tactics my dad and I employ.
Hunters of white-tailed deer have long acknowledged the effectiveness of tree stands. Here on the West Coast, however, hunters have been slow to embrace tree-stand hunting. This is unfortunate, since the habits of blacktail deer make them highly vulnerable to the tree-based hunter.
A portable tree stand and a healthy dose of patience helped archer Ted Popson shoot this large blacktail. Photo by Cal Kellogg
Since 1978, when my dad first began experimenting with tree stands, we have combined to take 37 blacktail bucks from tree stands over a broad range of seasons and conditions, often hunting in areas with hunter success rates below 15 percent.
A tree stand's biggest attribute is its ability to allow a careful hunter to go undetected by deer regardless of conditions. It is the goal of all good deer hunters to spot deer before the deer see or sense them. This is doubly important to the blacktail hunter. A mature blacktail buck, particularly one on public ground, ranks near the top of the list of most-wary deer. Staying undetected is often easier said than done for the ground hunter, especially if the conditions aren't just right.
For my money, a well-placed stand is the most effective way to harvest an elusive blacktail buck. It doesn't matter if you're a new hunter looking for that first buck or a seasoned veteran looking to improve your success rate. Wet weather or dry, high elevation or low, early season or late, tree stands will work for you.
DEFEATING A BLACKTAIL'S DEFENSES Deer have three lines of defense: hearing, vision, and a great sense of smell. A tree stand is the best way to defeat each of these - if you follow a few simple rules.
The very nature of stand-hunting overcomes a deer's hearing. As long as your platform isn't squeaky and you don't have a smoker's cough, you're not going to produce much noise. I always wear soft clothes and avoid crunchy wrappers or things that rattle to assure total silence in the tree stand.
Back East it is common for whitetails to spot hunters sitting in their stands. I have not found this to be a problem here in the West. This may be due to the fact that not many people hunt blacktails from stands, while the opposite is true for whitetails. Whatever the reason, blacktails almost always look for danger at ground level. Just the same, I wear full camouflage, including gloves and a facemask, and I choose only trees with plenty of branches to break up my outline and to hide any movements I make.
A blacktail's strongest defense is its sense of smell. In my opinion, it's not possible to beat a buck's nose 100 percent of the time, but you can come close to this average. Of course, I always try to place my stand so that the prevailing wind moves my scent away from the area I'm watching, but doping out the wind can be difficult. A wind chalk bottle (available at bow shops) can be a great aid in helping to read the subtleties of air currents. As insurance I always use scent-eliminating detergent, soap and deodorant, while taking steps to keep my body as clean as possible under the conditions.
Forget cover scents, too. The only truly reliable "cover scent" is a lack of scent altogether. In a conversation with expert bowhunter Larry D. Jones, I asked his opinion on scent elimination suits. "Carbon scent suits work well in situations where the hunter is relatively inactive and perspiration isn't an issue," he said. "I've killed bucks that were directly downwind of my tree stand while wearing a (carbon scent) suit. The deer should have winded me, but they didn't, allowing me to make the shot."
When approaching a stand site, it is important to always wear scent-free rubber boots while following the same path coming and going. It's also smart to never touch vegetation with your bare hands. This will keep you from spreading human scent. Finally, for obvious reasons, it is advisable to carry a plastic urine bottle in your pack. These precautions sound like a lot of work, but perceptions can change fast when a thick-necked, heavy-horned old monarch is picking his way through the cover beneath your tree!
STAND PLACEMENT Scouting is the cornerstone of successful blacktail hunting, and stand placement is a function of scouting. For me, scouting begins in the spring with a topographic map of a given area and a call to the region's deer biologist. These guys are an invaluable source of expert information. I tell them when I'm planning on hunting and ask them a list of well- thought-out open-ended questions with the map spread out for reference and highlighting. Once I've gathered some solid information, the next step is to visit some of the spots I've highlighted.
If I'm hunting a static group of deer, meaning deer in an area not subject to migration or a migratory herd that is still on its summer range during the early season, I will begin
by locating potential feeding areas. In high country, I target brushy benches near timberline, spring seeps, glades and avalanche chutes. These areas offer rich browse, which high-country bucks will be targeting.
Lower elevation feeding areas tend to be more varied. Ridges with acorn production are always good. So are areas that have recently burned, especially after a rain, when such areas are rich with forbs and mushrooms - both blacktail favorites. I've located good bucks feeding on blackberries and wild grapes. Pasture and agriculture field edges are also productive if you can gain access.
OLD RANCHES & FRUIT TREES In one of the areas I hunt, a great many abandoned ranches support a lot of feeding activity during early fall. You would never know that they existed at all if it weren't for the old foundations and the fruit trees planted around them. These areas amount to small clearings with a highly desirable food source within them; it's perfect for stand-hunting. The fruit also attracts bears; I've had the opportunity to see several.
Four years ago I located an old ranch site that was just ideal. It consisted of about 30 pear trees and about a half-acre of grapes along with an old spring-fed stock pond. The first morning I hunted the spot, I killed a forkhorn within 30 minutes of climbing the tree. The next spring the local mountain bike club ruined the spot when they put a trail right through it and built a wooden bridge across the spring above the pond. To each his own; I just wish they hadn't chosen my honeyhole for their trail.
LET THE GLASSING BEGIN! Once potential feeding areas are located, glassing can begin. My strategy is to glass various feeding areas at first light until I find an area being used by bucks. I then note the route they use to exit the feeding area as they move off to bed. Blacktails that have settled into a routine are fairly easy to pattern and quite consistent in their actions when undisturbed.
Generally, a buck will bed in an area of heavy vegetation or timber within a quarter-mile of his feeding area. After identifying the deer's preferred travel corridor, all that's left to do is the hanging of your stand. This is best done during midday, when the deer are bedded and you run the lowest risk of being busted.
Place the stand on the downwind side of their trail about halfway between the bedding and feeding areas, and you're ready to hunt. To make this strategy pay off, it is critical that you get into the stand well before sunrise, and with as little commotion as possible.
Migratory deer on the summer range are especially susceptible to this technique. By late August and September when bow and rifle seasons open, the deer will have strongly established feeding and bedding areas.
Many times I've packed lightweight tree stands up to four miles into wilderness areas a full two weeks before the season. This way I can place the stand and leave it, allowing all scent to dissipate. The day before the season, I backpack into the area and camp a good distance from the stand. At about 4 a.m., I sneak to the tree and settle in for a long wait. If all goes according to plan, a buck will work past my stand around midmorning. This type of stand hunting is extremely physically demanding when it comes time to pack out your stand, equipment and boned meat, but believe me, the experience and the feeling of accomplishment are well worth the effort.
HUNT THE MIGRATION A lot of avid blacktail hunters feel that the best time to pursue their quarry is during stormy weather. Blacktails are migratory in many regions across their range. This means that they spend the summer up in the high country and move lower when winter strikes. It usually takes the first snow of autumn to trigger the migration, sending the deer to lower elevations. When blacktails migrate, they become highly vulnerable to tree-stand hunters.
The deer will be concentrated and on the move below snowline - through terrain that is not all that familiar. During late-season hunts it is common for the rut to coincide with the migration, adding to the excitement and greatly increasing the potential of spotting a buck of trophy proportions.
Year after year, migrating deer follow the same major drainages to the low country unless there are significant changes in the habitat. When scouting migration stands, the focus is on the terrain rather than on food sources or fresh trails.
The first step is determining the location of the herd's summer and winter ranges. This information can be obtained from a biologist or warden in the region. In most areas the winter range is probably privately owned. If you can get access through a club or personal contact, that's great. If you can't, don't despair, because you still have a great shot at the deer as they cross the transition zones between summer and winter range - zones that lie largely on public lands.
A blacktail's summer range often sits between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, while private property generally encompasses anything below 3,500 feet. For this reason, I concentrate my scouting in areas that fall between 3,500 and 5,000 feet. The goal of migrating deer is to get to lower, warmer elevations as soon as possible; therefore, the deer tend to take the easiest route available.
I always set up toward the top of main drainage ridges. The areas I target are marked by a feature that serves to modify or concentrate deer movement. Examples of these are saddles in side ridges extending off of the main ridge, main ridge saddles used by deer crossing between canyons, and any area that borders a natural barrier such as heavy brush, rock formations, rock slides or even areas of human habitation.
Timing is everything when migration hunting. I cannot overemphasize the speed at which a herd can move. One herd I hunt moves more than 20 miles in a period of eight to 24 hours depending on the severity of the storm they're fleeing. This means that to tap into this great migration hunting, you have to be in your stand the morning after a major storm front hits. I've played hooky more than a few times when the first snow of autumn arrived midweek.
This type of hunting requires good rain gear and the mental toughness to stay in the stand all day, as migrating deer can appear at any time. I've taken more than my share of migrating bucks at lunchtime, when a lot of hunters are in camp getting dry.
SELECTING A TREE STAND When my family began stand hunting back in the late 1970s, we constructed permanent stands in promising locations, and we killed plenty of deer that way. Today we rely almost exclusively on portable stands.
Permanent stands have several drawbacks. They aren't ecologically friendly, and in some areas they are illegal. Permanent stands are difficult to construct and lack mobility. Portable stands do not harm the environment, are easy to carry, assemble and use and can be moved at the drop of a hat.
There is an almost endless selection of portable stands on the market; Cabela's alone lists more than 50 models in its catalog. Three basic types of stand are available: climbing stands that require a tree with a straight limbless trunk; hang-on stands that are light but require screw-in steps; and ladder stands that are heavy.
I favor a hang-on stand constructed of lightweight aluminum. These units weigh about 10 pounds or less and can be easily carried backpack style. Hang-on stands can be used on virtually any tree as long as it is big enough to hold your weight. Remember to purchase plenty of steps. Steps should be placed no more than 18 inches apart for safety and ease of climbing.
"A full body harness that converts into a lineman's-type climbing belt is a must for any tree-stand hunter," says Larry D. Jones. "You must be secured to the tree the entire time you are off the ground." A good harness will ru
n between $50 and $70. This is a wise investment that will keep you from becoming a statistic.
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