Extreme-Height Tree Stand Tactics
September 28, 2010
Want more and better opportunities at trophy whitetails? Get higher!
By P.J. Reilly
One more tree to clear and he's mine, I told myself as a magnificent 10-pointer approached to within 20 yards of my tree stand. When the buck stuck his head out from behind a maple sapling, I felt a tingle on the back of my neck. The swirling wind had reversed direction, and it blew my scent right to the deer.
Like a shot, the buck's head was up and his coal-black eyes glared at me. He tipped his head back so that his polished rack nearly scratched his rump, and his upper lip curled toward his nose. After trapping my scent in his nostrils, the buck wheeled, waved his white flag and headed down the ridge before I even got the chance to draw my bow.
"How high was your stand?" a buddy asked me the next day when I told him about my misfortune.
"About 12 feet," I replied.
"You should have climbed higher," he said. "Climb up at least 25 feet and they'll never wind you."
That's how I was introduced many years ago to "extreme heights" bowhunting, one of my most consistently effective bowhunting strategies.
EVERYBODY GET HIGH! With the booming popularity of bowhunting from tree stands, deer are learning to watch for danger from above. Even so, most of the archers I know seldom place their stands above 15 feet, but I like to add another 10 to 15 feet in order to beat a deer's keen senses of smell and sight.
By climbing to 25 feet and higher, the bowhunter is getting up high enough that no matter which way the wind is blowing, his scent will likely never reach a deer's nose. That extra height also places the hunter above a deer's normal line of sight.
Extreme heights mean extreme shot angles, so be prepared to practice shooting in difficult positions at small targets. Photo by P.J. Reilly
WHY HIGHER WORKS BETTER The first deer I bagged with a bow while hunting at extreme heights was a small button buck that caught me daydreaming on a warm October afternoon. I never saw the deer until it was standing 15 yards from my tree. The season was winding down, so I decided to take the buck and put some meat in the freezer.
As the deer fed on acorns within spitting distance of my perch 30 feet off the ground, I stood up, grabbed my bow off a hook that was fastened to the tree, drew back and released an errant shot that skidded into the leaves under the buck's belly.
The deer kicked up its legs and hopped about 10 yards away. Not knowing where the danger came from, the buck froze and nervously scanned the woods. I nocked a second arrow, drew back, released and scored a perfect hit. There's no way all that movement would have gone undetected, even by a yearling deer, had my climbing stand been placed 12 to 15 feet off the ground.
GETTING HIGH . . . SAFELY! Standing on a 2x2 platform 30 feet in the air takes some trustworthy equipment . . . and some getting used to. Regardless of the height at which you're hunting, your safety is your first responsibility. Always follow the stand manufacturer's guidelines for safe operation of your tree stand, and never hunt out of a tree without a serviceable and properly worn safety harness or belt.
For example, I always wear a full body harness that looks like something a parachute jumper would wear. It has a belt that goes around my waist, straps that go over both shoulders and cross each other in the back, and straps that wrap around each of my thighs. A tether attached to the back of the harness hooks to a rope that's secured to the tree. If I were to fall while wearing this harness, I would simply hang, head up, with my weight evenly distributed throughout the harness.
While belts that simply wrap around your waist and are then tethered to the tree are better than nothing, they can cut off your airflow if you fall out of your stand. If you choose to wear a waist belt, stay away from the kind that cinch tight when you pull on them. These will act like a noose if you fall.
CHOOSING A STAND For mobility, a good climbing stand is hard to beat. Choose one that's light, sturdy and has a sizable platform - 20 inches wide by 35 inches long suits me. For stability, I like a climber that features a seat that folds up from the platform and locks against the tree. These stands usually include a rope or strap attached to the seat that wraps around the tree and can be cinched tight to prevent slipping. For maximum safety while scaling a tree with a climbing stand, wear your safety harness or belt on the way up and down. It takes a little extra time to slide the belt up and down the tree as you go, but the safety benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
Not all of our favorite deer woods are filled with the telephone-pole candidates needed when using a climbing stand. Hang-on stands allow you to hunt from trees that are rife with branches. They also give you a perch that you can leave in the woods throughout the season (assuming that's legal in your state). Use a hanging stand that fastens to a tree with a webbed nylon strap. They cinch tighter than those that employ chains. And the tighter you can fasten that stand, the less it'll move. When you're 30 feet up, you don't want to stand on a wobbly platform.
The safest way to climb high to hang one of these stands is to use a strap-on climbing ladder. Many tree stand manufacturers today market these ladders. I haven't seen any that are 30 feet long, though, so you'll probably have to use some strap-on steps as well. Where it's legal, you can also screw individual steps into a tree to get you up to your stand. (Be sure to check your state's hunting rules to see if it's legal to use screw-in steps before you take them into the woods. In many states, they're allowed on private property with permission from the landowner, but not on public hunting grounds.)
Whether you use a climbing stand or a hang-on stand, be sure to place your stand in the fattest tree possible. If a breeze kicks up during your hunt, a fat tree will sway far less than a skinny tree. When you're 30 feet up, you want solid, stable footing, and saplings just don't get it!
DON'T FORGET THE ROPE You'll need a generous amount of rope to haul your bow and arrows up to your stand. Thirty feet of rope can be pretty bulky, so it's best to find a material that's thin but strong. Parachute cord is perfect. It has a small diameter but it doesn't get tangled as easily as cotton string. You can find parachute cord in most places that sell a variety of r
opes and cords. My rope is 35 feet long with knots tied in it to mark off 25 and 30 feet. This system helps me gauge exactly how high I've climbed.
In my daypack, I also carry a limb saw to clear any obstructing branches within reach once I'm situated - with my safety harness on, of course. The balance of my gear includes small hooks for hanging my bow, binoculars, a grunt tube, a flashlight, a knife, a deer drag, cover scents and lures, a water bottle and a pen for filling out my tag.
GETTING THE RANGE Now that you're seated in your stand waiting for a deer to show, it's time to do some range estimation. Looking down at the ground from 25 feet up, objects seem farther away than they really are. Remember, the yardage you're interested in is measured on a level plane from the base of the tree to the deer.
To help me figure out that distance before a deer shows up, I like to look straight out in front of me and find trees that are about 20, 30 and 40 yards away. When a deer walks near those trees, I have a reference point to fine-tune my range estimation.
Or you can carry a laser range-finder. These fancy gadgets will tell you exactly how far away a deer is. Even if you have a range-finder, it's best to determine how far away certain landmarks are before any deer show up, because you might not have time to use the range-finder on the deer.
Once you've picked your reference points, you have something else to consider: Extreme-height bowhunters have to account for the downward angle at which they shoot. When you're shooting from an elevated stand, expect your arrows to hit targets higher at known distances than if you were shooting those same targets from the ground. Generally, I'll subtract five yards from my range estimations to account for the steep angle. For example, if a deer is standing 20 yards away, I'll hold my 20-yard sight pin low, as if I were shooting a target that's 15 yards out. Practice will teach you what works for you and your equipment.
To hit the vital heart-lung area on a deer when shooting from extreme heights, think about where the arrow will exit the deer rather than where it enters.
We all know the heart-lung area is right behind a deer's shoulder. If you shoot a deer there while standing on the ground, the arrow will likely pass through both lungs or the heart, a perfect shot.
But if you were 30 feet up in your stand and shot a deer in the same spot as you would while standing on the ground, your arrow would penetrate only a sliver of the deer's body cavity and exit straight into the ground.
To score a deadly hit from extreme heights, you have to rotate your aiming point up toward the deer's spine. A hit there will send the arrow through the heart of the deer's body cavity. That's where you want it.
One of my favorite archery shots, which is offered quite frequently when you're hunting from extreme heights, is straight down. There's virtually no way a buck will catch you drawing your bow if he's standing directly beneath your stand. Whitetail experts say deer can see 270 degrees around them. Their blind spot is a small cone that extends from directly overhead to straight down the center of their backs.
I like the vertical shot because it's the only responsible shot that offers the spine as a target. If you can hit the spine, tracking the deer won't be a problem. And if you don't hit the spine, you'll likely pierce the heart, one lung or the liver. All of these are lethal.
At such close range, your arrow is likely to pass completely through the deer, leaving the exit hole on the deer's underside. The blood from such a hit will drain out the hole and spill directly on the ground. Deer that are hit with conventional broadside shots hold some blood inside the chest cavity, and the hair often stems the outside blood flow before it drips to the ground.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT Practicing the vertical shot is essential. Until you've tried it, you can't imagine how contorted your body is when you aim a bow straight down. Take some time to practice in the woods, from your stand, with a 3-D deer target before the season to learn this shot. And when you're practicing that shot, think about the situation you're preparing for. When you hunted 12 to 15 feet off the ground, how many times did a deer pass directly beneath your stand, one to three yards away from the tree you were perched in? While bowhunting from extreme heights, I've often had deer pass this close to me, and the closer I can get to my target the better I feel my chances are of filling my tag.
WHAT ABOUT SCENT? Just because you're above a deer's normal line of sight and smell doesn't mean you can do a jig in your stand while smelling like a defensive lineman at the end of a football game. You still have to try to be as scent-free as possible and move as slowly and deliberately as you can. Extreme-heights bowhunting gives you an extra edge over a deer's senses, but it doesn't eliminate them.
For example, during the 2001 archery deer season, bowhunting from an extreme height was the main reason I managed to place my tag on a fat 5-point buck. The end of the season was three days away, and I had already spent many, many hours in my stand without success. Quite frankly, the hunting was getting boring. I was in my stand for about four hours on this mildly cool morning, and I hadn't seen a tail.
"That's it," I said to myself. "I've had enough. I'm going home and I'm just going to wait for gun season before I try again."
With that, I grabbed my bow off its hook and tied my rope to the top limb. I lowered the bow to the ground and then removed my trigger release from my wrist and my arm guard from my forearm. I had just turned around in my stand and faced the tree to prepare for my descent when I heard a shotgun blast and some beagles baying across the road.
In my mind, the thought Hey, maybe they'll scare a deer my way was still in the processing phase when I spied movement at the edge of the woods about 80 yards downhill from me. When the deer stepped from behind some brush, I immediately saw a rack. There was only one way I was going to get a crack at this buck, and I had to act fast.
I turned around, sat down and hauled up my bow as fast as I could. I knew there was a chance the buck might see the bow hurtling upward, but I had no choice. When I got the bow in my hand, I turned back around to see what the buck was doing. He was walking at a steady pace, and he was coming straight toward me.
I hurriedly untied my rope, nocked an arrow and laid the bow across my lap. With my heart racing a mile a minute, I fumbled around in my pocket, trying to get hold of my release. I finally grabbed it, pulled it out and slapped it on my wrist. The buck was now 30 yards out and closing fast.
There was no time to strap on my arm guard, so I just stood up and turned to my right to face the buck. There was nothing but open wood
s between the deer and me. There's no doubt in my mind the buck would have spotted me had I been hunting from 15 feet up rather than 30 feet.
As it was, the buck had no idea I was around, and he walked to within five paces of my tree, where he stopped to check his back trail. I drew back my bow, centered my pin on the buck's spine and squeezed the trigger. The buck fell in his tracks.
Today, that buck's rack sits on my wall next to several others that serve as shining examples of the rewards of extreme-heights bowhunting. Now it's your turn to give extreme-heights bowhunting a try!
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