Choosing the Right Spot for Your Bow Stand

Bowhunters have much to consider when selecting a stand site: Food, trails and bedding areas have to be identified. Here's how to make solid decisions.

Photo by Tim Black

By Bruce Ingram

On opening day of bow season in 2002, I decided to hunt from the same tree stand where I had killed a doe on the initial outing of the 1998 season. That same stand also was situated where I had observed a number of does and bucks during the 1999, 2000 and 2001 archery seasons.

So when dawn broke on opening day, I was filled with anticipation as I scanned the surrounding woods and placed an arrow on the rest. For the next five hours, however, I surveyed the forest and never glimpsed a whitetail. At 12:15 p.m., I climbed down, frustrated that I had made a very elemental bowhunting mistake - selecting a stand site because it had been productive in the past, regardless of the fact that I knew that during the previous season the hard-mast crop in the area was scarce - as was deer sign. And there was precious little evidence that the deer were even using the area to travel through on their way to bedding areas.

Quite simply, we bowhunters - in order to be successful during the coming season - have to be able to identify three things: current food sources, current bedding areas, and potential stand sites along travel lanes. And just as simply stated, if we have gained that knowledge in the days and weeks leading up to early bow season, we will very likely be successful in tagging a doe or perhaps even a nice buck.

Of the three "detective" acts we have to accomplish, ascertaining what the deer are eating comes first because it will likely affect how we go about identifying bedding areas and stand sites along travel lanes. So just what is it that deer will be consuming in this region come the bow opener?

The region-wide favorite for deer is an oak acorn; and among the most common varieties of acorns, the fruit from the white oak acorn is by far the most preferred food of whitetails. Indeed, if archers could learn to identify just one tree (the bark, leaves, acorn shape and size), then I would recommend learning how to recognize a white oak.

White oaks thrive throughout the eastern part of the United States and they grow well in both dry or moist woods, so they are widespread.

White oaks are tall, stately trees that are long lived, and the one dropping acorns on the property you hunt may have been doing so at the start of the 19th century and a mere sapling during the Revolutionary War. For that matter, that white oak may have been alive when Jamestown was settled in 1607. The white oak features grayish bark that is in long strips, leaves with seven or nine rounded lobes, and a bowl-shaped acorn hull covering one-third or less of the nut. If the white oak acorns are dropping their nuts on opening day, the deer will be consuming them. That is one of the strongest givens in bowhunting in our region.

In addition to the specific white oak species (Quercus alba), there are other members of the white oak family. The post oak (Quercus stellata), for instance, produces acorns that are well-liked by deer everywhere.

Whereas white oaks are towering trees with wide boles, post oaks are much smaller in size. The bark is brownish, which is typically broken into rectangular blocks, and the leaves are lobed and have a leather-like texture to the touch. The acorns are very similar to those of the white oak, the main difference being that the cup covers about one-half of the nut.

An archer can base his entire game plan around the deer feeding in white oak groves, but he cannot do the same with the post oaks. That's because while white oaks often grow together, post oaks are more likely to occur in small groups or alone. For example, two years ago, a pattern on one of the farms I hunt was for the deer to leave their beds in a pine thicket and make one stop on the fringes of the thicket before entering a field to forage. That one pause was at a post oak that had was producing a cornucopia of acorns. On one evening hunt, I would have arrowed a deer if it and its two companions had not shown up to scarf post oak acorns at the same time I had selected to consume a chicken sandwich. I hope that hunt will be the last one I ever accidentally smeared mustard on a bowstring.

While white and post oaks are the two "universal" members of the white oak family in our region, other white oak species also dwell here. Some of them thrive in swamp forests, while others flourish in the highlands and rolling hill country. Obtain a good tree identification book and learn which species prosper on your hunting properties. The purchase of such a book will be money well spent. Over the years, I have bought a dozen or so field guides on outdoor topics and use them all regularly.

The only negative thing about patterning white oak trees is that this group of trees is notorious for periodically experiencing mast crop failures. Several environmental factors - some of which can be quite localized - can cause white oaks where you hunt fail to produce many acorns in a given season. If the area has an overly dry or cold winter or a cold spring, then the white oaks may experience a mast failure come autumn. Another factor that causes a poor white oak mast year is if the trees bore heavily the year before. They may take a "year off" to rejuvenate.

So if the white oaks in your home woods are barren, what is the next thing you should do toward identifying food sources? The answer is to visit the various red oak family members. As a group, red oaks typically have pointed lobes with hair-like bristle tips and the bark is dark. White oak acorns mature in one year, whereas the nuts from red oaks take two to do so. I have often had people tell me that they found red oak acorns after a late-summer storm, and that the nuts were "all dried and shriveled." Actually, what these individuals discovered were 1-year-old acorns - nuts that normally would not have touched the ground until the following year. Red oak trees will hold both 1-year-old and 2-year-old acorns.

Regardless of where you hunt in our region, here are some maxims to follow regarding the oaks. If only white oak trees are dropping their acorns, then develop a game plan to take advantage of that fact. If both white and red oak trees are producing fruit, always hunt the white oaks first. If a sole or if a few white oak trees are bearing early in the season, the deer traffic around them will be intense. This gives you an awesome opportunity to take an early-season big buck.

Of course, other food sources exist in our region. One of the most important is the apple. In many areas, early settlers regarded apples as a subsistence fruit, and thousands of different varieties were planted. Today, the apple is still held in high esteem, and i

t is a fall favorite of both humans and deer.

In this part of the country, some apple varieties ripen as early as June, while others don't mature until early November. Some thrive in the lowlands and others only in the mountains. Regardless, deer relish apples like no other variety of cultivated fruit. Learn where apples are growing on your hunting property, and just as importantly, when they are dropping, and you are well on your way to solving the deer movement mystery.

Another universal menu entrée in our region is the food plot. One of the most amazing aspects of how deer hunting has changed in the last 20 years or so is the emergence of the food plot as a way to draw and keep deer on a property. Whereas few sportsmen cultivated plots two decades ago, I would guess that the majority of hunt clubs and individuals now do.

The two caveats I would offer regarding food plots is that first, hunters should not expect them to be miraculous big-buck magnets. From my experience, white or red oak groves where the acorns crunch underfoot like ball bearings will still entice more deer than the best maintained or planned food plots.

And, second, the most productive plots are often those that have several different food sources. For example, a favorite food plot of mine is one where the owner left mature white and red oaks growing in the midst of a linear clearing. Deer journey to this locale to dine primarily on acorns when a hard-mast crop exists and then snack on the various grasses. When the trees have not dropped their bounty, then the deer still come, this time to forage on the grass. This particular plot is worth hunting year after year.

Finally, come the bow opener, deer may be dining on soft mast. Wild grapes, dogwoods, sumac and various viburnums are all potential food sources for deer. If the white and red oaks have not produced well or if food plots are absent, then you may have to discern what soft-mast foods have engendered fruits.

Bowhunters often find it more difficult to identify bedding areas than food sources. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that bedding areas are often different at the beginning of the early bow season from what they are at the end. For example, one of my favorite places to bowhunt at the start of the season holds limited potential a few weeks later. Thick growth lies within 50 yards of the stand when the season opens, but four weeks later, that same area is rather barren. I have taken several bucks from that stand on opening day and no bucks at all - and not even a doe - later in the season.

But there are ways to narrow our search for bedding areas. First, deer obviously do like to lie down in cover that they perceive as being concealing. On any given hunting property of a reasonable size, no matter how open it appears, certain areas do proffer more profuse growth than others.

For instance, several years ago, I received an invitation to go on an out-of-state outing. When I scouted out the property before I hunted it, I was very disappointed to discover that I could see for several hundred yards in every direction and that no bedding cover - or what I called bedding cover - existed. The landowner, however, told me that his property was overrun with deer - and some very nice bucks - and that the deer bedded wherever there was even a postage-stamp-sized clump of evergreens.

I decided to still-hunt the parcel the next day, and I ended up spooking quite a few deer, many of which had gathered to bed under widely scattered pines. It was not until I decided to stand-hunt near one of those widely dispersed bedding areas that I was able to take a buck.

Second, look for bedding areas that enable deer to see or scent a potential threat coming their way. A bedding area will likely have the prevailing wind coming toward it, and it will likely be higher than surrounding areas. In the lowlands or swamp country, the bedding area could be a small rise of just a few feet or yards. In rolling hill country, the bedding area could be a hummock that is just a little higher than the others. And in the highlands of our region, look for the deer to bed on the first flat down from the top of a mountain.

The best tip that I can give regarding travel lanes and stand sites is don't be concerned with setting up at some arbitrary distance between feeding and bedding areas. Over the years, I have read various stories saying to set up halfway between feeding and bedding areas or within 100 yards of one or the other and all sorts of other random distances. Frankly, this is vague, useless advice.

My experience has been that nearly every stand situation is different. For example, on one property I hunt I have no choice but to set up within 65 yards of the bedding area. No suitable trees exist for me to hang my portable at any other distance than that. On afternoon hunts, I either crowd the deer on their beds or I have no chance to arrow one. I have taken several nice bucks from that stand, but I also have spooked several whitetails on my way to it. I can live with the latter situation because of the joys received from the former situation.

On another property, I have to set up about 300 yards from the bedding area - and 15 yards from where the deer forage - and hope that the deer move early enough to reach the stand site. The reason for this unusual combination of distances is that no suitable tree exists for me to erect a stand except for the one where I do have it.

In fact, finding a suitable tree within an individual's bow range is often a problem. Just this past season, for instance, I found an area that was rich with deer sign and several times saw a 10-pointer mingling with does. Yet, I never could find a place to hang a stand - and believe me, I spent many hours trying to locate one. Every stand site was either too far from game trails (my bow range is 20 yards) or the trees within range were too small to put up a stand. I have concluded that my best hope for success there is to build a ground blind this summer and hunt from it this fall.

Identifying current food sources and bedding areas and travel lanes and stand sites are three of the most important acts we have to accomplish before bow season begins. In fact, I would rank them only behind becoming an expert archer at a set distance of yards - and then restricting yourself to not shooting beyond that distance - as the most important tasks to accomplish before the opener.

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