Tree stands offer some critical advantages to the bowhunter. They usually offer a better view of the hunting grounds. They help conceal the hunter and his scent above the senses of the deer. And they generally provide more shooting angles than standing on the ground. Unfortunately, I hunt almost entirely on public land on the weekends, which brings a number of challenges for stand hunting.
1. The hunting crowd.
Public lands where bowhunting is permitted are a zoo on opening day and pretty much every weekend with decent hunting weather. There are few or no “secret” tracts of public land. Bowhunters find them. This means that I’ll have to hump my stand out a long way from the parking lot just to find some privacy. And I generally won’t risk setting up near a field or trail, because the chances are good that some idiot will stomp through well after sunrise and spook any game nearby.
One thing I’ve noticed when this occurs is that nothing is so loud or noticeable moving through the woods as the average bowhunter. Deer and turkey sneak up on me all the time, even when I’m in my stand and paying attention. I often don’t see or hear them approach, they just materialize. Most hunters I encounter in the woods, I hear coming a mile away. If I can do that, so can the game.
A hunter already in his tree stand is another matter. I’ve walked up on several accidentally; some I never even saw when they yelled at me. It’s another vote of confidence for stand hunting, but I’d still prefer not to have another hunter near me.
2. Hunting Pressured whitetails.
I’m sick with envy when I talk to bowhunters who sit in their cushy permanent stands on private land, marking dozens of deer and choosing which one they’d like to pursue. This just doesn’t happen on public land near a major metropolis (where I tend to hunt). On many of my hunts, I don’t see so much as a squirrel. If I do see game, it’s usually a couple of small does.
Mature animals on public land do exist, but they’ve successfully eluded dozens or hundreds of hunters already. They’re expert survivalists. I have a feeling that when hunting season begins, these animals hole up in the densest, nastiest thickets as far away from the parking lot as possible. You might know where some of these locations are, but getting to one quietly and finding a suitable stand location are nearly impossible.
3. Tree stand privacy and security.
For the past two years, I’ve been drawn for a managed hunt in a conservation area near my home. Area 44, as I call it, is one of the more unique pieces of land I’ve ever hunted. It’s a series of steep, densely wooded ridges and valleys. I usually hunt on the far side of the first big hill, and by the time I reach the top of it, I’m breathing hard and sweating, no matter the weather. Marked trails spiderweb the entire area, which is good for access and quicker travel.
On the down side, it makes most of the woods accessible to everyone else. Right next to the parking lot there’s a serious horse ranch; riders are on the trails for much of the day. Between these jokers and the major highway bordering one side of the area, it’s hard to find any privacy. I hate that.
An unfortunate fact about stand hunting on public land is that you have to take your stand in and out with you, or else lock it up. I’ve heard from numerous hunters who’ve had their stands, ladders, or other gear stolen. This can happen anywhere, but it’s more likely on public land because anyone can go there to hunt. Another common problem is that you trek out to your stand for a hunt and find that another hunter’s set up right on top of it. He saw what a nice setup you found, and basically stole all of your scouting work while spreading his scent on the area.
Or worse, you might find another hunter actually in your stand. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I’d imagine it’s both awkward and infuriating.
Getting Away from the Crowds
I employ a couple of strategies to help address these challenges. First, I try to hunt when other hunters aren’t hunting – on weekday mornings, for instance, or when the weather is crappy. Some of the best hunting I’ve ever experienced is in a conservation area that was (for a few days) only accessible by boat due to flooding. In the parking lot, I met a nice gentleman named Howard who shuttled me across in his canoe.
I knew he was a serious hunter because (1) he brought his own canoe just to get there, (2) he hunted with a recurve bow, and (3) he’d made the bow and all of his arrows by hand. He didn’t know me from Adam, but he offered me a ride just because I showed up at the same time. We were probably the only two hunters that day in 1000+ acres. And I’ve never seen so much game.
My other strategy is just to go as far away from the parking lot and as deep into the woods as possible. I pass up numerous promising sites, and spend extra time and effort, just to get away from the crowd. One of my favorite ways to do this is on a mountain bike. It’s easier if I don’t have to bring my stand. Not only does it let me go farther, but I cover ground 3-4 times faster. And it’s surprisingly quiet. No louder than me clanking along with all of my gear. I’ve seen plenty of deer up close while riding my bike (though I can never seem to stop in time to do anything about it).