It was hot. I try not to recall too many details about my trips to the woods during the sultry dog days of a Midwestern summer, but that much I do remember. Unfortunately, stands needed to be hung and cleared well in advance of the approaching fall, regardless of the heat.
My hunting partner and I had permission to hunt on a stellar farm, but we both had a three-hour drive from different locations in the state to get there. This required us to schedule our pre-season efforts so that once opening day arrived, all we had to do was show up.
It just so happened that the late July day we had set aside to hang stands was the hottest of the year so far. With thick Iowa humidity and a heat index of 112, we loaded the four-wheeler and headed out to the first spot. After locating a tree adjacent to a plum thicket, we hung the stand with no problem; then the real work began. We managed to cut several shooting lanes into the plum brush that would give us comfortable shots at 17-21 yards.
With nearly 360 degrees of shooting access, we had high hopes for this spot. History had shown it to be in an active peak rut location. We finished out our day hanging 10 filming sets in some of the most miserable conditions I had ever endured. Throughout the entire afternoon, we talked about the potential of that particular spot, knowing that it could be the place to sit where dreams would come true. We affectionately named it "The Money Stand."
Fast-forward three and a half months to the first week of November, and the woods were just rocking in anticipation of a large cold front pushing in from the northwest. We had not yet visited "The Money Stand."
We were waiting for the perfect conditions and hoping our patience would pay off. Finally, in the pre-dawn darkness, we slipped in with a mild northwest wind in our faces and climbed into the stand for what would be one of the greatest lessons of my deer-hunting career.
As the darkness was overcome by the predawn glow of the morning sun, we began to notice how bare things looked. It would be easy to get a good shot if any deer made it through our lanes.
Our first customer of the morning was a big doe who was suspicious of the set, even though the wind was perfect for her approach. Deer after deer stayed back in the plum brush, some completely avoiding the trail they had previously been using, while several others picked us off.
We had intended to be up in the stand for an all-day sit, but after more than 20 deer outsmarted us, we decided to get down and evaluate things. We had basically turned the area into a wasteland with no remaining security. Not to mention, the tree we were in resembled a telephone pole.
We had over-trimmed for shooting convenience, and we neglected what traveling deer needed to feel comfortable. The deer knew we were there and completely avoided us. We had totally ruined a killer spot and learned our lesson the hard way.
A year later, I had placed a stand in a tree about 50 yards up the draw from "The Money Stand" -- now known as "The Disaster Stand." I snuck in there with a lightweight set and executed the spot set. I carried in a compact extendable saw and trimmed out only what was absolutely necessary. I killed a beautiful four-year-old 8-pointer that afternoon, but I can honestly attribute that success to not being overly invasive and using the existing cover to my advantage, rather than removing it completely.
START AT THE BASE
How to trim shooting lanes for hunting starts with tree selection and stand height. It is also worth noting that different sets will require different levels of trimming. Every tree is unique, and there will be exceptions to the rule of less is more.
It is very important to be thinking of the trimming process as you are selecting your stand. I like to walk around a prospective tree before setting a stand up to consider the deer's perspective. If there is no way to conceal the human outline, I find another spot. This is of great value because it allows you to understand how to use the existing cover to your advantage.
When possible, I focus on finding a tree that has natural cover in the form of numerous limbs growing out from the trunk between the ground and where the stand will be positioned. I try to avoid hickory trees and any kind of tree that has a fairly clean trunk. It is also important to be aware of which directions the deer are expected to come from and make sure there is adequate cover.
I begin by clearing a path from my entry route to the base of the tree. This may not seem like cutting-edge information, but it often gets overlooked and is especially important as you access your set. I even go to the lengths of making the path to the base of my tree line up to block my outline from the direction the deer are coming from. Overkill? It might seem that way until you get busted before you even get in the tree.
MOVING UP, SPREADING OUT
Once the climbing sticks are secured, I trim a hole from the ground up adjacent to the trunk of the tree for the purpose of hoisting gear up with a rope. This is also often overlooked and could potentially cost you. Bumping limbs and steps as you haul your gear up could alert deer to your presence. By spending a few minutes ensuring a clear path up the tree, you can avoid the risk of bumping a buck.
I prefer to begin the process of clearing shooting lanes from the tree stand, rather than from the ground. It's crucial to keep safety as your No. 1 priority when trimming branches from an elevated position. Always remain tethered to the tree by a full body harness that meets the standards of the Treestand Manufacturers Association, and only attempt to cut branches that are within easy reach of the stand.
As I mentioned earlier, this entire task is best completed with help. Once you have the stand set, have your partner walk 360 degrees around the tree on all the trails you plan to shoot. Identify what must be cut, and leave what you can get by without removing.
HORIZONTAL VS. VERTICAL
Many hunters "think horizontally." They feel they need to have a few wide shooting lanes to make an ethical shot. Sure, wide lanes are convenient, but they also allow plenty of time for a buck to discover the hunter. Shift your focus to a vertical approach by creating numerous small shooting lanes, as this will leave more cover for you to hide behind. In essence, use existing trees and brush to your advantage. Having more, smaller shooting lanes will allow for movement when preparing for the shot.
The opposite also holds true. It is not a good practice to leave excessive amounts of brush hanging where you intend to shoot. This is a matter of ethics to me, and I'm sure you would agree that the last thing you want is a poorly hit deer after weeks of planning and preparation. If you think that a particular limb could be an issue once a deer is in your lane, then remove it.
In situations where I am hanging stands well in advance of the season, I prefer to clear every other lane, leaving as much cover as possible. But it is imperative to remember that once the foliage is gone, there is far less to keep your position concealed. The reasons for leaving brush in some areas are to allow you to come to full draw without being detected or to reposition if a better shot presents itself. Remember, as a deer is moving, the objects in his peripheral vision also appear to move. If he is walking slowly towards one of your next lanes and there is brush blocking his eyes from your movement, this is the time to move if you must.
Another common mistake in the art of trimming lanes is getting too enthusiastic when it comes to trimming understory and brush. A good reference point is the location of a grown man's hip. This is very close to where a deer's vitals will be located. Have your partner walk the trails again and determine whether you could make a clean shot at the height of his hip. If you trim too much brush, a mature buck will notice the drastic change and be more likely to approach with extreme caution.
GUN VS. BOW STANDS
Believe it or not, there is actually a vast difference in how you should clear lanes for gun purposes versus how you would clear lanes for a bow stand. For gun hunting, I tend to focus on a horizontal approach -- a few wider, longer shooting lanes -- as opposed to a vertical approach, because I will likely be shooting longer distances.
If you are hunting on the edge of a field or clearing, adequate shooting lanes are essential to getting a good shot because the deer usually spend a great deal of time on the food source. It is important not to overdo it here as well. Deer on a food source tend to be very alert and will not tolerate much movement on the edge of the timber. Leaving some hanging brush will be to your advantage.
If you are back off of the food source and hunting the transition zone between bedding and feeding areas, it is a good idea to clear obstructions from your tree only. You need to be off the main trails by at least 60-100 yards depending on your weapon. Long-distance timber hunting can be difficult, but patience is your most valuable tool. Eventually, your shot will present itself.
CLEARING IT UP
Each hunting situation is different, and you'll likely apply your knowledge in different ways for every stand set-up you approach. But some factors will always remain true. If you open up a previously dense area, mature deer will take note and avoid the area. Trimming wisely and conservatively will put you in position to stay one step ahead of mature animals!