Season in and season out, the folks who put meat in the freezer and racks on the wall usually are the ones who invest the most effort. And it's no surprise that one of the deadliest, most sure-fire tactics for consistently putting big bucks on the ground also is one of the most taxing -- physically and mentally.
"One of the hardest things in the world to do is sit in a tree, on a 2-foot-square platform, all day without coming down," said my guide, Doug Doty, owner of Illinois Whitetail Services LLC. "There's nothing easy about it. And the only reason we do it is because it's so successful.
"The guys who kill the biggest bucks with me are the guys who sit all day."
Those were Doug's words of encouragement as I geared up in the predawn darkness on the first day of an eight-day two-weapon hunt in southern Illinois in mid-November 2008.
The plan was for me to sit from dark to dark with my bow the first five days of the hunt, and then do the same with my muzzleloader for the last three during Illinois' first firearms season. At least, that was the itinerary unless I tagged a buck first.
"Remember," Doug said as I followed my flashlight's beam into the dark timber, "it's the middle of November -- the peak of the rut -- and you're in Illinois. A Booner can walk by your stand at any time of the day."
PAYING THE PRICE
Doug's scouting and my perseverance proved to be a lethal combination. Over the course of my hunt, I saw bucks at every hour of the day. I tagged a decent 7-pointer on the fifth day of my bowhunt and a battle-scarred, heavy-beamed 8-point on the second day of my gun hunt. There were only two days during the seven-day span it took to fill both tags that I climbed down from my stand before dark without shooting a deer. And on those two days, it was the unforgiving 45-mph winds that grounded me.
By the eighth day I was exhausted. My arms and legs hurt. My backside hurt. My head hurt. I felt like I had just completed a marathon -- which, in a sense, I had. But the two bucks I had on the ground sure did a lot to soothe my pain.
There comes a point in every deer season when it's time to sit on stand all day. Whether the rut is in full swing, keeping bucks on their feet at all hours in pursuit of hot does, or gun season's in and hunters are wandering around from sunrise to sunset bumping deer from their hideouts, you need to be out there, waiting for opportunity to walk by your stand.
NOW'S THE TIME
You could make the argument that any time deer season is open is a good time to sit on stand all day. I mean, anything is possible, and the one place you know you're not going to shoot a deer is in your living room. But certainly there are times in the season when it's far more likely that the woods will be void of deer movement in the middle of the day than vice versa. The early days of the season in late September and early October, when it's likely to be stinking hot at midday, come to mind. You're better off hunting early and late and relaxing back at camp in between.
But once October winds down in the North and Midwest, the weather cools off and bucks start to show signs of rutting behavior -- that's when you want to start thinking about an all-day sit. Naturally, once November rolls around, you're in all-day prime time because the rut is now a legitimate factor. In portions of the Deep South like Alabama's famed "Black Belt" region, of course, the rut is a bit later -- late December into January -- so you have to adjust accordingly.
Also, any time your state's gun season is in, consider sitting all day. Gun hunters like to take the hunt to the deer far more than bowhunters do. Drives and still-hunting are popular among the gun-toting masses. And mobile gun hunters will keep deer moving throughout the day. You need to be in your stand to take advantage of that predictable activity.
MAKE THE COMMITMENT
As my friend Doug Doty noted, sitting all day in a tree stand is tough. You're confined to a very small area for a very long period. Muscles will tighten and joints will ache.
There's boredom and possibly cold weather to contend with. Spend five hours in a tree without seeing a deer and your mind will invent 1,000 reasons why you should climb down.
The weather's wrong. The deer are spooked. I have work I could be doing at home. My luck would be better if I moved over the ridge.
Unless the prevailing wind changes to an unfavorable direction or your safety is jeopardized by high winds, ice or snow, don't give in to temptation.
"If you're going to sit all day you have to commit to doing it and don't give in," Doug said. "There is no halfway. Be honest with yourself. If you can't do it, then don't hunt a spot where you'll spook deer by climbing down at 11 a.m."
The only way to know if you can stand spending all day in a stand is to give it a try. And the first time you do an all-day sit is likely to be the most difficult hunt you've ever encountered because you're used to climbing down late in the morning. Fight the urge to leave. All-day sits are never easy, but they become more bearable the more you do them.
WHERE TO GO
For the most part, hunters who only sit early in the morning and/or late in the day steer clear of bedding areas to avoid spooking deer while climbing in or out of a stand. The all-day hunter can get right in the middle of a bedding area, like a creek bottom or swamp, where deer feel safe at high noon. You don't have to worry about spooking deer returning to, or leaving from, a midday bedding area because you'll be in position before they show up and after they leave -- as long as you don't break your commitment to do just that.
"When you hunt a buck's security cover, you absolutely have to stay put," Doug noted. "A big buck is not just another deer. He's totally different. Young bucks will tolerate a little disturbance, but if you bump a big buck one time in an area where he feels secure, you might never see him again that season."
Hunt travel corridors, like a narrow strip of woods that connects two large blocks of timber. Rutting bucks are likely to use these corridors to get from one area to the next in search of hot does. And that quest might send them your way at any hour of the day.
Field edges, on the other hand, are places to avoid for all-day sits. Field edges are good for early morning and late afternoon hunts, when deer are feeding. But they're generally devoid of deer activity the rest of the day.
PLAN FOR YOUR COMFORT
Perhaps the most important aspect of an all-day hunt is making sure you're comfortable.
Nothing will chase you out of a tree faster than if you're hungry, thirsty or cold or you have to answer nature's call.
Plan for your comfort. Be sure you have a thick, comfortable cushion to sit on. Take along plenty of food and drink to keep you satisfied for 12 hours. Naturally, if you're eating and drinking you're going to have to urinate at some point, so have an empty plastic bottle handy. I've never found a way to answer nature's other call while sitting in a tree. Hopefully, you either took care of that before you left the house in the morning or you can wait until you come out at dark.
You're going to be exposed to the elements sitting on a stand attached to the side of a tree 20 feet in the air, so plan for it. If rain is in the forecast, be sure you have a tree umbrella and/or rain gear. Pack in as much clothing as you'll need to stay warm no matter how cold it gets.
I always carry several chemical hand warmers to stuff in my pockets, gloves and boots if my clothes alone aren't cutting the chill. There is perhaps no more perfect product for the all-day, cold-weather tree stand hunter than the Heater Body Suit. It's basically a sleeping bag with legs and it will keep your body insulated on the coldest of days. When it comes time to shoot with either a gun or bow, you simply unzip the suit, grab your weapon and do your thing. The suit stays behind your shoulders and out of the way of a bowstring or gunstock.
Unless deer are around you constantly, time crawls on all-day hunts. Eventually your mind will run out of subjects to keep you occupied and that's when it will try to convince you to climb down. Fight the urge.
One thing I like to do on an all-day sit is portion out my food so I eat something every two hours. Not only does that keep my stomach happy, but it breaks up the day into two-hour increments, which makes it easier to endure the full shift.
I know a lot of guys who take books into the stand. That's a good trick so long as you don't forget why you're out there. Don't get so involved with reading that you fail to notice a giant buck sneaking behind your stand. Read a paragraph and then scan the woods. Read another paragraph and scan again. That's how you kill time and stay alert.
Plenty of hunters do their scouting homework and are deadly with their favorite bow or firearm, but they lack the patience to sit all day. This season, go the extra mile and do what few true hunters are willing to. Try spending all day on stand. That might be just the trick needed to switch you from being the hunter drooling over a photo of someone else holding the hefty rack of a heavy buck to being the hunter in the photo that everyone's talking about!