It was Oct. 3, 1982. Against the dim eastern sky I could just pick out the lone, half-dead cottonwood jutting out of a sea of cattails and cane. A deer trail, cut deep into the mushy swamp ground, was leading me right to the spring-fed mound where that tree had clung to life for decades. It was a bit of a struggle, but I got my homemade treestand hung about 14-feet high well before legal shooting light.
I felt like a bird of prey as I meticulously glassed the broken openings in the tall cane and the picked cornfields on the high ground lining the edge of the huge Minnesota swamp. Just before sunrise, I spotted a buck with thick, white antlers secreting his way from the cornfield to the security of the swamp. I grabbed my call and grunted twice — once to get his attention, and again to give him a direction. The buck stopped, and then immediately broke left 90 degrees and steadily covered the 200 yards between us. He cautiously walked up on the mound, presumably to get a better view, and looked away. In that moment, I drew and released, making a perfect 22-yard shot. I remember being utterly dumbfounded that the buck never spotted me in that lone, bare cottonwood. How could he not see that 210-pound eagle?
Since that day I've had many bucks fail to see me, and many have picked me off despite my confidence in being concealed, but the success of that mission left an indelible impression on me. I realized I could slip covertly into a new location, get elevated and create a shot opportunity.
That sounds simple, but there's much to consider. So, let's assume you have the buck of your dreams located. You're well aware if you bump him he's gone, maybe forever. And if you get one chance, there won't be another. Here are some things to think about before embarking on your "special op."
Job one is to establish a travel pattern, and the best time to do that is before your bow season opens. Scout from afar, either with optics or trail cameras, to determine the buck's feeding and bedding areas and how he's getting from one place to the other. Choose an intercept point that is not too close to either end, so that your ingress and egress to the stand is easier to conceal.
You must not alert the buck that he is being hunted. Done correctly, the early season may be your best chance at a mature buck.
If the rut is on, you have a different problem. Travel patterns can be obscure to nonexistent because bucks cruise randomly searching for estrous does, and they interrupt any travel routine those does may have been following. That means you'll have to concentrate on locating what I call "rutting woods," a place where, year after year, there is consistent buck rutting activity. Littered with rubs and scrapes, these areas are €¨typically more open than dense bedding cover because bucks like to scent-check the intersecting trails and chase does when they show up. Even in open country there is likely a wooded draw or some patch of trees that seems to be the November "party spot."
In either scenario, it helps immensely if you're familiar with the ground in question. Late winter and early spring are perfect times to explore those places, get the lay of the land, and seek out potential treestand locations. Pull up Google Earth on your computer and analyze the terrain. Satellite images will show you clearings, funnels, ridges, water and even large trees that might hold a treestand.
Next, go to the Scoutlook app on your smartphone. If you don't have this app, get it. It gives you an aerial view, and with just a touch you can mark a potential stand location and walk right to it, even in darkness, without ever having been there. Together with the weather and wind information it provides, this app has proven invaluable to my hunting.
If you've never been on that ground, it is unlikely you will find the perfect tree, especially in the pre-dawn darkness, so prepare to embrace adversity and adapt to it.
Special Ops Prep
Your covert operation must go smoothly, with no glitches, and that requires planning. You'll need a treestand that is relatively lightweight, hangs effortlessly and is quiet and comfortable. A safety harness you can wear while hiking in is a must. And if you plan to leave the stand up, you'll want a lifeline to install before you leave. You'll also need a method for ascending the tree.
The temptation is to use screw-in steps (possibly illegal on public land), but a safer option is a climbing device. Climbing sticks/ladders are one option, but the independent ladder sections are more versatile when it comes to adapting to trees on the fly. If climbing stands work in your woods, you've solved two problems.
Other must-have items include a sharp folding saw, preferably with a collapsible handle so you can trim shooting lanes, a bow hanger, a hook to hang your pack on and two ropes — one for pulling up the treestand, and the other for your bow. You'll also need your optics, a spare release and a full array of calls and rattling antlers. Plan to stay all day, so pack some water, snacks, a sandwich or two and any other "comfort" items.
Choosing the perfect day for your assault won't be easy. I usually avoid dead-calm mornings, because it's impossible to get in quietly. A decent breeze of 10 mph is better, especially if it's the early season and the mosquitoes are bad. Weekdays are better than weekends, when other hunters are about. Once you've chosen your day, and the weather and wind are in your favor, consider some of these tips to help you get into your tree undetected and prepared:
Whether it's morning or afternoon, go in extra early so you have plenty of time to move slowly and quietly, find the right tree and ease carefully into place.
Whether you believe in rubber boots or not, spray liberally with a scent eliminator and don't touch any vegetation with your hands on the way in. Leave no trace.
The best trees have some limbs for concealment but are open enough that trimming will be minimal. It's unlikely the best tree will be in the best location.
Anticipate the travel lanes of passing deer and use your saw to eliminate obvious obstacles to a shot from the tree.
Cut those limbs or small trees well above the reach of a deer's nose. Grab the branch with a gloved hand, and don't let it fall to the ground. Stash it high in other brush, well away from that trail, so a mature buck is less likely to notice something is amiss.
Lay your bow off to the side of the tree, and then tie one end of your pull rope to your bow and the other to the stand platform. Tie one end of your other rope to the stand and then to your belt. Once elevated, you can pull up the stand, hang it, climb in, and pull your bow up with the second rope without having to go back down.
Set up your safety harness in the lineman's configuration, and begin placing your climbing sections on the side of the tree that a passing deer is least likely to walk past and sniff. Work your way up, hang the stand, climb in, and then reconfigure your harness.
Hang your pack on a hook and then quietly assemble your "nest." Get your bow hanger placed before pulling up your bow. Do not allow the pull rope to fall back to the ground where a deer could sniff it. Use whatever scent-elimination procedures you prefer.
If light allows, evaluate your shooting lanes and carefully trim any branch that might block your shot. Also check clearances for your bow's top and bottom limbs and loaded arrow. Do not drop these limbs to the ground where a buck could notice something is different from the day before. Tuck them securely into the other branches around the bottom of the stand, or behind you for backdrop.
Arrange your pack so that your binoculars, calls and other items are quickly and quietly accessible.
Throughout this process, be aware of your surroundings. The slight noises you make may attract a curious deer. Don't let them spot you and start a snorting jag.
Once settled in, stay alert, stay patient and stay positive. The first time a tree is hunted is often the best time. As deer move, take note of trees that may be better than the one you're in. Mark important locations on Scoutlook for a more efficient assault later.
Monitor the wind with a piece of dental floss on your stabilizer, or use a puff bottle. If early-season winds change, leave. If you're in a "rutting woods," where deer can come from any direction, stick it out. You may be taking a risk, but once in deep cover, it seldom pays to leave.
Be ready to call out to bucks that aren't coming your way. Start with soft bleats or grunts, and then graduate to rattling if necessary, or the snort-wheeze when all else fails.
Stay until dark. No one said this would be easy!
We all hate this part, because we know it exposes us. But even if your buck didn't show, you have learned something. Let any close deer move off, and then prepare for extraction — even spraying down with scent eliminator again. If you plan to leave your stand up, pull out your lifeline and attach it above your head, and then tie it off (above the reach of a deer) when you get on the ground. If you're taking your treestand with you, simply switch your harness to the lineman's configuration and accomplish your tasks in reverse order. Undoubtedly, you will have discovered a branch or two that needs trimming at ground level. If you can do it quietly, get it done and remove the branches from the scene. Gather your gear and sneak out as if you're stalking a buck. Leave no trace.
Even our Special Forces are not successful on every mission. If the buck of your dreams shows up and you make the shot, you're a hero. If he doesn't show, you're simply training for the next mission. Sooner or later your target will walk into your ambush, and you'll end up with the highly satisfying task of debriefing all your buddies with the details of your successful mission.
Good treestand pack has room for an extra layer of clothing, lunch, water, camera and other necessities. It should have an elastic web pocket on the outside that you can slip calls in and out of quietly, and a strong loop on the top to hang it in the tree at arm's length. A pack should be able to accommodate your bow, because in the morning darkness you'll want to strap your bow to the pack so you can carry your stand and Rapid Rails in your hands. However, in the afternoon you'll want to strap the stand and/or climbing devices to your pack so you can carry your bow. Never walk anywhere in daylight without your bow in hand and release on your wrist.
One pack that fits this description perfectly is the Tenzing TZ 2220 Hunting Day Pack ($219.99). It weighs just 4 pounds empty, has 11 compartments for gear, an integrated rain cover and a foldaway bow/gun-carrying boot. The 2,228 cubic-inch capacity is plenty for even all-day excursions, and a hydration bladder compartment will help you avoid drinking from those noisy, crinkly plastic water bottles. Finishes include Mossy Oak Break-Up Country, Realtree Xtra and other options.
Another great choice for those who hunt with gun or crossbow is Tenzing's TC SP14 The Choice Shooter Pack ($269.99), which is designed specifically to accommodate a scoped rifle or crossbow and provide easy transport to and from the stand. This pack also features padded hip panels, a built-in rain cover and nine easy-access pockets offering total storage capacity of 1,600 cubic inches. The Choice Shooter Pack weighs 4 pounds, 6 ounces, is hydration bladder compatible and finished in Realtree Xtra camouflage.
Finally, don't forget about Tenzing's TC 1500 The Choice Treestand Pack ($199.99). Designed in partnership with professional hunters Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo, The Choice Treestand Pack weighs just 3 pounds, 14 ounces and offers 12 total compartments and pockets with 1,500 cubic inches of storage for all the gear you'll need during a successful day on stand. A new Comfort Stretch waistband uses concealed elastic straps to adjust for the perfect fit. Other highlights of this versatile pack include a bow/gun carrying boot, integrated rain cover, hydration bladder compatibility, Realtree Xtra camouflage and a special side-mount quiver attachment that lets you keep your arrows at the ready while taking weight off your bow.