We were covering dirt quickly. My hunting companion and fellow whitetail nut Alex Gyllstrom didn’t even pause when we walked up on a large rub and a handful of scrapes. As for me, I was ready to unload my stand and deploy.
“Perimeter sign,” Alex said with a sly grin. “This is public dirt, and we don’t have the luxury of spending a day or two observing movement. We’re going deep.”
By “deep,” Alex meant an isolated bedding area off a major waterway that sliced through some heavy brush and dense timber. We’d found the spot during a mobile scouting session using the onX Hunt app, and now we were going for broke.
Alex was first up the tree: a semi-straight cottonwood in a narrow pinch along the waterway. He’d just sucked his final Lone Wolf Climbing stick to the trunk when he looked down and whispered, “A buck just got up out of his bed.”
As Alex was situating his camera stand, I started up. The only 200-yards-away buck never glanced in our direction. We went in light and stealthy, and our chosen destination proved to be worth the nearly 2-mile jaunt. For three hours, we experienced a steady flow of deer. I passed three bucks and had several does at point-blank range. Although I didn’t sling carbon, that hunt forever changed my DIY whitetailing mindset, especially in terms of gear selection.
Let’s Talk Climbing Gear
From my public-land pursuits, I’ve found that the run-and-gun whitetail hunter can learn a thing or two from the DIY elk gurus. Those diehards know how to pack light. Every item that’s stuffed into or strapped onto a backcountry elk hunter’s pack has a purpose and has been carefully researched and tested in terms of weight and functionality.
That level of functionality and purpose is just as important for off-grid deer hunters. It’s especially so for tree hunters. When you can slip through the woods quietly and comfortably with the gear you need to be off the ground and hunting in a matter of minutes, your odds of success skyrocket.
For me, selecting my elevated hunting setup starts with choosing a sizable pack with a space rating of 2,000-3,000 cubic inches. Overkill? Nope. To get back into the sticks with everything you need, loadout space coupled with multiple outside attachment straps is critical.
Manufacturers such as Alps, Badlands and Mystery Ranch make some great lightweight pack options. These packs provide ample room for all of your gear and were built with transport comfort in mind. Adjustable yokes, shoulder straps and waist belts, among other features, allow for body customization.
Your stand and sticks come next, and they’ll be strapped to the outside of your pack. I’ve had great success with Lone Wolf’s Hunt Ready System, which includes a 14-pound Alpha Hang-On and four climbing sticks. Each stick weighs a mere 2.5 pounds and measures 32 inches long. Best of all, perhaps, is the Alphatech Stick Quiver, which mounts to the stand and accepts the four climbing sticks.
Stand and stick options are many, and if you have a lightweight option you prefer, bungy cords work well to bundle stand-stick systems together. I do recommend taking Gorilla Tape and covering all metal contact points to reduce deer-spooking noises during transport.
Personally, I don’t want my stand/stick weight to exceed 25 pounds. I carry three 32-inch sticks, as four seems to be overkill for my needs. I have long legs, and a trio of sticks can get me 18 feet up. Hang a few practice sets and learn what’s right for you.
What about screw-in steps? They’re a possibility, but remember that when hunting public dirt, drill-into-the-tree steps are illegal in many places. In contrast, sticks go up fast and easy, don’t abuse your knuckles and should be legal almost anywhere.
The key is organization. Don’t let the first time you put your pack together with all your gear be in your camper or tent minutes before heading out for a hunt. Take the time to learn your pack inside and out. Practice attaching your stand and sticks as well as finding locales for all your other gear. Weight distribution is critical. The better balanced your pack is, the more comfortable it will ride.
What about tree saddles? By all means. Popular saddles like those from TETHRD have a mass weight around 20 ounces, come in multiple sizes and allow you to get elevated quickly and quietly.
Stay on the Ground
I don’t mind being on the ground to hunt, and sometimes I actually prefer it. Many of my favorite whitetail haunts, especially out West, have no stand-suitable tree nearby. That forces me to hunt from the ground, which can be a real challenge.
My go-to hideout for these scenarios has become the Double Bull SurroundView Stake-Out from Primos. This diminutive blind is fitted with three shoot-through ports and tips the scale at just 4.5 pounds. It slides easily into my pack and deploys in seconds. Back the blind into the brush, put some cover in front and you’ll be good to go.
As far as chairs, I often go without one to reduce my overall pack weight. However, the Primos Ground Blind Tri Stool (6.5 pounds) and Rhino MC from Alps (5.6 pounds) are great options. Don’t be afraid to get on the ground whether you’re toting a bow, crossbow or rifle.
Take it to ’Em
One of my favorite DIY whitetail techniques, and one that allows me to go surprisingly uber-light, is to employ a bow-mounted decoy. Yes, they really work! And it’s unbelievable how much less weight and bulk you have with these simple, sleek decoys compared to full-body options.
My favorite is the Stalker Whitetail from Ultimate Predator Gear. This decoy weighs under 10 ounces and attaches to the bow via Velcro straps in seconds. The UV-free micro-suede fabric is durable and dries quickly. A built-in shooting window means you’re completely hidden from the deer, and the window allows clearance for your arrow. This decoy is a killer option for the bowhunter looking to get on the ground and mix it up with big bucks.
If I find a bedded buck tending a doe, I slap a pair of UPG Stalker Antlers on the doe decoy, slip in close and use grunts and snort-wheezes to try to pull the buck off his doe. For sit-and-wait missions, I like to tote a full-sized 3-D buck and then use the bow-mounted doe decoy. Yes, this combination adds some weight, but the excitement of “being” a doe tended by a buck is unreal. Often, cruising bucks will see the imposter tending the doe (you) and come bowhunting close.
Of course, always keep safety at the forefront of your mind. Don’t use this decoy during rifle season unless you’re on private ground and are certain you have the property to yourself. In addition, practice shooting and traversing terrain with the decoy mounted to your bow before actually hunting.
You can go lightweight and mobile this season. Just be sure to have plenty of freezer room and your taxidermist on speed dial!