As summer settles in, many whitetail hunters across North America head out in the evenings to watch the deer they plan to hunt when the season opens. While they're gawking at stout velvet bucks munching in lush fields or food plots, no doubt they're thinking about where to set up that ambush.
But while picking the right location for a stand or blind is the main question most hunters are pondering, there's another key consideration to keep in mind as well: "When should I do it?"
Is it best to hang your stands or set up blinds weeks, if not months, before the season? Should you instead wait for opening day? How about those folks who literally set up and tear down every day they hunt? Or should you just leave everything out all year long?
Variables to Remember
The answers to these questions are hardly universal; they'll vary from hunter to hunter and from spot to spot. And that's true for a number of reasons.
Some locations are so historically reliable you can confidently place setups there every year, with only a small amount of scouting — if that — to confirm the continuation of a huntable pattern. In these cases, some hunters might opt to leave stands or blinds out all year, simply checking before use to make sure everything with the setup is in proper working order. But in other situations, even if the location is reliable for deer activity, leaving stands and blinds out would only lead to their being swiped. It's just not worth the risk.
Other factors also come into play. For instance, as you hunt from your pre-hung set with the rut in full swing, you might notice a good buck regularly cruising a certain area where you have no sets. Should you move in there and hang a stand or plant a blind while the hunt is on? Or will it just make the buck nocturnal — or even spook him into the next county?
Mark Drury is a hunter who does it all with his stands and blinds. He gets them in early; he sets them on the fly; he leaves them out all year. "It all depends on the situation," he says.
Same goes for Doug Doty, owner of Illinois Whitetail Services LLC, a guide operation in southeast Illinois. "Whatever it takes," he says. "You have to be ready to do anything to get in the right spot at the right time."
Option 1: Set 'Em Early
Asked for a preference, Mark says he likes to have his stands and blinds set at least a month before the season opens. The advantage that gives, he notes, is minimizing intrusion when it's finally time to hunt.
"Theoretically, if you could hang a stand without making any sound, then hanging and hunting from it right away wouldn't be a problem," he says. "But I can't hang a stand without making noise, so I want it in well before I hunt it."
When you're hanging stands or setting blinds in the same places year after year, site preparation — branch and brush trimming, in particular — should be minimal. But even when doing this prep work, both Mark and Doug take every scent-control precaution possible. They wear clean clothing and rubber boots; they spray down with a scent eliminator; and as much as possible, they try to avoid touching vegetation in the area.
Doug even takes it a step further. "When I'm done working, I'll spray my stick ladders as high up as I can reach and the ground around my tree before I leave," he points out.
When hanging a stand where he's never had one, Doug says he prefers to set it in early spring, before trees and brush are in full foliage. Doing so, he notes, allows all tree and brush cutting to completely heal before hunting season.
"When you go into a deer's home and cut and hack all kinds of limbs and brush, they're going to notice that," Doug says. "It's going to disturb them — especially a mature buck. By doing my work in early spring, it's likely the deer I disturb aren't even the ones that will be living there by the time it's hunting season. And if they are the same deer, they'll get used to that stand."
Because portable "pop-up" blinds are relatively fragile, Mark doesn't leave his out year-round. But when using such setups, he wants to have them in place as early as he practically can.
"I like to give the deer time to get used to them," he explains. "I'll put them in the field in September and leave them until December."
Option 2: Leave 'Em Out
When it comes to placing tree stands in historically productive spots, Mark favors leaving them up all year. His primary reason? Practicality. "We have so many sets, it's tough to hang them and take them down every season," he explains.
Now, if you follow Mark's lead on this, also do what he does to ensure safety and functionality. Knowing squirrels and ultraviolet light can dangerously weaken nylon straps, he uses three to secure each stand he leaves hanging all year. There's the strap that comes with the stand; then he'll add another over the top of it, plus another at the bottom of the stand. "That keeps them pretty secure," Mark says.
At the end of every season, he'll simply loosen all of those straps a bit, to allow for the tree trunk to grow during spring and summer. If you don't do this, an already snug strap can be put under major stress. Same goes for the straps on Mark's ladder sections. The next season, all he has to do is tighten straps that are still in good shape and replace any that look worn. It's far easier to carry a bunch of straps into the field than a pile of stands and ladder sections. And of course, there's a huge time and noise savings when you don't need to hang the stand again.
Doug points out that even on such "permanent" setups with portable stands, there's still some preseason work to do.
"You have to visit your year-round sets at some point every year before the season starts," he says. "You don't want to have a bow in your hand the first time you go to one, because you don't know what might have happened to it from last winter through the summer."
Checking on pre-hung stands to make sure they're safe also gives you a prime opportunity to trim shooting lanes. Especially in places with a lot of brush, saplings or even tall weeds, new growth is sure to foul some shooting lanes from year to year. If you've had stands in these places for a while, though, light trimming usually is all that's needed to get them ready for hunting again.
While Mark would prefer to avoid ever removing stands from his best spots, he acknowledges that in some situations you just can't leave them out there all year. And he knows this is a reality for many other hunters.
"Theft is a factor on some properties," he says. "There's no point leaving your stands out if they're just going to get stolen. When that's an issue, I put my stands up and take them down every season."
Option 3: Set 'Em on the Fly
Getting new setups ready to hunt in a hurry, while the season is under way, can be critical to success. Because sometimes things change, and you must change with them.
"You have to be able to react to what your scouting and your trail cameras are telling you," Mark stresses. "If you find out the buck you're after is working a certain area, you have to figure out how to hunt that buck."
Doug says he's heard many stories of hunters who left a good buck alone because they simply didn't have a stand already in the right place and didn't want to risk spooking him by setting up a stand during the season — only to find out later that the deer ended up shot by a neighbor or hit by a vehicle.
"Realistically, mature bucks might only be vulnerable one or two days all year long," the outfitter explains. "When that time comes, you have to be ready. If you wait and let him go because something's not right, he might not be around next year."
Of course, moving in doesn't mean busting into that buck's territory like a bull in a china shop. You have to play it smart. Mark says he feels comfortable hanging stands or setting ground blinds in travel corridors while the rut is on, because deer are traveling more at that time.
"In those places, during the rut bucks move through and then keep on going," he notes. "There's not as much risk of bumping a bedded buck in a travel corridor during the rut."
Even so, use the wind to help mask your work. As long as it's blowing in a safe direction away from any deer you might suspect are around, a 20 mph wind can mask a lot of sound and movement in the woods.
Outside the rut, Doug often waits for the right weather before setting an in-season stand or blind.
"On a warm day when rain is coming, the deer aren't going to be moving much anyway," he says. "Plus, rain is like a reset button in the woods. If I can hang my stand and be walking away just as it starts raining, that's perfect. The rain will wash away a lot of my scent."
If it's a cold, rainy day, though, the outfitter says he'll avoid going in to set up. Those are the types of days when deer might be moving at any time, increasing the risk of spooking them during a stand visit.
Marks says that if during the season he encounters a situation in which he needs to set up a ground blind, he'll do so. But he'll hunt from it right away only if he can completely brush it in.
"If I can make it disappear, then I will hunt it right away," he notes. "There's no need to wait for the deer to get used to it in that case."
When hanging a stand or setting a blind during the season, these experts agree you sometimes must live with imperfect conditions. You might not be able to put your blind or stand in the absolutely ideal location if that spot requires a ton of site work.
"The perfect tree, or the perfect spot for a ground blind, might be one where you'd have to cut a bunch of big limbs or brush," Mark says. "I don't want to make that much noise during the season. That's too much of an intrusion." In such cases, you might have to settle for being close to the perfect spot.
Same thing goes for shooting lanes.
"A lot of hunters like perfect, manicured shooting alleys around their sets," Doug says. "You can't do that kind of cutting when the season is on. You might have to settle for having shooting holes here and there around you. Just do minor trimming.
"I'd rather be in the right spot and take my chances on finding a hole to shoot at a buck that's not alert than to have good lanes and have a mature buck come in and realize something's not right. Trust me, he will notice if you cut down all kinds of limbs."
Figuring out when to set your stands and blinds is an imperfect science. You're going to make mistakes. Just keep plugging away until you find the formula for success where you hunt.
"The more things you try, the more things you'll learn," Doug concludes. "Eventually, all that experience is going to add up."