Most deer hunters can relate to the perpetual search for that “perfect” tree to put a stand in. The tree I’m referring to has ample cover, it’s straight, comfortable, easy to enter and egress, and most importantly it’s located downwind of multiple trails that are well within effective range. Upon completion of your new stand in this “magic” tree, visions of big bucks sliding through an early morning fog overwhelm your mind. “I’m going to be killing lots of deer out of this tree!” Success may seem inevitable.
The pure excitement of hanging a new stand in an excellent location is something that will never get old for me. There is no doubt, being situated high up in a comfy tree stand is an obvious advantage for us. We can see better and farther, we remain out of the deer’s line of sight, and our scent will dissipate more efficiently. I think the majority of you will agree that a well placed tree stand is tough to beat.
The problem is, some people run themselves ragged in search of this perfect tree and lose sight of the bigger picture.
Don’t forget about the task at hand! When heading afield the last thing you should be doing is searching for a tree. After all, you’re deer hunting, not tree hunting. You need to set up in the best suited location, not the best suited tree. I’ve wandered many properties with different people over the years, and it seems as though some are single minded. “I wish I could set up right here, it’s an awesome spot, but none of these trees work.” Ultimately, a tree is often selected in an inferior location. What a shame and a squandered opportunity!
It isn’t rocket science when it comes to figuring out the best location to hunt during scouting trips. Any Average Joe can see obvious sign. However, picking a good strategy for a set up will separate the men from the boys in the hunting community, especially when the perfect tree isn’t available. I can’t provide the solution for every situation that you’ll encounter, as there are an infinite number of variables out in the field. But what I can do is provide you a few ideas on what to do when that “magic” tree is invisible.
Problem #1: Trees are present but too crooked for a portable stand. This is probably the most common problem that I run in to. Believe me, when you find that dynamite spot, the worst thing you can do is settle for something near where you should be. Sometimes a ten yard move should be considered a crime. Giving up a trail or turning a 20 yard “gimme” into a much tougher 30 yard shot should be avoided at all costs. Maybe the wind doesn’t work quite as well where the straight tree is. You need every advantage you can get, so don’t take the easy way out.
Build A Stand One common solution in this kind of situation is to go old school, and build a stand. Find a fork in a tree, screw some 2×4’s or 2×6’s on each side of the fork, and put floor planks on just like a deck. I’ve even used a metal grate before. Always wear a safety harness when constructing stands in this manner. Some manufacturers’ harnesses come with a lineman’s belt, allowing you to lean back and use both hands freely, which is a wonderful option.
Green treated wood is a definite plus for longevity, and 6” wood screws or lag bolts are best for screwing into the tree. This is especially true for trees with thick bark. You can also build a stand on a single trunk, just make sure to put some 45 degree bracing from the tree to the front of the platform. Using a handsaw or chainsaw to strip away bark or slightly notch a trunk is sometimes necessary to keep the boards running straight and flush. I’ve built many wooden stands in trees, sometimes it’s to get a stand in an imperfect tree, but sometimes the reason being is that I simply don’t want to spend more money on manufactured stands!
Ladder Stands Many ladder stands are capable of being propped up against a crooked or leaning tree too, making them an effective solution. I don’t use ladder stands all that often, due to the fact that they can be tough to haul in to remote locations. That being said, they are very comfortable to hunt out of, and the ladder is great for older hunters or for anyone who may have any mobility issues.
Crotch Stands What some may call a risky option (I must admit it’s one of my personal favorites) is the crotch stand. The current production of crotch stands, to my knowledge, has been discontinued due to their safety issues from improper user installation.
If you are unfamiliar with them, they are a hinged platform that wedge into the crotch or fork of a tree. The platform on the one I own is approximately 12”x18”. The use of this stand allows me to set up in places others wouldn’t even dream of. It's light, compact, and easy to carry. This is one of my major avenues for hunting public land in Minnesota, where leaving a tree stand out overnight is illegal. I also fear that other hunters will hunt out of my natural ground blinds that I make on public land. Using a crotch stand eliminates this problem and helps to keep my “hot spot” a secret.
These stands are extremely hard to come by, but if acquired, should be used with the utmost care. Obviously, a safety harness is an absolute must. A major downfall of these stands is that you’ve got to stand the entire time. Some manufacturers make seats that you can strap to trees, and if you’re lucky there will be a good limb to sit or rest against. Again, if you are to use one of these stands, take safety very seriously and don’t use one unless you completely understand how to safely utilize this kind of set-up.
While dealing with a crooked or imperfect tree is not an easy way to hunt, hunting deer never really has been about ease or comfort. How bad do you want to shoot a good buck? Sometimes you need to suck it up, put the odds in your favor and make something work in the best area possible.
Problem #2: No Trees big enough for a stand or no trees at all. Slightly different than the first problem we examined, you may find yourself in a situation where the “right spot” just doesn’t have big enough trees to get any stand in or maybe there are no trees at all! In that case, I’d say it’s time to get on the ground!
Box Blinds Your first option is to build a box blind. Whether you raise it up on poles or not, you can construct them to accommodate any archer or gun hunter, or both. My favorite thing about an enclosed box blind is they keep the rain and wind off of you. Building a scent tight blind is also an option if it has sliding windows and it’s properly sealed, so keep that in mind. A tripod stand or a manufactured box blind are great options as well.
Pop-Up Blinds A more popular and more mobile option would be the pop up ground blind. On private ground, it is best to set one up early in the summer, brush it in, and let the deer get used to it. I like to leave the windows open and let them get accustomed to the “black holes,” as I am not a fan of shooting through the mesh. Keep in mind you will need to stake your blind down and tie it off to keep it in place. Inclement weather can wreak havoc with these blinds, especially the cheaper ones. Sun fading will also occur when left out for extended periods of time.
A few of my friends and I have used pop up blinds for several years now. Last year my buddy Tyler and I hauled my blind into a public area that I frequent for a late December Minnesota hunt. Due to a mostly treeless landscape and also for scent containment reasons, the pop up blind was the clear choice for our set up. We managed to get a perfect 20 yard broadside shot on a real nice 2.5 year old, 11 point buck, his first whitetail with a bow ever.
“I wasn’t sure it would work to set up a blind like that and shoot a deer the same day”, Tyler said, as we were dragging his buck out. It can be done, just make sure you brush it in really well. If it’s not brushed in well enough, the deer will notice it and you probably won’t get them in bow range. They might not necessarily be scared of the blind, but they will be leery of it and will probably walk away, looking back at it every few steps. If you do a poor job, you’ll be seeing some raised tails.
Natural Ground Blinds Another great option is the natural ground blind, which I view as the most underrated, underutilized strategy today. I have several situations in which a natural blind is the best choice for a set up. It might be due to the fact that I’m trekking way back into public land and can’t rationalize carrying a blind or stand that far, or perhaps it really is the best and most logical option. Let me tell you, being face to face with a good buck in this kind of set up is nerve wracking! It’s not easy to pull off, but if you go about it right, you’ll learn to love the effectiveness of this style of hunting.
That said, there are a few crucial components to taking a deer from a natural blind. First and foremost, break up your outline, and keep your shooting lanes small. This is a must. Saw off some tree limbs during mid summer and brush in your set up with them. The leaves will dry and die in a matter of a week or so, but they’ll cling to their branches well into the winter months. When things are green you’ll feel pretty protected, but once mid October arrives, leaves fall and grass flattens out. So be very liberal when you’re brushing it in. There’s no such thing as too much cover as long as you can see adequately. As I already mentioned, try and keep your shooting lanes small. You need plenty of foliage to stay hidden…big, wide, lanes are a bad idea and good way to get busted.
Of course there are many variables and the number of shooting lanes will depend on the set up. If I’m making a ground blind in standing cattails or standing corn, I only make two lanes. I make a “V” shape for my lanes instead of one lane straightt ahead like my dad used to do. Especially in thicker cover they can surprise you, so letting them walk past buys you time, as well as gives you a better opportunity to draw your bow. The most important aspect is to make more of an “X” than a “V”. Doing this allows you to stay back and out of sight when the deer’s vision hits the first lane. Make sure there is plenty of cover in the center between the two lanes, as you’ll want to draw as soon as it walks past your first lane. To help keep movement to a minimum, don’t follow the deer with your bow, keep it pointed and your body positioned in the direction you’re anticipating the shot to happen.
Making a natural ground blind can be a lot of work, and sometimes takes several hours. Always wear face paint or a mask. Leafy wear is an excellent choice for natural blinds, but not a must if you’re brushed in well. Remove all sticks, grasses, leaves, anything and everything from the ground on which you’ll be standing. Being able to move silently is a requisite for success on the ground (this includes using a pop up blind). Many camo patterns are too dark for setting up in cattails or a dry cornfield, so a light colored corn/cattail camo pattern is necessary.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a thicket, standing corn, cattail slew, a patch of small shrubs, or even a stack of hay bales. A friend of mine even piled up snow to make a blind a few years ago. Ground blind opportunities are everywhere. No matter what type of blind you’re setting up, don’t skimp on brushing it in!
Another tip, never look a deer in the eyes if they’re within 20 yards. I tilt my head down and use the brim of my cap to block out their head. If a deer looks directly at you, don’t let them see your eyes, and if they do, don’t move them around at all! It sounds ridiculous, but it is possible they will see your eyes move and be gone. I’ve had it happen! They’ll often times look at you, but if you’re brushed in good and you remain motionless, you’ll be fine.
One tremendous tool to use with the ground blind tactic is a decoy. I know from experience that the decoy soaks up all of the deer’s attention, making getting away with movement on the ground ten times easier. There is a big learning curve when it comes to using decoys, so do your homework before you place one in front of your set.
The majority of people don’t like hunting on the ground because of the lack of visibility. I’ll be honest, it does get boring when you’re on the ground and can’t see much. However, at the end of the day, it’s better to see one deer in range than ten deer out of range. There is virtually no limit to where you can make a set for deer.
Build a wood stand in a tangle of a tree, back your pop up blind into a thicket patch, put rubber boots on and stand on a slew edge, you can even haul loads of branches and logs into the middle of a CRP field and hunt out of that. Keep in mind drastic measures should not be carried out just before or during the season. These activities should take place in the spring or mid summer at the latest, as the deer need ample time to adjust to the foreign objects.
Final Thoughts If you’re lucky on your next scouting trip, the perfect tree will jump right out at you in a super location. Every time I head out with a new setup in mind, I’m hoping that when I do find that funnel or crisscrossing set of trails, there will be a “magic” tree for me to take advantage of. However, I don’t go looking for it. I let the deer and the sign tell me where to hunt, not the trees. Great hunters are opportunists who make things happen. Always think outside the box, and hunt where you need to be, not where it’s easy to be.