Shooting lanes are not sexy. Whitetail fanatics don’t binge-watch shooting lane videos on YouTube or drool over artsy tree trimming pics on Instagram. Wow factor be damned—the art of trimming shooting lanes is crucial to deer hunting success.
Yes, it is an art. Determining just the right time to cut those lanes, how many each location needs, and how big each should be is a matter of intuition, circumstance, and balance.
Like any other art form, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While judgments on the right way to trim shooting lanes are as subjective as art critiques, a punched deer tag is not. Consider the following recommendations the next time you grab a saw and the results will be undeniable.
Time Your Trimming Any discussion of shooting lanes must begin with an examination of exactly when that work should be done. For those who pre-set stands ahead of the season, the typical process is to trim lanes immediately upon setting up a new location. That’s not a bad idea unless you’re setting up before summer green-up. Trees and leaf cover change dramatically from spring to late summer, which will make any work done in the early part of the year worthless by the time hunting season arrives.
My preference is to do pre-season trimming in August. In Michigan it’s well after new growth is complete but still over a full month out from our October 1 opener.
By waiting until later in the summer you’ll know exactly what needs to get cut to make for adequate lanes, while still leaving plenty of time for deer to recover from your disturbance. If you have to prep your stands earlier in the year, try to return at least once later in the summer to check for new vegetation.
Stay in Your Lane This brings us to the most contentious of tree trimming issues; exactly how many lanes should be cut at any particular location and just how big those should be. Opinions on this vary widely and span from clearing runway sized lanes with a bulldozer to manicuring small holes with hand pruners.
Renowned Michigan bow hunters John and Chris Eberhart recommend a mix of both styles depending on the type of location in their book “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails.” Both styles of trimming should minimize the risk of deer catching on to your presence. For stands that are to be hunted frequently, they recommend narrow lanes with just enough opening for a few shots. For rut locations or stands to be hunted infrequently, they suggest that “you should cut wider lanes and trim the tree you’re hunting in for more shot opportunities.”
“Trees set up for prerut and rut periods must have wide, totally cleared out lanes for several possible shot locations,” they said. “Because deer can come from any direction then, totally disregarding any patterns or sign, and mature bucks may pursue a doe through areas they’ll never revisit.”
Steve Bartylla, another well-known whitetail bowhunter and writer, advocates for numerous but small shooting lanes. According to his book “Advanced Stand Hunting Strategies,” he makes sure that he has a shot cleared to each point of the compass and recommends secondary lanes to fill the gaps.
“I also create windows 5 to 10 yards from the point at which I expect the shot to occur on either side of the main lanes,” Bartylla said. “I look at these as windows of second opportunity.”
My take has always been to open as many clear lanes to shot locations as possible while not compromising cover. At this point in the year, I’m not worried about disturbing deer. I’ll remove any and every obstacle in the way of the highest potential pass-through zones and use whatever tool is most convenient for the job, whether that’s a chainsaw or pole saw.
The best way to confirm that adequate lanes are cut is to sit in your stand and have a friend walk all likely travel routes as you verify clear shots to each position. I lean towards being more aggressive than not this time of year, but never at the expense of my concealment.
What About In Season? You can take much of the aforementioned advice and toss it out the window when it comes to clearing in-season shooting lanes. At this point the most minimalist of approaches should be embraced. “I’m a firm believer that less is more,” Bartylla said. “Ideally I want a lane two to three feet wide to my front, as well as one to each side and a fourth behind me.”
The key differentiator now is that any disturbance made while trimming can immediately impact deer behavior and subsequent hunts. The sound of your sawing, the scent of your hands on a held branch, the debris from cut limbs—any of it could potentially tip off a deer and blow your hunt.
I’d rather take just a few small holes with no spooking of deer, than a bunch of lanes that will blow the place out. For this reason, when setting up new locations during the season, I’ll make as few cuts as absolutely necessary and do so in a way that is as quick and quiet as possible.
If there’s wind, I will time my cuts to coincide with loud gusts and quickly work through a limb while I have the background noise. If it’s dead silent I’ll cut through a branch with long, slow pulls and as quietly as possible. In this scenario I’ll often stop just shy of severing the branch entirely so that it swings out of the way but doesn’t crash to the ground. Finally, I’m careful not to touch any branches with bare hands, as deer passing by will occasionally be attracted to newly fallen limbs and step closer to check them out. If they’re immediately met with a strong whiff of human they’ll be gone in a flash.
Balance The key to trimming the perfect shooting lane is balance. You want to trim enough opportunities to be effective, but at the same time you don’t want to make a scene. It’s just as simple and tricky as that. Sounds like art, doesn’t it?
Feature image via Captured Creative.