A Proper Location Preparation
Tree location and proper set-up is a subject that receives little ink, yet is one of the most important aspects of a successful hunt.
It was just too warm! By late afternoon the mercury had risen into the high 60’s and for early November in Michigan that is not conducive to mature buck movements
My son Chris was set-up 25 feet high in a huge oak located within heavy cover on the inside corner of a picked cornfield. I was set-up about 200 yards away and about 28 feet high in a small diametered, leafless maple that was within shooting distance of a rub-lined runway that led to a nearby tall weed field bedding area.
We were in our trees by 2:00 p.m. and the early arrival paid off. At 3:15 a three point passed by aggressively pursuing an uninterested doe. He chased her towards Chris’s location and with minutes he returned alone. Could the large buck I had seen that morning be staged-up in the heavy cover that surrounded the field?
At 4:45 I heard some commotion over by Chris, and within seconds the same tall tined eight point seen during the morning hunt was moving in my direction. My assumption was that Chris had arrowed the buck and I was waiting for him to tip over. He stopped about 50 yards away and turned to look in Chris’s direction.
Standing in clear sight, I could see no apparent blood or wound on his slick coat and he seemed to be carefully searching for his exit route from the area. Fortunately my location was right between the buck and the tall weed field. I was counting on him using his rub-lined runway to exit on, and he did not let me down.
He slowly moved in my direction, stopping about every 5 yards to look towards Chris. At a distance of 14 yards and quartering towards me, I vocally blatted to stop him and took the shot.
Many thoughts passed through my mind, and Chris missing was not one of them. When we met he asked if the big 8 point expired near me. Slightly shocked, I asked if he were sure he hit it. He assured me he had, but admitted his shot looked high.
We recovered the buck not 100 yards from my tree. Upon inspection, Chris’s arrow had entered below the spine above his right shoulder and one blade barely clipped the tip of his left lung. My arrow passed through the right lung and front portion of the liver.
On that particular hunt having both trees properly set-up at the right heights for the time of season and in the right locations paid off.
My bowhunting attention has always been focused on taking good bucks in the heavily hunted state of Michigan, where I live. However, since 1997 I also travel out of state during Michigan’s gun season to either Illinois, Iowa or Kansas to bowhunt whitetails that see very little hunting pressure. Speaking from direct experience there is a dramatic difference in the skill level required to take a mature buck in a pressured area versus lightly hunted areas.
Hunting pressure has a direct influence on where, when, and how to properly set-up a location. In lightly hunted areas stands can be set-up lower and in more open areas similar to what you see on TV shows and in video’s. When bucks are allowed to pass and grow to maturity without negative consequences with human (hunter) encounters, they will move during daylight hours into short crop fields, through open areas, and not pay near the attention to danger from above as their brethren in pressured areas, that is a fact that simply can not be denied.
In pressured areas mature buck movements through openings or into short crop fields rarely take place during daylight hours, and all mature deer look for hunters in trees and spook immediately upon their sighting, they do not stand around and wonder what you are. With this in mind, for realistic opportunities in heavily hunted areas all hunting locations should offer transition and perimeter cover.
Items for preparing trees and clearing lanes
-Climbing safety strap is required for keeping both hands free for trimming, placing screw–in steps or sticks, hanging stands, and for safety purposes. For this I use my Ambush saddle that has a permanent safety-climbing strap.
-Folding saw or long (14 inch blade) sheath saw for trimming branches in the tree and cutting shooting lanes.
-Extendable pole saw and rope cutter combo for cutting out of reach branches from the ground and in the tree (can be purchased at any hardware store).
-Gloves to keep your hands from getting cut.
-Rope to pull up extendable saw into tree for final tree preparation.
-Screw-in steps, step starter, strap-on steps, climbing sticks or whatever you personally like to use for ascending the tree.
-Water for drinking.
-Pruning shears and reflective tacks or ties for trimming and marking entry and exit routes.
-Laser rangefinder for ranging distances to potential shot locations.
-Total scent-free regiment of clothing and footwear when preparing locations just prior to or during season.
-Energy and time, you will need a lot of both to properly set-up a location.
Seasonal timing when picking a tree
Once you find a location to set-up on you must pick the tree that offers the best cover and most opportunities at the best available sign. What time of season you plan on hunting a location dictates the type of tree you pick and how high you set-up.
For early season hunting, most trees will have their leaves and offer cover, allowing you to set-up lower in the tree. When picking a tree for hunting during the rut phases, other than conifers that hold their needles all year and oaks that hold their leaves long into the season, most others will have lost their leaves, offering no cover.
When setting up trees specifically for rut phase hunting, which is when most mature bucks are taken, and you know the tree is going to be leafless, you need to set-up higher (25 to 30 feet). This height will keep you out of their peripheral vision and allow you to get away with minor movements during the shot process without other deer that may be with the targeted deer, picking you off. Sighting in your bow from a similar elevation is advised.
Picking out the tree
First, slowly walk every runway at the location until you are out of the likely shooting area. While doing so look at every potential tree suitable for hunting from and any sign or mast on or close to the ground such as rubs, scrapes, areas with excessive droppings, large tracks, acorns, apples, etc. The process of picking out the right tree within shooting distance of as much sign as possible in a given area should take 15 to 30 minutes.
My tree hunting is done exclusively from a Trophyline Ambush saddle that will accommodate about any tree no matter the size, branches on the way up, or lean. Being able to pick any tree for a specific location is a huge advantage over having to set-up on runways that lead into the convergence of sign due to tree restrictions suitable for conventional hang-ons and climbers.
Preparing the location
Once the tree and the location in the tree where you intend to sit is picked out, with your hand-saw and pruning shears walk every runway again and when you get to the spot where the least amount of brush and small trees is in the way and it offers a good shot angle from the tree, clear out everything that is in the way. Everything must go, including tall stick-weeds near the shot area that could possibly alter a shot. When cutting saplings or trees, cut them tight to the ground so that other hunters will not see the stubs sticking up and immediately identify the hunting location. You can also grab some dirt or moss and rub it on or cover the cut surface so it is not easily noticed.
Next, if the location has fresh or old scrapes or has the potential of having mast or fruit on the ground make sure you have a shot to that area as well. You can’t always count on a whitetail following a runway into a destination location.
Quite often when clearing lanes you can go to convergence points where sign or runways overlap and make them. This will save time and help to make the area less conspicuous to both deer and other hunters.
Next, go back to the same lanes with the extendable pole saw and cut the branches you couldn’t reach with your hand-saw. You should now have what appears to be a lane cleared to every potential travel route from the location in the tree where you expect to sit.
Make sure each shooting lane is at least six feet wide at the shot window, this will allow you to stop the deer and get off a shot. When a shooting lane is finished, the only thing left that could possibly deflect an arrow is air.
If there is a runway out of range, use your cuttings in an attempt to alter the runway within shooting distance. Drag all other cut brush, trees, and branches away from the location and put them cut side down into the heaviest cover available. This will aid in other hunters not finding your location.
Setting up the tree (bow pull area)
Look at the tree and pick out the side to climb that is a straight shot up the tree (winding around the tree as you go is not advised). If there is any lean to the tree, go up the side leaning away from you, this will make it much easier and safer to ascend and descend in the dark.
While climbing the tree with the safety belt attached (the Ambush saddle has its own safety climbing belt), place your steps or climbing sticks in a manner so the tree will be easy to climb when you have bulky clothing on. While climbing and placing steps I put the first just above my knee, the next about armpit level, and the next at the top of my head level. This spacing is continued all the way up the tree.
While ascending the tree cut any dead or small live branches that might mistake as a step in the dark. When descending the tree, your feet can’t feel the difference between a small branch and a step and removing them will take that possibility out of the equation.
Once up to the desired location with whatever type of stand you use, go through the shot process motion imagining there is a shooter standing in each lane. It is very common to have branches in the tree that require removal and other branches in nearby trees that you couldn’t reach with the extendable saw. Retrieve the pole saw and while safely secured to the tree with the safety harness, use both hands and cut anything else in the way.
Make sure you have a straight shot to the ground from your location in the tree for pulling up your bow. Pulling up a bow through branches is not a good plan.
Using your rangefinder check the distance to each runway or sign. Write the distances on a small notepad for a future reference when hunting that tree.
Scrape all loose bark with your handsaw that you could possibly rub against during a shot process. If the tree has rough bark and is near or in a bedding area you should also scrape the bark on either side of each step while climbing out of the tree. This will keep you from making noise while ascending and descending the tree.
Once on the ground clear out the area at the base of the tree where you will stand and prepare to climb, and the area your bow will lay once tied to your rope.
Clearing runways for the deer
It is common for deer runways to get blocked with deadfalls and overgrown brush. Follow every runway that runs through heavy cover and clean it up if needed, keeping in mind that a good buck requires a wider runway so his antler don’t get hung up on the brush. This type of runway clean up is not advised just prior to season if you plan on hunting it early in the season.
Marking your trail in and out
Even though a location may appear to be easy to find in the dark, mark the trail. There is nothing worse than searching for your tree in the dark, it raises your blood pressure, makes you perspire, leaves unwanted scent in the area, you make more noise, and pisses you off all at the same time.
Reflective tacks or ties work best for marking your way in and out because you can follow an exact route in the dark. When hunting state land or property shared by other hunters whom I do not know I use brown tacks made by HME. Brown tacks are difficult to see against bark in the daylight and help to keep my locations from being found by other hunters. In all other areas white tacks are used because they reflect at farther distances.
Whenever you need to make a sharp turn put two tacks in the tree, this will let you know that you need to search right or left for the next tack.
Reflective bread ties are used when routes take you through brush or marshy areas.
In pressured areas your location should be within some sort of heavy perimeter cover and a GPS simply does not track a route tight enough to go through heavy cover in the dark, especially if the foliage is on. For daytime entries a GPS is fine because you can see to weave through the brush.
Properly preparing a location requires a lot of hard work and often a single location will take me up top 6 hours to prepare. I do 80% of my scouting and tree preparation during post season, allowing alterations to the immediate area to become part of the normal landscape by fall.
Editors note: To enrich your bowhunting skills John Eberhart produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series titled “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and co-authored with his son Chris the books “Precision Bowhunting” and “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” They are available at: deer-john.net