For white-tailed deer hunting, one of the most useful tools is the one safely and comfortably supporting your backside: the tree stand.
Because deer rely primarily on smell, sight and sound to detect danger, few whitetail hunts are of the "spot-and-stalk" variety often associated with Western deer hunts.
Typically, whitetails are either pushed from cover during a drive hunt or silently ambushed. A tree stand affords hunters critical ambush advantages.
It positions you on high ground and shields subtle movements such as aiming or fidgeting that a wary deer would detect if you were at eye level.
Depending on conditions, a lofty perch can also help carry your scent away from the deer's sensitive nose, especially in the morning, when scent rises with the air temperature.
A tree stand anchors you in one spot, curing the common hunter's affliction of excessive roaming. Artfully blowing a deer call, rattling antlers or laying down a trail to your stand with a quality doe estrus urine scent can often help bring the buck to you.
Like all real estate considerations, location can mean everything when placing a stand. Deer hunters need to carefully consider the habitat and terrain in which they're hunting, as well as the expected movement patterns of the deer. Set your stand in the right place — and be in it at the right time — and a whitetail wall-hanger may be the reward.
Plenty of options
Choosing the right tree stand depends largely on individual hunter preferences and capabilities, the style of hunting and the geography.
Tree-stand quality and designs have come a long way in the past 20 years. Some of the earliest models were accidents waiting to happen, and tree-stand mishaps began overtaking all other forms of hunting injuries. Mishaps still occur today, but they are more often caused by hunter error than failure of the equipment to reliably perform as designed.
Climbing stands. Many older climbing stands had boomerang-shaped blades that wrapped around the back of the tree and easily slipped. Today's stands — which range in price from $100 to $300 — attach to the tree with plastic- or rubber-wrapped aircraft cables or stout chains, with locking pins holding everything in place. Additional ratchet-tightened straps are often available to further secure against slipping once the stand is in position.
A hunter uses the portable stand to move into position at the desired height on his chosen tree. This affords flexibility, allowing the hunter to match stand location to the habitat and conditions, and prevents game from patterning the hunter, as they do those who faithfully sit in the same tree day after day.
Fixed stands. Traditional lock-on or hang-on stands are less common than the increasingly popular climbing stands. A lock-on stand is typically fastened to a tree with a ratcheted strap and then accessed via a ladder or screw-in steps.
Although portable stands provide maximum options, fixed stands offer the advantage of not having to haul your stand in and out of the woods every day and tend to be considerably lower in price — typically $50 to $150 — than the climbers. Hunters on private property often place a number of hang-on and ladder stands around the property.
Ladder stands. Today's steel ladder stands are stretching to greater heights, with some as tall as 20 feet. The climb can be challenging, but transitioning to a sitting position on either the bench or swivel seat atop most ladder stands is easier. They range in price from $80 to $200.
Many ladder stands also come with shooting rails that somewhat enclose the seat. The sitting area can be surrounded by burlap or camouflage blinds that further conceal your position. A number of ladder stands are designed to accommodate two people on the bench seat, making them popular among hunters who want to take a young person to the field, keeping them in close proximity while allowing them a view from the higher vantage point.
With a ladder stand, it takes at least two and often three people to safely place the stand on the tree, which can present a challenge. Make sure stabilizer bars and straps are tight to firmly secure the stand in position.
Ron Waller is the mechanical engineer for Summit Treestands, a company founded by his father, John Waller, in 1981. Once a Marine Corps long-distance shooter, the elder Waller became bored with rifle hunting and began designing products that he could use for bow hunting, including a two-piece climbing tree stand.
Waller strongly recommends that hunters try a stand — especially climbing and lock-on fixed stands — before buying. This can often be done at outdoor shows or at larger stores that carry hunting products.
Because comfort is key to your ability to sit quietly for any duration, Waller advises checking the seat and backrest. Will you be able to sit relatively motionless in this for a few hours? Check out the ease of climbing and the level of stability during that critical transition from climbing to turning and sitting.
Look for certification
Nearly 30 manufacturers belong to the Treestand Manufacturer's Association, which is a standards-based organization that employs two independent companies for product testing.
"Only buy stands that are TMA certified," Waller warned, noting that stands are load-tested at twice the rated capacity of the product. The association can direct you toward certified products and provide information about recalls. Contact it by calling (601) 584-7983, or check it out online at www.tmastands.com.
Waller acknowledges that anytime a hunter uses a stand, risks and potential hazards will be at hand.
"You've got hunters, sometimes wet, cold, with icy boots, going up a tree in the dark or coming down in the dark," he said. "Gravity works every time, and there are hazards without regard to the stability of the tree-stand product."
Hunters must minimize the human dangers associated with climbing up or down in a stand and always use safety gear, Waller said, including a full body harness to arrest falls without constricting or crushing vital organs, as many single-belt straps can do.
"No one is selling waist or chest belts anymore," Waller said. "Those would knock the wind out of you, put pressure on your diaphragm and worse. The waist belt is the worst device to wear, followed by the chest belt."
Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer in King George, Va.