|If you want to see this from your tree stand, you'll need to make sure they never knew you were there.|
It's one of the most common mistakes in deer hunting, yet one so easy to avoid with a little forethought and careful planning: a careless approach to the stand.
Hunters put in countless hours planning where they will set up their stand, pouring over topographic maps and Google Earth, scouting meticulously. Then they proceed to ruin their chances by walking through areas deer are in as they approach the stand, spooking the animals.
Even if they don't bust them out in a panic, they often spread their scent in areas deer are likely to use later as they approach, leaving human odor on bushes and leaves that can spook the quarry.
And walking through prime areas isn't the only mistake hunters make. Too often they arrive late, walk loudly, rattle leaves, brush against branches with noisy clothing, point flashlights all around, ignore wind direction, erect stands clumsily, and forget proper scent control.
You might get away with such a sloppy approach sometimes. Usually though, mistakes like these can ruin a carefully chosen site-perhaps just for the morning hunt, perhaps for several days. This is particularly true if you're aiming to harvest a mature buck.
Avoiding this unpleasant scenario is easy with just a bit of planning and forethought. For starters, try not to get locked in ahead of time to one site for a particular morning or evening's hunt. Try to keep in mind a number of stand or blind options you can turn to. Then when the hunt time arrives, select a specific spot based on a last-minute analysis of weather and wind conditions, hunting pressure, stage of the rut, available food and other factors.
Plan out two or three ways to approach each site in different wind and weather conditions. If that's not possible and there's only one good way to reach the spot, stay away from that stand until conditions are perfect.
If you're going to reach your stand without being detected, you must avoid alerting your quarry's senses of sight, smell and hearing. Being totally prepared ahead of the hunt helps you accomplish that goal. Lay all equipment and clothing out the night before so you can get dressed quickly, grab your gear and leave.
Preparing like this eliminates the most common reason for a sloppy, loud approach-rushing because you're late. Maybe you thought you were ready, but then several little things come up. Before you know it, you're behind schedule and must rush, possibly even forgetting something in your haste to reach the hunting area before first light.
To eliminate such flub-ups, prepare all clothing and gear the night before so you can down a quick breakfast and head out. Set the alarm a few minutes early, to allow a slow, quiet approach.
Also consider ahead of time the location of your camp or vehicle in relation to the stand. If you're hunting deer moving to a bedding area after night feeding, park your vehicle or locate your camp so you can walk to the stand without having to go through the feed area or across major travel routes.
If you're hunting in mountains, bucks often bed high, so parking above them is best for a morning hunt. In the afternoon, approach from below, since the deer will work down towards evening feeding areas.
The ideal setup is to hike in to the stand without walking through any area the deer ever use. At the very least, avoid walking through a location where they might be at the time you enter the stand.
This may mean circling an extra half-mile to circumvent the area where the deer are. Set the alarm early and do it. If you arrive early, you'll have time to cool down from the hike, settle in, and load your gun or nock an arrow. Then you can relax, allowing the woods around you to grow quiet and your senses to key in to the hunting mode. Making a dry run ahead of time lets you see exactly how long it takes to reach your stand without rushing.
These steps will help you avoid being visually detected by the quarry. But deer won't always be where we expect them to be, and that's why a slow, cautious approach is best. Walk 20 or 30 steps, then pause, at least during the final approach.
Only man walks upright and hurriedly through the woods without stopping. Do that within sight of a mature buck and he'll immediately be alarmed and flee the area or hide.
Such a careful approach also allows you to circumvent a deer's second major defense mechanism: its sense of hearing. Trim away brush that could scrape against your clothing so you can reach the stand quietly. Also move dead limbs you might stumble over in the dark.
Vehicle noise can also alert bucks. Park as far away as practical, close doors quietly and whisper if you must talk to your hunting partners before heading out.
The last deer sense you need to circumvent is smell. Avoid scented soaps, aftershave lotion, gasoline, strong foods and other foreign odors. Bathe and shampoo with scent-killing soaps or baking soda. Use sent-eliminating sprays and wear scent-control clothing. Certainly these aren't 100 percent effective, but every bit of odor reduction is a plus.
Combine these scent and noise reducing steps with not walking through where the deer are, as well as approaching from downwind and you should dramatically reduce the chances of spooking your quarry before the hunt even starts. Do that and you will have done everything possible to ensure your hunt's success.
Dress Lightly for the Hike In
It's tough to hike a long way in to a stand with heavy hunting clothes on and not become overheated and perspire. You can prevent this by carrying most of your outer clothes or strapping them to your pack.
Also be sure to wear synthetic underwear that wicks moisture away and allows body heat to escape. On top of that layer put on just a shirt and pants for the hike in.
While you're hiking in, pause occasionally to cool down. When you get to the stand, wait several minutes to cool further before putting heavy clothes on. If you're actually sweaty, wipe off with a clean cloth or packaged scent-removing hand wipes and put them in a sealed plastic bag.
Should You Use Flashlights?
Finding stands in the dark can be challenging, but avoid using a flashlight if possible. I've watched from my stand as hunters shine their beams wildly this way and that searching as they go. It's hard to believe a mature buck wouldn't be alerted by this light.
If you need a flashlight, though, use it. Just keep the beam pointed low towards the ground most of the time. There's no worse feeling than watching dawn creep in and realizing you're lost and don't know where your stand is. Tacks or pins that reflect a flashlight's beam can be placed strategically in trees or you can use small pieces of plastic ribbon to help find your way. Using a GPS unit can also certainly help you locate your stand.
If your stand is in a hard-to-reach spot, an alternative some hunters use is to simply wait for first light and still-hunt to it. Who knows? You might harvest your buck on the way in.
Use Water to Reach Your Stand
Whey dry leaves or crusty snow make quiet walking impossible or logistics prevent walking to the stand without going through an area deer are in, consider donning waders to cross a creek or actually wade up or downstream to reach the stand. You can sometimes even use a canoe or jon boat to reach your hunting spot, especially for an afternoon hunt. I've also paddled across lakes and ponds to reach my stand quietly.
Exiting the Stand
It's clear how important it is to take special care getting into one's stand. But what about getting out? Of course if you've fired an arrow, bullet or slug and downed your quarry, exit from the stand isn't important. You can simply drag the animal out or go get a vehicle to haul it out.
But what if the hunt doesn't produce and you want to come back to the same location tomorrow or a few days later? In order to avoid spooking the deer and making them wary of that location, great care must be exercised in leaving the stand or blind as well as entering it.
When possible, try to hunt until complete darkness arrives. Then you'll stand a better chance of sneaking out without alarming any animals close by. Another alternative is to have a friend or relative come in a truck or ATV to pick you up at a pre-determined time. This way deer will hear the approaching vehicle and flee but won't think much of it and not be around when you climb down and get in it for the ride out.
But what if you haven't arranged to be picked up and deer are still around the stand as darkness begins to envelope the land. What do you do? I use a different approach in this case. I don't try to sneak out, but instead spook the quarry with a non-human sound.
At various times I've used "rabbit in distress" calls, other coyote calls, pileated woodpecker and crow calls, or even simply pretended to be a dog barking fiercely. In every case deer high-tail it out of the area very scared, but without associating their fright with a human. Try to blow the call or "bark" with your hand cupped to the side or facing sideways, so the sound won't appear to come directly from your stand or blind.
Ideally, I'd like the deer to move away on their own time schedule, so that I can then sneak out quietly. But if they're hanging around in front of you when darkness falls and don't appear to be leaving soon, this is a good ploy to use. Typically the next day the deer will be in the same area and not seem any more frightened or skittish than usual.
It's clear that getting into and out of your stand without spooking the quarry takes a bit of extra forethought. But if you want to up your chances for success, it's well worth the effort.