Most hunters are well versed in the nuances of tree stand hunting. Ladder up, climb up or jack up, the idea is to get off the ground to avoid being seen, smelled or heard by approaching game.
Enter the crossbow, a relatively new tool (not even legal in all states at the moment, though we are gaining ground) that requires special handling on the ground, on the way up to and in the stand, and even while exiting the stand.
The strategies and techniques hunters must employ to utilize these specialized bows to their maximum efficiency often vary radically from those of the standard rifle or compound bow user. For example, it's often nearly impossible to turn 360 degrees while in a tree stand and holding a crossbow, and even more difficult to turn 360 degrees in a tree stand while aiming a crossbow. Need to reload for a fast second shot, while still in your stand? Unless you're a gymnast, good luck.
In addition to the mechanical challenges of tree stand hunting with a crossbow, there are issues to consider regarding stand placement. You must always ask, "Which stand site will give me the most opportunities with the fewest complications?"
The game begins with stand placement. When the scouting process is complete and you've decided where your stand should be, think long and hard about it. Which direction should you face for odds-on shots? How high should you be? What options will you have if your buck comes in from an unanticipated direction?
Deciding which direction to face a tree stand is not always as simple or obvious as "where the deer will come from." Tracks, trails, rubs and assorted other sign are great ways to gauge deer numbers, but they are not always reliable indicators of direction of travel. If you put all your chips on deer coming in from the north, you risk losing opportunities — deer, especially rutting bucks, will also come in from the south, west or east. If a right-handed shooter is set up for a shot to the north, he will be in trouble if the deer comes in from the south or east. This is because crossbows are not only long, but also wide, and that limb width will create problems when you try to shoot too far to the right or left — that tree trunk and associated branches you forgot about are going to stymie you every time!
To increase your shooting zone, get into the stand and look around. Do you need to cut shooting lanes to the left or right? Does an upper-story limb need to be cut so you can cover deer coming in from behind either shoulder? Generally, if you extend your arm in any direction and can touch a twig, branch or limb with the tips of your fingers, start trimming. Don't allow the smallest twig to become tangled in your limbs, strings, cables or pulleys. I neglected to do this once. I fired at a nice Ohio buck, but a twig became wrapped up inside a pulley, yanking the crossbow out of my hands and leaving it hanging 10 feet out of reach. The arrow, of course, flew harmlessly into the distance and the buck — well, if a snort could be considered a laugh, he bounded off guffawing to himself until he was out of hearing.
The height of a crossbow tree stand depends on a variety of issues. I have killed deer by simply sitting in my climbing stand set just above ground level — a comfortable seat offering an excellent view of a well-used creek bottom crossing.
I killed a nice buck in Ohio last season from a stand that was no more than 20 yards from a creek-bottom trail. But I was in a tree that was 20 yards up a steep ridge (hand-over-hand to get to) and then 16 more feet up a rickety, forward-leaning ladder stand. Thankfully I was wearing a safety harness and was able to strap myself into the stand, because in mid-afternoon "doze mode," I nearly fell out of the thing! Location, range and visibility were perfect, but comfort was nil. But, when the 9-pointer followed a dozen does out of the creek bottom, I had my chance. I aimed six inches below his belly and squeezed off the shot.
To my surprise (I'm no mathematician), the arrow struck exactly as calculated by my host, who'd hunted from that stand for decades. My arrow struck halfway up the buck's body right behind the shoulder and gave me a perfect, no-glitches pass-through.
Lots of lessons here, number one being you must get as high as necessary to keep from spooking incoming deer, but only as high as is required. Had I been any higher I'd have been looking down the backs of the deer as if I were shooting northern pike in Vermont, and those types of spine-only shots are iffy at best with any bow. Any lower and the deer would have spotted me (a few of the does even looked up at the ladder but, fortunately, not at the stand).
First-day stands can often be as low as 10 feet, but if you are hunting out of a season-long location, you might need to go higher, because the deer will begin to come in and actually look up to see if you are there.
A friend of mine has such a stand on his property that sees almost daily use from October through January, and the deer come in very early (or late) in the day. And every one of them stares right at that stand, even though it is 20 feet high! To beat those deer, I put another stand in a tree quartering to their approach trail, and nailed a nice buck that (honestly!) was staring up at the other stand.
Due to the bulk and innate awkwardness of a crossbow, you can't have deer staring at you when you are ready to shoot. Go higher, move the stand to a new location or leave the stand in place as a decoy — even consider a ground blind downwind of approaching deer.
When a deer comes into a crossbow set-up from the wrong direction, the sensible thing to do is wait. The deer might come around to where you can shoot it, or it might wander around and disappear. Bad as this might sound, it's better than hurriedly attempting to turn around, get on target and thread an arrow down through leaves, limbs and twigs. Such panic shots rarely work out in the hunter's favor. As lethal as arrows are, nothing looks more pathetic than an errant arrow bouncing off vegetation on its way to nowhere. I've tried these desperation shots and have had my arrows click and clatter to the feet of the target which, with a snort and a wheeze, bounds away with a nice, big white tail waving goodbye.
The "wrong way" problem is best solved with patience. A one-time event might not be worth it, but if deer keep coming in from behind you, obviously, the solution is to turn the stand around. Take heart in the fact that your scouting was right on, except that your best guess was 10 yards off the mark. Reverse the stand, trim the limbs, get set up so you can shoot from far left to far right and see what happens.
Unsuspecting deer will usually approach stand sites from the same direction each time (morning or evening), but if you train them to avoid the spot (by shooting Hail Marys at them) there is no place to put a stand that will work. They've got you cornered and, sad to say, they usually win.
I have had some luck in the East with the Texas-style rotating tripod stands by placing them in thick brush where several hot trails converge. These stands consist of a revolving seat atop a tripod system, allowing the hunter to spin completely around to cover various trails. The hunter is fully exposed (an odd feeling), but the deer below seem to be unconcerned with the three-legged contraption that suddenly landed in the middle of their hideout. Cut shooting lanes or holes to each trail and be sure your seat, bearings and footwear allow you to look, spin, aim and shoot without rattling, squeaking or chattering.
One final tip on tree stand hunting with a crossbow — use colored tape or some other method to keep track of the distances to your shooting lanes. For example, I use white reflective tape at the 10-yard range, red for 20 yards and orange for 30 yards. In field situations I use chartreuse tape for 40-yard shots. Beyond that, I wait until the deer move into range. If they won't, I plan to move my stand closer to the action the next day.
Any modern crossbow will perform as designed when shooting from the bench, but things change when you're up a tree in dim light on a rainy afternoon in November. Do what you can to improve your odds for success by facing in the proper direction within known range of the most likely target approach lanes. After that it's aim, squeeze and follow through. Nothing to it!