As a younger hunter I really never gave much thought to my approach to a treestand. Walk down an old logging road, follow a trail, and take the easiest route. Then I met Dennis Crabtree from Jackson, Ohio. Dennis is a heck of a bowhunter and was a great mentor to this novice deer hunter. We had a deer lease together, and on occasion Dennis would let me sit one of his well-placed stands.
Dennis was the first hunter I knew who raked the leaves off the trails for 100 yards around his stand, so his final approach or departure from his stands was totally quiet. I learned that lesson, but I still had a long way to go when it came to approaching my stand without being seen in the dark or leaving scent along the way. I knew that scent was a problem, and I knew that I didn’t want to bump deer or be seen by deer on early-morning trips to the stand, but I wasn’t doing enough.
Then I heard a seminar by Bill Winke at a Quality Deer Management Association convention, and that changed everything. Bill had great success taking huge Iowa bucks, and stand approach was one of the major reasons for his success.
Bill utilized ravines and streams to approach his stands. No sight, no sound and little ground scent. Relative to being seen, he’d often not go to his morning stands in the dark, but wait till he could see so as not to bump deer. And the water routes kept him below the skyline and reduced his scent trail as he walked to the stand.
My guess is that most hunters do not go to such extremes when hunting from blinds or treestands. It’s fine that my friends Dennis Crabtree and Bill Winke go to that trouble, but is there data to back up the need for those efforts? Does the number of times or amount of time you spend at one treestand impact buck movements? That’s the big question. If you are a loyal reader of this column, you know I utilize scientific literature as a basis for most columns — so the answer to that question is “yes,” and there is science to back it up.
When Clint McCoy was an Auburn University wildlife graduate student, he put radio collars on 37 bucks living on a 6,400-acre study area in South Carolina. Clint followed those bucks (eight yearlings, 10 2½-year-olds, nine 3 ½-year-olds, 10 4 ½ or older) for three years and monitored their movements. The study site had around 100 food plots totaling 300 total acres, 60 automatic feeders and 100 treestands. All hunters were dropped off and picked up close to their stand.
Hunting started on September 15 and ended on November 22. The location of each buck was taken every 30 minutes. Yes, over three years, that is a ton of data. They knew which stand every hunter sat in and when, and they knew where every buck was all the time (well, not all the time, but every 30 minutes they had a fix on each buck).
McCoy did something else that was very clever. He established a “danger zone” for each treestand. This zone was the area a hunter could visually see a deer from the treestand. So the obvious question was and is, does the number of times or amount of time a hunter spends in one stand affect buck movement? And, are older bucks smarter than young bucks relative to sightings in the “danger zone”? Great questions, and McCoy got some answers that should help you decide how much and how often you want to sit in one particular stand.
One major find was that bucks were four times less likely to walk through the “danger zone” at the end of the season then they were on day one. That alone tells you something about your impact on buck movements when hunting from a treestand. Moving a stand or hunting different stands in that area might help you become more successful. It also puts some real data behind the idea that the first time you sit a stand might be the best chance you have for the big buck working that area.
McCoy’s data also showed that at the end of the hunting season, bucks were moving an average of 55 yards further from the stands than they did on the first day of the season. Those are bucks that are still relatively close to your stand in November, but they might not be visible to you when they are 55 yards further from your stand.
What about overhunting a stand? McCoy showed that if a stand was hunted for 12 hours during one week, your chance to see that buck when you got into that stand was cut by half. And this avoidance lasted for three days. So, for example, if you sit a stand for three hours each evening from Monday to Thursday, the buck you were after was twice as likely to avoid the “danger zone” on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
What about daytime use of the food plots close to stands being used? On August 24, one out of every three visits a buck made to a food plot was during legal shooting hours. But by November 22, they almost never came to plots during the day.
And were the old bucks a little cagier than younger bucks? Not really. There was little difference in day and night use of food plots nor the number of times a buck entered the “danger zone.”
From this study it is obvious that if a hunter can eliminate all noise and all human scent, and not be seen by deer going, coming, or sitting in the treestand, buck behavior won’t change. Since none of these things are possible, what can a hunter do to eliminate impacting buck movements and behavior near hunted stands?
As mentioned, getting to and from the stand is critical. Study the topography, as that will affect wind patterns. Stay low, in ravines, in streams, if possible. Placement of your stand is also important. If you put it right on the food plot edge or near a bait site (where legal), you might spook deer as you enter it. Or if you place that stand near a food plot and use it when the wind is wrong, deer will be impacted. Having a deer blow at you once is not a major issue. But if you leave a stand after dark and deer see or hear you, and that happens several times in one week, then you have a problem.
We already know that hunters and hunter density impacts deer movements. One neat study put radio collars on older bucks and GPS units on each hunter. The data proved what we already surmised. Bucks changed their movements when exposed to hunting pressure, and they did this day and night. Not only did hunter density cause bucks to move more, but it also caused them to have more complex movement paths. They moved the same linear distance, but the paths taken were more complex.
In addition, this study showed that when pressured, bucks moved to thicker cover. OK, we already knew that, but the data confirms the obvious. What we didn’t know was that after three days of heavy hunter pressure, buck movements decreased. One hunter per 250 acres led to minimal effects, but one hunter per 75 acres decreased buck susceptibility.
Maybe you can control hunter density on your area and maybe you can’t. But you can control how you hunt your treestands and where you place them. The ideal scenario might be to build a food plot where the location you have to park your truck is not visible to deer in the plot. No sense taking a chance there. If possible, build the plot so there is good, quiet access to any stands you place there. Close to a ravine with a stream is ideal. Again, the wind is critical. Place your stand or blind in good cover around 20 yards from the plot and where the usual morning and/or evening winds favor you.
Then only hunt the stand when the winds favor you, and don’t overhunt the stand during the season. Have sufficient stand locations that will prevent overhunting any one stand.
I realize that you might not be able to account for all the variables discussed in the previous two paragraphs. But there is no question that you can control a number of them, and doing so will definitely do several things. Bucks will be more vulnerable in your “danger zone” in November. Bucks will be less likely to become nocturnal later in the season.