Like most deer hunters, I often hunt from a tree stand, but let me pose three questions regarding the use of elevated stands for hunting with a crossbow, or any other weapon. Is waiting for a deer the equivalent of hunting, as defined by Webster’s dictionary? Does shooting a deer with a crossbow from an elevated stand require any more skill than shooting a target in the backyard? My third and perhaps most soul-searching query follows. Is being isolated on an elevated stand the most enjoyable method of hunting?
During the 2022 archery season, I decided to get back to the basics of actual hunting. It’s not that I always chose to hunt from a portable stand, but I certainly was in my portable stand for 99% of my archery hunts. Maybe I had a good reason for sitting more from a stand. I hunted with tremendous knee pain during the previous few years. Thankfully, I had the knee replaced in January of 2022, and after defeating some post-op obstacles, my recovery began to speed along. During the summer, I pleasantly discovered I was able to again hike all over the mountains and forests, pain-free for the first time in years. Those hikes were encouraging, and I knew I would be able to cover as much ground as I desired when hunting season arrived.
I rediscovered the freedom experienced by moving about and seeing what was on the other side of the mountain so to speak. I wandered about, locating fresh scrapes, rubs, and deer trails I was previously unaware of on the public lands where I routinely hunt. My portable, elevating tree stand was still used occasionally, but I purposely ignored the tree stand on most occasions and locked it in the bed of my truck. I ignored the lethality provided by hunting from above the animals and chose instead to get back to the basics of hunting in the truest sense of the word. I’ve killed many deer in my life from a portable tree stand during archery seasons, but I preferred to rekindle the fun that accompanies hunting at ground level. That choice meant I might go without tagging an animal during the archery season, but killing a deer didn’t mean as much to me as enjoying the activity itself.
There is little doubt that hunting from a treestand will provide the best opportunity to hang a tag on a whitetail deer. Tree stands take away the deer’s most proficient means of defense by keeping your human scent above the forest floor.
It’s also a fact that deer are less likely to look up, though they do catch me in my elevated perch much more than they did when I first started using a portable stand in the mid-1980s. Hunting from an elevated position is the most proficient way to get a shot because looking d over shrubbery is certainly easier than trying to spot a deer while looking through brush and struggling to find an opening to place a good shot.
It is undeniably more fun to hunt at ground level and move about the habitat freely. I admit that at times I have been guilty of getting so determined to put meat in the freezer that we forget the most important benefits of hunting.
I believe that gaining knowledge is a gift. We are never too old or too experienced to learn more about the areas where we hunt. That is especially true for those of us who do not enjoy the luxury of hunting private land.
For example, how much time do you take to fully analyze what a deer rub reveals? I have met dozens of hunters who falsely believe small bucks rub small-diameter trees and large bucks rub larger-diameter trees. That is in fact poppycock! I state that with supreme confidence because I have photographed spike bucks rubbing a tree that a buck with a 20-inch inside spread could never fit between its antlers.
I was advised by an old-timer to take time and examine rubs more carefully. His advice has proven wise. If you want to determine whether a rub is created by a big buck, examine any brush or other small trees growing behind the primary rubs on smaller-diameter trees. If there are incidentally damaged branches or limbs behind the primary rub, it is irrefutable evidence that a large buck was rubbing that tree. You can perform all the preseason scouting you want but much of the rubbing continues to occur well into most archery seasons. If you are stuck in a tree stand during every hunt, you are not going to witness the most recent rubbing activity.
Mating scrapes become more prevalent as the rut heats up. If you are free to move around, dominant scrape lines become more apparent, which of course provides information that could indicate several great areas to ambush a quality buck, whether from the ground, or simply finding a better place to hang a tree stand. It is rewarding to locate a line of scrapes while still hunting.
Once upon a time, it was considered worthwhile to understand how to read a deer’s track. Pity that seems to be an art that is waning and being replaced by trail camera technology. I love reading tracks as my father taught me in the 1960s. When I see deer tracks, I hear my late father’s voice. “Was the imprint made by a buck or a doe? Does the track reveal a large animal or a mediocre deer? Are the tracks revealing if deer only use a particular trail to travel only in one direction?” I’m happy when I remember his lessons. If you are only hunting for a large buck and trying to determine the best spot in an environment that will grant the best chance of encountering that animal, its tracks in the earth may provide valuable information. Again, I remind you that I hunt deer almost exclusively on land that is open to the public.
What are the animals eating? Acorns that may not have fallen during the preseason may litter the forest as the season progresses. Are crab apple trees available and are they being visited by the animals? Are deer moving along specific trails that lead to fields of corn or other crops? Moving through the woods will reveal such information.
What exactly is this action known as still-hunting? Some people are confused, and justifiably so. I mean, what the heck, the word still literally means to be motionless. I have no idea how it came to be known as still hunting, but as near as I’ve ever understood it, the term was adapted because the hunter moves so slowly and stops so often that the hunter’s movements are imperceivable to the animals.
If you know anything about deer and most big game animals for that matter, their eyesight leaves a bit to be desired. However, they quickly spot motion, especially anything moving out of concert with other items in their environment. For example, we humans tend to waddle a bit as we move, and even if we don’t, as we walk, turn, or commit any action within sight of a deer, it is not going to be a waving motion of branches or brush waving because of wind. They instantly catch the difference in movement direction and instantly perceive odd movements as revelations of something possibly dangerous.
If the trick is to appear motionless, how in the world do we achieve such a goal? The legendary bowhunter Fred Bear described still hunting in this manner. “Move like a deer moves”, advised Bear. “Unless deer are fleeing danger, or in the throngs of mating season, deer teach us how to move”, he explained. “A relaxed deer seldom takes more than a dozen steps without stopping and surveying the area for danger.” Often, they move just a few steps, feed a moment, look about, and then smoothly move just a few more steps before stopping again. Mr. Bear advised taking no more than three to five, purposely small steps, before stopping for at least a full minute to search with eyes attached to a slowly swiveling head, and never forgetting to look behind. To get a shot at a deer, it is nearly always necessary for the hunter to see the animal before the animal notices the hunter.
If you’ve never still hunted on the rough ground of a forest in such a disciplined manner, do not be lulled into thinking it’s a very simple process. I guarantee that if you travel only half of a mile hunting in such a manner, you will be amazed at how strenuous it is for a human’s lower back and leg muscles, which are not accustomed to having muscles held in strenuous positions for long periods. Our muscles and tendons contort to many positions as we walk normally, but they are seldom held in the same stretched position for a full minute. When we purposely move at a snail’s pace for only a few steps and stop again we experience ever-changing stresses because we are accessing uneven ground. Even on relatively level ground, our feet experience prolonged standing at angles that constantly change. A few degrees uphill this time, a few degrees downhill the next time we halt for a full minute or more, and maybe canted left or right the next time we stop. Among the best pieces of advice, I have ever received regarding hunting at ground level is the need to stop for four to five minutes after snapping a branch that was buried beneath fallen leaves or under tall grass. A tree could blow down and a deer will barely pay attention to it, but the head of a deer that was feeding on ground-level food sources, such as acorns or mushrooms, will snap instantly up and to attention the instant it hears a broken branch at ground level. Their sight might not be the best, but those large ears gather and decipher sounds incredibly well. Especially sounds that indicate danger might be lurking nearby. The jig is up if you take even one more step when they are alerted and anticipating danger.
When you choose to hunt at ground level you forfeit the benefit of having your scent drifting above deer that are within a hundred yards. Since it is necessary to at least close the distance to 40 yards or less to reliably place a lethal shot from our crossbows, what can we do? This is when the hunter must come to grips with the handicap and learn the enhanced skill of using the wind to his or her advantage.
Moving directly into the wind is one way of doing so. It is highly unlikely a mature deer will come toward the hunter if the animal is downwind. It’s unlikely the hunter will even see that animal. Therefore, being downwind appears to be the most desirable position. Not so fast! Deer are born with an instinct to stay alive, and just as humans accept their weaknesses and adapt, so do the animals. Because they know they cannot smell predators approaching from downwind positions, and they have also learned that the sounds that betray predators are also carried downwind, deer develop a habit of looking downwind more often than in any other direction. They try as hard as they can to make up for their vulnerability with their eyes.
For that reason, I will once again share advice from the late, great Fred Bear. When being interviewed by famed outdoor communicator, Curt Gowdy, Fred advised hunting with a crosswind. “As you look forward, it is best if a breeze is hitting squarely against one cheek or the other.” Assuming you are doing all the other things correctly, this will give you the best chance of going unnoticed before you are in shooting range. Of course, there are no guarantees in any hunting circumstance. The best any hunter can do is to nudge the odds as much as possible in his or her favor.
While I believe still hunting is the most interesting form of hunting with any weapon, it is not the only method available to ground hunters. Spot and stalk is an interesting way to hunt for game animals, though it is not as practical for hunting in whitetail country as it is out west for pronghorns or mule deer where long shots are taken with rifles. It’s less practiced in the east even by rifle hunters, though they would be satisfied with getting to within 150 yards or so. Still, there are areas where it is possible to walk slowly along elevated terrain, or from other vantage points to spy bedding or feeding whitetail deer. Then the crossbow hunter could try to sneak within crossbow range. It’s a tall order, and not recommended for the crossbow hunter who will be emotionally destroyed by failure because they will bomb nearly every time.
It happens that I live near public land that includes slightly elevated ridges allowing me to gaze into a bowl-shaped, low terrain with a habitat that consists of 60% thorns and thickets. It is about 160 yards across the low area to the opposite bank, and some openings allow me to see as far as 60 yards. Obstacles are many, and to avoid bolt deflection, a shot of 40 yards or less is desirable in most of this area. Here and there I can spot the opposite ridge, but those spots are rare. If I happen to notice a deer moving through the thicket at the center of the bowl or closer to the opposite side of the low area, I have the option of sneaking along the ridge in hopes of getting ahead of the animal. I may then move into the gully through one of the openings and hope to ambush the animal if it passes nearby. Frankly, I have tried that a few times with my crossbow and I have never been successful, but the anticipation of outwitting the animals does at least get the blood flowing.
Hunting at ground level does not mean you have to walk through the woods all day without rest. Young hunters can probably stand near strategically placed trees for hours. I remember those days, but I’ve been hunting deer for 55 years, and those days are long in my past. I can only tolerate standing still in one place for 30 minutes or so. Thankfully, several manufacturers sell portable seats. A hunter has the option of bringing along one of those lightweight, foam pads that allow comfortable seating on stumps or blowdowns. Perhaps it’s just me, but I never feel those stumps and horizontal trees are where I want to sit. Therefore, I usually choose instead one of the portable, tree seats that can be slung over a shoulder and conveniently carried throughout the woods. When desired, it will hang on a tree’s trunk by virtue of a nylon strap. The most fun I have while hunting deer occurs when I combine hunting methods throughout the day. A favorite combination, which can vary per every hunter’s whim, is to be seated next to a strategic tree during the first hour or two of light. I then still hunt for an hour or so, before sitting again for about 30 minutes. I alternate slowly moving and sitting throughout most of the day, but I make certain I’m sitting near a large tree to enjoy the last 90 minutes before dark. If I want to hunt from above, I can always go back to my truck shortly after lunch to retrieve my tree stand; carry it in, and hunt from it until quitting time. Often, some of the things I learned while moving earlier in the day will help me choose the optimum tree to climb and wait.
A few safety items are worth considering. First and foremost, do not rely only on the trigger safety if you are going to move about the forest floor with a crossbow, and never allow a hand to grasp the rail while the string is cocked. Every crossbow I have ever seen includes an anti-dry fire, safety latch. I would not recommend walking with a cocked crossbow that does not include this feature. An arrow can be mounted on the rail and held in- place by the arrow retention spring, but still, be positioned forward enough that the safety latch is engaged. This will make it virtually impossible to accidentally release the string, even if the trigger safety somehow fails. When a game animal is spotted, the arrow can be moved back inches, so the crossbow can fire. In my home state of Pennsylvania, crossbow seasons overlap with some firearm seasons. Consequently, I wear orange when I’m on the ground and moving. Deer do not see color anyway. Use natural structures to break up the human silhouette.
Always respect the broadhead. When walking with an arrow on the rail, be certain to hold the crossbow slightly canted downward and well in front of your body. Be prepared to keep the arrow away from your body should a slip or trip be encountered. This is yet more motivation to move carefully and extremely slowly.
I advise ingesting potassium and staying hydrated throughout the day. Walking on the uneven forest floor puts different stresses on leg muscles than experienced on flat surfaces. After a full day of still hunting, I keep a glass of water and over-the-counter, leg cramp meds on the bedstand. These items help me avoid crippling hamstring cramps that invariably occur in the middle of the night.
Every hunter must come to grips with what aspect of hunting is most important to them. Do not still hunt if the vision of fleeing deer is going to haunt your dreams. It’s a challenge and you will lose more often than you will experience success, but for some of us, the act and the challenge are worth the price.
Success is possible though. I harvested a medium-sized, antlerless deer from ground level with my crossbow, and I felt I had accomplished something just a little more satisfying, than shooting a deer from an elevated stand. If you are up for a challenge, consider hunting at ground level. The experience will bring you back to the roots of our beloved activity.
Happy trails and may gentle breezes favor your position.