Where You Should and Should Not Use Tree Stands
We’re pretty sure that you’re aware of it, but just in case, archery season is almost upon us. Lucky hunters are starting to post pictures of big velvet bucks they’ve already tagged. And those of us whose bow seasons aren’t open yet are going a little stir crazy watching them. Now is the time to hang our tree stands and fine-tune our archery form as we prepare for opening day.
What is it about the early season that’s so enticing? After all, it’s usually still pretty hot for hanging tree stands, the bugs haven’t yet disappeared, and the vegetation is still so thick that you feel like you’re hunting in a jungle. It’s not at all like the cool weather and fall colors we associate with hunting season. The first month of the early season has its challenges to endure. But the simple fact is that the early season may be your best bet at shooting a truly big whitetail.
During the summer, bucks are just about as predictable as they will ever be. Forming bachelor groups, these bucks consistently travel from bedding areas in the day to feeding areas in the evening and then back to their bedding areas. Rinse and repeat. There’s not much variation, nor much of a reason for them to change it up. We really don’t enter the woods very much to disturb them during this time and so there’s no human pressure to influence their behavior. This summer pattern is so predictable and the deer are unsuspecting enough that many a hunter has put a Pope and Young whitetail on their wall because of it. That doesn’t mean it’s so easy that anybody can do it though. It takes discipline and precise deer hunting stand placement to pull it off. To know exactly where you should hang your tree stands, deer sign is usually the best indicator. Let’s look at some commonly discussed sign that you may want to use this archery season.
Types of Deer Sign You’ll Find in the Early Season
Since bucks have much smaller home ranges during the summer and bed in fairly close proximity to food sources, you can bet that any fresh deer sign you find means there’s a deer nearby. If you’re seeing buck tracks and scat along a trail from the food source, for example, he’s very likely to return. Though bachelor groups tend to switch things up now and then by using a slightly different trail, you should be able to set up near enough for a shot. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
If you’re hunting a farm field, there are probably hundreds of deer tracks covering the ground in every direction. As deer enter these fields, they mull around finding the best and most palatable forage. That could take them all across the field and back again, like hairy lawnmowers. It might seem like this kind of sign is useless for a hunter. Out in the middle of the field, it probably is.
But if you look at deer trails on the field edge, this is where things can get useful. Try to sneak in during the mid-morning hours for a little reconnaissance, paying attention to the wind direction so that you don’t spook any bedded deer nearby. Look for fresh tracks from the morning feeding, paying attention to which direction they’re facing. If you find lots of tracks leading away from the field on a certain trail, you can bet that the deer are bedded within a few hundred yards of that spot. You can ignore the trails with tracks facing towards the field, as that was where they entered the prior evening. Remember, buck groups will change the trails they use from time to time. Your tree stands should be near the trails with the most recent activity.
Similar to tracks, you might not think much of a pile of digested beans. After all, you already know that deer are near and on the field fairly consistently. But scat is one of those deer hunting secrets that can tell you much more. Do does and bucks tend to have different types of scat/pellets? Some hunters will swear up and down that pellets are produced by does and clumped piles are from bucks. But the evidence from penned deer doesn’t really show this to hold up consistently. What does hold true is that the type of food the deer are consuming has a large effect on the resulting scat. Deer that are consuming lush green soybeans, soft mast, grasses, or forbs tend to have wetter, clumped piles of scat, while deer eating much drier browse (e.g., maple branches, acorns, etc.) have pellets.
Using this information, you can hone your whitetail deer hunting strategies a little more precisely. If one of the trails has a lot of pellets along it, you can bet that deer are also browsing somewhere during the day before they get to the field. Depending on the type of habitat around the field, you may be able to guess where they are bedding. For example, if you only have mature trees and grassy cover nearby but there is a thicket of young browse species a hundred yards away, you can probably guess that the deer are bedding near that thicket during the day.
Unless it’s very early in the summer, you probably shouldn’t be walking through strict bedding areas unless you want to put bucks on alert and ruin the nice summer pattern they’re following. But if you feel the need to explore the trails leading away from the food source, there’s a lot to learn at your own risk. As you walk along near the food source, you should pay attention to any beds nearby. These may just be temporary resting areas during the night as the deer feed. But as you get further away from the field, you’ll probably start to see smaller beds, which are does and fawns, first. You’ll likely bump deer out of there as you push further into the woods. Further on, you should find buck beds, which will be larger in size than the doe beds. If you find a series of beds with piles of scat around, you can bet you’ve found a bedding area.
Every hunter’s favorite thing to find in the woods, rubs are a sure sign there is a buck in the area. They may be on finger-width sprouts or fence pole-sized trees, and the size of the tree does not necessarily correlate with the size of the animal. Though generally, larger bucks will be the only ones rubbing truly large trees. You can also estimate the size of the deer and it’s antlers by studying the rub a little more closely. For example, if there are deep gouges into the wood and the bark is frayed from one to four feet off the ground, the buck likely has a very strong neck, has a large body, and probably has sticker points that are cutting deep into the wood. Bucks tend to choose smooth or aromatic trees for rubbing, likely because it is easier and helps hold the buck’s scent a little longer. Such trees include aspens, maples, cedars, and pine.
Really early in the season, bucks will still be in full velvet, and they will be careful to not touch their antlers against trees during this time as they are sensitive. So rubs won’t help you much during this time frame. But as fall approaches, they will start to rub against trees to help scrape the velvet away from the hardened antlers underneath. At this point, it’s time to start hunting deer rubs. If you’re wondering how to read deer rubs, you can determine the direction of travel from them by looking for patterns. For example, if you notice a rub line that is all rubbed on the side facing away from the field, you know that buck is rubbing trees on his way to feed in the evening. You can set up your tree stands on the downwind side of one of these trails in the afternoon, and wait for him to come walking down the trail in the evening.
If rubs get people excited, then scrapes drive them nuts. Scrapes are made by a deer when they paw the debris from the forest floor to expose the dirt underneath. They use several glands to leave their scent in it, including the gland between their hooves when they’re digging, the tarsal glands as they urinate into the scrape down their legs, and their pre-orbital gland as they rub their face/eyes on a licking branch above the scrape. There’s a lot of information being exchanged by these hormones.
Deer use scrapes like we use a bulletin board or online forum. It’s a way for animals to keep in touch about who is in the area, when they were there last, and when they are receptive to breed. Bucks use them to mark territories once the rut starts, to a degree, but they also use them for establishing a social hierarchy early in the season. As far as how to find deer scrapes in the early season, look along habitat edges (i.e., where field meets forest, where swamp meets thicket, etc.). Deer like to use habitat edges anyway, and so it’s a natural spot for a scrape to act as a message board.
If you don’t find any natural scrapes in your area, you can make your own mock deer scrapes, which can be very powerful if used near your tree stands. These are simple imitations designed to fool a deer into checking it out. Making mock scrapes for deer is really simple to do. Find a tree with a branch about four feet off the ground, and scratch up the dirt so that there is some fresh overturned soil and little debris in it. Use a stout tree branch instead of your boot to scratch the dirt so you can keep your scent out of it. As far as when to make mock scrapes, deer are drawn to the fresh smell of soil any time, so you can use this tactic any time. You can add deer urine to the scrape if you wish, but make sure it’s just deer urine in the early season. A full doe-in-estrous scent in September would probably raise some flags. Hunting mock scrapes can be done by placing one just upwind of where you expect the deer to enter a food source. Bucks should enter the field, immediately smell the dirt, and turn to investigate it. This allows a perfect quartering away shot with the deer looking down and in the opposite direction.
Where to Hang Your Tree Stands
We’ve covered the common types of deer sign you’ll find in the woods and what role they play in early season whitetail deer hunting. Now let’s transition into using this information for a successful hunt. As we mentioned, the best early season tree stand locations will be located on or near food sources (e.g., row crops, hayfields, hard/soft mast trees, etc.). If it’s a particularly droughty year, setting up your tree stands near water sources for afternoon sits can be a great place too. Deer will generally take a drink before and after eating.
If you can glass an agricultural field from a distance, this is the best way to scout because you won’t spook deer. But if that’s not possible, you can also use trail cameras to spy on them, only checking them once before you decide to hang your best bow hunting stands. Or you can hang some observation tree stands near enough to the food to see, but far enough away to not be noticed. As you bring your climbing tree stand in, you can also do some very quick and stealthy scouting near the food source for deer rubs and scrapes.
Speaking of which, lightweight tree stands like lock on stands and climbers are great at setting up quickly for an afternoon hunt. You can easily bring in a lock on stand with climbing sticks and set it up with your deer stand ratchet straps in no time. The Big Game Tree Stands® Outlook climber tree stand is light to carry and great for aspens or other trees with very few branches lower down. You might already have permanent box blinds set up with shooting lanes or set over food plots, which would also work great for early season deer hunting.
Any way you can distract deer as they enter a food source, the better off you’ll be. As we mentioned, using mock scrapes will grab a deer’s attention and focus it elsewhere while you prepare for a shot. The problem with hunting right on food sources is twofold. One, there are usually many pairs of eyes watching from the field, so you’ll need to be hyper-aware of minimizing your movements. Two, it can be hard to leave a feeding area in the evening if it’s a destination area. Smaller food plots and staging areas are a good solution to both of these problems. They don’t allow many deer to be there at the same time, and deer will generally feed away from your tree stands as they move onto larger fields.
Should You Use Sign This Season?
If you’ll be hanging tree stands soon for some early season bow hunting, paying attention to deer tracks, scat, beds, rubs, and scrapes will definitely help you to pinpoint your tree stand location. Follow the tips above, and you could be looking down at a velvet buck with your name on it.