Keep Them in the Dark
by Patrick Meitin
Kill bigger bucks and keep stands fresher longer by adopting these stealth approaches.
It’s a common scenario in whitetail hunting: You scout hard all summer to find that big buck, or that hotspot where big bucks pass regularly, religiously deploying trail cameras to spark more enthusiasm with seeing-is-believing evidence. The night before season opener you’re convinced you have this thing cinched. The first few sits go well, seeing steady processions of deer and passing some decent bucks waiting for that monster to show who’s been taunting you on the trail cam. A couple visuals later things come to a screeching halt. You sit long, boring hours afterwards without seeing so much as a forkhorn, and darn few does. You’ve burned out another stand.
In my estimation getting into and out of tree-stands undetected is second in importance only to scent management when it comes to whitetail success. The best stand location on earth comes to nothing if you blow deer out of the area while accessing and exiting that site. Too, the only way you’ll ever put your tag on the biggest bucks – save blind luck – is keeping him completely in the dark about your existence. Any deer who understands he’s being hunted, that you’re on to him at all, becomes exponentially more difficult to kill – in worst case scenarios going completely underground and emerging only under the cover of darkness. And worse yet, you may have absolutely no idea you’re guilty of such transgressions, that you’re ruining your hunts before they even begin. Here are some thoughts on avoiding that situation.
Every whitetail hunter understands the importance of scent management in direct relation to hunting success, or at least they understand its importance on a micro level. We shower with special hunter soaps and shampoos, wash hunting duds in scent-destroying detergents, wear scent-containment clothing and scent-free boots and spray down with scent-killer sprays before entering any stand. Just as important – despite all these precautions – we never sit our best stands unless wind is perfect for those sites. I have stands that see steady buck traffic that get hunted infrequently because terrain and available stand trees dictate that these places can be hunted only on very specific or rare winds. No matter what trail cameras are revealing and how many big bucks appear at those sites I resist visiting these stands except under ideal winds. I’d rather leave those bucks unmolested an entire season than risk giving a trophy buck my scent just one time.
That being said, many of us are guilty of failing to consider wind direction in relation to approaches to the same stands. There’s just no use hunting stands, even on the best of winds, if you’re clearing deer out of an area while entering or exiting any site — say walking up-wind of a feeding area or bedding ridge accessing stands where wind proves ideal once on site. This sometimes entails taking the scenic route to circumvent wind, resulting in longer walks and added time, but is absolutely necessary when targeting the biggest, most hunter-wise bucks. Always play the wind, even if you must use topographical maps or a GPS unit to come in using the “back door.”
Even when wind’s ideal you must also heed a deer’s eyesight. It’s easy to get lax when entering stands in the black of morning or exiting well after sunset, assuming deer are as blind as you under the cover of darkness. In truth deer see as well in the dark as you do in broad daylight. Walking through the middle of open areas, even along edges, especially when guided by a white-light flashlight, leaves you completely exposed and assures you’re spooking any deer that you might see during daylight hours. This becomes especially pointed when hunting common agricultural field edges. For this reason alone, when focusing on farm fields of grain, clover or alfalfa I generally avoid morning hunts when accessing stands assures contact with deer still on hand and actively feeding. Arriving early afternoon for evening hunts assures you can get into stands while deer are still tucked in their beds far away.
The other safe option is to hunt inside cover. Work to discover passageways leading to these areas but well into cover where it’s difficult for deer to detect you while climbing into or out of stands. Setting up 200 to 300 yards from feeding areas also gives you a jump on deer staging before sunset to enter open areas and deer departing early to clear out of fields before shooting light arrives. Just make sure you arrive well before sunrise mornings and remain on stand well after sunset to assure all deer have safely passed your position before exiting after evening hunts.
Still, my most productive whitetail stands all have common denominators; access routes allowing me to remain completely under cover nearly the entire distance between a starting point and stand. One of my favorite ploys is to use creek beds and ditches to traverse whitetail ground, climbing out of the defile and into my stand almost completely out of sight. At other sites I use rimrock lips, ridge-line drops or tree-lines to keep out of sight as long as possible before approaching the immediate stand site. Again, this sometimes requires a little more time and effort than, say, walking a relatively-open logging road, ridgeline crest or crossing an open meadow, but is more likely to keep deer in the dark to your presence.
Which brings up the subject of creating safe passage; a super-bright, Zeon-bulb headlamp would provide the surest, safest lighting through dark woods, but is a sure bet for blowing out stands fast by making yourself more conspicuous. Understanding deer eyesight is important to choosing the best light option. Deer see in blacks, whites (and shades of gray), yellows and blues. This makes a red-lensed light the obvious choice. I prefer a headlight with three to five LED bulbs (most switch over to a brighter white-light option for tracking or dressing in the dark), leaving hands free to carry bows and push aside limbs and just bright enough to avoid tripping over or stepping on noisy limbs.
The whitetail hunter is wise, too, to keep audial disturbances to a minimum. Deer hear quite well with those big, swiveling ears and it will be duly noted should you crunch through a couple hundred yards of dry leaves or stumble through crackling deadfalls on your way into stands. There are two lines of thought in this area. Fred Bear once advised to simply get it over with, bounding into stands post haste while making little effort to conceal noise. His theory was that this approach would seem less suspicious than trying to sneak in slowly, like a stalking predator. I guess I can buy that to a point. To that sentiment I’ll add that in turkey-rich areas I regularly pop a turkey diaphragm into my mouth, producing contented hen clucks and purrs while entering evening stands, walking slowly, pausing occasionally to kick at leaves, imitating a flock of turkeys passing through.
Still, I normally make an effort to get into stands as quietly as possible, namely by prepping hot stand sites well before season. In North Idaho second-growth vegetation is the biggest problem, slapping, grabbing alders, willows and young firs not only frustrating efforts, but gathering a trail of deposited scent each step of the way. This is why some of my best saddle, ridge-line, hanging-bench and defunct logging-road stands – natural funnels that prove productive year to year – have rough trails cut into them well before season. This allows me to slip into stands with minimum disturbance and fuss.
In a couple places I bowhunt in eastern Kansas thick blankets of oak leaves are the adversary. I find it beneficial on these noisy acorn ridges to pre-rake footpaths into stands, starting at the stand and raking a clean trail 200 to 300 yards out providing silent access and better leaving deer in the dark during dark morning entry. The other option, of course, is to hunt these deer-rich areas only following a soaking rain when leaves become less crunchy.
In conclusion, take a little more time to assess the situation on a daily basis before entering stands, taking into account wind direction first and then formulating a plan to get you into your stand without giving deer your scent. Work harder to stay out of sight and keep noise to a minimum, even prepping stands well ahead of season if necessary. Sure, this most often results in added effort, maybe even rolling out of bed a half hour earlier to assure you have the extra time needed. But all that extra effort is ultimately rewarded by keeping hot stands fresher longer (less time scouting out new stand sites afterburning those already in place) and in many cases, bigger bucks. In time you won’t look on it as extra work, but a basic approach to every stand you hunt.
Early on Patrick Meitin knew hunting would dictate his life path. He began hunting obsessively while in middle school, eventually guiding/outfitting in New Mexico’s Gila region 23 years and selling his first magazine article in 1987. He attended Lubbock’s Texas Tech University, earning degrees in journalism and range and wildlife management, aggressively pursuing an outdoor writing career after graduation. This has allowed the blessing of hunting around the globe, including five African countries, France, Russia, Mexico, most Canadian provinces and at least half the U.S. states. He lives in northern Idaho with his wife Gwyn and two hunting Labradors.