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Hunting from the Ground for Whitetails

There is no denying the popularity of tree stands for hunting deer, especially for bowhunting. But tree stands aren’t the only way to bag a big buck, and may not even be the best way at times. Here are ten reasons to stay on the ground this fall.

1. The Perfect Spot
Proper advance scouting will often reveal a high-percentage location to place a stand. Whether you choose to hunt one or more trails leading to or from feeding or bedding areas, a series of rubs or scrapes or just a spot that provides good visibility of an area loaded with sign, you will likely find an ideal location to place a stand. Bowhunters, particularly, must choose stand locations carefully to ensure that approaching deer will allow close, clear shots. Unfortunately, there may not be any trees in that spot to allow for a tree stand, or at least not any suitable trees. Suitable trees must be of sufficient height and thickness, have straight trunks and not have any thick, intervening limbs to block your climb, especially if using a climbing stand.

By contrast, a ground stand can be located anywhere that provides sufficient visibility and cover to sit or stand.

2. The Not-So Perfect Spot
If you are fortunate enough to find a suitable tree in the ideal location for a tree stand, you may discover that the spot you have chosen is not so ideal after all. After setting up your tree stand and settling in for a morning or evening hunt, you may find that deer are passing by but no shots are available due to heavy brush. Or perhaps the deer you are seeing are all out of range. Or, worst of all, you aren’t seeing any deer at all. If you choose to move your tree stand, you are again faced with the same problems as when first placing it. But relocating your ground stand quickly and quietly is as simple as getting up and moving to a new spot, without causing any disturbance.

3. Position Shifting
When hunting from a tree stand, if you hear a deer approaching from behind your stand, getting a shot may be next to impossible. When hunting from a ground stand, however, solving that problem is as simple as standing up (if you are sitting) and stepping out from behind the tree.

Similarly, when situated on the ground overlooking more than one field, valley or treeline, you may find that just a slight shift of a few feet either way can provide a completely different view and allow you to cover a whole other area. In addition, if you get only a glimpse of a buck as it slips through the brush, or spot a deer that is too far for a shot, you can even attempt to follow or stalk it, something that’s not possible when sitting up in a tree.

4. Cover
Whether on the ground or in a tree, sufficient cover is required to conceal any small movements you will make while on stand. Unfortunately, many trees are too bare, especially late in the fall or early winter, to offer such concealment. Contrary to popular belief, deer do look up, and a tree stand silhouetted up a naked tree is just too noticeable and unnatural-looking to wary deer.

By comparison, natural cover is usually thicker at ground level, normally providing all the concealment necessary. If not, portable blinds can be utilized or fairly elaborate stands constructed from natural cover with little effort.

5. Shelter
If you have spent much time high up in a tree during bitter cold, high wind, driving rain or snow, or searing heat, you know that it’s not a very pleasant experience. The reality is that most trees simply leave you too exposed to extreme weather. At ground level, however, it’s a different story.

The forest’s canopy offers much better protection from the elements at the base of the tree than further up. Cedars and other conifers, in particular, can offer a surprising amount of shelter, helping to keep you warm, dry, shaded and comfortable.

6. Comfort
Although padded seats can make some tree stands quite comfortable, this comfort is usually short-lived. Invariably, after sitting for a long period of time, you will need to stand up periodically to stretch your legs and back. This is obviously a lot easier – and safer – if you are at ground level, with the ground cover likely to do a better job of concealing these movements than the leafless treetops.

Jim Shockey of Jim Shockey’s Hunting Adventures has been guiding and outfitting for various big-game species in western Canada for over 15 years, including for big whitetails in Saskatchewan. He is a big believer in ground blinds. “We almost never use tree stands anymore, but we use a lot of pop-up ground blinds, and the reason is simple. Your chances of bagging a monster buck are directly proportional to how much time you spend on stand, and most hunters just get too cold, uncomfortable and fidgety up in tree stand to stick it out long enough. Tent blinds cut the wind, and you can even add a small heater.”

7. Safety
Safety should always be a prime consideration in all forms of hunting, and although a safety belt should always be worn when hunting from a tree stand, many hunters are nonetheless injured every year from falling out of a tree stand. These falls are most commonly caused from falling asleep on stand or from stepping off the edge, either while answering the call of nature or while trying to get a shot at an approaching buck. Even if you are not bothered by heights, hunting from a tree stand is inherently more dangerous than hunting from the ground.

Terry Birkholz, one of the owners of Alberta Wilderness Guide Service, has been guiding or outfitting for trophy Alberta whitetails for over 20 years. He feels that tree stands are simply too dangerous for his clients to hunt from for hours on end. “Hunting from a tree stand requires mental alertness from a safety standpoint. I know plenty of people who talk about falling asleep on stand. If the possibility of falling asleep exists, save it for a ground blind. Just getting in and out of a tree stand is dangerous if you are not completely aware of what you are doing.”

8. Rattling/Brush Scraping
Rattling can be an extremely effective way to lure a trophy buck into shooting range, but this popular technique can be difficult to execute while in a tree stand. Two hands are required to use a set of rattling antlers, and tree stands don’t always offer a handy branch to hang your gun or bow on while rattling. As an alternative to antlers, rattle boxes and bags can be effective and don’t require two hands, but many hunters prefer the realistic sound of antlers.

Experienced hunters like to add an element of realism to rattling by using the antlers to also pound and scrape the ground and rake nearby bushes while rattling, imitating the sound of two rut-crazed bucks tearing up the surrounding real estate. This is simply not possible when hunting from a tree stand.

In addition, if a buck is close, he may be spooked if he can determine that the source of the sound is up in the air, and not on the ground.

9. Range Estimation
Accurately estimating shooting distances can be of critical importance, especially for bowhunters. With practice, surprising accuracy can be achieved on the ground. However, estimating range from the air is much harder, as the human eye is not accustomed to viewing things from an extreme downward angle. Many bowhunters end up underestimating range while in a tree stand, especially high ones, which can lead to misses or wounded animals. (Whether you hunt from the ground or a tree, a laser rangefinder can be invaluable.)

10. Shooting
Even when the range is determined with accuracy, hitting the target from a tree stand can be more difficult as arrow and bullet trajectories change when shooting at a downward angle (you must aim a little low). In addition, certain bowsights require strict and consistent shooting form to maintain sight-ins set while on the ground. Bowhunters must practice shooting from a tree to know how their sights and arrows behave at such angles.

Despite best efforts to clear shooting lanes, trees and branches often prevent clear shots, leaving the tree-bound hunter with no choice but to wait and hope the animal moves into an opening. A hunter on the ground, however, often has the luxury of simply taking a step or two to one side to gain an unobstructed shot.

Tree stands certainly have their place in deer hunting, especially for archers, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that you must be perched high up in a tree to bag a trophy buck. This fall, get back to the roots of hunting and take a stand, on the ground.

Dan Sangster

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