I know a macho little dude who takes great pride in walking out the door at 5 a.m. all bow season long carrying nothing more than his tree stand, bow, a release in one pocket, a tote rope coiled in the other, and his license tucked inside his hat. Two years ago he killed a buck that measured in the low 180s. It has the biggest, most symmetrical, most maddeningly perfect rack I've seen this side of an exhibit hall. Standing in his living room and genuflecting before the mount, I asked if he didn't get hungry while hunting. "I don't eat on stand," he said, as if reciting the 11th Commandment. Thirsty? "You don't drink, you don't have to pee," he said, instructing a small child. Cold? "Just kinda tense my muscles up every so often, get the blood flowing." Compass? "Been huntin' the same woods so long I could do it blindfolded."
There is no arguing with a guy like this. For every point you put forth, he casts a smug glance overhead and lets that rack do the talking.
But here's what I know. Every time you climb a tree, there's a possibility you'll fall out of it. Every time you enter the woods, there's a chance you'll get lost.
How easy is it to get turned around out there? I went out one afternoon last season without a flashlight because I was hunting a small property and was traveling no more than 150 yards from where I parked. Staying on stand until it was nearly dark because there were deer moving, I finally descended and packed my stand and gear up to leave. Then I went to retrieve two scent wicks placed all of 20 yards away. In those few moments, twilight turned to moonless dark beneath the forest canopy. I might as well have been inside a cow. Not to worry, I thought, fighting a mounting sense of panic. Simply retrace the seven steps you just took. Which I did about 25 times. Completely disoriented, I only found my way by following the distant headlights of cars to the same road I'd come in on. Bright and early the next morning, I humbly retrieved my gear.
Moral: Leave the macho stuff to Chuck Norris. It's cool on TV; it's stupid in the woods. Here, then, is a list of what I carry and why when bowhunting; adjust your list according to your hunting style, time of year, and conditions.
- Flashlight, lighter, matches. One way or another, I'm going to have light. The flashlight gets new batteries at the beginning and midpoint in the season, need 'em or not. A lighter means I'll have a fire if I have to overnight, and it doubles as a good wind indicator. Wooden matches in a match safe are a backup. (I once found out the hard way that credit cards make superb emergency fire starters. Burning them was also the best financial move I ever made.)
- Energy bars, 25-ounce water bottle, 32-ounce pee bottle. The coffee required to focus your eyes before dawn produces two things: urine and dehydration. I use plastic soft-drink bottles for both. Double-check the contents before drinking.
- Safety belt and harness. Every year a few good guys take a dirt nap because they ignored the following: The belt goes on before you start up the tree and stays on until you're back on the ground. I confess to not always wearing a full body harness (the kind with straps around your legs, which keeps you upright and won't restrict breathing if you fall). For this reason, I always carry a sharp folding knife in my chest pocket. If I fall using a chest-only belt and find myself upside-down or otherwise unable to regain my stand, I can at least cut my way out and try to shinny down the tree.
- Release. The last thing I check before leaving the car. Verify its presence before starting up the tree.
- Ladies' dark tights, one leg. Trim the foot off and put it on your arm as a wrist guard. Works better than the commercial ones. Cheaper, too, as long as your wife doesn't find out.
- Arrows. I carry four in a detachable Kwikee quiver. Three are tipped with 100-grain New Archery Products Spitfire mechanicals. The fourth has a blunt tip. I shoot it at a stump after settling in just to make sure my equipment is working and no clothing is deflecting the shot.
- Compass. Not only does it help you get home, it also helps you find deer after the shot. Before descending from your stand, determine what direction you will head to find the deer. That tree you could identify so clearly as a signpost will disappear once you're back at ground level.
- Hunting knife, elbow-length plastic gloves, surveyor's flagging tape, license, and tag. Because eventually you'll get lucky. Your safety belt or harness doubles as a deer drag.
- Tree belt. I carry one with four hooks and innumerable little clips to hold optics, quiver, calls, excess clothing, pots, pans, etc.
- Folding saw. Forget this and, at least in my neighborhood, you just ruled out 95 percent of the trees you might otherwise select for a stand.
- Binoculars and rangefinder. I carry an old pair of Bausch & Lomb Discoverer 7x24s, modified with long straps so they hang rib-high and don't interfere with shooting a bow. My Bushnell Yardage Pro Scout is slightly larger than a box of cigarettes. Bowhunters, beware. What starts as a luxury quickly becomes a necessity. It helped me bag a deer at 32 yards last year that I probably would have passed up otherwise.
- Tote rope. Thirty feet of cord will quickly ensnare everything you own. Cut a piece of hard plastic into a shallow H shape to wind it around. Better still, get yourself a Lewis Hunting Accessories Strapper, a tangleproof little wheel with 10 yards of black nylon webbing with clips at both ends.
- Gloves. Don't leave home without 'em. In warm weather, spray camo cotton gloves with scent killer and wear them from the car until you're set up on stand. In colder weather, try a set of similarly de-scented, polypro liner gloves under army-surplus wool gloves with the tips cut off the thumb and first two fingers. This lets you focus binoculars, handle zippers, and manage other dexterity-testing tasks.
- Rain gear, extra hat, vest, and chemical warmers. Lightweight rain gear is cheap insurance. Two hats are warmer than one. An extra vest can extend your on-stand time by hours. In cold weather, I use five warmers: one for each boot, each glove, and one under my hat.
- Scent killer. I spray it on everything (including my stand, bow, boots, hat, and body) before setting out. I carry a small bottle afield for touch-ups, such as just before and after the sweat-inducing climb up the tree.
- Grunt tube, rattling antlers. I've got enough grunt tubes to build a very ugly pipe organ. The one I reach for most is the H.S. Calls True Talker, which does everything from a fawn bleat to Andre the Giant with a head cold. I use real antlers and treat them yearly with linseed oil to keep them from drying out.
- Scents, lures. Humans support a huge camo industry because we're visually oriented creatures. If deer ran things, dollar bills would have a picture of a nose over that little pyramid on the back. I nearly always use a scent, reasoning that it attracts deer and covers my own odor. I like Trail's End #307 for an all-season curiosity scent and doe or buck urine in November.
Sound like a lot? Maybe. But my whole pack weighs in at less than 9 pounds. And the farther into the woods I'm going, the more I want everything in it.