Some years ago I was after whitetail deer on a plantation in a part of South Carolina where it is tree stands or nothing. It was December, which meant that the critters had been hunted since August, and they were clued in to a fare-thee-well about what happened when they got careless around a tree stand. It being near the end of the season, there were only two or three other hunters there, and I was killing deer right and left, but they were not.
I could see what they were thinking: Evil magazine writer gets preferential treatment. Not so. The plantation owner would not do that to paying customers, and even if he were inclined to, he couldn’t control where the deer went. The difference was this: I had hunted down there for close to a decade, and I had learned the hard, deerless way about how to shoot from a tree stand.
The 10 Commandments
There are 10 commandments to any kind of stand hunting. Eight of them are don’t move, and I forget what the other two are. Bowhunters are very conscious of this. But the rifle hunters I’ve seen are not because they think that if you’re 100 or 200 yards away from a critter, it will not see or hear you.
Any deer with any smarts in an area with any kind of hunting pressure is going to learn very quickly that death comes from above-and will act accordingly. If you’re using a tree stand or blind that has been in place for some time, you can bet your immortal soul that the deer are going to check it out carefully before they show themselves.
So what you have to resign yourself to is that you will hold dead still for three hours or for however long you choose to remain on stand. If you must move, do so with agonizing slowness. If you have to scratch your nose, it should take you five minutes to bring your hand up to your face.
The Tao of Motionless Shooting
Let’s say that you have suckered a deer out into the open. Your heart is beating 180 times per minute, your blood pressure is 215 over 135, and you have to figure out how to aim at the beast and pull the trigger without making even the slightest noise or moving enough to spook him. Well, pardner, this ain’t the time to do it because you’re going to be incapable of systematic thought.
The time to figure all this stuff out is in the dark, before you have shooting light. You should have asked beforehand (or found out by other means) where the deer usually approach from. Then, when you’re in the stand, identify that spot, or at least the general direction of the place where they will appear. Then figure out what to do with your body when it becomes a quivering mess.
You will have to face in that direction and bring your rifle up into shooting position, or as close to it as you can get. Place your feet where they should be, because if you have to shift them when the time comes, they can make noise. Rack a cartridge into the chamber and put on the safety. Now, freeze until further notice.
If you have to cover multiple spots or a wide field, put yourself in a position where you can still swing your rifle in an arc without moving yourself. Support for the rifle is crucial. I find it extremely difficult to shoot from a stand or a blind that has no rest for the rifle’s fore-end, and you should avoid such blinds if you can. On the other hand, a blind with a rest makes it difficult to miss; it’s like shooting off a bench. Just make sure you have some kind of padding under your hand to avoid getting scraped when the rifle recoils.
When the Moment Comes
You never see a deer approach. They simply appear, and because of this you can go from torpor to hysteria with no stops in between. The thing to remember when you see one is that if it steps into the open, you are going to have plenty of time to get a good look at the critter and shoot-unless you screw up. Don’t jerk convulsively, yank the rifle up, and sllap your head down on the stock. The rifle should be up already. Take a deep breath, think hard about Ashley Judd, and very, very slowly lower your head. If you have binoculars, now is not the time to use them-too much movement involved.
If you have been a smart hunter, you will already have figured out the yardage to where you are going to shoot, and so aiming, releasing the safety, and squeezing the trigger should take no time at all.
I have used rifles from .257 Roberts to 7mm Weatherby Magnum for hunting deer from tree stands, and they all kill about the same. If you’re looking for a tree-stand rifle, focus on guns that don’t kick much and have heavy barrels. What I’m using at present is a Savage Tactical Rifle in .25/06 with a Weaver Grand Slam 3.5X¿¿¿10X with a 50mm objective lens. If you like huge scopes, this is the place where they will serve you well, because all the weight and light-gathering ability work in your favor.
And a Couple of Other Things
So there you are sitting a dozen feet or more above the ground with a loaded rifle in your hands. Presumably, you have a safety belt on so that you will not tumble out of the stand if you fall asleep. But while the belt will keep you in place, it will not keep your rifle from falling if you relax your grip, and a cocked, loaded rifle stands an excellent chance of going off if it falls. If you feel like you have to catch a few Zs, unload the rifle, lower it to the ground, climb down, and take a nap. You won’t get any deer, but you won’t kill yourself or someone else.
Also, it is not a good idea to shoot at a deer unless there’s enough light to track it. More than once I have turned down a shot because the sun had gone and I would have had to shoot at a dark shape. Let it go. There will come another day and your luck will be better…but only if you remember to HOLD STILL.