Buckmasters Magazine

The Next Level

The Next Level

By Steve Bartylla

Stand efficiency makes the difference between a close encounter and a filled tag.

As the buck approached the water hole, I could barely move my head. With the stand facing uphill, I had a doe and two fawns at eye level at just 30 yards. The doe had picked out my outline earlier and hadn’t cared for it one bit. She eventually calmed down, but she hadn’t forgotten.

With the buck gulping water, I turned my head in ultra slow motion to evaluate him. That was the only time I can remember hoping a buck wouldn’t be big, but he definitely had the spread and mass to be a shooter. There was no way I could pull off a shot. It was all I could do in the bare tree to move my head. Coming to full draw was out of the question. The doe would turn inside out if I tried.

Studying his rack closer, I began feeling a little better. Despite his plusses, it appeared his tines were on the short side. When he finally raised his head, I breathed a sigh of relief. The buck was a short-tined 8-pointer with almost no brow tines. He was mature enough, but not what I wanted.

I got lucky that buck wasn’t a shooter, but I’d rather not admit how many times I’ve had shooter bucks within bow range over the years and not been able to seal the deal.

It finally dawned on me about 10 years ago: While there are many factors that separate good hunters from the consistently great ones, one important factor we can control is stand efficiency.


Hunting public land every year, I see a lot of other hunters’ stands. I can’t tell you how often I scratch my head as I look at them, wondering what the hunter was thinking. Many stands are set up to see deer, but they fall short in the critical area of allowing the hunter to get off a shot. Picture a telephone pole-like tree about 5 yards off the main deer trail. Add a hang-on stand around 12 feet off the ground, pointing straight at the trail, and you get the idea.

The ultimate goal isn’t to see deer; it’s to kill the one you want. There’s a big difference.

To get a shot, the buck first has to be there. After that, you have to beat his nose, ears and eyes. That’s asking a lot. That animal reached maturity by honing all three of those senses. At 3 years old or older, he’s become a survival machine.

Looking over my hunting logs, I have calculated that I get an average of one chance at a mature buck on public land every three seasons. If I blow that chance, the law of averages says I won’t get another opportunity for three more years. Even on great land or private ground, there aren’t bucks behind every tree. If your stand isn’t set up to take advantage of that rare buck encounter, you’re probably not going to get another shot for a long time.


For treestand hunters, it begins with the perfect tree. Such a tree is rarely where you need it. I’ve spent countless hours walking in circles, staring up in the air, desperately trying to will a usable tree to be in the right place.

Once you realize the perfect tree doesn’t exist, you’ll learn to pick out the ones that will get the job done.

The first consideration is wind. It’s good to have stands for every wind direction. In my best locations, I like to have two stands covering the same feature for different winds. Always try to set up on the downwind side of the area’s fall prevailing wind.

For bowhunting, look for a tree that’s 10 to 20 yards from where you expect to see the deer. Resist the temptation to set up too close.

One of the goals is to stay out of the deer’s line of sight. Even though whitetails’ eyes are offset to the sides of their head, they pick up movement directly in front much better than to the sides. If your stand faces directly down a deer trail, those deer are going to have an easy time picking out your outline.

Noise is another factor. The closer the deer is, the easier it can hear something as simple as an arrow dragging across a rest.

Finally, assuming you’re hunting from an elevated stand, keep in mind that close shots result in difficult angles.

If you practice with your bow, 20 yards is a gimme shot. There’s no reason to set up right on a good trail, and there are plenty of reasons not to.

The Next LevelEven when hunting field edges, being just 5 yards off the edge does wonders for going undetected. The foliage and branches of just a few yards help you melt into the backdrop.

Along with being set up a little farther from deer activity, orient your setup parallel to deer traffic. When doing so, your shots should come off the left shoulder for a right-handed shooter or the right shoulder for lefties.

When it comes to stand height, tree cover should be the determining factor. If great cover is only 12 feet off the ground, that height is fine. However, if cover is lacking, you’ll need to go at least 20 feet up, and 25 is better.

Ladder stands require even more care. Place them within clumps of small trees or against a loner with a diameter equal to or greater than that of a basketball.

If you’re wondering how much to trim for shooting lanes, avoid extremes either way. I like to have a 36-inch shooting lane in any direction I might be able to shoot, and I sometimes have two in the direction of major trails. You can remain still to avoid detection, but you can’t will an arrow or bullet through a mat of limbs.

While these are the basic goals of a good setup, every situation offers some give and take. A setup that has little cover but is 25 or 30 yards from a trail can work, as can one that is close to a trail but has ideal cover.

The one factor you can’t compromise on is wind.


After following these basic rules, there are a few tricks that can make good stands great and bad ones workable. The stand I was using in the opening of this article is a good example. The setup was perfect for the wind, offered decent cover, and I’d oriented the stand for an easy over-the-left-shoulder shot at the water hole. Even all that wasn’t enough.

That stand was located on a 400-acre portion of Minnesota’s Fair Chase Outfitter’s land. Owner John Redmond had me set up this piece of ground for myself and his clients. Knowing something had to be done to make the pond stand more huntable, I grabbed one of his guides and headed back the next day during late morning when deer movement would be low.

I sent the guide up the tree, walked about 100 yards to an area with little deer activity and cut eight or so oak branches. I returned to the stand, attached the branches and some wire to the stand’s bow rope and proceeded to instruct the guide exactly where to wire each branch to the tree.

That simple adjustment made all the difference. From then on, hunters no longer had to play statue in that stand. In fact, one of John’s clients, a fellow brand new to bowhunting, shot the same 8-pointer I encountered in the beginning of this article. Surrounded by does and fawns, he specifically credited the extra branches for being able to get to full draw undetected.

Strategically placed mock scrapes or other scent products can help, too. If you can get a buck to focus on something other than you at just the right time, you can get away with drawing a bow or mounting a gun.

Create the mock scrape along an established trail and make sure the licking branch points directly at your stand. The goal is to have the buck address the scrape with his rump toward you. This keeps his eyes at the worst possible angle for him while likely providing an excellent quartering-away shot opportunity for you.

I used this technique about a month after brushing in the water hole stand at Fair Chase Outfitters. I’d seen another mature 8-pointer on a food plot located about 500 yards from the pond. With the buck entering the food plot from different directions and the food plot being too large to cover with a bow, I decided to up my odds.

Cutting an ideal scrape tree, I used a posthole digger and “planted” a scrape tree 20 yards in front of my stand. A few hours later, when the buck emerged from the opposite end of the food plot, he made a beeline directly for the new scrape tree. That buck filled my 2009 Minnesota buck tag.

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This article was published in the October 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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