“The arrow hit a limb.” It’s the oldest excuse in the book of bowhunting when we miss but also the most legitimate. Limbs have saved many whitetails, not to mention allowing some bucks to grow old. A deflected arrow or crossbow bolt also causes a domino effect. A deer could become educated and might hesitate before walking past your tree stand another day. You will find yourself down and out, possibly with a costly damaged arrow and broadhead.
By John Trout Jr.
For Deer & Deer Hunting
Have you ever set up a tree stand and discovered you didn’t need to clear one or more shooting lanes? Not often, I’m guessing. Hunters almost always find it necessary to open a pathway. Anytime we prepare an ambush location away from open fields, shooting lanes follow.
We know shooting lanes are essential. However, how you go about it is just as important as the openings you create. Do it wrong and it might cost you before a shooting opportunity arrives.
Timing is Crucial
Certainly, some archery hunters are forced to clear lanes immediately. It’s not necessarily the smart thing to do, but when you set up a stand on the day you plan to hunt, it’s a must. That was the case for me this past fall after packing in a portable stand in one hand and my bow in the other. The previous day, I had found a dandy rub line along a small ridge. There was never a better time to set up and hunt. The clearing consisted of removing a few low-hanging limbs off of a couple of dogwood trees nearby. I accomplished the task in less than 15 minutes and settled into the stand for an evening hunt.
Thirty minutes before dusk, I spotted antlers coming toward me just a few yards from the rub line. The buck was in bow range and quartering toward me as he suddenly stopped and scented a bush I had straddled while clearing limbs. Cautiously, he turned and walked back from where he had come.
That incident occurred several years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. Although I never saw the buck again the ordeal taught me a valuable lesson. Today, I do my best to clear shooting lanes before arriving to hunt.
That’s not to say clearing early won’t cost you but it might boost the odds in your favor. Opening shooting lanes is better done just before rain arrives and, if possible, on windy days. It’s almost impossible to prevent leaving scent when you clear. Everything you touch and bump against leaves some telltale sign. Rain, however, will eliminate the scent you leave behind.
It’s also true that you will create some disturbance whenever you clear shooting lanes, regardless of precau- tions you take. For that reason, do it when the wind blows. Sawing and pruning limbs, not to mention your movements, cannot be done without creating noise.
If opportunity allows and you can access the land you hunt before the season opener, that’s the best time to clear. A friend who owns land in southern Indiana insists upon this practice. He sets up most of his stands and clears shooting lanes in late summer and early autumn before hunting begins. Although a mature buck might become aware of his presence, he believes the deer will often forget about the disturbance before opening day and get used to the openings that were made when creating the shooting lanes.
Though it might be best to clear lanes long before you hunt, sometimes you must do it during the season when tree stands are set up along seasonal hotspots. This is when clearing too much will likely cost you.
Remember, any location you set up is the whitetail’s backyard. They know every bush and tree. Whenever their surroundings change, they quickly noticed when they approach. Just how much it affects them might vary based on the age of the deer and hunting pressure. However, I always avoid over- clearing to reduce the possibility that it will alter deer travel routes.
First, always remember your effective shooting range. For me, that’s 30 yards or less, so I avoid making shooting lanes farther. Sometimes, it’s better when I limit the openings to 20 to 25 yards. The more visibility you create, the better visibility a deer has as it approaches.
Many times, I have observed the reactions of deer when hunting a stand for the first and second time after clearing shooting lanes. I’ve seen them stop in their tracks and nervously stare around the area when I’ve cleared too much. Some settle down and proceed onward. Others turn and head for parts unknown, and a few actually have circled and nervously bypassed the cleared locations. It’s natural for deer to stick to denser areas anyway when they travel.
If the thickest locations are suddenly opened, it’s sure to attract attention. How many shooting lanes should you open? Although this might depend on the area you hunt, fewer is usually best. It might seem that the more you have, the more you have to choose from. Nonetheless, the more you have, the more likely a red flag will pop up as a deer approaches.
In dense areas, my best results have come after opening only two or three shooting lanes. It’s really better to choose the openings wisely where you expect the deer to be and sacrifice clearing unattractive areas. It might not hurt to take out an upper limb here and there to gain shooting opportunities, but cutting anything along the ground stands out like a huge oak tree growing in a wide-open field.
One way to prevent overclearing is to have an assistant with you. Hunters often check out limbs and foliage from above after hanging their tree stand. You make mental notes of what needs to be removed, climb down and start cutting. However, when you’re alone, you usually look from the ground up to your tree stand. Invariably, you will remove too much, and typically you will eliminate foliage and limbs that were not an issue. I almost always rely on another hunter for help.
You can’t beat one up and one down. That is, one hunter should be in the stand while the other does the clearing. Only the hunter in the tree stand can precisely point out the foliage and limbs that need to be removed. Almost always, when my wife, Vikki, is in the stand pointing out items to remove while I’m on the ground clearing, I insist on taking out other objects. She will promptly point out that my selections are fruitless and should not be removed.
The same thing happens when she is on the ground and I’m on stand. She will suggest that several items be taken out, although they have no bearing on a shot opening. This often happens because we walk on two legs and stand taller than deer. We tend to remove debris that is well above the deer and clear extra-wide shooting lanes that are unnecessary.
Everything looks different from above. From a tree stand, you can more accurately see the path of the arrow. You can better visualize the number of shooting lanes you open and how much clearing might attract attention.
The Art of Trimming
Clearing should always be taken seriously. In other words, plan and execute the opening of shooting lanes as you would find and locate an ambush location. When you find a potential ambush site, consider how much clearing will be necessary to open shooting lanes, how much it will change the area and how much you will be exposed.
I seldom forfeit a potential hotspot when it’s extremely thick. Sometimes, these sites offer the best promise. However, I make it a point to return with the proper gear to clear lanes with the least amount of disturbance.
Never use only your arms and hands to remove debris and open shooting lanes. Breaking and cracking limbs, bushes and small saplings creates way too much disturbance. Granted, I’ve made this mistake and had it almost pay off. Moreover, I’m not the only one. Several bowhunters have noisily broken limbs and then climbed into their tree stand only to see a buck appear imme- diately out of nowhere. In fact, some- times the sounds of breaking limbs accompanied with rattling antlers will attract a buck. A rutting buck promptly becomes curious and sneaks in, suspecting a fight is in progress.
Typically, I pack in two items for clearing shooting lanes. One is a pruning pole along with an attached saw blade at the end. The other is a small folding hand saw.
The small saw lets you quietly clear small debris from the tree stand and small saplings and limbs at ground level. Several manufacturers offer quality hand saws with the hunter in mind. In fact, I always keep one in my pack while hunting. That way, if I spot a limb I missed when the primary clearing was done, I can promptly remove it before it costs me a shooting opportunity.
I prefer a pruning pole that extends 14-16 feet. Although a longer pole might appear to give you more removal options, I’ve found them more cumbersome to hold and operate. Their weight also stacks up rapidly when your arms are extended and you try to use the pruner or attached saw. Pruning poles are ideal for reaching limbs way up off the ground when you’re standing, and they provide assistance for the hunter in tree when limbs are too far to reach with a hand saw.
Extend your pruning pole only to the height you need to reach an undesirable limb. Typically, the farther you extend it, the flimsier the pole becomes and the more difficult it becomes to operate the pruner and saw. This is quickly learned with experience.
The best word I can use to describe clearing is “significant.” Never consider it a trivial matter. It’s just as important as shooting, scouting and setting up a tree stand.
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