By Bernie Barringer
Trying to ignore the nagging pain in my posterior, I remained as statuary as possible. The silhouette of a really big bear had materialized moments before. He sat on his haunches, just beyond the bait, intently staring. Through thick brush, I’d pieced together the visible parts of a bear. Eventually, his posture and position came into focus, and I realized his steadfast glare was focused on me. I silently cursed the bear who had chewed up the seat cushion, which turned my treestand perch into a torture chamber. Could the eyes of this bear currently staring holes through me belong to the culprit? I will never know, because I lost this game of chicken. It had been a full 10 minutes and I couldn’t take it any longer. I carefully, cautiously shifted my weight from one butt cheek to the other. The dark shadow simply vanished.
While I never did get that bear, he taught me a valuable lesson. There are proper times for being a tough guy, but spending hours in a stand, waiting on a stealthy bruin which possesses eyes designed to pick up the slightest flicker of movement, is not one of them.
When I first started baiting bears, I didn’t have trouble with the buggers messing with my stands and trail cameras. In fact, I would get a few trail cam photos of them coming, feeding for a little while, then they’d move on. When I learned the importance of choosing a location and creating an environment where they felt comfortable enough to visit during the daylight, that all changed. They would hang around and relax, which led them to chewing on my trail cams and exploring my treestand. This often resulted in chewed up seat cushions.
It’s not uncommon to sit 5-6 hours at a bait site during a fall afternoon and evening. Comfort is king, not just for the enjoyment of spending a few hours in the woods, but for the practical aspects of being able to sit stone-still and avoid being picked off by that super-cautious mature male who hangs back and analyzes the entire area before approaching. And after all, that bear is really the one we’re after.
Now take this one step farther; on a spring hunt in northern Canada, it may not get dark until 11:00 p.m., which means the afternoon and evening vigils are commonly 8 hours or longer. Outfitters take note: Using comfortable treestands, positioned properly, leads to bigger tips.
The advent of the mesh seats on many stands today, such as those made by Millennium, Hawk Hunting, and now a host of other companies which have caught on and copied, has really changed the comfort level of these long sits. The comfort level of these stands adds another dimension to the hunt: the struggle to stay awake.
I have yet to have one of these seats torn up by a bear but I suppose it’s just a matter of time. They are made of a fabric of sorts, and eventually a bear is going to decide it looks like a good place to sink his teeth, or give it a raking like a cat working over the drapes. One thing I’ve done that’s helped is to put the seat up and fasten it. Just my hunch, but I’ll bet a bear is more likely to attack one of these seats when it’s horizontal rather than vertical.
When going on an outfitted hunt, I’ve learned to take along a nice thick seat cushion in case I need it, which I more often than not do. Backside comfort is not nearly as high on the list of outfitter priorities as it should be in many cases. Maybe they expect you to stand for eight hours; but I sure don’t. In fact, a common scenario for me is to stand only about 10 minutes out of every hour just to stretch and get good circulation to my lower extremities. If I counted the number of bears I have bowkilled while sitting down, I would run out of fingers and toes before I got done counting. I practice that shot and it’s arguably more stable to have the bottom half of your body motionless than is standing while shooting.
Another often overlooked factor is the angle of the stand in relation to the tree. Flat and level is best of course, but I can deal with a stand that slopes slightly backwards towards the tree much better than I can a stand that’s tilted forward. A stand that’s tilted even a little forward can give you the heebie jeebies, making you feel like you’re in a contraption that’s interested in ejecting you if you let down your guard. And a stand that’s tilted forward can be horribly uncomfortable as your toes jam up in the front of your boots and your backside longs for a moment of relief from the strain of the hours sitting with a disproportionate amount of weight on your thighs in relation to the parts of you that were actually made for sitting on.
Speaking of angles, I have hunted out of way too many treestands that were aimed right at the bait. Those angles are great for firearms and crossbows, and I suppose spear-chuckers, but as bowhunters, we never underestimate the value of placing the stand at a right angle to the position we’re expecting the bear to be at the moment of truth. We shoot best by drawing the bow across our body. I have a shot a lot of bears by spreading my knees apart to draw the bow and shoot with one leg hanging off into space. That should not be necessary (Outfitter Hint: another tip-inducer is to find out if the bowhunter is left or right handed and position stands accordingly). I would never consider hunting that way in a stand I hung myself, but I find commonly myself in that position on any outfitted hunt.
The best way for a bowhunter to draw, anchor and shoot is across the body, not towards it. And having to turn 90 degrees while standing in a treestand might be the difference between getting a shot at a relaxed bear versus rushing a shot at a bear that’s been alerted by the hunter’s movement and is about to leave.
I had a conversation with one outfitter who claimed he really didn’t like bowhunters because they wounded too many bears. He was a guy who really didn’t like to trail bears in the dark, which may be part of the reason he’s out of business today. I bluntly told him the wounding rate was largely his fault because his stands were all set up in a way that created difficult shot angles for bowhunters. Change your stand angles and watch your recovery rate go up, I opined. He didn’t believe me and now he owns a restaurant instead of a bear camp. Not sure if those two factors are related.
Keep these things in mind when hanging your own stands, and when discussing with a potential outfitter about booking a hunt. These factors will make your time on stand much more enjoyable and increase your chances of going home with a bear rather than just a sore tushie.
There are pros and cons to treestand height. The higher you go your scent and movement will be more concealed. When hunting spooky bruins in the lower 48, perhaps a higher stand is better because detection is the limiting factor the hunt. I’d describe high as above 18 feet. However, high treestands make for difficult shot angles and they’re harder to hang and climb into. Low treestands would be in the eight to twelve-foot range. In a wilderness hunt where the bears aren’t that spooky of humans, sometimes just being off the ground makes bears feel comfortable coming in, even when they know you’re there. Overall, I’d say a good general treestand height is 15 to 18 feet. Find a tree with some cover on the downwind side (using prevailing wind) of the bait and hang your stand. Be sure to hang your stand days or even weeks before you hunt. Be safe!