It was Election Day 2004, and as always, I took the day off to do my civic duty and vote. It’s tough giving up a premium rut-phase morning hunt, but I do it every two years because I believe nobody has the right to complain about politics if they don’t vote.
- Top Tips, Strategies for Using Doe Bleats to Kill Bucks | Deer & Deer Hunting
- Bluegill Ice Fishing: Unspoken Secrets, Tips and Tactics
- 10 Things That Affect Your Crossbow's Accuracy | Deer & Deer Hunting
- How to Plant Soybeans for Your Best Deer Food Plots
- How Does Venison Go Bad? The Science Behind Why Venison Spoils
From my home in northern Michigan, I had a 2½-hour drive to where I wanted to hunt in the southern part of the state. My plan was to vote as soon as the polls opened and then hunt midday and evening down south.
My hunting location was a 50-yard-wide pinch point consisting of excellent transition security cover on high ground that dropped down to the north and south into two large bedding areas. The tree I planned to hunt was almost centered in a public-land funnel, and the only two apple trees in the area were 15 yards away. I had hunted the location for several years and had been mildly shocked that none of the many other hunters in the area had ever hunted it.
The landscape to the east and west of the pinch point consisted of relatively open weed fields, which were not conducive for daytime mature buck movements, and the topper was I could access the pinch point through them without intruding through a bedding area.
During a pre-season speed tour in late September, I noted that the apple trees had apples, there were two active scrapes under one, and there were several nearby rubs that hit the 5-foot-high mark. There was obviously a mature buck in the area. I never hunt apple trees during morning hunts because I invariably spook deer feeding at them with my approach. On opening evening, a couple of does, three fawns and a 4-point buck had come in to feed on apples. Knowing mature buck activity during the rut revolves around doe activity, and that mature bucks in heavily pressured areas are almost totally nocturnal until the rut begins, I left the area alone after that hunt so I wouldn’t alter daytime doe activity.
With my soccer-mom minivan loaded, I headed south after voting, and by 1 p.m., I was perched in my tree saddle about 25 feet up in a black cherry tree about 15 yards on the downwind side of what had become several active scrapes beneath an apple tree. One of the scrapes had an area of wet dirt, which meant a deer had recently urinated in it.
At 1:35 p.m., a 2½-year-old 8-pointer appeared. His timid body posture indicated he had recently encountered bigger bucks. From the downwind side, he rubber-necked to smell the urine-soaked scrape. He had obviously dealt with that buck before. Then he wheeled and ran back from where he had come.
Not 20 minutes later, a big buck showed up. He was obviously the deer that had aggressively signposted the area. Before entering the slightly open scrape area, he turned and circled through the security cover to the east.
Realizing he was not coming to the scrapes — this is when the saddle comes in — I swung 180 degrees to the opposite side of the tree so I could shoot to the east, but the buck’s rapid pace put him through my shot area before I could fire.
As he circled to get downwind, I swung 180 degrees back to my original position on the southern side of the tree. At about 30 yards and directly downwind, the buck turned north and moved in until he was standing motionless at the base of my tree. He then he raised his head to test the air with a lip curl.
A straight-down shot is easy to take from a saddle, but it’s unethical, so I passed on the opportunity. If he moved in and worked a scrape, I’d only have to lean slightly to my left and shoot, but no such luck.
No matter which way the buck went, I could move into position for a better opportunity, so I stared down at his big 10-point frame and waited for his next move. Because I properly maintain and use activated-carbon clothing, I had no concern of him smelling where I had stood at the base of the tree or wind me when he was downwind.
WATCH “PUBLIC & PRESSURED LAND DEER HUNTER” WITH JOHN EBERHART ON YOUTUBE
Nothing of sexual interest had entered the scrape area since he urinated in it, so the buck turned and began circling back in his footsteps. I swung 180 degrees back around the tree to focus on the small shooting area through which the deer had previously passed, and just before he entered it, I came to full draw.
As soon as his chest cleared the brush, I uttered a doe “matt” to stop the buck’s rapid pace, anchored my pin on his vitals, released my arrow and watched it disappear behind his front shoulder. He took off at full throttle, and I watched him die within 60 yards.
If you’ve hunted very long from a conventional platform stand, you’ve likely experienced a situation where you couldn’t get a shot because a deer was on the opposite side of the tree in an area you couldn’t shoot. Although hang-ons, climbers and ladder stands are the norm when ambush hunting from trees, there’s a secret weapon many hunters have heard about yet are reluctant to try because they’re different. If I had never tried anything different to increase my opportunities, I wouldn’t have taken 50 record-class bucks with my bow from public and free-permission properties the past 50 years. I’m not bragging. I’ve just always struggled to comprehend why anyone would want to remain status quo at anything in life.
Hunting’s Latest Hot Topic
Tree saddles are the flavor of the day, but they have been around since the early 1980s. In fact, I purchased an Anderson Tree Sling in 1981 and have used it exclusively when hunting from trees since. I’ve never considered returning to using noisy, cumbersome metal tree stands.
In June 2018, Greg Godfrey and Ernie Powers started a company called Tethrd, which offers several styles and accessories. Full disclosure: I work with this company on a consulting basis, because they make a product I actually use. One of them is a two-panel saddle I helped design. At my age (I’m in my 60s), I needed something that was more versatile and comfortable than traditional styles.
Several other companies such as Cruiser, New Tribe and Trophyline also offer good saddles. A couple of other companies have jumped into the category with inferior saddles simply to take advantage of a sales opportunity.
What is a Saddle?
Have you ever seen a utility worker hanging from a telephone pole or an arborist working in a tree? The harnesses they wear while tethered to the pole or tree is the same general concept as a saddle for hunting. Saddles are made of fabric, and the safety (lineman) and tree tethers are made of ropes.
With a tree saddle, you use the same climbing apparatuses (sticks or steps) as you would with hang-on tree stands, and when hunting, you sit comfortably in a hammock-like fabric seat that conforms to the shape of your butt and is tethered to the tree in front of you. The tree tether can adjust to seated or standing within seconds at any time during a hunt.
While hunting, your feet are on steps placed around the tree or on a lightweight platform, with additional steps placed on the backside of the tree, which lets you move around the tree and shoot in every direction, or use the trunk as a hiding buffer.
So, what’s the fuss concerning tree saddles? More kill opportunities than while using any conventional stand — period.
I don’t need to explain how conventional metal hang-on stands, climbing stands or ladder stands work, because every hunter is familiar with them. I’ll cover what a tree saddle is, how they’re used and their many advantages over conventional stands.
Advantages of a Saddle
1. Safety: Tens of thousands of hunters have fallen from tree stands when stepping onto or off them, but with a saddle, you’re tethered to the tree from the moment you leave the ground until you step back on it. You can’t fall.
2. Saddles are made of fabric, so there’s no noise associated with carrying them, pulling them, setting them up or using a noisy climber.
3. Saddles have no metal joints or platforms to make creaking noises at crunch time, when you might have to shift your weight for a shot.
4. Complete saddle systems weigh 2 to 4 pounds and can easily be stored in your backpack with other gear or clothing worn during entries and exits, and you barely notice the pack.
5. You have 360-degree shooting mobility around any tree, so there are no missed opportunities, as with conventional stands with limited to zero shooting mobility to the back side of larger trees. I don’t buy the, “Well, I know where my shots are going to be and set up accordingly” BS. During the rut, when bucks chase does on unpredictable routes, being able to take advantage of every opportunity is a huge deal.
6. At destination locations, such as mast and fruit trees, or at scrape areas, where it’s common to have multiple deer lingering, the mobility of being tethered to the opposite side of the tree trunk is a big deal. In heavily pressured areas where mature deer investigate trees for hunters, this advantage will keep you from getting busted. With a saddle, you can keep the tree trunk between you and the deer by simply moving around on other steps. To shoot, lean to the side, and make the shot. With conventional stands, you must set up somewhat on the side of the tree from the destination site because you can’t shoot to the opposite side of most trees.
7. You can hunt large- and small-diameter trees, whereas with many hang-ons and climber stands, trees must be a specific size to accommodate them. I’ve taken bucks from trees that were 4 inches in diameter and trees that were more than 30 inches in diameter.
8. Unlike with a climber, trees don’t have to be branchless to hunt them. Branches and crotches can be used as steps and additional concealment cover.
9. You can comfortably hunt from trees leaning up to 20 degrees and from malformed trees where stands can’t be placed.
10. You always have three solid points of body contact with both feet solidly on steps or a platform, and the seat securely supports your upper-body weight. Having three points of solid body contact gives you a much more solid and comfortable base when shooting, which will equate to better accuracy with a compound, longbow, crossbow or gun.
11. You can prepare as many pre-set locations as you want while owning only one saddle to hunt all of them. Because your saddle is always with you, you simply hunt the spots when and where the sign is hot.
12. With conventional stands, you need one for each location, or you must carry the cumbersome, noisy, heavy stand with you on every hunt, along with your pack and bow. Just imagine having to purchase conventional stands for 20 or more locations. The cost would be astronomical, and even then, you wouldn’t have the other advantages a saddle offers.
13. When hunting public land, you never have to worry about stolen stands, because your saddle is with you, and in heavily hunted areas, tree stand theft is a major issue.
14. Other public-land hunters can’t hunt your location because your saddle is with you hanging in the tree.
15. On public and free permission properties, where there are always other hunters, you don’t leave the visual of a stand in a tree for other people to notice and hunt. Saddle setups are very difficult to see because there’s nothing to see.
16. Saddles are extremely comfortable to use during all-day hunts. On average, about 60% of record book bucks from every state are taken during the brief rut-phase periods, and being able to sit all day during those times is a huge advantage. Saddles have drape adjustments so you can adjust your seating position within seconds, increasing overall comfort for long sits.
17. Your upper body is not constricted within a shoulder-style safety harness or vest that’s tethered to the tree behind you, as when safely hunting from conventional stands. Because nothing encumbers your upper body when using a saddle, you can easily add or remove upper-body layering garments during changing weather conditions.
18. A saddle also doubles as a climbing harness for safely preparing trees. By using only the adjustable lineman safety rope, you can have both hands free for placing steps or sticks and cutting branches when preparing trees. With hang-ons, you must have an additional safety climbing harness.
19. Saddles are perfect for do-it-yourself freelance hunting, as they are in your pack or you’re wearing it. Unlike what’s commonly seen on TV, where hunters walk down pristine two-tracks or set up along open crop-field edges, when freelancing at pressured areas, hunters walk through thick cover to access areas where a mature buck might move during daylight, and having a stand that might hang up on brush is a major pain and not feasible.
20. With the versatility of being able to hunt various tree diameters and leans, a saddle is perfect for finding a good location and making a tree within shooting distance of good sign work. With conventional stands, it’s common to have to set up away from the destination areas because no trees are suitable for a stand.
21. In many situations, mature deer know where tree stands and ladder stands are, and before coming near them, they will look to see if anyone is in them, as they’re easily seen in a tree.
22. This is more of a Western thing. In states where pack rats are prevalent, when using a strap-on tree stand, you’d better check your straps before getting into your stand, as it’s common for the rats to chew on the straps at night. I took a friend to Kansas, and a couple of times during the week-long hunt, his Lone Wolf stands were on the ground from rats chewing through the straps.
After 41 years of saddle hunting and 10-plus years of hunting from stands before 1981, I know the advantages of saddles over stands. Of my 50 record-class bucks, 44 were taken from my original saddle, and I attribute more than half of those deer to the advantages a saddle offers. The limitations of conventional stands would have prohibited me from taking many of those bucks.
— Editor’s note: Eberhart has taken book bucks from 32 public and knock-on-doors-for-free-permission properties. He has co-authored three instructional bowhunting books, produced a three-DVD instructional series and has a YouTube channel titled Eberhart Outdoors.
For instructional information and videos on saddle hunting, visit deer-john.net, and click on the ESS instructions tab at the top of the home page.
D+DH In-Depth is our premium, comprehensive corner on America’s No. 1 game animal. In this graduate-level course, we’ll teach you about deer biology, behavior, and ultimately, how to become a better hunter. Want to be the first to get our premium content? Become a D+DH Insider for FREE!