By: Quinn Keon
Which treestand am I willing to lose this season? Hmmm…I guess the old Gorilla Silverback is at the top of the list for hang-ons and one of the loose-fitting, noisy, Big Game ladder stands is the ladder I’ll sacrifice this year. What am I talking about? Simply put, I’m getting ready to hunt state land in Michigan. I haven’t hunted this area in Montcalm County for 4 years now mostly because I’ve been hunting a lot with my two sons and I haven’t wanted to expose them to combat bowhunting.
What is combat bowhunting? It’s a term that I came up with to describe what I experience in the state land bowhunting woods. The ultra-competitive atmosphere is a direct result of the popularity growth in the great sport of bowhunting. I love bowhunting…but I hate some aspects of what it has become in this state. I started bowhunting in 1985 with my friends Tom and Ray. Back then bowhunting was not very popular. People laughed at us and told us we were irresponsible for trying to kill deer with a bow and arrow…seriously. Hunting state land back then meant we had hundreds of acres all to ourselves. We would leave school in Tom’s car and drive to a piece of state land in Midland County. A short walk in from the 2-track, a 12 foot climb into a large oak tree, and we had peace and quiet with only the sounds of nature surrounding us. If we did run into another hunter in the woods it led to a smile, a handshake, and good conversation. Hunter camaraderie is what I called it and unfortunately I do not see that anymore. In fact the last thing I want to see in the woods now is another hunter. Not because I am any less friendly but because I fear for my personal safety. The competition of hunting in the state with the most bowhunters has driven many to be downright grumpy, rude, and threatening.
Theft is the most common tactic in the combat zone which is why I have to choose which treestand to sacrifice. I’ve tried chains, padlocks, cable locks…nothing works against the patrols who carry bolt cutters in their backpacks. These troops hunt the mornings then hit the woods patrolling for new treestands. If they locate a stand they either remove it immediately or flag it as a target for a night mission. While this may sound comical, I assure you it is not and I have witnessed this behavior first hand.
A couple years ago we experienced multiple treestand casualties. I hunted with my friend Rich and my brother-in-law Nick. Both had problems with the patrols. Rich had recently finished his time in the Air Force and was in need of a place to hunt. I knew a good spot in the thick stuff where he could put a stand. Trails, rubs, even a sighting of a buck while we scouted the area. This was it…the perfect spot. We hung Rich’s stand 2 weeks prior to season. Rich used the only ratchet straps that he owned…bright red….to hang his stand. He then covered the straps with camo duct tape. On opening morning Rich headed out with his flashlight in eager anticipation of a great season. What he found was that all of his gear was gone, even the tape. His opening morning was ruined and he was wounded in combat by the psychological impact. He never returned to this spot. I found his stand later in the season. I was following a deer trail across the road about ¾ of a mile back in when I looked up and saw bright red ratchet straps…the same red ratchet straps that Rich had on his stand. Sure enough it was Rich’s stand and I recovered it for him a full mile away from where it was stolen.
That same year Nick walked out to his stand one morning to find reflective tacks on his tree and his equipment gone. We decided to go out that night so we could see the tacks better to see where they were coming from. The trail took us into an area where there was an old 2-track that led to the north of where he was hunting. While following the 2 track we came into a massive hub of tacks. They led off into several directions. We got slightly lost that night and decided to explore the following day. We followed tack trails to treestands that were marked with orange flagging ribbon. On our walk through the area we passed another “hunter” with a backpack and no bow who I immediately suspected to be the local patrol. We noticed that there were new tacks on the 2-track, new from the night before, and we began to remove them. We got done with the ½ mile walk on this 2-track and were at the north entrance when the patrol came hurriedly walking and yelling that we took his tacks. I said that I did take his tacks. There was no reason to lie. I also told him that we knew he had stolen Nick’s stand and had been marking other stands to steal. He got very agitated and combative. I photographed his license plate; he didn’t like that. Then he said, “I know where you come in and out of the woods. You’d better watch out because you might get shot.” While the urge to respond physically was very tempting, I let it go and figured that he likely already had legal troubles and didn’t want more. I never saw his vehicle again but the rest of the season was not fun for me because I always take threats seriously. I also had my gear stolen twice that season from one location and took down my “marked stand” in another before it disappeared.
The goal of the patrol is to get you to go away. This state land is “their land” and you are not welcome. Theft is only one tactic…albeit an effective one. There are other psychological attacks that have been implemented against me. Sometimes it’s something as simple as having my bow rope wound up on top of my stand…letting me know that the patrol was there. Other times it has been trees cut down all around my stand and placed to block any shot opportunity. While these tactics do not harm me in any way they still make me feel uneasy. That is the goal…”go away it’s my woods.” One of the most ridiculous attacks that I experienced took me a few days to figure out. I was hunting another woods in Montcalm County and had been seeing deer consistently. I typically hunt very quietly but it was the last week of October and I decided to rattle. It was a great morning because I ended up having 3 bucks within bow range…I also called in the local patrol. The next time I hunted this stand I noticed an obvious urine stain on the tree directly in front of my stand. I thought that someone had sat my stand the evening before and was not very scent conscious. While it was upsetting it is legal for other hunters to use my stand if it is on state land. I got rained on the next day and all of my clothes were soaked. I dried them when I got home and the next morning while getting dressed I thought my clothes smelled like pee and I didn’t know why. I thought maybe the rain getting them wet caused the odor. I had deer move early in the morning but they got within 40 yards and went out around me…it took me a bit to connect the dots and I decided to smell the cushion on my stand. Yup, sure enough someone had been peeing on my treestand. It was a great spot that another competitive “hunter” had ruined for me. When I went there with my son a couple weeks later to remove the locked stand, the cushion was gone, the bow rope was cut and gone, and 3 of the ropes on my locked ladder stick were cut. It was dangerous. I got the gear down but this “hunter” had compromised my safety in an effort to get me to go away. He won. I haven’t been back.
I realize there are many hunters who will not connect with this article at all. Those hunters who have access to tracts of private land, holding lots of game and few hunters will undoubtedly think that I should just hunt somewhere else…somewhere safer. If you feel that way, consider yourself very fortunate to have the opportunity to hunt where you do. By conveying these experiences, I’m not trying to give hunting a black eye. I’m simply trying to outline what many of you already know; how difficult it is to find land to hunt on. For many of us, state land is the only resource that we have available to get outdoors and hunt. I have shot several bucks over the years in the combat zone despite the other disturbances which is why I am planning to try my luck once again this year. If you are gearing up the same way and asking yourself what equipment you have spent your hard-earned money on and yet are willing to lose, then you are also heading into the woods to experience combat bowhunting. Good luck!