As more crossbow hunters take to the trees to hunt deer, they must address the same safety concerns as rifle and vertical bow hunters — and more.
According to nearly every bowhunting safety study conducted in recent times, most accidents involve the use of treestands. I have hunted from treestands longer than I care to remember, and can recall a couple of hairy instances when I saw my life flash before my eyes, reminding me to be extra cautious when hunting from high places. Knock on wood, nothing serious ever resulted, but when those mishaps occurred, the thoughts of what could have happened made me slow down, think things through and take every precaution to do things right.
The advantages of treestands are well founded, which is why so many hunters are found perched 15 feet or so above the ground each fall. And as states relaxed restrictive regulations and crossbows have become more widely accepted and popular, horizontal bowman have taken to the trees as well. In the process, they’ve adopted basic treestand safety practices such as wearing a full body safety harness while aloft and using a draw line to pull their bow up. This is all well and good, but crossbows are different from other hunting tools in several ways and additional safety rules apply.
PROPER STAND PLACEMENT IS CRITICAL Treestand placement is always critical, but when hunting with a crossbow it’s even more so. Because of their width, length and weight, crossbows limit how far the shooter can swing left or right to make a shot, a hindrance that can blow a shot opportunity unless addressed. In most cases, trails, tracks, rub lines and such indicate where deer are traveling and stands are placed accordingly. But whitetail movement is unpredictable at best, particularly during the rut when bucks might approach from any direction.
To counter the situation, it is often more advantageous to offset the stand a tad, either left or right, to a position that provides more freedom to swing the bow. Doing so opens a wider target area and creates more shot opportunities, rather than just covering the primary trails.
It’s also safer. I still get excited when a big buck comes into view. I imagine other hunters do, too. A hunter might have a tendency to swing left or right more than anticipated or planned for, in some cases extending the body outward or over-reaching more than they should to get around branches, tree trunks and other obstacles.
Once you’ve positioned a stand, settle in and take a look around. Does it provide the optimum shooting options? If not get down and make some adjustments. Once the final position is set, remove any limbs that might interfere when the bow is fired, even if it means cutting shooting lanes and removing branches that provide cover. When a crossbow is fired it generates blinding speed and enough energy to throw a shooter off balance in restrictive quarters. The last thing you want is the limbs striking an obstacle that will blow the shot but more importantly damage the bow or injure you. This also means making sure packs, binoculars, rangefinders and other gear items are stowed out of the way.
TO THE RIGHT! NO, THE OTHER RIGHT! The human body is capable of turning only so far, and side-to-side movement in a treestand can be limited. Stationary right-handed shooters can swing only so far to the right, left-handed shooters only so far to the left.
Fortunately, most crossbows are ambidextrous. One of the best ways to increase shot opportunities from a treestand and to limit over reach or swinging too far in either direction is to learn to shoot both left- and right- handed.
Take your unloaded crossbow and if you’re right-handed swing left and then right. If left-handed swing right and then back left. It takes some getting accustomed to and considerable practice, but the ability to shoot left- or right-handed greatly increases the area you can cover and increases shot opportunities.
COCK IT ON THE GROUND The safest place to manually cock a crossbow with a cocking rope is on the ground — before ascending to a treestand, period.
Crossbows can be cocked at home or at the truck before heading in to the stand to reduce noise but should never be cocked in a stand. Even double- wide ladder stands provide limited space and single stands and climbers even less. There is also a great deal of down pressure on the foot stirrup when cocking a bow. A slip with pressure applied is enough to knock you off balance, never a good thing when you’re a dozen or more feet off the ground.
There are options that make elevated cocking a great deal safer. Crossbows from TenPoint and Wicked Ridge can be ordered equipped with the ACUdraw cocking system that is integrated into the bow. Other manufacturers offer optional cocking devices on bows such as such Excalibur’s C2, Parker’s Sidewinder and the Predator from Barnett. All are cranking systems built into or attached to the buttstock and use a crank to cock the bow. Each greatly reduces the human effort required to cock a crossbow, some by as much as 90 percent. And they require less room to operate, even from a sitting position.
MAKE THE FIRST SHOT COUNT Of course, the best and safest way to prevent the need of cocking your bow from the treestand is by making the first shot count. This is best achieved by always ranging potential target areas after first climbing aloft, being patient for the best shot opportunity, putting the arrow into vitals and keeping shots within normal, accepted crossbow range, typically under 35 yards. In case of a miss, it is best to relax, calm down a few minutes, descend and re-cock the bow on the ground.
USING A DRAW LINE Using a draw line is the safest way to get a crossbow into an elevated stand. Hunters should consider it a cardinal rule, along with always having the safety ON and never loading an arrow until in the stand fully seated or otherwise secure.
Depending on who you talk to, the best way to pull a bow aloft is by securing the draw rope to the foot stirrup or stock — and never through the trigger housing. Of the two, I prefer and feel it’s safer lifting the bow by the stock, and here’s why.
I always cock my bow on the ground. Even with the safety ON, if by chance the bow discharges on the way up the energy is directed away from me, not toward me. Doing so also keeps the arrows and broadheads pointed away or toward the ground, whether the quiver is attached parallel to the stock or front mounted parallel with the limbs. With the arrows pointed down, the chance of one dislodging from the quiver is also reduced. Another thing: When the bow reaches me I can grip it by the stock around the grip, keeping the loaded limbs and broadheads pointed down or away. If pulled up by the stirrup, the opposite is true. I lower the bow the same way, by the stock, for the same reason. It keeps everything pointed away from me.
And speaking of broadheads, most crossbow quivers these days are equipped with a broadhead cover, typically made of sturdy plastic and a foam or plastic insert to help secure and protect the heads. Make sure your quiver has one. Exposed heads are a potential hazard, whether you’re in a stand or walking in to one.
Any limbs, twigs or brush the bow might strike against or that might impede its ascent or descent should be removed when setting up a treestand. I want a clear window all the way from the treestand to the ground, especially when I’m pulling my bow up in the dark.
I tie off my draw lines short, several feet off the ground. By doing so, when lowering the bow at the end of the day it stops above the ground rather than coming to rest on it, which might jar the scope or cause damage to the bow. I hunt mostly from ladder stands, so I tie off to the side of the stand rather than in front, keeping the draw rope well away from the ladder. When I hunt from a climber, I lean the bow against the tree, stirrup down, draw the rope up with me as I go and then secure it to a limb off to the side or to part of the stand below me. When the day is done, I lower the bow ever so gently to the ground, maneuvering it so the trigger guard settles first, and then drop the line, never taking the bow and line down with me. Attaching the line off to the side also places the bow out of the way as you descend and set foot on the ground.
GET A GOOD REST I don’t care what anyone says, even with the strides manufacturers have made in reducing crossbow weight, after a few hours in a stand they get heavy and cumbersome. For that reason the best crossbow stands have a safety/shooting rail. Not only do they serve as a shooting platform to help stabilize the shot, but they provide a place to rest the bow. Every stand I own has one.
Lacking a safety rail, the next best thing is a shooting stick or monopod, such as those used by rifle hunters, and a bow hanger. A shooting aide will allow you to keep the bow at the ready and help make a more accurate shot. The best bow hangers screw into or strap to a tree and have a swivel arm, allowing the shooter to strategically place the bow within easy reach. Most also have accessory hooks for packs and other necessities to keep them out of the way. Again, safety is the key factor here. When a crossbow gets heavy mishaps are apt to occur and that can lead not only to safety issues but a misplaced shot.
TAKE CARE OF THAT BOW All crossbows are mechanical, compound models more so than recurves, and to keep them in tip-top condition and safe whether you’re on the ground or a dozen or more feet up a tree they must be properly maintained. Read and follow the manufacturer’s recommended guidelines and make a point to routinely check strings, cables, cams and trigger and safety mechanisms. Wax and lube as instructed.
One of the first crossbows I ever owned was a recurve I purchased second-hand. I knew little about crossbows in general at the time, but after shooting it a few times prior to deer season with no problem I thought I was good to go. Come opening morning I had less than halfway cocked the bow when the string broke. No bodily harm or bow damage done, fortunately, but to say the least it was a jaw jarring experience I’ll never forget.
Considering what could have resulted, I was grateful it happened at home, giving me time to restring the bow; and that it happened before the bow was close to full cock and I was on the ground.
— Al Raychard is a regular D&DH contributor and avid crossbow hunter from Maine.