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Back in the Saddle Again

Tree Saddles for Hunting

Mark Twain once quipped that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” To many who for years maintained a negative image of hunters as caricatures of bumbling Elmer Fudds or dip-spit’n hillbillies, being exposed to their first hunts has proved the antidote to these preconceived notions.

Many of these new hunters are coming from backgrounds and demographic groups that were traditionally either nonhunters or anti-hunting — namely urban millennials or suburbanites. While some of these fresh hunters may be attracted to the idea of locally gathered, organic meat or to a newly acquired understanding of the role hunting plays in sustaining healthy wildlife populations, many are drawn to the concept of simple self-sufficiency. The chance to harvest, process, and feast is the penultimate act of the liberated individual.

The newer crop of hunters makes up for what they lack in experience and knowledge with the enthusiasm of the unhindered neophyte. Many aren’t carrying on the traditions and hunting lore of grandpa. They’re learning from peers or trying out new or now-forgotten techniques of huntsmen past. Many prefer a do-it-yourself ethos over the gotta-have new gadgets, and value skills over technological shortcuts. Both these new hunters and in-the-know veterans are finding their niche in the (almost) lost art of saddle-hunting.

Back in the Saddle Again

Hunting from a tree saddle, which involves forgoing the traditional ladder stand seat affixed to a tree and instead using a strap-on sling, spans back to the 1980s and earlier.

A hunter using a tree saddle ascends a tree in a variety of ways, most methods being a variation on the way an arborist or linesman climbs. Once the hunter reaches the desired height and position, a tether is wrapped around a tree. The tether strap is then attached to a “saddle” (imagine a playground swing-set seat, but with the attachment being at the waist) and then one hangs comfortably with feet perched on a platform or step.

Hunters choose this method of hunting for various reasons and, contrary to the opinions of some, not related to a high-altitude death wish. Public land hunters are particularly enamored with the small size and weight of modern tree saddle rigs. Most tree saddles weigh 1 to 4 pounds (in contrast to a 12-pound climbing stand) and can be stuffed or even just worn around the waist on the hike into the woods. A full tree saddle, ring platform, tether, and gear hooks can fit into an army surplus utility pack and weigh less than a lunch and a Thermos.

One of the most recognized whitetail hunting experts who has made a career of hunting exclusively from a tree saddle is John Eberhart. Eberhart has logged more hours in a tree saddle than most people have spent in a car seat and knows more about whitetails than most will know in a lifetime. Students of deer hunting travel from all over North America to attend the Eberhart Whitetail Workshops and with good reason; Eberhart has 19 Pope & Young bucks and 31 deer listed in the Commemorative Bucks of Michigan, all taken on public lands or through knock-on-door permissions. None of his 50 record bucks were taken on managed properties.

As one of the earliest and most successful tree-saddle hunters, Eberhart recounts his transition to saddle hunting. “In 1981, I purchased an Anderson TreeSling and nobody knew anything about them, how they worked or how to set up in them. I was intrigued due to its light weight and compact size. Although, I could immediately see the huge advantages it had over any conventional stand, it was uncomfortable and awkward to say the least.

However, knowing that if I learned how to use it, it would up my kill opportunities big time, so that’s exactly what I did. It took me a couple seasons to learn how to be comfortable in it and then made several modifications to make it work even better.”

Personal modifications to tree saddles and the infinite variations of climbing methods are one of the trademarks of this hunting system. Once you’ve tweaked your rig, carrying system, platform and climbing methods, you have the most adaptable tree hunting system available.

The most compelling reasons for choosing a tree saddle are mobility and versatility. Since the hunter is tethered by a single strap and facing toward the tree, he can stand, lean, or sit in any position or orientation around the trunk of the tree.

“With a saddle, you have 360-degree shooting mobility around any tree, so there are no missed opportunities like there are with conventional stands,” Eberhart says. “During the rut phases when bucks chase does on unpredictable routes, being able to take advantage of every opportunity is a huge deal.”

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