Last fall we went over where to shoot a deer with a bow, covering in detail the best archery shots for taking down whitetails—and the worst. Now it’s time for a follow-up lesson. We have to take what we learned and apply it specifically to tree stand hunting. There are a lot of factors that change how you have to aim and which shots are likely to be successful.
Table of Contents
How Does a Tree Stand Change Your Aim?
Shooting from a tree stand is a lot different than shooting across flat ground at the range. For one thing, your target will be smaller than if you were looking at it straight on. The angle decreases the amount of the deer you can see, making it harder to aim.
More significantly, the angle of your aim is a lot different. While the arrow will travel through the air in more or less the same way, its arc won’t be exactly the same since its trajectory is downward with gravity. In other words, your aim doesn’t need to compensate for as much drop.
Moreover, speaking of gravity, one of the issues with tree stand shooting is the discrepancy between line-of-sight distance and ground distance. If you’re 20 feet up in a tree stand and you use a rangefinder on a deer that’s 20 yards (60 feet) from the tree, the rangefinder is going to tell you the deer is about 63 feet away. (Trust me, I did the math with the Pythagorean Theorem and the whole thing.)
This paradox helps us answer one of the most frequent questions stand hunters have.
Do You Aim High or Low When Shooting From a Tree Stand?
You should aim slightly lower when shooting from a tree stand. This is due to the situation described above. Since you’re elevated in the tree stand, when you aim and shoot at a deer a given distance away, the arrow actually travels a slightly shorter distance horizontally across the ground, meaning it doesn’t have quite as much drop as your sight is calibrated for. As a result, the arrow hits slightly higher than your aim. Therefore, you have to aim slightly lower to compensate for this.
As a side note, though it may be counterintuitive, the same is true if you’re shooting at an upward angle as well. That’s because the issue isn’t the angle itself but rather the fact that the horizontal distance is going to be shorter than the arrow’s true distance either way.
Of course, it is theoretically possible to sight in your bow such that you can just aim normally from your tree stand. But we’ll get into that in a minute.
Tree Stand Shooting Tips
Practice Shooting From a Tree Stand
There’s no way around it. The best way to learn how to shoot from a tree stand… is to shoot from a tree stand. If you have a climbing stand, hike it up a tree in your backyard. If not, shoot from your roof, whatever it takes to—safely—recreate shooting from an elevated position.
Sight in Your Scope Correctly
Theoretically, you can sight in your scope from your tree stand or an equal height. However, this is only going to work for one specific distance. So if you hunt from a position where the deer are constantly passing through at 20 yards and no other distances, then this could work. But if it’s possible that you might have to shoot at varying distances, then you’ll still have to adjust your aim.
This is because the angle and therefore the ratio of ground distance to true distance is going to be different depending how far away the deer is. In other words, even if you calibrate one pin of your sight appropriately for your tree stand height, the other pins will be off.
As a result, most hunters prefer to sight in their sight on flat ground so that each pin is accurate and then use their instincts, gained from practice, to adjust their aim appropriately when in the stand.
Adjust for the Angle
Knowing that shooting from an elevated position changes the ratio of the arrow’s ground distance to the true distance, you can understand why this ratio itself will change depending on how far away the deer is. In other words, the farther away the deer is, the closer this ratio is to 1:1.
For example, we already did the math for a deer at 20 yards (60 feet), the standard bowhunting distance. The rangefinder will tell you it’s about 63 feet away, an increase of 5%. Meanwhile, if a deer is 40 yards away (120 feet), the rangefinder will tell you it’s less than 122 feet away, an increase of less than 2%. In other words, you don’t have to adjust your aim lower as much as at 20 yards.
Don’t Draw If You Don’t Have To
When hunting from a tree stand, there are unfortunately plenty of shots you just can’t take. A deer walking directly away from you is an absolute no-go if you’re bowhunting. It’s a hard shot to start with, but even if you hit the deer, you’ll just injure it and not kill it.
Drawing when you can’t make the shot isn’t just discouraging, it can actually make unnecessary noise that will ruin the chances of that deer or another one turning at an angle where you can take the shot.
To know when you should draw and when you shouldn’t, let’s go into the different angles you can shoot from a tree stand.
Where to Shoot a Deer From Different Angles
Just like on flat ground, the broadside shot is the easiest shot to make from a tree stand. It’s when the deer is turned perpendicularly to you so you can see the entire side of its body. If you are a new bowhunter, you should try to wait until you have this shot.
With a normal broadhead shot, you should aim just below the point of the shoulder bone, about a third up the animal’s flank, in order to hit its heart or lungs. From a tree stand, the shot is more or less the same. You just have to remember to aim slightly lower to compensate for the angle.
After broadside shots, quartering away shots are arguably the easiest to make from a tree stand. This is when the deer is walking away from you, but diagonally so that you can see the front part of its flank.
Once again, you want to hit the deer behind the shoulder. However, since it’s at both a horizontal and vertical angle, this target will shrink considerably. Many hunters find it easier to aim at where they want to arrow to exit rather than enter, this being the opposite-side front leg since you’re shooting from above.
The quartering toward is the opposite of quartering away, where the deer is walking toward you, but at a diagonal angle so that you can only see part of its flank. While you may think this is the same as quartering away, it isn’t. It’s one of the most difficult shots that you shouldn’t take unless you have a lot of experience hunting from a tree stand. This is because you’re more likely to miss forward, and gut shoot the deer or otherwise wound it unethically.
Your target on the deer will be very small. Aim just above the elbow joint of the near front leg to try to hit the heart, lungs or liver.
As we went over in the original article, the straight on shot, when the deer is facing you, is a good shot to take from flat ground. This changes when you’re in a tree stand, though, because you would have to shoot down through the deer’s neck, nearly an impossible shot.
The only exception is if you’re shooting from a considerable distance beyond the standard 20 yards. But then the target will be much smaller.
The short version: don’t take this shot from a tree stand.
The straight down shot is unique to stand hunting. It’s when the deer walks directly underneath you.
This seems like it would be an easy shot. The deer is right there, and it’s so easy to aim when shooting with gravity. Sorry to burst your bubble, though, but this one is an absolute no-go.
The reason is that from above, you can’t hit the heart because the spine is in the way, and you can’t hit both lungs at once, just one or the other. The result is that you may lethally shoot a deer by hitting a lung, but with one good lung, it will run a long way. You’re unlikely to ever recover it.
Don’t take this shot from a tree stand either.
Above All, Be Patient
You may be thinking it’s frustrating that hunting from a tree stand decreases the amount of shots you can make. While it’s true that it shrinks your target and decreases the number of angles you can shoot at, tree stands definitely have more upsides than down by giving you an advantageous position out of your quarry’s line of sight. Just practice your aim, follow the tips above and, most importantly, be patient and wait until you have a good shot. It will pay off in the long run.