A lot of hunters would be happy to spend 150 days deer hunting over the course of five years, but Billy Phillips does it every year. This is thanks to a long season, unlimited doe tags, and damage permits. He’s been using a tree saddle since 2006, so while there are many hunters using tree saddles these days and sharing their tips, Phillips has more than a decade of deep experience with them. If you’re looking for a saddle hunting expert, you won’t do much better than him.
Phillips has a simple philosophy around tree saddles: they’re tools, and in his opinion, they’re the best tool for hunting whitetails. He doesn’t care about which celebrity hunter is swinging from a saddle on the gram. All he cares about is having the right tool for putting him in the best tree to kill a deer. If you follow a similar ethos in picking your hunting gear, Phillips has great advice for new and prospective saddle hunters.
There’s a natural progression for mobile hunters. It starts with a climber, and after a few seasons spent looking for straight, limbless trees that happen to be near hot deer sign, many hunters will progress to climbing sticks and a hang-on stand. This option offers the flexibility to hunt from just about any tree and is a few pounds lighter than a climber. Some people will be happy with that setup, while others will want something lighter and easier to carry. That’s where saddles come in.
“I found the saddle gave me more options,” Phillips says. “I can go to a property and pick the tree I want to hunt out of instead of finding the right area and then looking for a tree that will work.”
With a saddle, you can hunt from small-diameter trees, large-diameter trees, limbless oaks, bushy pines, and everything in between. Plus, tree saddles are a lot lighter to carry than hang-ons or climbers, which is a huge advantage for hunting public land or large properties.
Yes, there are some really light hang-ons and sticks on the market, but even a 13-pound stand and stick setup weighs more than a saddle, platform, and sticks. That 13-pound setup is still really easy to carry, but Phillips had a great point on why you might want to cut the weight further.
“What if you’re dragging out a deer? Then ounces matter,” he said. “I like to be as light as I can in those instances.”
Why Not Saddles
There’s a steeper learning curve with a saddle, so you must practice with a saddle before you are comfortable hunting from one.
“A saddle is not right for the guy who hunts one or two or three times a year,” Phillips said.
If you don’t have time to hunt a lot, you won’t be able to get the added mobility benefits or become comfortable in the new setup. But if you can put in some time before the season to learn how to use a saddle, and be comfortable in one, then you’ll be able to extract all the benefits from them once the season comes along.
Phillips recommends starting two feet off the ground when you first buy a saddle and experiment with the setup to get comfortable.
“Find exactly how long the tether needs to be, the height it needs to be, and the bridge length,” he says.
Those three adjustments directly affect your comfort level in a tree saddle by changing how weight is distributed. Once you find your settings, you’ll find a saddle comfortable enough for an all-day sit.
Shooting from a saddle is the next step in getting comfortable, and you’ll find shooting from your left side (for a right-handed hunter) is just like shooting from a treestand. The learning curve will be when you start shooting to the right.
“You can shoot 360 degrees around the tree,” Phillips said. “With a little bit of practice it becomes second nature.”
To shoot to the right, turn so that you’re facing out just like a treestand. The tether will sit across your chest, and you’ll be able to shoot to your offside.
If you have experience hanging a lock-on stand, then hanging a saddle platform will be a piece of cake. The key is to practice and find a system that works for you. “Once you find your system, you’ll be able to get up and down the tree faster than you can with a climber,” Phillips said.
Saddle Hunting Gear Basics
Saddle hunting gear might seem complicated, but the basic items you need to get started are very simple:
The exact saddle you choose should be based on personal preference. You can read gear tests like OL’s Best Tree Saddles review, but according to Phillips, the best way to find the right saddle is to try out several of them through friends who own saddles or by attending one of the events hosted by manufacturers. Phillips says that there are saddles that will fit any body type.
“I have buddies who are over 300 pounds that use saddles,” Phillips says. There are companies that make XL saddles, and even though he’s not a big guy, Phillips prefers the XL saddles for comfort.
Once you have the basic gear and start practicing with it, you can make some basic modifications to quiet the setup.
“The number one tip I would give to anyone is to quiet every piece of metal in your system,” Phillips said. “The way I quiet them down is using a product called Camo Form tape.” Billy wraps his sticks, platform, and carabiners with that tape to deaden sounds and prevent metal-to-metal clanks.
“Another thing I do is I fill my sticks with spray foam,” he said. A tip he shared from prior experience is to not fill your sticks up all the way with the foam because it will expand overnight.
The final gear Phillips recommends mod is to replace the prusik knot with a Ropeman 1 Ascender on the lineman’s belt and tether for one-handed adjustments.
Final Thoughts on Saddle Hunting
Yes, the saddle hype machine has been working overtime in the last few years, but set that aside and look at tree saddles as tools. If you need the mobility and flexibility a saddle offers, get one, practice with it, and kill more deer. But if you don’t need those characteristics, then stick with the treestand of your choice to fill your tags.