1. Invest in good sticks
My primary interest in saddle hunting was based on the system's simplicity, lightweight, and compactness. The system itself is only as light and compact as the individual components allow it to be. Sticks that seemed lightweight while carrying a hang-on stand suddenly don't seem to be as lightweight when you're carrying a saddle platform. This has forced manufacturers to really rethink stick design.
A few of the premium options are Beast Sticks, The Shikar, and the Tethrd One. All are great, solid designs (Beast sticks and Shikar are made in the USA). I personally went with the Shikar based on the ability to rotate the standoffs. I figured it'd make them easier to climb some of the crazy trees that I had been considering. In hindsight, I think the rotating standoffs were more annoying than helpful, but they were great on the rare occasion that I needed them.
Why go premium? Can't you get Hawk heliums and modify them? Yes, you can. Are there other cheaper sticks that might work? Absolutely, but the reason to invest in good sticks is that they're already lightweight, pack small, and don't require those modifications.
Bonus Tip: I'd recommend buying some cheap sticks, ladders, or screw-in steps. I placed a variety out on private that I hunted. It made for easy hunts – getting up the tree and getting set up took no time, and I wasn't worried about leaving those sticks out in the weather all season. And there are other climbing methods you can look into. SRT, DRT, and single stick are just a few, so look around before you invest.
2. Trust the saddle
One of the hardest things for me in the first few hunts was trusting that the saddle was secure. I'm not afraid of heights, and I know how to trust gear – I'm a skydiver. Still, those first few hunts, I had doubts because I wasn't familiar with carabiners, rope, and other climbing devices.
I can say that the sooner you trust it, the better off you'll be. You want your mind on the hunt, not wondering if you're safe to pivot on the platform, lean back, or even fall. Swing around a bit, get a feel for how it moves, kick off the platform and feel what it's like if you're unstable or happen to fall.
I had a friend try out my saddle for a few hunts, and I told him the same thing. After the hunt, I met up with him – he had nothing but good things to say. Knowing that he could trust the saddle and having a few ways to build that trust quickly made his first experience better than mine.
Disclaimer: Obviously, read your manual, the manufacturer weight limits, and recommendations, but these things are basically harnesses meant to secure you while your hanging high up in a tree – they're made to be bombproof.
3. Get comfortable
I've heard people talk about getting in "saddle shape" as a way to describe the process of conditioning your muscles and body to be comfortable in the saddle. I'm not sure that I experienced that, but figuring out what positions worked best for me took me a while. Tether height, bridge length, your body angle all play into it. If you're using knee pads or a pad on the tree, the angle of your leg in relation to the tree plays a role in hotspots on the knee and hips. You'll have to try all of these out to figure out what works for you and your body type.
I found that kneepads made a huge difference for me, but half the time, I forgot them. They were also an extra step getting ready at the truck or once I got to the tree. You don't need them, but they do make the hunt more comfortable.
If you're getting to your spot early morning, take a little time to find a way to get comfortable enough to catch a nap. It's possible and actually works well. I found the key was to either rest my head on the tether or bridge rope, usually while my arms were up and crossed over it.
4. Develop a system and practice it
Routine breeds habit and habit means you'll make fewer mistakes, forget less, and remember more. When you're dealing with climbing trees, hanging from ropes, and handling sharp pointing things or sticks that go boom, mistakes aren't something you want. Work towards those habits.
Figure out how you're going to hang your sticks – there are many ways. Decide which side of the tree you'll put your platform on, and if you want to step up and over to it, or if you want it level with the top of your top step. Next, determine the angle you'll set the platform. How are you going to hang your gear, and at what height? Will that gear be in the way of your tether when you're sitting low?
Whichever system you decide on, practice it. Iron out the details and fix the things that don't work. Every step needs to happen in the correct order, as quietly as possible, and with as little disturbance to the force as possible.
Try climbing many types of trees. Trunk diameter can cause problems, as can lean angle. You may think a tree is great, but if you're in something with just a bit of a lean, it can really make things uncomfortable if it's leaning in the wrong direction.
The only way to figure these things out is to practice. So do it.
5. Practice shooting
I could have easily put this tip in the previous one, but it's important enough to be on its own.
You have to practice shooting from the saddle. It's different – it just is. Practice standing, leaning, sitting, leaning off to one side, back against the tree, and anything else you can dream up. Then, put targets up (or have someone reposition your target) 360 degrees around the tree. It's not easy, but you can shoot 360 around a tree from a saddle, so figure out what works for you.
Practice to feel confident in your shots from the saddle, not just when you're on the ground. You can do this from a few feet up, without a stick, if you're okay with cheating a bit.
I'm really looking forward to being in the saddle this season. Last year was a learning experience, and I'm sure I'll walk away from this year having learned a few new things. If you're considering getting into saddle hunting or just getting started, I hope these tips help you out. Good hunting!