Falls from tree stands top the list of hunting accidents
At one time, firearm incidents were the main cause of accidents and injuries during Wisconsin’s hunting seasons. That is no longer the case. Falls from deer stands are now at the top of the list.
“I was not using a safety harness or any safety devices,” explained Jack Theyerl, a gun hunter. “About one minute after climbing into the stand, the chain broke and tipped me upside down. I fell approximately 15 feet and landed headfirst on the ground.”
Theyerl fell from a tree stand, not once, but twice in the last 11 years. In October 2008 he suffered his first fall. “I fractured my T8, T9, and T10 thoracic vertebrae,” he recalled. “I apparently tried to slow my fall by placing my hands out towards the ground and fractured both arms and was knocked unconscious after striking my head on the ground. I also somehow broke my big toe.”
Falls like Theyerl’s are not uncommon. Doctors and hunting experts are concerned by the high number of falls, especially with precautions like harnesses and lifelines. Still, there are hunters who continue to take their lives into their own hands by going into tree stands without protection.
After his fall, Theyerl was flown by ThedaStar to ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah where he spent the next few days under observation and his arms were casted before being sent home. He had to sleep in a hospital bed for a month and experienced a lot of pain. He was unable to work for about two months.
“As a result of this accident we purchased a well-designed harness,” Theyerl explained. “We utilized a seatbelt type strap that goes around the tree, above the stand, which the harness then tethers to by use of a carabiner.”
His second fall happened in 2016. Theyerl was hunting using a ladder stand. Most, if not all commercially produced tree stands, come with a seatbelt strap device, which you attach to the tree.
“Several deer had snuck behind me and I stood up to see if more were coming,” he said. “I made the mistake of leaning out to one side of the tree, while holding onto the safety strap, which was supposed to stay secured to the tree. Either by our oversight and improper installation, or failure of the strap, it came loose and fell off the tree as I was leaning out to see around the tree trunk. The strap actually came detached from the tree and was in my hand I as fell from the tree stand.”
Theyerl fell feet first about 15 feet to the ground, this time landing beneath the stand. He hit the ground with both feet, rotating slightly as he hit the ground. The result: a broken left femur. He was again taken to ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah.
Dr. Joshua Blomberg was called in to repair Theyerl’s leg. He used a plate and screws, as well as rods and pins, to reconnect some of the upper and lower parts of the femur back together, ensuring that the legs remained the same length so Theyerl wouldn’t walk with a limp or need a shoe lift. It took several months of therapy and healing before Theyerl could return to work. Amazingly, he has also returned to hunting.
Both Blomberg and Theyerl said there are many things hunters can do to be safe.
“Most of it is common sense,” explained Dr. Blomberg. “The most common reason people say they fall is that they don’t clip in; they don’t clip their harness. That’s what I hear about 90 percent of the time. It’s like not wearing your seat belt. If you don’t clip in, you’re playing the odds. The other thing I’ve heard is hunters fall asleep in their deer stands. If you’ve got a combination of not being clipped in and they fall out of the stand because they’ve fallen asleep, it’s even more dangerous. I’ve also had hunters who’ve been drinking and go up in a deer stand. Obviously, for multiple reasons, drinking is a bad idea when you’re hunting.”
Having a cell phone with good service is critical, whenever possible. Be sure your family knows exactly where you’re going and that if you’re not home by a certain time; they should come and find you.
Theyerl also has safety tips for other hunters. “First and foremost, hunters should buy and invest in high-quality, manufactured stands from a reputable company that is also rated for your physical weight,” he said. “Use the instructions when you assemble them and make sure you put them up according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.”
Second, you should invest in a harness system. It should be a complete system that tethers you from ground to stand and stand to ground. And make sure that you use it every single time if you’re going to climb while hunting. If you fall, it is designed to catch you and you can grab onto your ladder and get yourself back in the tree stand.
“If you use a climbing stand, use a linesman system,” he said. “When you use climbing-type stands, it’s a completely different animal, you’re climbing the tree with these stands and the stand locks onto the tree. You’ve got to have a fall restraint in case that fails. Lifeline ropes should be removed at the end of the hunting season, so they don’t weather or decay during the off-season; and store them in a dry area.”
Check tree stands yearly and replace straps on the stands yearly. You should also check all the bolts and make sure everything is in working order before hunting out of them. If something needs to be replaced or repaired, do it.
“If you have multiple private properties where you have stands that are not removed daily, it is your reasonability to ensure they are safe,” he said. “It might be squirrels chewing on the straps or just Mother Nature taking a toll on them. Weather eats away at manmade materials.”
Remember, pick a safe tree. Trees can tip over and they also change from year to year, so you must also take that into account. “I want to stress the importance of fall restraint systems,” said Theyerl. “Anyone who climbs uses them and it stands to reason that if you’re going to be spending any amount of time off the ground, you need to do something to prevent falls, injuries and death. These things are definitely putting the odds in your favor.”