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. Jack Theyerl can speak of this firsthand.
Theyerl, a gun hunter, 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 says. “I apparently tried to slow my fall by placing my hands out toward the ground and fractured both arms and was knocked unconscious after striking my head on the ground. I also somehow broke my big toe.
“I was not using a safety harness or any safety devices,” he says. “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.”
A Common Accident
Falls like Theyerl’s are not unusual. Doctors and hunting experts are concerned by the high number of falls, especially with precautions like harnesses and lifelines. Still, some hunters 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. Doctors placed his arms in casts before sending him home.
For a month after returning home, he had to sleep in a hospital bed 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 says. “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.”
Theyerl’s second fall happened in 2016. He was hunting using a ladder stand. Most, if not all, commercially produced tree stands, come with a seatbelt strap device, which hunters attach to the tree.
“Several deer had snuck behind me, and I stood up to see if more were coming,” he says. “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 became detached from the tree and was in my hand as I 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. This ensured that Theyerl’s legs remained the same length so he 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 Dr. Blomberg and Theyerl say hunters can take many steps to remain safe.
“Most of it is common sense,” Dr. Blomberg says. “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% 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,” he continues. “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 cellphone with good service is critical, whenever possible. Be sure your family knows exactly where you’re going. Agree that if you’re not home by a certain time, your loved ones should come and find you.
Theyerl offers additional 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 says. “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 time if you’re going to climb while hunting. If you fall, it is designed to catch you, so you can grab onto your ladder and get yourself back in the tree stand.
“If you use a climbing stand, use a linesman system,” Theyerl says. “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.”
Each year, check tree stands and replace straps on the stands. 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 responsibility to ensure they are safe,” Theyerl says. “It might be squirrels chewing on the straps or just Mother Nature taking a toll on them. Weather eats away at manmade materials.”
Finally, remember to pick a safe tree. Trees can tip over and change from year to year, so you must also take that into account.
“I want to stress the importance of fall restraint systems,” Theyerl says. “Anyone who climbs uses them. 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.”