Find Your Bowhunting Honeyhole
September 30, 2010
Finding the ideal bowhunting spot among millions of acres of public land in Wisconsin is no easy task, but the results could be well worth the effort! (September 2009)
Wisconsin is home to one of the most productive white-tailed deer herds in North America.
County, state and federal lands in Wisconsin account for more than 6 million acres of whitetail bowhunting opportunity.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
It's also home to a lot of public-hunting opportunities.
Few states can match the more than 6 million acres of public land available to deer hunters. That number swells deep into the 7 million-plus range when you add in private lands enrolled in forest tax law programs that require the owner to allow public access.
No matter where you live, chances are there's quality public hunting land a short drive away. While much of the county and national forest land is in the northern half of the state, there are still hundreds of properties large and small open to public hunting in the south.
Locating these areas online is easy, or you can pick up a copy of a county plat book. Find out who the property manager is, and give him or her a call. Be courteous, and if they have time to talk, try to learn as much as they're willing to share. Ask about hunting pressure at various times, how the herd is doing and what the deer have for food sources.
After that, check out a topographic map and aerial images to pinpoint likely areas to scout, or simply get out and put some miles on your boots. Look for feeding and bedding areas and funnels or edge cover between them. Once sold on a spot, try to learn it intimately.
Thinking about where other hunters will park and hunt should also fit into your planning. Consider the time of day or day of the week, too. Many hunters sit only the first and last few hours of daylight, and many can only hunt weekends. Hunting mid- to late week -- and all day if it's the rut -- may be best for some heavily hunted properties.
Obviously, your scouting should include checking for tracks, droppings and trails. You might also spot last year's buck rubs. If the deer that made them survived the season, chances are pretty good that he might return to the same area. Consider prevailing winds when selecting trees for a portable stand or a spot in heavy cover for a ground blind.
If you want to avoid most hunters, try a remote-access approach, either by utilizing a waterway to get deep into a property or by gaining permission to walk a private property line to a backside parcel of public property. That's an even more desirable situation if the private property includes agricultural land where the deer are coming to feed. A wide berth around potential bedding areas and a slow, methodical approach to and from stands -- think sneak-and-peek hunting for the right speed -- will often net more sightings.
If those aren't options, sometimes just walking farther than others will do it. Of course, you then have to consider how you'll carry a deer out. Some hunters have enough help available. For others, it may mean investing in a commercial "deer dolly," a cart with big wheels to lighten the load.
It would be nice if trophy bucks lived in easily accessed habitat a short drag from the truck. The truth is that for most of the year, you'll have to work farther from the road than others or seek out thick, isolated sanctuary cover and work the edges.
As always, playing the wind and keeping your human scent to a minimum is a critical part of the hunt.
FIND NATURAL FUNNELS
Tom Rand of Neenah has been bowhunting for 32 years, most of it on public land. He's been strictly an archery hunter for the past two decades. His wife, Shirley, and his best friend, Jason Coleman, also take part in the adventures.
Dubbed "The Three Amigos" by someone in Rand's archery club, the group mainly works the far northwestern Wisconsin counties and the east-central part of the state, targeting acorn-producing oaks up north and a mix of acorns and trails leading to private farmland in central Wisconsin. Rand does not use bait.
"In all cases, I use available cover to find natural funnels where deer feel safe to travel," Rand said. "I tend to seek out the thickest areas I can find. This is especially important here in the more heavily hunted central part of the state. Up north, I find good deer funnels along saddle ridges between the many types of swamps and in areas of cover along clear cuts and slashes. It all depends on where the deer are feeding at the time and where their favorite bedding areas are."
Rand said the wind is the major key to his stand placement. He likes to have at least three trees picked out in a given area to cover wind direction differences and in case of other hunters beating him to a spot.
"I tend to walk in quite a ways farther then a lot of folks, especially when up north," Rand said. "In the east-central areas, you really aren't more then a mile-and-a-half from a road no matter where you go, and, in most cases, less. You (might) walk in a ways from one road and run into a person who walked a lesser distance from another road. Scouting is the key to both areas in avoiding other hunters."
Rand said many hunters get hung up relying on the same spot year after year without regard to what is changing around them. Be flexible in both location and methods. Doing your homework is the key. He starts in early spring, looking for sign left the fall before. Shed hunting plays a role, and he'll look for new timber cuttings from the previous winter.
"Another thing I can't stress enough is to learn how to use a compass and map to get where you are going," Rand said. "I also use my GPS quite a bit, but I'm never without my compass."
Ground blinds can work in areas where there is deer movement but no large trees. Rattling, grunting and decoys are worth trying, but can be overused, too. Rand recommends talking with experienced bowhunters and learning woodsmanship skills, then hunting the wind.
"Remember, too that you can't see or kill deer unless you are in your stand," Rand said. "I use a climbing tree stand exclusively on public land. It enables me to be very mobile and react to different situations and conditions better then any other type of stand."
GROUND BLINDS IN TRANSITION AREAS
Glenn McCormick of Merrill will celebrate his 40th year of bowhunting this fall. He said he has shot a lot of big bucks, so this fall he will be hunting with traditional equipment to br
ing back the excitement.
McCormick said he loves hunting remote areas of the Northwoods with his daughter and grandchildren for the wilderness experience and little, if any, interference from other hunters.
"We use ground blinds for their safety, and it allows (the grandchildren) to get close to the wildlife," McCormick said. "When we find a good spot, we build blinds out of whatever is laying on the ground. We build two on each trail so we can hunt the wind, which is critical (when) hunting the big woods."
Transition areas, where the pine forests meet a poplar stand or a run of tag alders, are targeted. Big bucks travel these areas, McCormick said.
BE MOBILE WITH A CLIMBER
Stacy Hom of Rice Lake has been bowhunting public land for 28 years. He hunts from a climbing stand that is light and easy to pack, and he likes to hunt solo, well away from other hunters.
"I avoid confrontation by moving around a lot," Hom said. "This is an advantage of having good knowledge of the area you hunt."
Hom said during bow season he, his dad and his brothers normally see plenty of deer, but when rifle hunting starts, it gets tougher. He chuckles when he runs into a rifle hunter who says, "There are no deer around here."
Many hunters, he said, hunt areas that are too open. He suggests getting adjacent to or into thick cover. His favorite spots are near clear cuts, swamps or funnels between lakes. He doesn't hunt the same stand two days in a row and plans entries and exits carefully.
Hom said his hunting group used to be of the mentality that you should never shoot a doe. Nearly a decade ago, they began thinning the herd in their hunt areas and have since seen more bucks and better bucks.
"My thought is that these bucks have to move more to find does and compete more for these does," Hom said. "We don't see as many deer as we used to, but it's worth it to me because of these large bucks we have seen the past few years."
USE MULTIPLE STAND SITES
Paul Ostrum of Seeley has hunted for 45 years, mostly in an eight-county area in northern Wisconsin. He utilizes about a dozen tree stand setups and a half-dozen ground blinds each year.
"I like to shift around to lighten pressure on one but feel with all the other use on public land that really is not necessary," Ostrum said. "If someone is hunting nearby and is there first, I just relocate. Most of the property I hunt is very large tracts and not the little broken-up units of some areas of the state."
Ostrum said he's seen an increase in hunting pressure as baiting and ATV use followed a growing deer herd. That could change since the herd is back to where it used to be years ago, he said.
"Many hunters lay on the bait and do not get out and think (about) where to hunt a narrow or funnel," Ostrum said. "Natural food sources are easy to spot. Look for the point where they enter those areas and you will see more deer without the bait, but it takes some time on foot and looking at maps and photos."
Ostrum advocates the careful use of trail cameras to help pinpoint the movements and whereabouts of individual deer.
Some hunters favor cattail marshes. While the view is boring -- at least until a deer steps into view -- you can hear whitetails coming a long way before they get to your shooting lane. Short compound bows like the Matthews Drenalin or DXT are advantageous in such tight situations. One hunter initially tacked felt to a pallet, put it out in the marsh when it was frozen, and then carried in a bucket to sit on come hunting season. That made for a quiet, dry and comfortable wait.
WHERE TO BOWHUNT
Need a spot to hunt? Here are some options:
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest: Legally two separate national forests, the Chequamegon and the Nicolet cover more than 1.53 million acres in northern Wisconsin. They were established by presidential proclamations in 1933 and have been managed as one unit since 1993.
Loggers took many of the old trees nearly a century ago. Some of the biggest today were planted in the 1930s. Find some areas of recent logging activity and chances are you will also find deer.
The Chequamegon portion comprises three units in the north-central part of the state totaling 865,825 acres, or more than 1,350 square miles. It is located in parts of Bayfield, Ashland, Price, Sawyer and Taylor counties. The forest headquarters are in Park Falls.
The Nicolet section covers 664,822 acres of northeastern Wisconsin, or more than 1,038 square miles. It is located in parts of Forest, Oconto, Florence, Vilas, Langlade and Oneida counties. Forest headquarters are in Rhinelander.
Native tree species include a variety of maples, oaks, birches, aspen, beech, basswood and sumac. Coniferous species include a variety of pines, white spruce and balsam fir. Eastern hemlock is present in some parts, and tamarack/black spruce bogs, cedar swamps and alder thickets are common. Shrubs, cattails, ferns, mosses, wildflowers, mushrooms and many types of berry-producing plants are also abundant.
You can't take your vehicle off-road or on trails to set up a stand or retrieve a deer, but you can camp in much of the forest.
County Forests: Collectively, Wisconsin's county forests represent the state's largest public forest landholding. County forests are located in 29 counties, totaling more than 2.35 million acres. More than 6,000 miles of roads and trails offer plenty of access options.
County forestry staff manages the forests, with assistance from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources foresters. The bulk of the acreage originated from tax-delinquent land that was destructively harvested during the Depression Era.
State Lands: WDNR Bureau of Facilities and Lands Director Steve Miller said about 92 percent of the 1.65 million acres owned by the state is open to hunting. The few closed areas contain offices, ranger stations, hatcheries, boat launches, wildlife refuges or state natural areas.
There are nearly 300 fish and wildlife areas scattered across the state ranging in size from 171 acres to more than 44,000 acres along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. The WDNR Web site has a county-by-county listing of all the wildlife areas.
In addition, more than 40 WDNR park properties are open to hunting at certain times of the year. Many have restrictions. Check the WDNR Web site for details, or visit a state park in the area you hope to hunt to learn more.
All northern state forests -- Black River, Brule River, Coulee Experimental, Flambeau River, Governor Knowles, Northern Highland-American Legion and Peshtigo River -- offer hunting. Check the online maps or with property manag
ers for closed areas.
Keep an eye out for newly purchased public properties, too. The Stewardship Program is a prime example. It is used to purchase land and conservation easements. With the exception of a few small parcels, such as parks or trails, lands purchased with Stewardship Funds remain open to hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and cross-country skiing.
Last fall, on one such Stewardship property, our group of four hunters tagged four deer by hunting a small thicket outside of the wooded property. The only other hunter there -- on day three of the state's nine-day November gun deer hunt -- said he hadn't seen a deer in three days before our one-man sneak through the dense cover.
Keep in mind that public land is just that -- public. The other guy (or gal) has just as much right to hunt that property as you do, no matter how long you've hunted it or whether you built a ground blind out of downed timber and brush. Of course, good hunter etiquette would dictate that all would respect the legally placed stands and blinds of others who were there first.
It is illegal to leave portable tree stands up overnight on some lands, but OK on others. ATV use is not allowed on many lands, and land trusts don't allow baiting. It is illegal to damage trees on all public lands or land trust properties. That means no screw-in tree steps. It is reasonable to gather downed brush or logs to build small ground blinds on some lands and do minor clearing for shooting lanes, but no trees larger than one-inch diameter may be cut. When in doubt, check the particular property's rules for what you can or can't do.
Finally, use plat books or maps to become familiar with property boundaries so you don't risk a trespassing ticket.
Hundreds of landowners are enrolled in a pair of forest tax programs known as Forest Crop Law or Open Managed Forest Law that require them to allow hunting. While you don't need permission to hunt them, it is a good idea to check with the landowner to get an idea of how many people typically hunt the property at certain times of the year.
Additionally, farmers who receive compensation for deer damage must allow managed or open access. All hunters must ask permission and sign a logbook to hunt managed access lands. Under the open access option, the land is open to any hunter who notifies the farmer of his or her intent to hunt.
Some farmers also receive shooting permits to shoot antlerless deer and may allow hunters to help them fill the tags.
Many land conservation organizations allow limited deer hunting. Gathering Waters Conservancy acts as an umbrella organization and offers links to land trusts on its Web site, www.gatheringwaters.org.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service allows hunting on eight wildlife refuges and two wetland management districts in Wisconsin. For details, visit www.fws.gov/Midwest/maps/ wisconsin.htm. Also, limited public hunting is allowed on Fort McCoy. Check www.mccoy.army.mil for details, or call (608) 388-3337.
WDNR hunter safety administrator Tim Lawhern said no matter where you hunt on public land, follow the golden rule and treat everybody else the same way you would like to be treated.
If you do have a conflict situation, he suggests politely excusing yourself and calling the WDNR tip line at 1-800-847-9367. That number can also be used to report violations such as illegal baits, stands or ATV use.