Stand Sites For Public-Land Whitetails
September 28, 2010
Be bold, creative and opportunistic when selecting stand sites on public land. Go where others fear to tread and fill your tags with ease!
The black veil of night slowly lifts from your forest surroundings. You exhale in the cold morning air, sending a cloud of frosty steam into space. As the cloud dissipates, you survey the area around your stand in hopes of catching a glimpse of a first-thing, opening-day buck.
A flash of color in the otherwise brown and gray forest catches your attention. It's another orange-clad hunter slowly picking his way along the ridgeline to your right. Your heart sinks at the sight of him.
Down the hill to your left, about 150 yards away, you spy another hunter assembling a tree stand at the base of a tree he obviously intends to climb. As you spin around in the stand you climbed into well before daylight, you quickly realize you are surrounded by hunters. And if there's a quicker way to burst the bubble of anticipation that builds for days leading up to opening day, I haven't yet found it.
When you're hunting public land, you can't expect to have the woods to yourself. Other hunters are a fact of life here, and they have as much right to be there as you do. But that doesn't mean you have to accept being boxed in by the orange army.
You have two choices when it comes to coping with competition on public land. You can either try to get away from the masses by seeking out the off-the-beaten-path places that hunters hate, but the deer typically love, or you can use the orange horde to your advantage. Make the hunting pressure work for you and hope it sends a buck scampering your way.
Here's a look at five alternative stand sites for pressured public land:
IN THE THICK OF IT
I like to think I'm a quick learner, but I have to admit it sometimes takes me longer than it should to figure out the obvious. There's a state park near my house that I hunted for quite a few years. Just about every year that I didn't tag a buck the first day, some friends and I would assemble at a buddy's house near the park to organize a few deer drives.
One of the first places we always hit was a rectangular patch of ground, about 40 acres in size, which had been timbered within the past 20 years. Once the trees were cut and hauled out of this area, it quickly became choked with brush. Anyone who ever set foot in that maze of thorny branches came out the other side bleeding or with torn clothing. It was nasty territory, but we always moved deer out of it.
After a couple years of this routine, it dawned on me that the resident deer herd obviously used this timbered patch as a sanctuary. If I could find a tree tall enough to get me in a stand just a few feet off the ground on opening day, I'd probably be in the proverbial catbird's seat.
That fall, I hacked my way into the thicket and found a stout, young black locust that offered a spot for my stand 8 feet above the earth. On opening day of gun season, as hunters moved all around the thicket, I could see tails bounding through the multiflora rose. Two hours after daylight, a 7-pointer came sneaking through the thicket on a deer trail 20 yards in front of me, an easy shot for my scoped 12-gauge.
No hunter enjoys getting whacked in the face by branches or crawling on his knees to reach a hunting spot. It's far easier to walk a nice, open trail and then set up nearby in the open timber or on a field edge. A deer might run past your stand in these places, but guess where they're headed as they run past?
The thick stuff!
Thick cover equals protection for deer on heavily pressured public land, in part because few people ever go through it and because, if they do, the deer will hear them coming from a long way off. Park yourself in a stand before sunrise on opening day in the middle of the thickest cover around and prepare yourself for a whitetail parade.
NO MAN'S LAND
In 2001 and 2002, Penn State University researchers outfitted dozens of public-land hunters in the north-central part of the state with global positioning system (GPS) units. It was the first week of the state's firearms deer season. The hunters were headed to a vast tract of forested mountain country that covered nearly 200 square miles and their only instruction was "Have a good time."
They could go wherever they wanted and Big Brother would simply track their movements.
What researchers discovered was that few hunters ventured more than a third of a mile from the road. That's a little more than 400 yards in territory that offered miles of huntable land between roads. So, while all the hunters who were part of the study were packed into a 400-yard-deep swath alongside all the roads in the area, hardly anyone hiked into the backcountry where, researchers believed, there were plenty of deer.
Be the crazy guy the others all talk about who is the first one in the parking lot every year and who always climbs all the way to the very top of the mountain.
In areas with large tracts of public land, it pays to go deep. Study a topographic map of the area and find an interior stream or mountainside bench that looks like it would require some sweat equity to get to. Check it out well before the season opens and study the deer sign. Mark a few good-looking stand sites on your map or in your GPS and don't go back there until the season rolls around.
Hunting in "no man's land" is a different game than hunting near the road. First, plan on hunting all day. If you're going to exert the effort to get back in a mile or two, don't cut that effort off at the knees by coming out at lunchtime. Take plenty of food and water with you. Also, haul in lots of clothes to keep you warm and dry. That includes a change of undergarments so you can remove the clothes next to your skin that are sure to be soaked with sweat on the hike in.
Pull a large-wheeled "deer cart" at least part of the way in with you. This will help you get gear, such as your tree stand, in close to your stand site, and it will be a blessing if you are lucky and have to haul a deer out.
Lug a nice buck two miles out of the woods with a drag rope just once and you'll opt for a deer cart next time!
GET TO THE POINT
For years, my brother-in-law and I fished a lake on state-owned land not far from home. One of our favorite spots to probe for largemouths was a ledge about 30 yards offshore from a narrow, wooded peninsula maybe 150
yards from the mainland.
Every time we fished that ledge, one of us would say, "You know, I'll bet if I hunted from a stand at the end of that peninsula on opening day of deer season, guys moving around on the mainland would chase a buck to me."
Being the smarter of the two of us, my brother-in-law was the first to test our theory. The very first year he put up a stand at the end of that peninsula he missed a 6-pointer right after daylight on opening day, and then, two hours later, he anchored the biggest 8-point buck he's ever killed.
Now, when I go over to his house and look up at that mounted buck on the wall, he kids me, saying, "You should have hunted the peninsula!"
Points of land, whether it's a peninsula on a lake, a finger of woods sticking into a field or the end of a ridge, are great places to cross paths with deer on the move. It's one of those places you hunt while counting on pressure from other hunters to push deer your way.
Points come in many forms. Some, like the peninsula in a lake, are easy to identify. Others are subtler. Study a topographic map of your hunting area to find a U-shaped bend in a road or creek. Walk around and look for the end of a thicket, where it meets open timber. These are all points that will funnel deer to a narrow area you can cover from a tree stand.
One of my favorite opening-day stands is at the tip of a wood lot on top of a hill. The wood lot is a long rectangle that narrows down to 15 yards across, surrounded by open fields.
When guys get bored around 10 a.m. on opening day and start moving around, they often send a deer scampering through the woods and out to my point. Or hunters in the woods across the field from me may chase one out into the open.
When those deer hit the field, my point of the woods is the closest piece of cover and draws them in like a magnet.
Similar to a point stand is a stand placed in a bottleneck. Again, it's a spot where deer are funneled to a narrow area. While a point has a distinct end, a bottleneck does not. It might be a thin strip of trees connecting two larger blocks of timber, a saddle between two ridgetops, or it could be a hump of dry land cutting across a swamp.
Deer know their home territory like you know your own bedroom. They know the safest route from point A to point B. More than once I've seen a herd of deer spooked at the base of a mountain and the deer take off running uphill.
They could go straight up and over, which would expose them at the top, but instead, they veer toward a nearby saddle -- a place where the ridgetop dips down before rising up again -- which keeps them below the highest point of land. It's a safer route to the other side, even though going straight up probably would have been quicker.
Your goal is to study the lay of the land you're hunting to figure out where deer are likely to go when they're bumped by other hunters. Backtrack from that end destination and see if there is a bottleneck somewhere along the way. That's where you want to put your stand.
During the late muzzleloader season in my state, I always spend opening day in the same tree along a public lake at the back end of a park. I'm in position well before daylight, knowing that, as later-arriving hunters make their way into the park, they'll push at least some deer back toward the lake.
My stand is placed on a hillside 20 yards up from the lake and 20 yards downhill from a thicket. As the season wears on, the deer will be in that thicket, but in the early hours of opening day, they're more likely to skirt through the open timber around it.
They're used to some human disturbance from hikers and joggers, and it seems as though it takes a couple of hours to figure out they're being hunted. Until they come to that realization, my stand is in the perfect spot and I'm usually rewarded with multiple shot opportunities before noon.
TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN
In most mountain country, the roads are at the bottom. To get to the top, you must put shoe leather to soil. If you're hunting rolling hills, the same rule applies, provided the roads hunters use to access the land are at the bottom.
In these situations, you know where all the arriving hunters are going come sunrise. They're going up. How high they climb often is a matter of lung capacity, age and the number of pancakes they had for breakfast!
Be the crazy guy the others all talk about who is the first one in the parking lot every year and who always climbs all the way to the very top of the mountain. Up on top, you're the hunter who will reap the benefits of all the other hunters arriving later and climbing not so high.
All that activity down low is sure to push deer up. Be there waiting for them. Like the hunter who goes deep, the one who hunts the top of the mountain exerts a lot of effort to get there.
This is a climb you're going to want to prepare for before the season by regularly taking long walks or jogging. In my younger days, I could roll out of the truck and run to the top of the mountain darn near on a sprint and not feel any pain. As the years rolled by, my lungs started to protest unless I worked out before the season.
Work some hills into your training regimen for obvious reasons. If you feel up to it, add a backpack filled with some extra weight to simulate carrying your tree stand, food, water and extra clothes.
Hunting is supposed to be fun, and the less painful it is to get to the top of the mountain, the more enjoyable your day will be.
The top of the mountain is another place where it's best to plan on sitting all day. There will be hunter activity throughout the day below you as hunters come and go on the hill, so deer could show up at any time. Give yourself every opportunity to be successful.
Perhaps the greatest thing about hunting from this stand is the drag back to the truck is downhill. Unless, of course, the deer goes down the opposite side of the mountain from where you parked. But hey, if the buck is big enough, that's a problem worth having!
Every year, thousands of hunters venture onto heavily hunted public land and haul out big-racked bucks. They are out there if you want to pit your skills against them.
Try hunting one of these five stand sites this year and maybe that lucky hunter who has everyone in the parking lot drooling will be you!