(Editor’s Note: We bowhunters are a hands-on bunch. We know if we miss, it’s no one’s fault but our own. For that reason, we put together a collection of stories for Game & Fish Magazines’ Gear Issue this summer to help you more quickly and efficiently control your gear and your plans to succeed this season. This is the first of four stories on the subject. Look for more in the days to come.)
On a road trip or in your county, these six secrets will help you tag big bucks on public land.
By Brian K. Strickland
Timing your hunt can also be critical to success. Although we all want to hunt those handful of days in November when we envision that gagger buck in pursuit of a hot doe, everyone else is thinking the same thing! While those are days you need to be in the woods, don’t overlook the early, as well as the late, seasons. These shoulder rut seasons can be brutal times to hunt because of the ultra-warm and frigidly cold temperatures. However, the woods are practically devoid of hunters at these times. If you have become intimate with the property and the whitetails that live there, hanging your tag on a mature public-land buck is a real possibility.
Giving yourself enough time is also critical, especially for the traveling bowhunter. Rarely will you have a quick opportunity, especially if you’re holding out for an older buck. Generally speaking, I set aside seven to 10 days to ensure I have a legitimate chance for success.
Regardless of the size of property or its location, much of your success will be determined by how well you know it. While this will often mean spending more time scouting than actually hunting — especially with a new tract — developing an intimacy with every corner of the property will reap huge rewards.
When I’m first learning a piece of property, for about every day I plan to hunt, I generally spend about two days scouting in the early stages of the process. During this time I will use every advantage I can to locate and pattern both deer and other hunters: trail cameras, satellite images, maps and word of mouth. Scout when you can, but the most productive time is late January to early March. You can find past rutting activity much easier without the new spring growth, but it’s also a great time to locate past hunter activity.
3. THE EXTRA MILE
Bowhunting public-land whitetails often requires going the extra mile. Most hunters generally hunt fairly close to their vehicles or where the access is easier. There are times when this is the only option when hunting smaller parcels. But if there are other hunters in the area, you will often end up leaving the woods more frustrated regardless of how large or small the property.
Seek out properties that have obstacles, such as lakes, rivers or swamps, that most hunters are unwilling to cross. One of the first public-land whitetail bucks I killed required such an access. He wasn’t huge and I ended up pulling him across a cold, muddy river at midnight, but it was well worth the effort. It will be more work, and cost a few greenbacks, but investing in a canoe or kayak can lead to some untapped public resources that most hunters are simply unwilling to tackle.
Going the extra mile literally means going the extra mile. You have to get in the habit of going deeper and farther than most are willing to go. In my experience, you’ll leave 90 percent of other hunters behind when you go at least one mile past the nearest access point. On smaller tracks of ground where this is not possible, avoid locations were hunters are more likely to visit, like field edges and obvious pinch points.
Lastly, get there early and stay late. Not only does this let the woods settle down after you arrive and allow you to leave under the cover of darkness, but if another hunter sees that you are already there he may decide to hunt elsewhere. No one likes to bowhunt with others around them, and on more than one occasion I have witnessed a truck pull next to mine only to see it abruptly leave after a few minutes. I’ve also kindly let other hunters know that I was hanging above them as they strolled close, which also sent them the other direction.
4. LOW IMPACT
No matter how far you travel on your road trip, public-land whitetails will be alert to human pressure. But keeping your impact in check will significantly increase your chances of being undetected. Before you set up the stand, determine whether you can get to and from it without rousing deer. Even if you feel it would be the hottest stand on the property, if there is a significant risk that you will be noticed, scrap it and look for something else. Hot stands sizzle-out fast once whitetails know they are being hunted. Take advantage of creeks, ditches and isolated thick hedgerows as traveling corridors. To keep noise to a minimum, take the time before the season to clear out these travel paths of any noisy brush or fallen trees that could be a hindrance in the dark as well.
5. TAKE THEM TO BED
Most of the public ground I bowhunt receives a fair amount of hunting pressure, which will often cause mature bucks to move much less during shooting light. Although it can be one of the most frustrating aspects of hunting public ground, you can capitalize on this behavior if you’ve done your homework. I will generally focus my attention on bedding areas and security cover. Although these are inherently more risky to hunt because you increase the chance of being noticed, you’ll know you’ve made the right choice when that mature buck slips through in the last moments of light.
Ideally, I look for specific locations where mature bucks are living during daylight hours. Buck bedding areas are always at the top of my list, and those are followed by doe bedding areas (and figuring out how bucks are likely to move through them during the rut). Buck bedding areas will have large beds, be littered with rubs and scrapes, and give mature bucks both a scent and visibility advantage. Unless human pressure exists, bedding areas will generally stay the same every season, and I will often locate these areas during my early spring scouting adventures and then use trail camera around them during the summer months to confirm my suspicions.
6. BE PERSISTENT
Lastly, be persistent in your public-land pursuits and have realistic expectations. We all dream of arrowing a mature buck sporting 150 inches of bone. These bucks are few in number on most patches of public ground, and at some point you’re going to run into other hunters and have setbacks. Don’t get discouraged. Be persistent and have realistic expectations. Half of the public-land battle is a mental game and having the right mindset will make the experience more enjoyable, especially when you arrow that public-land prize.