October 31, 2023
This article is featured in the 2023 issue of Public Land Hunter magazine. Get a copy.
Many public-land hunts I’ve been on have failed in one way or another. Whether I botched the hunt or another hunter screwed it up for me, hunting public land is never easy or dull. Because of the open-access nature of it, two or more hunters will likely be in the same area. The competition is real.
This, along with other factors, can lead to common mistakes nearly all hunters make when hunting public lands. Sometimes, public-land hunters (especially newer ones) don’t consider certain challenges and problems until it’s too late. Those who find themselves experiencing the same negative results over and over are likely repeating the same mistakes. For example, hunters who regularly set up on the edges of public ag fields or in other areas often traveled by people aren’t likely to consistently kill mature animals. Routinely running into other hunters is a surefire sign of making the same mistakes.
Tagging mature animals on public lands requires finding where other hunters don’t go, and these spots almost never look great in the traditional sense from an e-scouting point of view. Public-land hunters must train themselves to find areas that don’t look appealing to other hunters yet attract deer.
While the ideologies, tactics and general approaches that a public-land deer hunter implements are sometimes like those employed on private land, thinking like a private-land hunter is a huge mistake when targeting deer on public property. There are numerous plans and practices common among private-land hunters that just don’t work for public-land enthusiasts. The following are just some of the mistakes many hunters don’t often think about. Make mental notes of these, and take necessary steps to avoid them when afield.
1. Ignoring Smaller Tracts
Most hunters are drawn to larger parcels of public land. They automatically think that smaller properties are overrun with hunters. In some cases that’s true, but don’t write these areas off without scouting. Sometimes they receive little to no hunting pressure due to the presence of massive pieces of public ground nearby. Deer need food, water and security. If they can check those boxes, they can live there no matter the size. Deer are often pushed out of what looks like prime habitat because other hunters have put too much pressure on them. This causes deer either to find bulletproof spots where they can see, hear and smell danger coming, or to move into overlooked spots that aren’t as appealing to hunters. Either way, find these spots and spend some time on them—no matter how bad they look at first glance.
2. Hunting on History Alone
It’s tempting to hunt a spot just because you filled a tag (or tags) there previously. While it’s important to remember past success and incorporate that into your current scouting and hunting plans, don’t rely on the past alone. Things change frequently in the woods, even more frequently on public land, and getting stuck in the past can be a major mistake.
3. Making it Easy for Thieves
Trail cameras on public land are just asking to be stolen. The vast majority of hunters aren’t thieves, but all it takes is one to ruin your setup. I’ve had cameras taken, tampered with and damaged. Sometimes my cards have been pulled. If regulations allow you to run cams on public land, use unorthodox methods. Hang them higher (out of reach) and angle them downward while making sure they are out of sight. Brush them in well. Do anything you can to hide them from hunters or make them more difficult to access.
4. Being Predictable
Habits and routines help game animals and other hunters pattern you. That’s not good. Keeping a habitual routine lets other hunters find your spots and educates animals on how to avoid you. Instead, continually change things up. Don’t be predictable. On public land, patterning target animals is only half of the scouting process. The other half is patterning fellow hunters. That might sound weird, but it’s a necessary step. It will play a role when scouting and making hunt plans.
5. Following the Crowd
Doing what everyone else does is human nature. Most of us are followers and want to go along with the crowd. But that doesn’t work on public property. Whatever you see most hunters doing, many times it can pay off to do the opposite (as long as it abides by ethics, rules and regulations). Public-land hunting can be intimidating. Doing what you’re comfortable with quickly becomes the norm. However, it’s important for hunters to get outside of that comfort zone and try new things. That said, be safe and prepared when doing so, and don’t put yourself or others in dangerous situations.
6. Hunting More Than Scouting
Public land is all about finding the best spots and that takes time. This typically requires more scouting than hunting to be successful. But that’s not to say that a day of scouting can’t incorporate hunting. Technically, you are still hunting. But you’re hunting a half day here, a full day there and continually moving until you find an area or animal of interest.
7. Sitting Trees More Than Once
Public whitetails and other game receive a better education than most animals on private land. In many situations, sitting a treestand more than once reduces the odds of filling a tag. Most of my biggest bucks came on the first sit of the season in a given area. After that first outing, when deer get the opportunity to catch the scent you leave behind, your chances decrease. That said, if the access and wind direction are dynamite, you might squeeze in a second or third hunt before it starts affecting local game.
8. Overlooking Areas Without Stand Trees
Some of the biggest, smartest whitetails and mule deer inhabit areas that have no trees for treestands. They know hunters avoid such areas. That’s why those who choose to glass from afar and then implement stalking skills tend to fare well on open prairies and grasslands. Big bucks live there.
9. Passing a Good-Enough Buck
Never pass a deer on the first day you’d shoot on the last one. That’s a recipe for disappointment. The only time I allow myself to break this rule is if I know of a mega-giant deer living in the area. If it’s the caliber of animal that I can target only once every five years (or longer), waiting can be worth it.
10. Sticking with One Place for Too Long
It can be difficult to leave a piece of public land into which you’ve invested substantial time. But sometimes it’s best to cut bait and move on. Sticking with an unproductive piece of land for too long will only amplify the lost investments you’ve made. Even if there are only days left in the season, it’s no excuse to keep wasting time on a place that just doesn’t produce. You have backup plans for a reason; put them into action before it’s too late.
11. Missing Quota Hunt Opportunities
Generally, the best public-land hunts have restricted access. These usually come in the form of quota hunts. Most of these have application periods and hunters are drawn from a pool of applicants. Selected individuals can access designated areas for certain periods of time. This system manages the number, and often the size, of animals removed from the landscape and ensures the quality of hunting remains elevated. That’s why quota hunts tend to produce higher odds of trophy harvests than completely open lands, but hunters will never have the chance to experience this if they don’t apply.
12. Not Recognizing Mistakes
It’s important to realize you’re not the only hunter who messes up. If you aren’t prepared to react to the mistakes made by other hunters, that essentially becomes a mistake of your own. How you react will vary from situation to situation. Remember, don’t think any piece of public ground is just your hunting spot. Others hunt there, too. Respect them, the resource and the land. Public land belongs to all of us. Treat it as such. But never forget the hunting mistakes that often come with it.