July 02, 2021
By Tony J. Peterson
Today it seems like you can’t spend any time at a bow range without coming across a flat-brim-hat wearing, ironically mustachioed hunter who looks down on anyone who treads upon private ground during hunting season.
Public land has become a badge of pride and a litmus test for real hunters these days, but for many it’s not a trendy luxury to choose to hunt open-to-all ground. It’s a necessity.
And despite the constant social media content showing the contrary, public-land whitetails don’t come easy. For most hunters, they don’t come at all.
The reasons for unfilled tags are many, but nearly all of them can be avoided when you stop making excuses. Here are some of the most common reasons we give ourselves to not hunt public land—or not hunt well. Avoid them to not only enjoy your time on public dirt, but succeed where most hunters fail.
1. No Good Land
How often do you hear (or say) there isn’t any quality public land in your neighborhood? Another way to say this is there isn’t any easy hunting to be found on shared ground within an hour of where you live. Either way, quality is in the eye of the tagholder, and most of the time the land we swear off as worthless is the same land we’ve never set foot on. Or haven’t hunted in a decade.
Get out there on that whitetail "wasteland" and look around. You might find that you’ve been missing out. This happens to yours truly every year around the Twin Cities where I live. There’s plenty of competition out there in the woods, but plenty of deer, too. You just have to figure out how to avoid one while bumping into the other.
2. No Mature Bucks
Today’s whitetail world is dominated by targeting hit-list bucks and developing long histories with individual deer. Sure, you probably can’t babysit a buck on public land from a spike to a 160-incher, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t 5 1/2-year old deer out there.
Public land gets generally lumped into one category, which is meh at best. But, just like private ground, the opportunities vary a lot from state to state and parcel to parcel. I’ve hunted states like the Dakotas, where my odds of seeing a mature buck are higher on public land than at home on private ground. It’s all about perspective, but the reality is that if your standards are mature-buck-or-bust, you can have a good season on open-to-all ground.
3. Chock Full of Idiots
If you have the perception that public dirt is at capacity when it comes to terrible hunters, you might be almost right. When you’re exposed to the general hunting public, you’re exposed to a spectrum of skills and at the bottom end, it’s not pretty. This isn’t unique to public-land hunters. It readily can be observed amongst general outdoorsman of all stripes at any late-August archery range, or if you want a real treat, a public boat access on Independence Day.
The thing is, on public dirt you’ll encounter hunters of all skill levels, but the worst hunters will also be those who tend to be easiest to avoid. Walk a half-mile and you’ll about be there. Double that distance, and the fumblers and bumblers will be a non-factor.
4. Poor Food Sources
If you spend some time scouring tracts of public land via aerial photography, you’ll often notice a lack of destination food sources. Now, some big-buck stronghold states like Iowa have public land that is covered in agricultural fields and food plots. Other states, not-so-much.
Setting out on whitetail ground that doesn’t feature a dreamy beanfield is a scary proposition for some deer hunters, but the bucks will be there. This is because public land often becomes public because it’s useless to farmers. The creek bottoms, bluffy hillsides and wetlands that can’t be tilled are in low demand, and have the tendency to end up as state or federal property. While those grounds might not appear to have easy food-to-bed, bed-to-food patterns, they usually have the best bedding cover around. Any whitetail hunter worth his camo knows that’s not nothing.
5. Too Much Work
It’s certainly nice to hang stands all summer long, trim shooting lanes and prep ambush sites to the highest comfort level possible. Unfortunately, that’s a private-land hunter’s reality. Public land regs vary from property to property, but generally speaking, you’re not going to be on the right side of the law if you trim a bunch of branches or saw down a dozen saplings to create a shooting lane. In fact, on a fair amount of public ground you have to put up and take down your stands daily, and you’ll be considered a criminal if you use a screw-in bow-hanger.
It’s a pain in the neck, I know, but reality. The plus side of this extra work is that it’ll keep a lot of your competition at home, or sitting on the ground with their backs to a tree spring-turkey style instead of going aerial to outsmart bucks.
6. Other Hunters Ruin Good Conditions
This is about re-thinking what conditions make the best hunts. On tightly controlled private ground, the early November cold front that swings down from Canada and drops the temperature 20 degrees overnight is money. On public, it just means that a lot of other hunters are going to be out and about.
The conditions that get deer moving sans pressure are different than those that get public-land bucks on their feet. This is all tied to how many people are in the woods. While you may want a crisp November morning with frost on the ground and a northwest wind, so does everyone else. I’ll take rain, wind and heat over what are considered good whitetail conditions any day of the week. The fewer the hunters, the more the deer will move. You just need to rethink what makes for quality hunting conditions and get in a tree when others won’t.
7. Big Public Bucks Are Too Smart
It’s not uncommon to hear hunters lament the intelligence that mature bucks possess. Private-land deer that get old are brainiacs, but a public-land buck with some gray in his muzzle? That deer is a whitetail MENSA member that would make Elon Musk look like he’s been eating lead paint chips his whole life.
As if. These are rabbits with antlers, and their intellectual capabilities are highly suspect. They are simply survival machines and nothing more. They need food, water and, most importantly, security. That might mean holing up throughout the day on a hummock in a cattail slough that is impossible to quietly approach. Or it might mean traveling through the cover with the wind in their faces at last light, just like most deer.
When we assign them too much credit for mental horsepower, we give ourselves an excuse to fail, or worse, not hunt. Don’t do that to yourself.
8. Impossible Odds
If you wade through the dudes posting flex-in-the-mirror gym selfies and the yoga-pants-wearing huntresses flaunting their, uh, shooting skills, you’ll see people doing amazing things on social media. They’re running mountain marathons, dropping dozens of pounds of body weight, and in many cases, arrowing good deer on public land. The people who are killing it in life are an inspiration, and they all share a couple of things: discipline and a great attitude.
It’s totally woo-woo and I get it, but if you believe you won’t succeed when hunting on public dirt then you absolutely won’t. A poor attitude about where you hunt and how hard hunting will be pretty much ensures the worst outcome. Get your head right and understand that if you put in the work and stop making excuses, you can do what many say can’t be done.
Paupers on Public
You don’t have $1,500 to deck yourself out in “proper” hunting attire? Well, that sucks. No one wants to belong to the proletariat class of deer hunters, but most of us do. The good news—even if you can’t afford a matched set of ivory backscratchers for you and the wifey or your yacht is too small to support a heli-pad—is that despite the media portrayal of hunters these days, you can do just fine on a ditch-digger’s budget.
Clothes that keep you comfortable in variable conditions are more important than those that look good. A single set of climbing sticks and a stand can take you to many interesting ambush sites if you’re willing to set them up and take them down over and over. You don’t need a fleet of trail cameras to scout with, and most of the scents, calls, lures and decoys can stay right on the store shelves. Get into the woods and figure out where deer like to walk. Then sit there and kill them.
Budget Bow Gear
You don’t need a loan to get a new bow.
You can drop upwards of $1,700 for a new, bare bow these days. Fully outfitted, that same rig could cost you $2,500 or more. All to shoot deer at 20 yards. Top-of-the-line equipment is nice, but for whitetails and the ranges they are typically arrowed at, you don’t need to borrow against your 401K to get a bow. Several companies offer great bows in the $400 to $600 range, and all of them will handily kill a deer.
Perhaps you just need a sight but don’t want to drop $250. Check out TruGlo’s Storm G2 (truglo.com), which is available in a five-pin model (.019-inch pins) that will cost you a paltry $35. Or maybe your quiver is a little light on ammo, and you need to add a fresh dozen? Bloodsport’s Bloodhunter arrows (bloodsportarchery.com) are a solid choice considering they are designed with Blood Ring Technology, Rugged Wrap Construction and are built to a straightness tolerance of +/- .004 inch. You can buy six at a time for less than $60, which is about one-third the cost of top-end arrows that kill whitetails the same way cheaper options do.
While it seems that the market is full of expensive hunting gear, not everything you need in order to be a successful whitetail hunter comes with sticker shock. Conduct some due diligence, and you’ll find plenty of good stuff that is easy on the wallet.