September 20, 2022
This article on bowhunting was featured in September's Game & Fish Magazine. The October issue is currently on sale nationwide. Click to learn how to subscribe.
I consider myself a student of the hunting game—as such, I am acutely aware of trends in our sport. One I've noticed over the last few years is the dramatic increase of interest in public-land hunting. As most know, I am a big fan of public-land hunting, having spent the majority of my formative years tromping there.
Another trend developing is the dramatic decline in the popularity of outdoor "television" and the way it is consumed. Much of today's hunting programming is no longer delivered via traditional television, but to millions of mobile phone screens via video-sharing platforms, like YouTube, for instance.
Here, you will find no shortage of public-land content rife with detailed how-to and where-to information. More often than not, the state being hunted is identified as are specific towns, counties and often times the actual hunt location. Of course, the result is predictable—increased hunting pressure in those areas.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm in no way "blaming" those content producers or saying anything negative about the YouTube movement in general. In fact, I'm a fan of many outlets there and think they're doing a great job of portraying the reality of hunting for a lot of people (which likely explains the immense popularity and eager adoption of the content).
What I'm saying is that all of that readily available content has had a dramatic impact on the public areas I hunt, and I've had to make equally dramatic shifts in my hunting approach to find consistent success.
Here are a few changes I've made that have brought me more success on the evermore popular public lands I hunt.
BEST IS WORST
Before the days of smartphone apps that put aerial images and public-land boundaries in the palm of my hand, I relied heavily on Google Earth images printed and filed into a binder to guide me when hunting on the road. Now, I simply drop waypoints on my laptop and those points sync automatically to the app on my phone. But the overall premise is the same: I'm e-scouting locations during the offseason and prioritizing them according to what locations I expect to be most productive.
Before the public-land boom, the task was considerably simpler. I'd locate the best-looking public parcels, mark them and speed-scout them as soon as I arrived for a hunt. Today, those previous prime-looking locales seldom make my "must-visit" list. Why? Because I've learned a lesson the hard way, that the "choicest" parcels draw the most hunting pressure. I can pretend/hope/wish that weren't the case—but it is.
Putting any stock in those properties that look like the real deal on an aerial view is typically a fool's errand. For the past several seasons, any time I've tried to make one of the top-end spots work, it was futile. Hunting pressure is something I try to avoid at all times and those large pieces of premium habitat attract hunting pressure in droves.
Today, when planning my public-land hunts, I use a grading system. "A"-type properties are those which appear exceptional on an aerial image. "B"-grade ground looks solid but may be a bit smaller or have limited access points. "C" ground is huntable but marginal in terms of habitat, and may have other negative aspects at play. And, finally, "D" parcels feature little in the way of deer habitat. They're huntable and can produce but they aren't going to draw a lot of attention. Which, of course, is the entire point.
Now, I completely ignore the "A" ground, and perform a drive-by on "B" parcels to check for hunting pressure before even thinking about diving in. The "C" and "D" parcels have become my go-tos. I'd much rather hunt marginal ground with little to no hunting pressure than try and make a great-looking property work when it's being pounded on a regular basis.
NOT PRIME TIME
The first week of November is typically the best time to hunt, right? Well, not necessarily if you hunt primarily on public ground. For most hunters, the best time to take their "rutcation" (i.e., vacations taken during the annual deer rut) seems to be that first week in November. It was, at one time, one of my favorites, too. I still love it, but I no longer book my vacations around it.
Experience has shown me that my best chance at deer hunting success comes when the deer I'm hunting don't know they're being hunted. This means targeting areas with the least amount of hunting pressure I can find. Today, that's a tall order anywhere in the country during that first week of November.
Taking into consideration the additional rut-related pressure, I've adapted my calendar. I've never had much success in the earliest stages of the season but now, I focus more effort on late September and early October. My "rut" hunts are done in mid to late November. In short, I try and work around the crowds when I can, and that means targeting times of the year that are less popular.
CEMENTED TO THE SEAT
"Mobile" hunting tactics have been the rage for a couple of years now and I don't see that slowing down anytime soon. I'm a fan of those methods to some degree but, as with most things, it can be taken too far, and I've seen plenty of evidence of that.
Today's public land sees far more human pressure than in years past. A growing percentage of bowhunters are more willing to bounce around, sneak through cover and take the hunt to the deer than previously. Successful or not, this means more ground is disturbed and more deer bumped than when hunting stationary stand sites.
Like the majority of bowhunters, I love to hunt from an elevated position, and I have confidence in my ability to find effective ambush locations. So, I've doubled down on that. Rather than succumbing to my inherent lack of patience, I have taught myself to lock into an area I believe will be productive and to spend as much time there as possible.
As mentioned previously, these locations are selected due to a lack of human intrusion. Here, I practice low-impact hunting. That means making every attempt to slip in and out cautiously, play the wind, and hunt scent-free with minimal movement.
Needless to say, most other hunters don't practice such good hunt hygiene. More often than not, they'll push deer my way. And when they do, I'll take advantage of their mistakes. Often times, on pressured public properties deemed less than desirable.