There is no substitute for pure hunting skill. Scratch that. There is but it involves a big number in a bank account. Anyone with the enough funds can kill huge deer, but that doesn't necessarily make them a good hunter.
Fortunately, even if solid-gold back scratchers and trays of caviar aren't likely in your immediate future, you can still take your best buck ever. And you can even do it on public land.
You'll need to research hunting areas extensively and scout hard. You'll also need to hunt as much as possible, but you'll need to be smart about it. Your A-game is required at all times. Sound like a bunch of hog-wash? It's not.
When averaged out, my five largest bucks boast an average score of 137 inches. All not-so-humble brags aside, I share this to illustrate the fact that it's possible to not only be consistently successful in taking deer on public land, but also in harvesting mature bucks.
I wasn't sure this was even possible when I started my public-land quest, but now I know how good things can be out there where everyone is free to hunt. And if there is a dirty little secret to being successful on public land, it's that good gear makes all of the difference.
Just like the high-country mule deer hunter or die-hard elk hunter who obsesses over quality gear, the public-land whitetail hunter should do the same. This is simply because sub-par gear will cost you opportunities.
And when you're hunting public land, you can't afford even the tiniest misstep.
Stay Warm And Hunt Longer
Of the type of hunting clothing you choose tends to center around seasonal timing — lightweight stuff in the early season, and heavier duds as the season winds down and winter closes in.
This is simple enough and while focusing on temperature comfort level is important, it's not the end-all to making the right choice. Top-quality clothing, like Sitka Gear's Whitetail II lineup, will keep you comfortable, which will keep you on your stand longer and moving less. This is achieved by preventing heat-sapping wind and rain from reaching your inner layers.
If you're going to score on public land, resign yourself to the fact that you're going to to have to hunt those miserable stretches of weather that keep other hunters at home. There is no reason to not be as comfortable as possible through a season's heat waves, monsoons, and booger-freezing cold snaps.
Quality bowhunting clothing, in addition to shielding you from the elements, is also designed to be form-fitting and quiet. This keeps bulk out of the way of your draw, and cuts down on errant noises when moving into a shooting position. Skimp on clothing and you'll get fewer opportunities, it's as simple as that.
Use Ultra-light Stands
An awful lot of public hunting ground is governed by strict regulations on what can and can't be done to trees. For instance, screw-in steps and bow hangers are a big no-no on much of Uncle Sam's ground.
This necessitates using strap-on steps and ladders. I much prefer steps and the lighter they are, the better. It also helps if they marry together easily for stealthy transport.
As far as stands are concerned, "lightweight" means a few things. The first is that the platform will be fairly small, but that's the downside. The upside is that a lighter weight stand is easier to carry in, and much easier to set up quietly. The stands I carry deep into public land weigh between 7.5 and 13 pounds.
One option I like is the M7 Microlite from Millennium Treestands. It weighs only 8.5 pounds and folds up securely for transport. Featherweight stands combined with lightweight sticks and whatever necessities I need in my pack, I can keep my gear load well under 40 pounds.
This is much appreciated, but setting a low weight limit also provides a mental boost when you know you need to set up and take down stands every day — another given when you're hunting public land in many places.
If you're going to treestand hunt, you'll need a safety harness. Hunter Safety System makes the Ultralite Flex, which is my go-to harness for two reasons. It weighs only two pounds, which is key on the long hikes I make to get away from the crowds. It's a no frills, no pockets, save-your-butt harness that easily fits underneath my camo (a second plus) and is integral to my public-land success.
Eliminate Your Scent Trail
Public-land whitetails don't put up with much. They may stick around on your hunting grounds after being messed with, but it's not likely that they'll poke their noses out of the thick stuff during shooting hours.
Easily the best way to screw up a good thing is to let the deer smell you, and while scent control is a highly debated topic amongst bowhunters there is one thing I'm religious about: knee-high rubber boots.
I've had a few bird dogs over the years and have spent plenty of time training them to hunt upland birds, waterfowl and shed antlers. I've also tried to beat their noses with various methods and most of the time, I can't.
I can, however, beat my current Lab's nose with properly doused knee-high rubber boots. If I liberally coat them with a spray scent eliminator, I can watch her look for my scent trail and not find it, even in tall grass.
I know it's anecdotal, but it's evidence I use in the deer woods as well. The number of encounters public-land deer have with your scent adds up, and is directly proportional to a decrease in deer sightings.
A great way to stanch the reduction in deer that walk past your stand or across your trail is to wear the right boots and soak them in scent eliminator before every hunt. It's the little things that sometimes make the biggest difference.
Knee-highs offer a few satellite benefits as well, like the fact that you can cross creeks and rivers while wearing them. This is a great way to leave hunting competition behind and is a trick I employ often on public land.
Naturally, not all boots are created equal. I like boots that are designed to fit well enough to double as hiking boots, which means they'll be more expensive than run-of-the-mill, sold-anywhere rubber boots.
A good pair is worth it, however, and they'll almost always boast a good amount of insulation meaning they can be worn well into the season when temperatures drop.
Lately, my go-to boots have been the 18-inch AeroHeads from LaCrosse. I opt for the models with 3.5mm of insulation, and have worn them all over the Midwest hanging stands and hunting, and have no complaints.