June 25, 2021
This article was published in the 2020 issue of Public Land Hunter magazine. The 2021 edition of Public Land Hunter goes on sale on July 20.
Public-land whitetail success hinges on gathering intel. This goes for year-round scouting, trail-camera usage and observations from the stand throughout the season. It's hackneyed but true—the more you know about the deer, the better off you are.
This is broad advice that falls into the Whitetail 101 category. Of course, having as much information as possible allows you to make better decisions, but gathering that intel on a given property might not seem so simple once you get out there.
What we think of deer and the spots they live tends to change once we have to deal with the terrain, weather and the reality that we are rarely the only ones hunting them.
This necessitates a plan and an understanding of what info really matters most. When it comes to the latter, you could make an argument about bedding areas, or pinch points, or last year's sign, or whatever, but you'd be better off gaining a fundamental understanding of what drives deer to do what they do on a daily basis: food and security.
You can't divorce a deer from its willingness to survive outside of a few wonderful days during the rut, so survival needs to factor into your whitetail recon and hunt planning at all stages. Therefore, it's best to figure out food first.
Public vs. Private
The reality of much of the public land we have today is that it's no good for agriculture. The best farmland is generally private, while the steep sidehills, choked-out creek bottoms and marshy wetlands have all had a better chance of ending up in the public trust.
This means that while you might find some sweet destination food sources on public, it's far more likely that the best groceries will be across the fence and legally unreachable.
And if you do find a food plot or field on public, you can bet your favorite bow that the majority of hunting pressure will occur there. After all, while deer are edge critters, so too are we, and no matter how unproductive the hunting is, it's a real struggle for most of us to leave the easy vistas of a beanfield edge for something deeper into the cover.
When it comes to tracts of public that don't offer simple destination food sources, it's best to do some sleuthing via satellite imagery to see what’s on neighboring parcels of private. This will tell you an awful lot about where the deer that bed on the public side are likely to travel to and from at some point each day.
You can also lace up your boots and walk the fence line around your favorite patch of public to glass onto private, because that might tell you not only what's planted and where, but also just where the likeliest crossings are.
While doing this, you might come across what appears to be a killer stand site at one of these crossings, but I'm always cautious of these setups. First off, they are easy to find which means you will probably have company. Secondly, a deer shot 15 yards from a fence line has too much opportunity to run onto private ground, which can be a big deal depending on regional regulations.
I'd rather avoid both scenarios altogether and just make a note of where the best crossings are and whether they are more likely a morning or evening travel route.
Back Up and Get Edgy
The thing about deer is that they live like walleyes in that they just can't help but follow edges their whole lives. It's in their DNA, and if you know what nearby beanfield the bucks are likely to feed in, and what part of the creek bottom they are likely to hole up in throughout the day, you need to get in-between those spots to suss out specific travel corridors.
E-scouting can help you pin down these routes, particularly if you need to see habitat edges like where conifers meet a wetland, or maybe where a fresh clearcut meets older-growth forest. In either case, and many, many more, knowing where the deer are likely to feed and the general direction of their travel can help you pinpoint where you can set up to catch them moving during shooting hours.
This will often be along an interior edge of some sort, or might be as simple as a stretch of oaks along a small wooded meadow. It could be the obvious, overgrown fencerow that connects two good-sized patches of timber as well. Hard edges are easy to find, but don’t forget about those spots with a soft edge where different habitats meet.
Deep Borders and Obvious Fringes
Let's say you just want to hunt an obvious fence crossing or a thin spine of woods that attaches public land to an off-limit tract of private. You can find these spots, but for them to be any good, they've got to be difficult to get to. This straight-out-of-the-elk-mountains strategy is simple and it works on the basic premise that most hunters are kind of lazy.
This is true, and it means if you want to kill a buck on a no-brainer spot near a property boundary, you'd better hike up a couple of bluffs and wade a river to get there. That's it, and honestly, it works. I hunt four or five states every year for public-land whitetails in the Midwest, and my goal is to always find spots that are at least a mile from the access.
If you do this, the necessity to identify a barely obvious habitat edge that should be loaded with browse, or some other obscure deer-drawing feature, lessens. The more effort necessary to get to the farthest parts of a given property, the more you can rely on simpler setups along hard edges like that dreamy field-edge spot or the row of oaks towering over one side of a meadow.
This was my strategy in two of the states I hunted last season (2019) and both yielded great bow-killed bucks without having to worry about other hunters being on top of my setups.
Think about that as you set out this year to scout and eventually hunt. Whether you key on a subtle habitat edge deep in the timber or go the more obvious route after putting in some sweat equity, remember that deer are creatures of habitat—but so are hunters. Pay attention to the edges and borders, and use both to your advantage because that’s what the deer are going to do.
Where waders, wet work and waterfowl collide.
Satellite imagery is a game changer for the boat-less waterfowl junkie. Beaver ponds, flooded sloughs, and off-the-beaten-path duck spots are all visible via the 30,000-foot views modern technology offers us.
What this also does, is gives us a chance at small-water action. Most duck hunters prefer good-sized, boat-friendly water and the variety of species that come with it. They also find themselves, particularly in popular areas, leaving the landing at 2 a.m. to claim their favorite points and backwater sloughs.
If you're interested in less of a war-zone-type hunt and aren't too good for a few woodies, teal and mallards, you can find your own waterfowl spots all to yourself. Start first by identifying chunks of public land that are close to the larger lakes and rivers of your area.
Then zoom in and look for water. If you find some surface water, measure it with your app because even though it might look too small on your phone, you might see that it's actually an acre or two. That's plenty of room for enough ducks to satisfy your needs, but not big enough to draw in other hunters.
If the pond is far enough off of a road where it would take a little work to get to, mark it and then find more. When you’ve got at least a couple of potential small-water spots e-scouted, get in and glass them.
Take a look at access, potential spots to hide with your retriever, and make sure it looks like the right kind of water complete with the right kind of cover or maybe some overhanging oaks to bring in the woodies. Trust your duck spidey senses on this one, and get ready to have some quackery all to yourself—all season long.
Hunters should avoid edges if they want to find birds.
When I take a walk for late-season roosters on public land in my home state of Minnesota, it's a set-in-stone guarantee that there will be a pounded trail around the outside edge of each parcel. The trail will mirror the edge of the best cover, usually cattails and willow thickets, and it's obvious that most hunters walk the easy routes while sending their dogs into the cover.
In the grouse and woodcock woods, it's all about the two-tracks and logging roads. When you're east of the Mississippi and limited on space, the predictability of upland hunters is mind-boggling.
In fact, some of the folks at the Nebraska Game Fish & Parks studied this and found that not only did hunters consistently park exactly in the same spots, but they walked near-identical routes while hunting. The roosters they had tagged were predictable as well. When a truck pulled up and the dogs hit the ground, the birds moved to the middle of the cover.
The hunters walked around them, bailed, and the birds went back to their day. This happened over and over. And it'll keep happening over and over because most hunters don't want to wade into the thick stuff to find the birds, but that's the simplest way to go from an empty game bag to a limit.
Just like with Midwestern and Eastern whitetail success on public dirt, upland hunters need to start by not hunting like most other hunters. It sounds too simple, I know, but it's true.
Take a look at a hunting app and dissect prospective upland spots. If you're a pheasant hunter, look for areas of good cover that are too big to hunt just by a walk up and back. Forget fencerows, tree rows and other cover that looks like it would be dynamite, because on public land it'll soak up the majority of hunting pressure. Go to the 20-acre slough and get the wind in your dog's favor. Really work the cover. If you're not sweating, you're probably not in the best spots.
This goes for ruffed grouse and woodcock as well. I know the logging road that loops through the property is tempting, but that's the easy way out that might get you a gimme bird opening week. After the trailside dummies are shot out of the flock, what's left are birds deeper into the cover that don't see 5 percent of the hunting pressure the trail birds do.
Look at aerial photography and plan routes around edge habitat. Maybe this is where a clearcut meets old-growth conifers, or maybe it's where a deciduous hillside butts up to low-ground alders, where both ruffs and woodcock may be found.
Just like with public-land roosters, you should find yourself in a position where not only are you cursing the thick cover, but also thinking that if you get a flush, it’s far from a forgone conclusion you'll get a shot off, much less even lay eyes on the bird.
That might not sound as appealing as a lazy stroll down a mowed path, but when you develop a milk-run of birdy cover, the flushes you'll earn will far outweigh the ease of hunting like all of your competition.