December 03, 2020
By Tony Hansen
It is nothing less than a true double blessing. The first: A fully mature whitetail saunters past at a mere five steps. The buck has exceptional tine length, thick bases and a swayed back. I stroke a broadhead through the deer, and it's dead within seconds. The second: The buck falls less than a football field away from my truck on flat ground that makes for a stupid-easy deer-cart trek out.
Trust me, it almost never happens like this—even during the rut.
I'm a DIY diehard that spends the bulk of my deer season on public ground, and I hunted that way a long time before the advent of YouTube and the plethora of sudden DIY gurus. Don't get me wrong: I watch as much of that stuff as anyone and enjoy a fair bit of it. It can, however, paint an unrealistic picture of what most DIY outings are like.
You simply can't recreate in 20 minutes of video what transpires over a couple of days (let alone weeks) of hunting without the aid of a guide, outfitter, or—in many cases—motorized vehicles or equipment.
Let's run through a few of the hard truths I've learned about DIY hunting. They're not meant to discourage you; in fact, my intent is just the opposite. Knowing the realities of DIY hunting, especially on public land, and adjusting your expectations and plans accordingly will prevent you from becoming discouraged.
The Truth: You likely won't have a team assisting you.
I hunt alone a lot. Maybe that's because I'm not very likable … I haven't quite figured that out yet. You might have more friends than me, but your DIY hunt will likely not include a full complement of buddies that can help you scout multiple areas and then compare notes. You probably won't have a half-dozen helpers on hand waiting to haul your deer out of the woods.
If you can gather a group of like-minded hunters to hang with, do it. There's nothing wrong with that, and the benefits are many. But keep in mind that when you don't have help at your disposal, tough tasks like retrieving game, hauling stands and scouting several unfamiliar areas will eat up plenty of time and energy.
The Takeaway: Manage your time and priorities.
During the rut, time management is especially critical because of the fleeting nature of the deal. Does come into heat, and bucks get wild. Very shortly after, they lock down and things can be painfully slow. Being able to do things quickly is critical, and doing things on your own takes more time than if you have a group to split up the work. Focus your efforts, make an efficient plan and stick to it. You may not have time to take chances.
The Truth: A lot of public land simply isn't capable of producing top-end deer hunting.
Not all DIY hunts take place on public ground, but a hefty percentage of them do and are scheduled to coincide with the rut. Most public land is not going to produce the type of rut action you see captured in an edited video episode. It just doesn't work that way.
Public land certainly can produce big deer and quality experiences, but that type of ground is getting harder to find. The formula for big deer will never change: Bucks must get old to get big. They can only get old if they are allowed to live. The only way they're allowed to live, typically, is by hanging out in areas with limited hunting pressure. That doesn't describe many public areas.
High-quality habitat matters a great deal as well. There is no shortage of top-notch habitat that is accessible by the public, but the majority of public habitat leaves plenty to be desired. Today's DIY hunter has more digital tools to wield than ever before as well, making it exceptionally easy to locate prime-looking ground. This reduces the amount of truly good public land simply because it increases pressure and activity on those areas that look most desirable.
The Takeaway: Plan on pressure in prime spots.
With limited prime-habitat options and most hunters wanting to be in those areas during the rut, pressure can be intense. Expect it, plan for it and adapt to it. You may have a better experience by hunting decent habitat with some deer sign instead of great habitat with loads of sign, as most other hunters will concentrate on the latter.
The Truth: DIY success takes time.
Some of the popular DIY content makes it seem pretty simple. Drive around until you find a place loaded with bucks. Grab some rattling horns and get ready to slay a beast.
It doesn't work that way very often. During the rut, bucks (especially those living in open terrain like the Midwest) can cover a ton of ground in a day as they search for does. It takes a lot more time than you might expect to really dial in an area. When you have just a week to spend on your DIY adventure, that time can pass very quickly.
The reality is you should spend a lot more time searching for a place to hunt than hunting, at least until you've spent a couple of seasons learning an area. Once you've located a prime patch, it takes some time to choose the best ambush location, to understand the best entry and exit route … and just about the time you figure those out, the bucks you're hunting could be across the fence on private ground chasing a new group of hot does.
The Takeaway: Don't give up on a spot too soon.
I try to hunt the same areas a few seasons in a row rather than constantly exploring new ground. My experiences have led me to adopt an unofficial rule of three.
It takes about three days to find an area I want to hunt. It takes about three days to understand how deer utilize that area. It takes about three seasons to really refine and dial-in my approach in that area. If you're headed out on a DIY rut hunt, plan to be successful, but understand that it will likely take more time than you expect to arrow a buck.
The Truth: Killing a deer isn't the biggest challenge.
The toughest aspect of a DIY hunt isn't killing a deer. Spend enough time in an area, learn enough about how deer use that area during the rut, and it's likely just a matter of time before your efforts pay off. The real challenge comes after you've killed the deer. That's when you realize hunting 2 miles from the road may sound cool but is, quite literally, a genuine pain in the butt. And legs. And back. And shoulders.
The Takeaway: Cart it or cut it.
Getting a deer out of the bush is an act of determination and brute force. A game cart is indeed a huge help (I highly recommend the four-wheel models), but a cart still requires plenty of sweat and effort and is almost useless in areas with terrain. I cut up and pack out deer, where legal, when I'm a long way from the road. That makes the task a bit easier. But only a little.