Taking big bucks on public land is tough -- but it can be done if you pay attention to the basics and use the right approach. These five tactics will help you find an ivory-tined monster this season.
Author Travis Faulkner with two of his public land trophies. Attention to details -- and to other hunters -- are a big part of his success. Photo courtesy of Travis Faulkner
Let's face it, not everyone's pockets are deep enough to shell out the money necessary to go on an out-of-state guided hunt for big deer. However, trophy bucks can successfully be taken consistently from public land in state with the proper approach. The following five tactics can help you pattern and increase your chances of bagging that ivory-tined monster this upcoming season.
FINDING AND DETERMINING FOOD SOURCES
Pinpointing the available food source represents an integral part of patterning public land whitetails. The most consistent daily activity of deer is the consumption of food. This vital process requires deer to move to and from bedding and feeding areas, making him vulnerable to hunters who know when and where to hunt.
It is of extreme importance to remember that food choices inevitably change as the season progresses. In early season, if the terrain you are hunting consists of wood lots, locate succulent plants, old orchards or oak trees yielding generous crops. Oak trees that have an abundance of mast will be easy to locate because of the sign left by deer, turkeys and squirrels that eagerly scratch at the forest floor.
Furthermore, a hunter who finds a potential food source should search for tracks, droppings and trails that expose the deer community within that area. Heavily used trails that lack ground cover indicate how the deer are entering and leaving the designated food source. If tracks are leading in both directions on these trails, then you have hit the jackpot. Obviously your next move should be to locate a tree that is downwind and high enough to be out of the buck's line of sight.
UTILIZE HUNTING PRESSURE
Another factor that public land hunters must deal with is intense hunting pressure. Ironically, when pursuing Mr. Big on public land you have to scout the deer and your fellow hunters. Try to uncover the areas that will be hardest hit during the season. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), patterning other hunters is much easier than pinpointing the daily activities of trophy deer.
The habits of other hunters can be revealed through parked vehicles, tree stands, trail markers and ground blinds. With this knowledge you can determine the entrance and exit routes hunters will inevitably use throughout the season. This enables a wise hunter to exploit the hunting pressure to his or her advantage by setting up along known whitetail escape routes away from high traffic areas.
Obvious deer sign located near or around easy access tracts will be heavily hunted. Imagine after a hard week of work you finally find yourself positioned high in your tree stand staring into the morning darkness. Anticipation battles with patience as you wait for light. Then out of nowhere a small beam of light and the sound of crunching leaves breaks the silence. Another hunter has invaded your secret spot and ruined your hunt.
However, you can avoid this scenario. These days it seems that most hunters won't bother hunting an area they can't drive their truck or four-wheeler to. This is why when hunting public land you should always condition yourself to hunt areas that lack easy access and require the hunter to exert some energy to get there. These are the key areas that mature bucks will use during the most pressured parts of the season. In most cases, you will have these sanctuaries all to yourself because the lazy hunter is barred from entering.
For two years running I have hunted an escape route that has enabled me to harvest some of my bigger bucks on opening morning of gun season. I simply used the other hunters to push the deer to my position far away from the obvious hunting pressure. In addition, over the course of these two years, I have never been disturbed by another hunter. For good reason: The escape route is nestled deep within the interior of rough country with no vehicle access. The terrain is rugged, making almost any hunter question reaching it in the wee hours of the morning.
HUNT THE THICKEST AND UGLIEST COVER
Instinctively, deer feel safe in areas that provide thick cover and that are almost impenetrable to two-legged predators. These thick entanglements do not offer areas of high visibility but do increase your chances of harvesting a trophy buck. When hunting public land, I always seek the thickest cover around the prevailing food source that deer are frequently using.
When deer feel threatened they will usually hold up and bed in areas that offer thick cover. Positioning tree stands on edges above thick cover can potentially produce a wallhanger on public land. Often the only noticeable deer sign will be a few tracks or faint trails entering the dense cover. However, when the pressure is on you can almost bank on the fact that the deer will visit these isolated havens.
In fact, I have observed and taken deer toward the middle part of the day when most hunters are returning home for lunch. Thickets create a sense of security for mature bucks, who will often leave their beds to forage on available browse and acorn concentrations around the secluded shelter. When hunting thick cover it is good policy to hold steadfast until dark. Remember that when other hunters are calling it quits and returning to their vehicles that deer can potentially be spooked. The chances are good that these deer will head directly toward your position.
DEFEATING A DEER'S NOSE
My first true lesson in deer hunting came at the expense of a massive racked buck snorting as he trotted off safely out of range. The wind had changed, alerting the old buck of my presence and eliminating any chance of a potential shot.
Unfortunately, almost every hunter has a similar hard luck story. So how do we tiptoe around a deer's main line of defense: its sense of smell? My own hunting experience has created a scent paranoia relating to my hunting style. Religiously, I will wash my hunting clothes in a scent-free detergent and place them in a plastic bag. Next, I will store the clothes in a rubber-coated container that I can store in a changing room outside of my house and throw in the back of my truck the morning of the hunt.
In addition, prior to the morning hunt, I will shower with scent-free soap, shampoo and deodorant. I always wear knee-high rubber boots and carry my plastic bag of clothes to the stand, where I will put them on before climbing my tree. My outer layer of clothing consists of a carbon-fiber, scent-absorbing suit. Once in the stand I will generously spray my clothing, facemask and gloves with a scent-elim
inating spray to top off my morning ritual.
These tactics may seem a little fanatical to the common hunter, but I strongly believe that they have played an integral role in my hunting success. Numerous times I have been surrounded by deer in a situation where the wind changes at the wrong time. In most of these cases, the deer have failed to detect my scent, and I avoided having a ruined hunt. However, each step to this painstaking process is necessary for the entire scent-reducing system to work.
ENTERING AND EXITING YOUR STAND
The last thing a hunter wants to do is spook deer when approaching or leaving a deer stand. Sometimes the easiest and quickest route to your stand is also the avenue that cuts directly through areas that are high in deer activity. Trophy bucks on public land have accumulated a wealth of knowledge relating to patterning hunters and survival. Hunters who take the easy route will often further a buck's education and almost guarantee that the deer will spend another year of chasing does and fooling hunters.
In many cases, I have hoofed a mile out of my way to avoid the possibility of alarming deer in the area I am hunting. You should always have a clear mental map of how to approach it in the darkness. Where legal, trail markers that reflect light come in very handy when marking a course in unfamiliar areas.
Furthermore, I visualize that I am stalking my stand or vehicle when entering and leaving the area I am hunting. If you sound like a wounded elephant crashing through the woods, you automatically decrease your chances of seeing or bagging your buck. Try to move slowly and methodically through the woods without being detected by the surrounding wildlife. This alone will dramatically increase your chances of observing more deer from your stand.
Implementing these strategies has enabled me to harvest many trophy bucks from areas that everyone can hunt. In the outdoors, luck is a ticket that will only take you so far and sometimes expires after one season. Luck definitely plays a role in any hunt, but woodsmanship, not luck, will keep you and your taxidermist smiling over the long haul.