August 03, 2021
By Tony J. Peterson
- This article was published in last year's Public Land Hunter magazine. The 2021 edition is now on sale. Click for more info
The focus of over-the-road hunts is almost always trophy animals. Whether it involves playing the points game in Iowa for a chance at its legendary whitetails, or crossing your fingers on a long-odds draw out West for elk and other critters, the idea of traveling for anything less than a taxidermy bill seems silly.
Or it used to, anyway. Many of today’s hunters look at a full freezer as more of a reward than another shoulder mount in the man cave. And the best part is, you don’t need to pay an outfit-ter or even a trespass fee to find these opportunities. They are available in mass quantities throughout this great country of ours on land we all own.
Not all public-land meat hunts are created equal. Some, like the following options, are chock-full of high-odds opportunities and the chance to have one hell of a hunt while forgetting about hitlists and busting out the tape measure before the body is even cool.
Largely gone are the days of Wisconsin’s big buck dominance. It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t discuss where the next world record was likely to come from without diving deep into Buffalo County and the surrounding areas of southwestern Wisconsin. Don’t get me wrong, this state still produces a pile of great bucks for hunters every single season, but some of the trophy focus has certainly died down. That’s good for you.
Wisconsin will sell first-time nonresident license buyers their general tag at half off, and throw in some antlerless tags for free or for the price of a case of beer. Nonresident small-game tags are cheap as well (and subject to the half-off, first-timer rule). If you opt for a northern(ish) Wisconsin hunt, you’ll find a ridiculous amount of public land that is home to not only deer, but small game, grouse, and if you’re there at the right time—ducks and woodcock as well.
National Forests are a good start, but a better bet is to use an app like onX to find Managed Forest Land that is open to the public. This program incentivizes private landowners to open up their land to public hunting, something that is becoming increasingly popular throughout the state. Whether you plan an October bowhunt with small-game fillers between stand sits, or simply want to rifle hunt all day until the protein is secured, you could do far worse than a Wisconsin hunt.
The Sooner State is one of my favorites. I’ve hunted there twice and have always left with plenty of meat. Generally, a deer license is going to run you about $300, but you can kill a pile of deer on it. And Oklahoma has a pile of deer.
The state sits in the sweet spot of our country between the states with a real winter and almost no winter, and it offers ideal habitat for deer with very few predators. Public-land populations are solid throughout the state; in my experience the bigger the tract, the better. But, Oklahoma has a lot of hunters and you will have company.
You should have plenty of chances to shoot a few deer. In the 12 days I’ve bowhunted the state, I’ve arrowed four deer and come awful close to a few others. You might also run into feral pigs, or if you opt for it, fall turkey opportunities. The public land is well-marked and plentiful, and for the hunter looking to live in a tent for a week and blood trail something every night, this is the place.
The Sooner State provides deer hunters with a very good chance to experience both quantity and quality. Oklahoma continues to produce nice bucks, which is an attractive bonus. Throw in hogs and turkeys, and don’t forget there are some quail down there. In addition, the duck hunting can be fantastic. In other words, if you’re a hunting generalist who loves wild game, don’t overlook this state.
Mississippi Mud Bucks
The best destination states for filling up your freezer are not the same states that boast Booners behind every tree. Forget Iowa and Kansas, and look south to states like Mississippi. Millions of acres public land and very liberal deer bag limits make this an option for anyone who doesn’t need to bust out the tape measure as soon as a buck hits the ground.
That doesn’t mean you can’t run into a decent buck in the Magnolia State, because you certainly can. You might very well add some pork to your cooler as well considering Mississippi has no shortage of feral hogs, but you should familiarize yourself with the regulations as they apply to the specific parcels you are hunting. Incidental take of pigs is generally allowed, but you should know the specifics before you go.
It’s also a possibility to mix in some waterfowl hunting and fall turkeys as well, so consider this a mixed-bag destination where you’ll have to work for your protein but the opportunities will come. Don’t forget your knee-highs or waders, because to get to the good stuff you might have to get into the muck.
If killing up to half-a-dozen deer sounds like a great way to stock up on venison for the year, then Virginia might be the best choice for any hunter living east of the Mississippi. From the southwestern corner of the state east to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia offers up millions of acres of public land and a deer population that is dense enough to complete your mission in a week.
Whether you’re a traditional bowhunter or would rather tote your .270 out in the back half of November for the firearm season, the opportunity is real to fill up the freezer. That means if your quiver or cartridge wallet is full, you can have one hell of a good time roaming around the Old Dominion’s public land. Plus, nonresident license fees are about as low as you’ll find anywhere, and the bag limit for deer is up to six per license year. The willing DIY hunter who isn’t afraid to tent-camp could have a very productive hunt in Virginia for about half the cost of a cheap elk tag.
Know the Rules Before You Go
Learning regulations is one of the first steps of planning any trip.
Hunting regulations vary by state, county and individual property. This means that what is allowed at home might very well be illegal in the next state over. It also means that you’re responsible for brushing up on the rules before buying your tag and loading up the truck.
Understand everything from the major regs, like what types of tags to buy and overall bag limits for the season and area, to the smaller details as well. From screw-in bow-hanger usage to the square inches of blaze orange you need to be legal during gun season, brush up on the regulations long before you go. If you have questions, this gives you enough time to get them answered well before you head out into new territory. Go right to the source, wildlife agencies, and don’t rely on hearsay.
Have a plan for processing a carcass.
About half of the states in the country have found chronic wasting disease (CWD) within their borders (the other half would rather not find it). In the last few years, state-to-state travel with deer and other big-game carcasses has gotten progressively more restrictive. In many of these situations, you can’t transport an intact head or spinal column across state lines, which means you’d better have a plan for breaking down your harvest before you head home.
This has obvious implications for all travel, but is a big one if you happen to set out for some meat and end up tagging the buck of a lifetime. If a shoulder-mount suddenly seems like a necessity, you’d better find a local taxidermist to do the work or plan to meticulously cape and clean your kill from camp.
On-the-Road Meat-Making Gear
A versatile knife and reliable cooler are essential.
To ensure the best meat nature can provide, you’ve got to have razor-sharp, task-specific blades. Few companies understand this better than Outdoor Edge (outdooredge.com). The company’s RazorBone replaceable-blade knife ($60) is a perfect choice for anyone wishing to field-dress, skin, debone and trim some in-camp protein. Three different types of blades—drop point, boning and gutting—come standard with this kit, and each locks solidly into place so you can work away with confidence and ease.
One heavy-duty cooler worthy of your consideration is the 50-quart Elite ($309) from Pelican (pelican.com). Designed with press-and-pull latches, non-skid and non-marking raised feet, and a molded-in lock hasp, the Elite is ideal for meat-making missions. If you’re still not sold, consider this cooler is backed by a lifetime guarantee, which tells you how confident Pelican is in its product.
Another option for slicing and dicing comes via Gerber Gear (gerbergear.com) in its Exo-Mod Drop Point knife ($33). Not only is this knife a good choice for deer camp, but it’s also built with a skeletonized full-tang design and snap-together sheath system to cut down on weight and bulk, making it an equally great option for the elk mountains.
Whether you’re sitting on a pile of pieced-out venison or your possession limit of roosters, you need a good cooler like the 70-quart Badlands ($375) from Big Frig (bigfrig.com). This cooler, which is built with heavy-duty wheels, can keep ice cold for well over a week, comes with a five-year warranty, and is equipped with a cutting board divider and a basket.
Lastly, let’s say you’ve saved so much money by doing a DIY, public-land hunt that you’re in the market for a high-end, luxury purchase. Something like, say, the V Series ($800) from Yeti (yeti.com). This cooler looks like it’s straight out of 1950s but functions like it’s built in the future thanks to the blending of Rambler and Tundra technologies. Not only is the V Series designed with a stainless steel body, but also vacuum-insulated panels for serious cold retention and a single-center latch that is easy to use and ultra-durable.