We’ve all watched the television hunts where the hunter is strategically positioned high above the picture perfect lush green food plot or soybean field waiting on that massive-racked giant with extra-long tines to feed into bow range.
Let’s face it; hunting intensely managed private land that encompasses crazy genetics, the right age structure, ideal buck-to-doe ratios, and a grand buffet of food sources with minimal outside pressure is just about every deer hunter’s dream.
You know, the kind of place where you’d probably let a three- or four-year old buck that is pushing 150 walk, because he needs another year. Man, it sure would be nice to be in a situation to make “tough” decisions like that every season.
However, how about the hunter that simply doesn’t have access to those types of properties?What does the hunter do when there are no food plots, agricultural crops, or textbook field-edge stands and heated shooting houses? Where do you hunt when you’re going into large tracts of heavily wooded and highly-pressured public land that seemingly all looks the same at first glance? Is it even possible to consistently tag big bucks from such challenging and demanding areas?
Fortunately, the good news is with the right strategies, setups, and tactics you can score big this season here in the real world without any guides, fences, fields or food plots. Here are the steps you need to follow in order to make it happen.
Step 1: Scout Outside of the Box
Growing up and hunting in the rugged Appalachian Mountains and Daniel Boone National Forests of southeastern Kentucky will do one of two things to you as a hunter. It’ll either make you a better hunter or you’ll simply quit hunting altogether and take up some other activity that’s less frustrating — like golf or fantasy league football.
In my neck of the woods, you have to take your scouting to a whole new level and learn how to meticulously read sign. This is the foundation for success when hunting almost any type of public land or large wooded areas that lack agriculture.
A great way to cover a lot of ground with minimal effort and time is to study topographical maps, aerial photos, or even Google Maps to pinpoint primetime areas to begin scouting. Don’t just look for places that might hold deer or look good on the map. Instead, concentrate on sweet-spot areas that are located on the opposite ends of easy access roads or trails. Focus on thickets, aged clear-cuts, and other types of heavy cover where big bucks will typically go to feel safe once the pressure is turned-up a notch or two.
Marking possible escape routes and out-of-the-way secure sanctuaries that may get overlooked by other hunters is also not a bad idea when tackling large tracts of public land. A general rule to remember is the more difficult an area is to reach the better the hunting will be, especially when you’re targeting veteran bucks that have survived a few seasons.
Step 2: Read Sign & Beef-Up Your Surveillance
Once you’ve located key areas that have potential, go in on foot and take some time to check everything out first-hand. Look for possible food sources, watering holes, bedding areas, staging points, natural funnels, bottle-necks, travel corridors, fresh sign and escape routes leading away from known hunting pressure. Walk along the edges of natural funnels like creeks, rivers, thickets, cliff-lines, ridges, gaps, benches, saddles and fingers will help you narrow down ideal spots to intercept bucks traveling between feeding and bedding locations.
Next, set up a series of game cameras to monitor key locations that are covered up with hot sign. The trick is to utilize multiple cameras in order to establish daily patterns, routines, habits, and tendencies. It’s not good enough just to get a few random pictures of a shooter buck at 3 a.m. and go hang a treestand at that exact spot. You need to know why he is there at that time, where is he coming from, and where is he going after he departs. Any picture of a buck taken after legal shooting light is an excellent starting point, but you’ll need to branch out and run a series of game cameras to piece together a complete pattern.
Step 3: Have Multiple Setups
It’s super important to have more than just one go-to setup when hunting mature bucks on any land, but this is especially true within heavily pressured areas. For starters, you’ll need different setups to account for various wind directions. Hunting the same spot regardless of what the wind is doing is a great way to educate and spook a skittish buck that is already ultra-sensitive to pressure. Furthermore, one or two setups are probably not going to account for morning/evening hunts, seasonal pattern shifts, changing food sources, current weather conditions, and outside hunting pressure.
Creating multiple setups enables you to become a much more versatile hunter. You’ll need options and choices that can help you exploit bucks regardless of what the hunt throws at you. For example, try to have ambush points along the edges of thick cover within core living areas and along primary travel routes that connect current food sources with bedding locations. Setups that focus on staging areas and escape routes should also not be overlooked when choosing these ambush sites. Utilizing a light-weight climber or hang-on with portable steps to hunt different pre-set locations will allow you to be mobile and adapt to changing conditions. Lastly, don’t be afraid to setup some make-shift ground blinds within range of these key areas as well.
Step 4: Execute Your Hunt
Consequently, you can have the best setups in the woods overlooking the hottest big buck sign around and still not connect with a shooter due to poor execution. At the end of the day, how you approach and leave your setup can be the difference between success and failure. You can’t enter and exit your stand or blind sounding like a wounded elephant crashing through a glass factory. Taking the time to clear away noisy sticks, leaves, and other debris along your travel path is crucial in creating stealth and silence. It’s also a good practice to carefully trim clingy briars and overhanging branches that can cause friction and alert wildlife to your presence.
In order to stay completely undetected, you should also carefully plan your entry and exit routes according to current hunting conditions. Sometimes the shortest and fastest approach is not always the best option. You’ll need to avoid walking too close to bedding areas, food sources, or other high-traffic locations that may cause you to accidentally bump deer in the process. The key is to get in, hunt, and get out completely undetected.
Step 5: Go With Grit & Attitude
When hunting challenging areas that are highly-pressured, you’ve got to have perseverance and mental toughness. Seeing a wave of orange vests or encountering rough hunting conditions can’t get you down. Negativity is the fastest way to ruin a hunt and destroy an entire season. Keep in mind that a large percentage of today’s hunters don’t scout or do their homework. They also typically won’t venture very far from their vehicle and only hunt easy access locations.
Having guys and gals like that flood the woods is actually a major advantage for you. Outside hunting pressure can get deer moving and be exploited with the right setups and strategies. In many cases, they’ll inadvertently push deer right into your lap and very few of these weekend warriors will ever hunt the hard-to-reach areas that you’ll be targeting this season. Have the attitude that you’re going to hit the woods earlier, go deeper, hunt harder, and stay later than the competition, which is exactly why you’re going to knock a giant public-land buck straight into the dirt!