If, like me, you are fortunate enough to be able to hunt quality public land for whitetail deer throughout the Midwest and other areas throughout the country, you know the excitement and thrill that it can provide. I’m sure you are questioning my choice of words for the opening statement. I assure you I meant what I said. “Fortunate” and “public land” do not find themselves in the same sentence very often. Public land gets a bad rap, sometimes it is deserved and other times it certainly is not. We are certainly fortunate to have such a valuable resource available to us sportsman. Those who have taken the time and put in the work that’s required to hunt public land know this first hand.
Public land can make any hunter want to put down his bow for the season and call the bank to take out a loan to purchase a fancy hunting lease for the next year. In an era of immediate gratification some hunters have lost a true sense of what the hunt is really about. Just because the land isn’t managed 365 days a year, or you’re not the only person hunting the property, it doesn’t mean the hunt isn’t worth the effort, but it takes that effort. Many things in hunting, much like life, are all how you look at them and where some see public land as a last resort or something to be looked down upon, I see opportunity. With a different outlook and philosophy, along with these few tips and you too can put your tag on a dandy public land whitetail.
The archery hunter and the rifle hunter have two very different philosophies when it comes to deer hunting. I’m not saying that gun hunter’s are wrong and bowhunter’s are right, or the other way around. I’m just encouraging hunters to think outside the box and use what they know to their advantage. Rifle hunters can simply take the information given in this article and information they have gathered elsewhere and do the exact same thing. For those who bowhunt public land during rifle season, those who hunt after their states gun season ends or those who hunt heavily pressured land, we can learn from these different philosophies and use that knowledge as bowhunters to our advantage.
The nationally agreed upon argument against whitetail hunting on public land is too much hunting pressure. This is the Achilles heel of public land and an argument that someone always tries to point out. They all say, “There are too many gun hunters on public land spooking all the deer.” In some cases they might be right, but they are wrong in most cases. With research you can find public land that is not heavily hunted. Where others see a problem, some see an opportunity. If you didn’t know this already, guns are not the only weapon you can hunt deer with! Just because the masses may take to the field on opening day of gun season in November, it doesn’t mean the woods will be standing room only come September. Bowhunters on public lands are only a fraction of rifle hunters that hunt public land. In many states archery hunters have two full months of hunting free of gun hunters. This is a perfect opportunity to get in the woods and tag an early season public land whitetail. If you are currently a gun hunter, I would encourage you to try your hand at bowhunting. It’s a great opportunity to learn a new skill and it will no doubt make you a better hunter.
Every hunter knows that bullets fly farther than arrows and because of this, hunters using these weapons hunt deer in different ways. Both with different ideas about how to go about tagging their buck. An archery hunter needs his buck to be within close range in order to shoot, but a rifle hunter has much more room to play with. Distance is such an important issue for bowhunters that it requires much more preparation than hunting with a rifle.
Since a deer must be so close, scouting plays a huge role in determining an archery hunter’s success. Every detail must be planned out and every scenario thought through. Scouting on public land is best done in January or February after the season has ended. Deer you may encounter will have forgotten the intrusion by the time next season comes around. Also, in most states during this time, public lands tend to see less traffic. This gives you the opportunity to have the property all to yourself, while not disturbing anyone’s hunt. You need to look for the typical deer sign. Trails, rubs, scrapes, funnels, pinch points, and food. But the most important piece of habitat to look for is cover.
Being that public lands may receive high hunting pressure throughout hunting season, cover becomes very important to public land whitetails. They need to find that place where they feel comfortable enough to bed down. As we think about hunting pressure on public land we need to rethink our typical thoughts on the topic of pressure.
The saying, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” is spot on in this situation. We need to stop complaining about other hunters and as I said earlier, use what we already know. Gun hunters need open land. They like to be able to see farther for several reasons. First, in order to be able to get a shot they need a bigger gap in the available cover because of the scopes on their guns. Second, they like open areas because they have the ability to shoot farther. It makes sense that if you can shoot farther, you want to see farther. Open cover gives you the ability to see and shoot deer farther away. Because of this, rifle hunters will typically choose stand locations that give them the ability to see quite a distance. I mentioned earlier that we needed to look for cover when scouting. We need to do this because gun hunters will not typically hunt thick cover, being that shot opportunities are fewer and farther between. This means that there is less pressure in those areas where cover is thickest. This is perfect for bowhunters because we can hunt thick cover and still have plenty of shot opportunities. Archers only need small shooting lanes. Public land may have pressure from gun hunters, but not every single square foot of public land may see the same amount of pressure.
Now that we have found the thick cover, and know why we should be hunting it, we need to know how to hunt it. Deer use this thick cover to hide from gun hunters and other archery hunters. More often than not, whitetails are using this cover as a bedding area. It is a place they feel secure. Because this is a bedding area, we do not want to disturb this area. The deer currently feel comfortable enough to remain on the public land and we don’t want to do anything to change that.
The best strategy in this situation is to hunt the escape routes the deer are using. When the deer feel hunting pressure or are bumped by other hunters they use trails they are familiar with. These trails lead right to the thick cover you have found while scouting in the off-season. You want to find the deer highways that lead right to the thick cover. Find the edge of the thick cover and set your stand far enough away that you won’t spook any deer that may already be bedded down inside while you are walking to and from your stand. When choosing a stand location, or which stand to hunt, remember to predict where the deer are coming from. This way you know where the deer will be and where they are going and you can play the wind accordingly.
A setup like this allows other hunters to drive the deer towards you. When hunting a stand similar to this on public land, remember staying on stand longer often pays off. When other hunters get restless during the mid-morning, they leave their stand. During this time they may startle deer on their way out. When they spook these deer, you can bet they will be running a trail straight to the thick cover near you.
On the surface high hunting pressure on some public lands from rifle and other bowhunters may seem like a kiss of death for public land success. But if you think out of the box and use what you already know to your advantage you can put your tag on a public land whitetail buck.