A Public Land Hunt to Remember

By Alex Comstock 

This story is another one that was written years ago, this one being created after the fall of 2015. Just as my other story from years ago that I shared last month, this one was never published anywhere, and I now wanted to share it with you, as there are valuable lessons I believe that can be taken from it. And with that, I hope you enjoy the story of this public land hunt from a few years ago...

“Trophy buck”. The term is tossed around loosely in the deer hunting community all the time. Except, what is a trophy buck? There is a great deal of misconception when it comes to this term. To one person, a trophy may qualify as a buck over 150 inches, or three years of age or older. To another, it may be a spike buck. The story of my 2015 Minnesota buck qualifies to be as much of a trophy as any buck I have shot in my life (three years later, this still holds true).

Due to transferring colleges, I was moving four hours away from my hometown. Having a new area to hunt can always be challenging, especially when there isn’t much quality deer hunting habitat and seemingly every little piece of woods already has someone hunting it. I couldn’t get permission to hunt anywhere, which was quite frustrating. Because of season nearing, I turned to the only piece of public land near me. The term public land can have a vast difference in meaning depending on who you talk to. Some people love hunting public land and the challenge that comes with it. Others cringe at the term, thinking immediately of the places they’ve seen with cars lined up for what seems like miles on opening day of gun season. Knowing that this particular ninety acres of hardwoods was the only public land anywhere near me, I figured it would get hunted rather hard. Along with only one access point right along a dirt road, and being just twenty minutes away from multiple towns, this tract of land laid out to be rather challenging to hunt.

It is always wise to set realistic expectations when hunting public land of this type. Don’t get down when others hunters show up because it’s inevitable. In this particular instance, I figured I had probably the first two weeks of bow season before the land got too overly rundown with hunters. The average temperature in the late summer was excruciatingly hot, and if these temperatures kept up into the early part of the season, I knew that would turn people off from hunting. Not as many people want to deal with the hot temperatures and mosquitoes. Finding any little advantage you can will help stack the odds in your favor. In order to be successful, you have to do something that other hunters won’t do. For me, this started in the latter part of August. I would go out and glass the fields on either side of this piece of woods. There was no else doing this, and I noticed a pattern nearly all of the deer stuck to. To give a picture of what I was looking at, this piece of land was ninety acres of hardwoods running east and west. It was more or less a rectangle with a soybean field on the south side of the woods and a winter wheat field on the north side. To the west was private land and the east side was the only access point along the road. I would sit along the road roughly seven hundred yards away, one night glassing the south field, the next night glassing the north one.

After doing this night after night, not only did I notice that deer were using the north side more often, which I would have never guessed due to the fact you would think during the early season deer would be hitting the soybeans hard. Doing the work while others are at home can show you details about deer movement that go unnoticed by others. After glassing these deer night in and night out, I thought I figured out why they were coming out of the woods on the north side. Along the field edge, roughly a quarter mile away from the road, there was a slight L bend. What this did was shield the deer from the road. They were more apt to move in daylight and they felt safer. When deer were out in the bean field on the south side, the instant a car drove by, the field would be cleared. This simply didn’t happen when they were on the north side.

After storing this information in the back of my head, I noticed that when the deer would enter the field, they always fed down the field edge further west and out of my sight. I decided to drive down a little road that was about a half mile away and paralleled the direction the deer would feed. I would glass and try to figure out where they were heading. Once I did this, I noticed a small bean field down the edge, over a mile from the road. Then it occurred to me. The deer were bedding in the big chunk of woods (public land), and they would make their way into the winter wheat field just on the other side of the L bend, which was a staging area; it wasn’t their main food source. Their destination field was the bean field (private land) which was nowhere near a road. They favored this bean field over the main one on the south side of the public land because of the security.

The setup for my hunt.

The setup for my hunt.

Most deer hunters don’t want to walk that far, or have to do a ton of work to shoot a deer. I figured on this piece of particular public land, a majority of the hunters would want to sit near the road on the big bean field to the south. I thought that my only chance of shooting a buck would to be as far away from the road as possible. With the information I had gathered from glassing, I set up a stand on the north side around L bend to attempt to intercept the deer as they fed towards the secluded bean field. Additionally, I set up a stand on the south side over the big bean field, but at the furthest corner, in case my wind was wrong for my other stand.

Once season finally arrived, I was itching to get into the stand. Opening weekend, I couldn’t get out due to other obligations, but during the second weekend it was go time. My first day hunting there, three trucks were parked right by the field on the north side. I was discouraged due to the fact I didn’t want to walk by any of the other hunters on the way to my stand. I was getting there late and wanted to be respectful. I decided to hunt my secondary stand I had put up on the south side corner. That night I saw a few deer, but nothing I wanted to shoot. Getting there early the next day would be crucial, as I didn’t want to have the same problem occur once again.

On the next day, I decided to get out to the stand overly early ensuring I would be the first person out there. I was all set up in my stand by 3:00pm with sunset not occurring until nearly 7:15pm. It was a day that most people wouldn’t think deer would want to move. The heat was near unbearable, topping out at almost ninety degrees. What was in my favor was the fact that across the road from the access point of the public land there were farmers harvesting a sugar beet field. The combination of deer not liking to be near the road as it was already and the harvesting of the sugar beet field led me to believe that, if the deer were to move, they would be coming by me.

Preparing correctly and working harder than other hunters can lead to some really fun hunts. On this particular night, my preparation and willingness to walk further than anyone else led to one of the most fun hunts of my life. At about 6:00pm, deer seemingly started popping out from behind every tree. Everywhere I looked there were deer. There were some does and small bucks doing just what I thought they would do which excited me. They would file out of the woods about seventy yards to my right and feed right by me on their way to the secluded bean field. In an hour, I had over twenty deer do this, and they all went by me within twenty yards. I passed on a few young bucks knowing there were some decent three year olds and at least one really mature buck in the area. At roughly 7:00pm, I noticed a doe that came out of the woods at a different spot than the rest of the deer. She came out directly underneath me. While she was milling around at the base of my tree, I noticed another buck feeding along the field towards me. Except, unlike the other deer, this one was by itself. Right away I hoped it was a shooter. With the lone doe still within five yards of my stand, I couldn’t get my binoculars on the approaching buck to get a better look at him. As he fed closer and closer to me, I made the executive decision to shoot him. He wasn’t the biggest buck in the world, but I guessed him to be at least a three and a half year old and he was a solid ten pointer. Not knowing if there would be another chance to shoot a buck here, he would make me just as happy as any other buck I had shot in my life.

Of course, as it usually happens when you decide to shoot something, the buck changed his route just slightly. Instead of feeding right by me at twenty yards just as most of the deer did, he ventured out further than the rest of the deer. I quickly ranged the spot I thought I would get a shot and it read forty two yards. With just a light wind, it was in my effective range. As the buck worked towards my predetermined spot in the field, I drew my bow back. He walked into my sight and I gave him a soft grunt, and let the arrow fly. As soon as my arrow struck the buck, I knew the shot was too far back. I was thrilled that I just shot a really nice buck on public land, but I also knew the hunt was far from over.

After the shot, I decided I would give the buck about four hours, and then head back to track him. There was much deliberation on letting him sit overnight, but there was concerns with coyotes getting to him before me. Once gathering reinforcements and going over the shot over and over again in my head, we headed out to track the buck. Walking up to the site of impact is always nerve racking. I was desperately hoping there would be good blood, and that it would be a simple track job.

At first glance, I knew this would not be the case. The arrow contained hardly any blood, and we had to search for nearly twenty minutes before even finding a drop. After following a minuscule blood trail for hours, we decided to call it a night around 1:00am. We would come back first thing in the morning to get back on the blood trail and hopefully find the buck. I was hoping the tracking would go smoother with some light, but what happened was quite the opposite. After getting back on the blood trail at first light, we found it no easier. The buck would bed multiple times, and circled back and forth countless times. At some points, we were on our hands and knees searching for the next drop of blood. This went on for hours. Thoughts began to creep into the back of my head to give up. By noon we had looked for the buck for over seven hours to no avail. Just as I was thinking this, I looked down and noticed a substantial amount of blood. I all of the sudden got my confidence back and as I went on, there was more and more good blood up ahead. Not long after, I looked ahead and saw the glimmer of an antler. I raced over to my buck, excited beyond belief! After one of the longest and most exhausting tracking jobs I had been a part of, I was thrilled to have finally found my buck after roughly 10 hours of blood trailing. At that moment I didn’t care how hot it was, or how many mosquitoes were attacking me. I was thankful to have successfully recovered a deer I was proud of.

Going above and beyond can reward you on public land.

Going above and beyond can reward you on public land.

Every time I recover a deer, I can’t help but reflect on all the work that leads up to the moment of gratitude. This buck was particularly special to me, as it was my first buck harvested on highly pressured public land. Not every buck has to be a mega giant to be considered a “trophy." I had shot multiple bucks bigger than this one, but I didn’t have to deal with as many hunters for the other bucks. There is so much more that went into the hunt besides just the end result. When I see the European mount hanging on my wall, I’ll know the work that went into that deer, and that’s all that matters. So the next time you think that you have to shoot some crazy monster buck because that’s all you see on TV, go out to that piece of public land you always see cars parked at. If you do, and work harder than everyone else, it just might reward you with a public land trophy of your own.