By Alex Comstock
Deer hunting public land can be a bear of a challenge to tackle. There are unique hurdles that present themselves when hunting any public land, but if you're willing to put in the work, the reward can be just as great as hunting a pristine piece of privately managed land. The ability to think outside the box, and hunt differently can go a long ways.
The 2015 season is when my buddy Tyler and I started to hunt primarily public land. In the two years of doing so, we've learned a great deal about mature bucks, and have had a fair amount of success utilizing the strategies I'm about to outline. I know what you might be thinking - the fact that we've only hunted public land for two seasons isn't much. And I agree with that, but regardless, I always say the proof is in the results. Not that it's for validation or I'm trying to talk myself up, but I want you to understand why I'm saying these strategies are proven. I'm not just pulling them out of thin air. During the past two seasons, between us two, we've managed to harvest three mature bucks - all with archery equipment. Our highlight was during the 2015 season, when Tyler arrowed a booner we had been after (feature image for this blog post).
The little things are what will ultimately make the difference on public land. And with these strategies that have proven themselves to me, hopefully they will bring you more success.
*Editor's note - Though there are several strategies that have aided me in my public land hunting, these three are what I've found to be the most important to my success.
Don't Look for "Good" Spots
What are most hunters looking for when seeking out public land on some type of map? Most are looking for that golden spot. You know that perfect looking funnel, or that obvious pinch point that looks absolutely prime? Take a gander at locations like these and odds are there will be more human sign than deer sign. What I've found to work well is locating those "off the map" spots as I call them. They're either small, or don't look like much from a computer screen.
When I find a piece of public land that doesn't look like much, I'll take a look and see what's around it. I might even take a drive in the area around the public land. If I think the general area seems like it could hold a mature buck, I'll sneak into the public and do a quick scout. The first thing I'm looking for is human sign, and then deer sign. If I don't notice any human sign, regardless of deer sign, I'll throw up a trail camera over an exisiting scrape, or make a mock scrape to help gather an inventory of the bucks using the property.
The best example of this situation I can give is when Tyler was able to harvest the buck in the photo used as the header image. I located a small woodlot in October that looked like a speck on google earth. I thought it might be just enough to hold a mature buck. I went in, did a quick scout along the edges, didn't notice any human sign, and threw up a trail camera over a scrape that I found. A week later, I went back and checked the cam, and had multiple bucks hitting the scrape, including the giant Tyler ended up arrowing. We waited for the right conditions, went in, and on the first sit, we were able to put him down. And that takes us to the next major strategy.
Know the Right Time to Strike
When you're hunting public land and chasing mature bucks, you don't often get to make mistakes. Screw up once, and your chances can go right out the window. An important thing that I've learned hunting public land is that your first time in can be the best time to make it happen. With that said, you may have to wait for the appropriate conditions to strike. Let's go back to the previous example I was talking about above...
After finding the giant buck, instead of diving right in after him, I backed out and hung an observation stand on the very boundary of the woodlot. I saw a number of deer that night, and decided we needed to wait to jump into where I thought we could have an encounter with the buck until the time was right. We waited a week, and on October 23rd, a cold front came through with drizzling rain. Even though it was during the week and both me and Tyler had class, we knew it was now or never. With that in mind, we skipped school, hung a new set, and five minutes before last light, Tyler sent an arrow through the biggest buck he had ever seen.
Knowing the right time to strike doesn't always mean waiting though. The buck that I was able to harvest this past season was due in large part to knowing the time was hot, and I needed to hunt now. I showed up to a new property in December during a frigidly cold day with the intention of just scouting. Upon arriving, I found out the corn field that was on the property was never picked, and the deer sign was incredible. Opposed to going through with my plans of scouting, I knew the conditions were perfect, and I found a spot to put my ground blind, and hunted that night. I ended up seeing the most deer I had ever seen in a single sit, and was able to put down a big mature buck.
Hunt During The Week
Maybe I give mature bucks too much credit, but through my experiences, I've come to the determination that you have a better chance of harvesting a mature buck on public land during the week. Why? Well, when do most people hunt? The weekend. A mature buck isn't born as a four or five year old. They learn through experience, and become a survivor. When deer season starts, they know they're being hunted. All of a sudden people are entering the woods who haven't all year. And on a couple days a week, the pressure is turned up even more. Call me crazy, but I believe it to be true.
Out of the three mature bucks Tyler and I have been able to harvest in the last couple of years, two of the three came during the week. And the one that fell on a weekend was opening day of archery season. I know it can be more difficult to hunt during the week with work, life, and whatever else may present itself, but anytime you can slip out during a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, I'd recommend giving it a try.
Public land isn't for everybody. It requires you to hunt harder, smarter, and think differently. You might focus only on public land, or maybe it's just a small part of what you hunt. Either way, consider these three strategies, and see what happens.