I can’t put it into words. I stammer and stumble every time I try. I can’t pen some poetic sentence that will do it justice. All I can do is tell you in the simplest way, in the most honest terms — bowhunting whitetail deer on public land has provided me with the most satisfying memories of my stick-and-string tenure.
No private leases. No lush food plots. No names of shooter bucks on a hit list. When you chase whitetails on public dirt, it’s about rolled-up aerial maps starred with stand sites, phone numbers of game wardens and biologists, tents, ratty motels, Mountain House meals and greasy fast food. It’s about trail cameras and sweat equity and the satisfaction of wrapping your tag around a beast plucked from a piece of ground that any other bowhunter on the planet can access.
Sound like fun? Is the adrenaline pumping through your veins? Are you ready to “buck” the established whitetail norm? If so, good — that was the idea. But before you go and dive headfirst into a tract of public ground close to your home or burn up the blacktop and hit some acreage in another state, you need to make a plan. Fools rush in. Here’s what you need to know to give yourself a fighting chance.
Scout From Afar
I always start my public-land research with a cyber visit on the game and fish or parks and wildlife website of the state I plan to hunt. In recent years these websites have been beefed up considerably and offer loads of valuable information. Start by looking at the harvest statistics in the area/county you plan to hunt. Take special note of how many hunters took to the field, how many does and bucks were harvested and the overall hunter success rate. Next, look for any public-land access maps found directly on the site you’re surfing. States like Kansas and Nebraska offer Walk-In Hunting atlases as well as state-managed ground. Others, like Oklahoma, offer virtual grasslands maps. Colorado lists and provides maps of state wildlife areas and national forest tracts. Cross-reference the maps with the harvest-success rates to locate an area that promises excellent public access and an above-average (25 percent) harvest-success rate.
Once I have a general area outlined, I burn up the phone lines. Start by contacting the local game warden and the area biologist. These folks can be tough customers to get in touch with, but everyone I’ve left a message for over the years has called me back. The key is being ready for that callback, and in the rare instance they answer on your first call, having something more intelligent to say than “Umm.” Have a list of questions — not in your mind but penned on paper — that you want to ask them. The more prepared you are, the better information you will obtain. Here’s a list of questions I asked a Nebraska wildlife biologist before embarking on a recent hunt to the Cornhusker State:
- Of the public-land access areas I’m looking at, how do they rate in your mind? Are there any others you would recommend?
- When do these tracts tend to receive the most hunting pressure?
- What’s the current deer mortality trend? Have the herds been affected by harsh winters, EHD or predation?
- Are there any areas you would absolutely avoid?
- I’m not scared to walk and get off the beaten path. Am I overlooking any difficult-to-access areas where I can find solitude and decent deer numbers?
You will no doubt come up with some additional questions, but these will help get you pointed in the right direction.
After your interviews with state personnel, contact any local bow shops or sporting goods stores in the area. Yes, many will be reluctant to give information, but if you can get a local talking — a local that most likely hunts deer on private ground — they will typically provide you with the public-land scoop.
Now that you’ve acquired some over-the-phone tips, it’s time to go back to the Web. Take a moment and plug the names of the state wildlife areas, named walk-in pieces and the like into Google or Yahoo and see what comes up. What’s the hope? That nothing will come up. If a search result for a particular track comes back with links to archery chat rooms or Web articles, cross it off your list. You want to avoid the crowds. You want to find a spot that doesn’t make the local newspaper’s “Best Hunting Spots” headline. Your new secret honeyholes, at least in my experience, will often end up being small 100-acre-or-less tracts. Don’t be afraid to go explore a tract just because it doesn’t look very big, especially if the surrounding private ground looks awesome.
Finally, download aerial map services like those offered by Google Earth and ScoutLook to your computer or iPad. These handy services allow you to comb your newly found hunting areas from the comfort of your couch. In addition to prospecting for likely deer haunts, focus on those off-the-beaten path areas, especially those that require a mile or two jaunt. Most public-land deer hunters simply aren’t willing to lug a stand to these locations. Also, especially when looking over your chosen smaller tracts, pay close attention to the private ground surrounding them. Is there agriculture nearby? Are there funnels of timber that lead into the public land? Many of the public-land bucks hanging on my wall have come from neighboring private ground.
Nothing will lead you down a road of public-land burnout like setting unrealistic goals. I like big, heavy horns as much as the next bowhunter, and shooting a mature buck is always in the back of my mind, but you have to set goals that you have a chance to achieve.
First, know what size bucks dwell in the area you’re hunting. A quick glance in the Pope & Young Record Book will reveal the “average” size of the bucks in the county or counties you’re hunting. Don’t set a goal to drop the hammer on a 150-inch brute if the last one harvested in your area was in 1968. You’re setting yourself up for failure by doing this. Match your goals to the area you’re hunting and your public-land hunt will be much more enjoyable. It’s also OK, whether you’re in any areas known for “legend” whitetails or not, to set a goal to simply kill a buck — any buck. I know shooting mature deer is the rave these days, but most of that rave has been fueled by those who spend their time on private ground. When hunting public land, the only expectations I try to live up to or those I set for myself.