4 Proven Public Land Plays for Whitetails

If you want to be in the driver’s seat this fall on public land, then check out these four out-of-the-ordinary whitetail strategies.

4 Proven Public Land Plays for Whitetails

As a veteran bowhunter with public land experiences across the big game gridiron, my experiences reveal that whether you hunt whitetails or wapiti, on public land your greatest opponent are other hunters. A handful of these rivals possess the savviness of a true predator, but most fit into America’s mold of the average hunter. The majority are out of shape, follow the path of least resistance, and follow the traditions of hunting. To be successful on public lands, you often need to sidestep these go-tos and make up your own rules for a tag-notching opportunity.

1. You’re Burning Daylight

If there is one thing I have learned from years of hunting, public land or anywhere, most other hunters do not rise and shine to be first. Most of my hunting partners get up at a decent hour to make it to their stand, but in a public land setting you need to be at the head of the line, not holding the number 10 in a take-a-number line. 

This earlier arrival ensures you get first crack at hunting the best habitat and have plenty of time to set up. Many public areas mandate you remove treestands and ground blinds daily. This seemingly small set up chore could easily rob you of 30 minutes, not including the time to hike in. 

Being first requires you to plan for an invisible incursion into a deer’s homeland in addition to setting an early alarm. Obviously consider entering with a favorable wind, but more importantly, circumnavigate all areas you suspect deer to be using in the dark. Think managed food sources, meadows, edges of all sorts and even oak draws. By slipping past prime nighttime areas and setting up for intercept, it gives deer ample confidence to show up in your chosen shooting lanes at shooting light.    

2. While You’re Up, Hustle Ahead

Living the life of an early rising city waste collector gives you added minutes to go farther on a public property. Do it. More than 70 percent of the American public is overweight or worse yet, obese. About 80 percent do not get enough exercise. These government statistics warn of danger, but give you an advantage if you use your gym membership wisely. 

Separate yourself as far as possible and accordingly to the size of the hunting property. Although a hunting property may appear to have ideal habitat throughout, any areas adjacent to busy roads or designated parking areas typically lose deer activity during daylight. Even after dark, my experience is that parking areas attract night visitation by the younger crowd searching for a place to escape oversight from parents or law enforcement. Loud talk, gunshots and campfires at these remote locations nudge deer to far corners, particularly after dawn. 

When hunters arrive, they tend to stay close to the parking area for a quick in and out hunt that fits their physical abilities. I have seen research that states this distance is 400 yards and extending to nearly a mile. You will need to judge the terrain difficulties, but rest assured that pushing past 1,000 yards in challenging landscapes separates you from the Wednesday night bowling league hunters.  

3. Avoid the Path of Least Resistance

You can start by taking this advice literally. Avoid paths as much as possible. The mainstream hunting crowd will follow them like lemmings for easy hunting access. Where I contradict is when you need to make time in the dark to access a remote area of a public hunting area. Pathways provide routes without obstruction and easy to light with a headlamp for a marathon pace to out-of-the-way parcels void of trails. The same is true of exiting after the hunt. Once you drop back onto a trail, it offers a safer path back to the trailhead. My HuntStand hunting app (www.huntstand.com) speeds along my navigation whether I am on a trail or not. 

I recently had a conversation with an East Coast based hunter who uses an E-bike to scoot down a trail quickly. Once in the vicinity of good hunting, he ditches the bike, hikes through rugged terrain into whitetail country that has been producing 150-point bucks.  

Speaking of trailheads, use your hunting app to inspect all sides of a property. Look for any other public lands or public rights of way that give you legal access to your targeted public hunting area. Land managers expect you to park at designated trailheads, but if legal, locate jump-off areas that others may avoid, plus give you a quick route, albeit maybe more difficult, to the good hunting.

A top-notch hunting app, such as HuntStand, can help you navigate a public parcel.
A top-notch hunting app, such as HuntStand, can help you navigate a public parcel.

4. Be the Introvert

It was dark as the truck pulled up to my truck parked on a field approach. The hunter rolled down his window and asked if I needed help, suggesting I had vehicle issues. I politely declined and said I was just packing up from a hunt. Seeing the boat trailered behind his truck, I queried if he was duck hunting. His reply brought me a smile as he said he was deer hunting and using the boat to access hunting ground shut off except for water access. Yes, he was a hunting introvert shunning tradition.

As you probe any public lands, look for ways to succeed over the average hunter. Using a boat to access landlocked public lands is one option. I have used a canoe and chest waders over the years to cross bodies of water for entrance to areas off limits to the unprepared. Out West, big game hunters are now hiring helicopters to land them in public lands landlocked by private ownership. That may seem a bit extreme for the common whitetail hunter, but unique situations call for unique answers. 

Another option for larger public areas (think state and national forests) is to hike in using a backpack carrying a bivy camp. This gives you several days of hunting without need to return to a base camp or motel every night. Many whitetail locations have moderate enough weather where a spike-camp setting would provide comfortable digs to aid in tagging a public land brute most avoid due to the work involved.  

As more private lands shutter to public access, it forces more of us onto public parcels. Do not let this influx discourage your hunting interests. Set aside tradition and what others expect from you to go beyond in the world of public lands.   

Photos by Mark Kayser


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