Hunting Public Land for Whitetails

Aerial Map by Aerial Map

I began hunting whitetails on public land when I was much younger. Being younger meant I had a lot more time to spend in the marsh and woods exploring the harder-to-get-to areas where I could escape the crowds. Never-the-less, the desire was always there to be one of the “lucky” ones to eventually find myself on a private chunk of land I could have all to myself and no longer have to worry about stepping on anyone else’s toes, much less have mine trampled on, either. 

I would eventually find myself on a couple of small private parcels to hunt, one of which was no larger than 5 acres, and another that was even smaller and more of a backyard than private “acreage”. I completely abandoned my public areas to hunt these private lands because I had the mentality engrained in the back of my mind that any private is better than public.

Both of these small pieces were limited in where I could actually set up to get a shot at a deer and even then the worry of whether or not the deer would fall within the boundary’s I had to work with was always the burden of worry.

I ended up scoring permission on a larger tract of land that showed a lot of promise and I thought my luck was changing for the better. In some ways it was, but what I learned is that despite being a larger tract of land I still had boundaries much smaller than I had on the public in the area.

Public land offers the versatility of variable terrain and larger expanses to explore and try new sets. If you mess up in one area, you can look for another and try something different. When you’re on private, messing up can sometimes have greater effects on your future hunts as deer may relocate to areas exceeding the private boundaries you have to work within. I hunt one particular private piece of land where the day you get winded could very well be the last day you see deer in the daylight for longer than I’m willing to wait, so I move on and hunt other land if I’ve made that mistake.
View from the air

By no means is my point to try and steer you away from seeking out permission on private lands, nor am I suggesting if you’re currently hunting private that your odds are worse than the guy who hunts public. What I am saying is that it doesn’t hurt to expand your hunting areas beyond the limits of strictly private.

Overhunting a property is easier to do than most realize, or are willing to acknowledge, anyways. Seeing deer is one thing, but getting the edge on a mature buck doesn’t come easy – at least not consistently. Every hunter is eligible for a lucky encounter now and again, but big mature bucks don’t grow that old by being stupid.

If you know where a big buck is bedded down and you move in to hunt that deer, whether you sneak up close to his staging area in the afternoon, or if you set up on his transition route from his bed and the food, if he comes through after hours he’s going to smell you were there – period. Whether or not he cares is mystery we’re all forced to gamble on when we set foot in the woods, but undeniably it will put him on alert that some “thing” was on the land and it didn’t smell good. This is particularly why some of the biggest names in hunting will tell you they rarely sit a tree more than once.

There are more ways than one to avoid overhunting a tree beyond lugging climbing sticks and a stand out every time you hike into the woods, only to pack it all out after shooting light fades. The average working man/woman only has so much time in between punching out that time clock and the sun going down, so what are some options to getting into the woods fast with adequate time to effectively hunt?

While I admit there are some mighty comfortable treestands out there, mine aren’t any of them. I buy small stands that are light, reputable as safe, and most importantly, inexpensive. When you buy a lot of stands, either your significant other is going to resent you when they can’t afford groceries because you spent all the money on stands, or you’re going to resent hunting because it’s costing you so much money. I’m the guy with 10 stands placed out on the back 40 because I need options for certain winds, the ability to avoid overhunting the same spot and the glory of scenery changes – it keeps things fresh.

I spend countless hours on the occasional lunch break and staying up at night looking at my local county GIS plat maps, indexing perspective parcels in a notebook and calling property owners on my way home from work in hopes one will eventually say, “Yes, you may hunt my land”. Losing permission is a reality and it happens more often than gaining permission, which is why I’m always on the prowl. I like to have at least two different private pieces to bounce between, but have had up to four on occasion.

Getting back to public land, some seriously underrated public pieces are overlooked by hunters all over the country. No matter where you’re hunting, if you do your homework, I’m certain you can find yourself that diamond in the rough. MFL (Managed Forest Law) lands, which are privately owned acreages, may be open to the public for recreational activities like fishing and hunting. Land owners receive a tax break on their land from the state if they enroll it under this program, but not all MFL properties are open to the public for hunting. An MFL property has to be considered “Open”, or MFLO, in order to be available to the public for hunting. Similarly, FCL (Forest Crop Law) properties are also open to the public for hunting and fishing. Check with your state DNR officials to find out if these lands are available in your state and do your research to learn all the laws associated with your privileges of accessing these lands.Public Land Buck

State-owned public hunting grounds may vary in size, but nearly all of them have potential to produce a successful hunt if you put in your homework. Getting away from the crowds is your very best bet at finding likely areas to tag a buck, so start there. Review and print aerials available to you on-line and pay attention to obvious foot trails stemming from the parking lots – you’ll want to avoid the areas that appear to be the places of interest those obvious foot trails are point towards. Drive around the land and see where cars are parked and take notes. If there are private lands bordering the public, perhaps those areas are the furthest away from the nearest parking lot available to other hunters. Sometimes those landowners aren’t hard to convince to provide access to you if you are simply looking to park and cross their yard every once in a great while. If there’s a river or stream winding through the public, consider accessing hard-to-get-to areas by boat or wading – I’ve done both options and wound up in some pretty untouched areas, logging the locations and approaches on a hand held GPS.

No matter what you do, don’t overstay your welcome overhunting a small area. It’s easy to get caught up hunting the same piece of private day in and day out because you don’t have to compete with other hunters, but it becomes increasingly harder to kill a big mature buck. As Americans we’re afforded plenty of resources to have successful seasons in the deer woods, but it may require work and careful planning. At the end of the day, when you remember those hunts, the changes of scenery and encounters you may experience will be long-lasting memories that will write pages of stories you can replay in your mind whenever you get that itch.

Good hunts afield fellow Whitetail’R’s. Another deer hunting season is upon us.