A DIY Whitetail Hunt Is a Challenging but Rewarding Adventure
I love the challenge of a do-it-yourself roadtrip for whitetails. I suppose that’s why I have been on about two dozen of them in the last 15 years. I have had some exciting successes and some crushing failures during these hunts, but I have learned from each one of them. Hunting for mature whitetails, away from home, mostly on public land, is a challenge that will humble you, but the highs are so high in part because the lows are so low.
I have learned a lot from all those hunts and I would like to pass along a few tips that will help you learn from my experience. Do these seven things well and your chances of coming home with a nice buck in the back of the truck will go way up.
1. Do Your Homework
Much of your success will hinge on how well you do your background work before you ever leave home. Using online aerial photography will help you narrow down your search from the comfort of your home. Find likely looking spots to check out based on how they look from the air. Funnels and likely bedding areas can be found and noted for a rut hunt. Food sources can be located for an early season hunt; you get the idea.
Before you leave home, you should also make a few calls to local biologists, game officers and local sporting goods stores. Ask them specific questions about which areas have the best potential, which areas get the most pressure, etc. Also, use the online hunting forums to ask specific questions. It’s surprising how helpful some other hunters can be if you just ask.
2. Burn the Boot Leather
Because you now have a good list of areas to check out, you won’t be scouting at random. Spend the time to walk out the areas and look for the sign you need to verify that your hunches are correct. Sometimes they will be spot on, other times they will be a bust. You must verify in person, there is no other way.
Plan to put on some miles the first couple days of the hunt to learn the property well. Find the bedding areas and the feeding areas. Find the rut sign and take note of all of it.
3. Use Your Scouting Cameras
I cannot understate the value of using scouting cameras to inventory the deer on the property and learn their movement patterns. I will commonly hang six to eight Covert cameras the first day or two of the hunt. I will check them most every day early in the hunt while I attempt to learn the area. As I begin to learn more about the property, I will check them less often or pull them altogether.
These cameras will not only allow you to learn about the habits of the deer, but it will help you inventory the bucks so you can make decisions. One of my favorite ways to get photos of bucks is to find primary scrapes and spice them up with scent. Cameras on these sweet-smelling scrapes will get a photo of most every buck in the area within 48 hours. This will help you decide what size of a buck you want to hold out for.
4. Scout and Hunt Aggressively
When I have all season to hunt a property at home, I would never consider walking right through a bedding area during the season, but on a DIY hunt away from home, I know the value of pushing the edges of intrusion. While I try to minimize intrusion in any way possible by spraying down with Scent Killer and walking downwind of trails, there are times when I need to violate the rules of intrusion because I need the information I can gather.
You must scout and hunt more aggressively not only because you need to learn the property, but also because you have a limited amount of time to get the job done and you need to gather information quickly so you aren’t hunting blind. Push the boundaries a little when necessary.
5. Gain Confidence
Resist the temptation to get in a tree too early. One of my biggest mistakes early in my pursuit of public land DIY bucks was setting up a stand and hunting as soon as I found a bunch of sign. On a rut hunt, I would find an area all torn up with rubs and scrapes and I couldn’t wait to get into a stand.
These days, I learn the area well before choosing my stand sites because I feel it’s important to spend a lot of time in great locations. If you have the confidence that you are in the right spot, it’s a whole lot easier to park your butt there and wait it out instead of wondering if there is a better spot over the hill.
6. Stay Mobile and Flexible
Things change quickly and you can’t always wait for the right conditions, so you must be mobile and always have backup options. Say you get up before daylight and discover the wind isn’t from the direction you were expecting. You should have a stand in a place that will work for that wind direction, too.
Say the wind changes during the day or a cornfield gets harvested the previous night, you need to make a move quickly. Use equipment that allows you to get it down and move it to another area with minimum effort and noise. This may mean moving to another tree a few feet away or it may mean moving to another property. Either way, you must be ready to go and be willing to do the hard work.
7. Keep Working Hard
Laziness may kill your hunt. I have ruined more spots than I care to remember because I didn’t get the heck out and move to another location due to a wind or weather change. Hunting this way is hard work. If you want a vacation, go to Cancun. If you want a big buck, you need to be willing to bust your hump every day.
I have learned this lesson the hard way but I have learned it well. In Kansas two years ago, I moved my stand just 40 yards one day and killed a nice buck just three hours later. In Iowa, a few years ago, I didn’t like the thermals at daylight one morning so I got out and moved to an entirely different property 15 minutes away, but I shot a great ten-point buck at 11:00 a.m. Check those cameras, move those stands. Be willing to work hard and it will pay off.
I do not kill a buck on every hunt. That’s partly because I’m pretty selective, but it’s also because DIY public land road trips are just plain hard work and the odds are stacked against your success. Do the scouting procedure, and don’t get in a stand too early. Don’t get your expectations too high. In fact, the first year you go to a new property, the emphasis should be on learning rather than killing. The more you go back to the same areas, the less scouting you have to do. Hunting this way is a challenge. But if you are willing to put in your time and follow these steps, the success will come and the results can reward you with an amazing feeling you can’t get by hunting with an outfitter.
Editor's Note: Bernie Barringer has written the book “The Freelance Bowhunter: DIY strategies for the travelling hunter.” It’s available at bernieoutdoors.com and online booksellers. This article was originally published November 7, 2016.