Public lands are one of our nation’s greatest treasures. These are places where anyone is free to explore and spend time immersed in the natural world. In recent years they have become a trending topic among hunters; the center of many political debates and conservation-minded discussions. I’ve been hunting public land across the country for most of my life. I’ve shared articles and photos from my adventures and lessons learned along the way since well before public land hashtags were common place. The increased focus on hunting public ground has made the tactics I shared a decade ago old news as they have been repeated again and again across every type of media imaginable. These tried-and-true tips and tactics are still applicable in today’s hunting environment, but let’s take a fresh look at hunting public land whitetails and a few tips that may still be considered unconventional.
1. Small Acreage
Small Acreage (Tyler Ridenour photo)
For years, we talked about out hiking the crowds to get away from hunting pressure and find areas of public land where you could set up shop and be virtually undisturbed. Those days are no more. It doesn’t matter if you’re hunting whitetails on a massive tract of Midwestern public timber or chasing elk miles from a road in the backcountry, today wherever the most remote spot is on the map you’ll likely find another hunter there. With so many people interested in packing in deep, there are a lot of areas that get passed by due to their size. Instead of seeking out large areas where you can roam, look for the smallest public hunting spots you can find. It’s not likely the first little piece of public ground you step foot on will be what you’re looking for but if you explore enough of these small areas you’re bound to find a hidden gem.
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2. Non-Deer Hunting Areas
Non-Deer Hunting Areas (Tyler Ridenour photo)
Public lands with timber, agriculture, or river bottoms just scream deer hunting, so ignore them. Scouting ideal habitat is the oldest trick in the book and you can bet everyone’s doing it. Sure, if you’ve got an area that’s undisturbed or you’re hunting private land, these strategies make great sense but when you’re searching for unknown big buck spots on public ground you have to get creative. Places that required crossing a large river or canoeing in aren’t nearly as unexplored as they used to be. However, focusing on public areas where the primary uses are fishing, waterfowl hunting, or recreational activity can lead to your next honey hole. You may get a few odd looks from the duck-hunting crowd as you load your boat with a bow and climber in the pre-dawn hours, or from the mountain bikers that pass on the trail as you hike into your stand, but if you do, just smile, you’ve likely got the place to yourself.
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3. Land-Locked Areas
Land-Locked Areas (Tyler Ridenour photo)
Scouting using digital maps is standard practice today even for casual whitetail hunters. Digital scouting has changed the way we deer hunt and regardless of where you hunt, or what your goals are, the odds are you use these tools in some way. Locating areas that are surrounded by private land with limited access isn’t an uncommon strategy these days. That said, digging a bit deeper and finding places where access through public property isn’t possible or is at least highly unlikely can reveal areas that are essentially land-locked.
Some examples of the natural barriers that often keep other public-land hunters from reaching a portion of the public ground they’re hunting are large swamps, steep rugged gullies, or canyons. These obstacles leave the neighboring private properties as the only reasonable areas of access. Gaining permission to hunt on private land doesn’t come easy but when your only interest is passing through a property to reach public land you‘ll often find landowners more willing to say yes. There are some mapping services that offer private land overlays where you can find landowner names and contact information. These tools are invaluable if you try this method of access to reach land-locked public ground.
4. Go West
Go West (Tyler Ridenour photo)
The western plains are home to cattle and cowboys but they also hold some of the nation’s largest expanses of public land. States like Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas aren’t unheard of as whitetail destinations. Western states generally open their archery deer seasons much earlier in the year than many places in the Midwest or the Eastern U.S. These early season opportunities have made western whitetail hunting popular among the hunting TV community and diehard whitetail hunters. That said, when the rut rolls around most of those serious whitetail types will be back in their own stomping grounds or in some Midwestern hotspot leaving the West ripe for the picking. Hunting during archery season can help to reduce the amount of hunting pressure from locals, as I’ve found bowhunting to be fairly uncommon among residents of the plains states when compared to the rest of the country. Also, planning a whitetail rut hunt in a state that offers elk hunting is another great way to avoid bumping into local hunters. Many western states firearm elk seasons take place during the whitetail rut and draws the attention of the resident hunting population to the mountains and away from the plains.
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5. Open-Land Opportunities
Open-Land Opportunities (Tyler Ridenour photo)
So far we’ve discussed how to find and access public hunting areas where hunting pressure is low. Climbing into your stand knowing the area you’re hunting hasn’t seen much disturbance is a great feeling. However, hunting pressure is sometimes unavoidable, but in certain situations it can work to your advantage if you play your cards right. Deer hunting in the heart of the Midwest brings to mind rolling timber with oak ridges that seem to go on forever. The crunch of fallen leaves as a buck trots into range is a sound not easily forgotten by any hunter who’s been fortunate enough to experience it. These environments are what deer hunters dream about and often flock to, especially on public land.
If you can put aside your visions of the iconic Midwestern timber set-up and look to wide open spaces, you’ll likely find areas away from the crowd even on heavily hunted properties. Deer love tall grass, be it a large set-aside or CRP field in Illinois or miles of prairie grass in western Kansas. These are places where deer are very comfortable and also extremely visible to hunters, but most will deem them un-huntable because of the habitat and open terrain. Hanging a stand might be out of the question but with closer investigation, you’ll generally find plenty of cover where you can build a natural blind or brush-in a ground blind. Before setting up in one of these open-country settings, spend plenty of time observing deer movement from a distance. At first glance, everything may appear the same but as you watch how deer use the area, you’ll begin to recognize slight terrain features that create consistent patterns in movement.
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