By Bill Winke
I always thought public-land hunting was a second-rate experience for the whitetail enthusiast – something you did only if you couldn't find private land to hunt. Over the past several seasons, however, the small group of guys who work for me have shown the world a different side of public-land hunting. They now hunt public land almost exclusively, even though they also have permission on some good private land.
These guys are seeing – and hunting – bigger deer than I am most seasons. It is a lot of work, but they are having a great adventure. In this column, I am going to tell you how they do it.
Keys to Success
Avoid hunting pressure: For starters, you have to find places other hunters aren't hitting hard. There will always be a few other hunters around no matter where you go, but finding places with reduced pressure is the top priority. In such areas, the deer move more naturally in daylight.
Deer quickly figure out where the pressure is and learn to avoid it. To be consistently successful on public land, you have to do the same thing. This may require that you use non-conventional access, such as boats or even bicycles. It will likely mean you have to go farther in than most other hunters are willing to go. You may even have to focus on a few overlooked smaller areas most other hunters drive right past, thinking they are too small to be worth their time.
Have options: Finding one overlooked spot is a starting point, but from year to year, the hunting pressure on public land changes. In order to be consistently successful, you need as many options as possible. That means you have to put in a huge amount of legwork throughout the year finding and scouting every public area within driving distance. Then you have to monitor human activity during the fall, primarily by checking parking areas and even running concealed trail cameras along main human access routes.
The Right Gear
The following are some tips on equipment from one of the group, Erik Barber. "Aggressive public-land hunting requires bowhunters to use dependable, lightweight and, most of all, practical equipment," he said. "Everything needs to be in tip-top working order to ensure you can effectively hunt these remote areas. There is a point where you can bring too much gear, which prevents you from being quiet and gets you sweated up before reaching your stand location. The following is a list of essential items we always carry."
Headlamp: "You need to see where you're going, and when you're deep in an area you don't know really well, it becomes even more important. A headlamp is the best way to navigate in the dark. We've seen time and again that deer do not spook from bright LED lights (green, red or white) in the early-morning or late-evening hours."
Treestand: "To effectively carry your stand a mile or more and then find a tree and hang it before your hunt, you'll need a stand that you can put up quickly and quietly. Adjustability is also important because you never know what kind of tree you'll end up in. Make sure your stand has quiet attachment gear and leveling capability to mount safely and comfortably on leaning trees."
Climbing sticks: "Not all climbing sticks are quiet and easy to hang. Find a set that packs tightly together to eliminate noise while walking, yet portable enough to easily hang and take down. Rather than using sticks that require metal-on-metal contact to hang, we use those that feature a silent rope cam and stack tightly together when strapped to the stand while transporting. The Muddy Outfitter Sticks are the go-to choice for this style of hunting."
Lineman's rope: "To safely and effectively hang a stand, you'll need a lineman's rope for your safety harness. This allows you to stay connected to the tree, hands free, as you install your climbing sticks and stand. And it keeps you safe as you climb, without worry of falling."
Fanny pack: "Backpacks are much more cumbersome than compact fanny packs and are difficult to transport when you already have a stand on your back. A good fanny pack will have plenty of pockets to store all your tools and even your lunch for all-day sits."
Game cart: "When you shoot a deer off the beaten path, the hardest part of the hunt quickly becomes getting that deer out of the woods. A solidly built deer cart waiting back at your vehicle will make this much easier. Game carts are also great for hanging multiple stands. You can carry everything in one trip."
In many states, the largest blocks of available timber lie on public ground. Hunting such areas is a grand adventure. This is part of the lure of public-land hunting, as is the thrill of the challenge. But there is also something very wholesome to the entire process.
When hunting private land, there is greater pressure to be successful – if you don't shoot a big buck, or a certain buck, you feel a bit let down. But on public land, it is much easier to celebrate every success, regardless of the size of the animal.
Of course, there is also the question of access. Many deer hunters don't have access to good private land. That doesn't have to be a big bummer. Sure, your success rate may be higher on private land, but the quality of the experience can still be very high if you approach public-land hunting with the right attitude and right degree of effort.