The Public Land Challenge: How to Hunt Public Land With Success
December 16, 2014
Whenever you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, there are only two choices available — give up, or fight for all you're worth. Never having been much for giving up easily, as the whitetail season of 2013 rolled around, I braced for a fight.
After nearly three decades of traveling around in search of DIY whitetail adventure, I found myself right back where I started — bowhunting public land. The days of knocking on doors and acquiring free access were effectively over. With commercialization having taken over the outdoor sports, the point had finally come where I could no longer compete with the deep pockets that now controlled most of the access to good whitetail destinations.
The days of wondering what size of record-class antlers I'd be encountering were over, and now I'd be wondering if I would even see a big buck in an entire season. Oh well — time to quit whining and start working.
A Long and Winding Road
Having lost my last private-land hunting spot in Kansas during the past season, I had my work cut out for me in the off-season. Not yet ready to accept the writing on the wall, I remained determined to gain access to some more private land elsewhere so that I'd have a good place to hunt in 2013.
During the winter months, I made numerous trips across the border into Kansas, driving back roads and knocking on doors. By the end of March, I had yet to gain access to a single place to hunt. Either the ground had been bought by someone from out-of-state for their own hunting pleasure or the landowners wanted to know how much money I had to give them. I never had enough.
As spring rolled around, I finally had to give up my quest for free access and accept I'd be hunting on public land again if I came to Kansas. With the application deadline looming, it was time to make a decision — Kansas or not? Living less than 100 miles distant, I could hardly justify not hunting there.
Shifting my efforts from trying to find a private place to hunt to scouting public land, I soon found myself back in my comfort zone! As I walked, and walked, and walked, I suddenly began to accept my Kansas deer-hunting fate. There were plenty of deer on public land. Now, if I could just live with, and learn how to manage, the intense hunting pressure I was sure to encounter, maybe, just maybe, I could pull a rabbit out of my hat. I certainly had my work cut out for me, but there's nothing like a good challenge!
With great trepidation, I finally applied for a tag as late-April rolled around. I was committed now. As the woods began to get green, my scouting efforts became much more difficult. One fringe benefit of being in the woods every day at this time of the year was finding a couple flocks of turkeys that were residing on public land. Grabbing a hunting license and a couple of turkey tags, I spent early mornings and late evenings pursuing turkeys while scouting for deer at the same time — not a bad combination for an old woods rat such as myself!
By late May, I was wrapping up my deer scouting efforts. I'd found numerous places that had the potential to provide good hunts, and I'd prepared them by trimming the trees for effective treestand hunting. Now, all I needed was put a warm body in "my" spots in November, and see what would show up. Little did I know, however, there were plenty of other guys out there who were thinking the same thing about the same places. I was going to be in for a real learning experience, but that's another story.
Public Land 101
As October of 2013 arrived, I made a few short trips to my destinations to make sure things were still in order. Much to my disappointment — but not to my surprise — I immediately started getting an education on hunting public land. There were cars in every parking lot and along every road — all bowhunters in pursuit of the elusive whitetail.
I was slightly surprised to find a good representation of out-of-state tags at such an early period of the season. This certainly foretold of tough times ahead — if out-of-staters were already here in such good numbers, what was it going to be like when the rut showed up in November? Slightly disgusted, I prepared myself for the circus that was likely to be encountered soon. This was certainly going to be a challenge!
By Halloween, I was starting to get very antsy to get into the whitetail woods. Wondering how much the early-season warriors had educated "my" deer, I was itching to find out. But I wasn't going to jump the gun yet — I wanted the bucks to be fully goofy when I made my play.
That time was fast approaching, however, and with it my anticipation grew daily. In attempts to squelch some of my energy, I soon began to make a few select hunts into a couple of my chosen spots. It didn't take long for me to face frustration and anger head on. Did I say this was going to be a challenge?
On one of my early hunts into one of my better spots, I found a treestand hanging about 50 yards from mine. Normally, I'd have pulled my stand and vacated the spot for greener pastures, but in this situation, that course of action didn't really make sense. After all, I was likely to encounter the same sort of fate wherever else I might move to, and furthermore, this spot was as good as anywhere else I could go.
Such being the case, I was just going to have to deal with this unwanted competition. I'd just have to try to hunt smarter.
Shortly after settling into my treestand that Saturday evening, the other hunter arrived and climbed into his treestand. This was NOT going to work for me; I couldn't handle this sort of mess. Vowing to not be caught like this again, I determined to see if I could visit with the other hunter later in the evening. Maybe we could reach a meeting of the minds?
When I arrived back at my truck that evening, there was another vehicle parked nearby — definitely the other hunter I'd encountered. The plates were local, and I surmised that this might be a "weekend warrior," as I often called them. Chances were, this local fellow lived and worked nearby, and probably couldn't provide the amount of time to hunt each week that I could.
Having been a working-class stiff all my life, I knew how that existence played out. He probably worked all week and spent as much time as possible with his family in the evenings, then tried to hunt a little bit on the weekends. I would respect this fellow's life, and I'd stay out of the spot on weekends.
Of course, there was also a slightly selfish motive in this line of thinking also — I might have the place to myself during the week! At least I hoped so. Feeling a little guilty about my plans, I moved forward.
Playing The Game
As the first week of November arrived, I found myself firmly entrenched in my public-land hunting efforts. Since I also had another spot to hunt in my home state of Oklahoma, I hunted there on weekends. On Sunday evenings, I'd load my old Ford and head north to Kansas.
Starting on Monday of each week, I'd begin making junkets into my chosen treestand locations on my public hunting area of choice. Since I was camping within 20 miles of three public areas, I could rotate my hunts according to varying wind directions and apparent outside hunting pressure.
I soon learned that for morning hunts, I needed to arrive at my parking spot early to see if there was likely to be anyone else hunting the area. Sometimes, with many other cars parked at my desired spot, I'd simply head to another location. A couple of mornings I would even have to travel to two or three different spots before I would find a place that seemed fairly unbothered.
Often running behind by the time I'd settle on a hunting spot for the day, I would find myself arriving at my treestand later than I desired. This probably cost me dearly more times than I'd care to know about. Finally, however, it all came together one evening. Let me tell you about it.
The Wednesday evening of Nov. 13 arrived cool and clear with a light west wind — just what I wanted. The rut was kicking into full gear, and I had a plan. A certain spot that I'd been saving was primed for a hunt, so I handled my Mathews and headed afield.
I'd not hung a treestand in this location, though I'd trimmed the area back in the springtime. Carrying a treestand and support gear with me, I slipped into the location quietly. Carefully hanging the stand, I slipped aboard with plenty of time left in the day. As the evening slowly passed, an old familiar feeling that I recognized well came over me — something good was about to happen. Conditions were perfect for the spot, and no one else seemed to be in the area. Maybe I would get lucky.
Toward sunset, rustling grass announced the arrival of a deer directly at my backside. Sitting quietly, I soon heard a few soft grunts coming from the new arrival — that was real good! About to die of anticipation, I sat very still while the buck made his way to my side. As soon as I saw antlers, I knew that I'd shoot him if possible.
Slowly rising to my feet, I prepared for a shot. By the time I had come to full draw, the buck stood broadside at 20 yards — this was too good to be true!
Kneeling beside a nice 8-pointer a short while later, adrenaline flowed through my veins. The buck wasn't the largest stag in the woods, but he was mine — killed with a bow on public land at that! I couldn't have been more satisfied.