Most deer hunters know the benefits of hunting agricultural land. Food sources are easy to find, utilize, and therefore, pattern. There are also usually a lot of deer in and around agriculture—in some areas, there are as many as 30–50 deer per square mile! Much of the public land in the U.S., however, is Non-agricultural. Woods, swamp, hills, and mountains are certainly good deer habitat, but finding and patterning the deer is notably more difficult. Several factors can be attributed to this fact a lot less deer per square mile—sometimes as few as 5–8. I can tell you that 90% of all of the whitetail deer hunting I do is on public land. It has been that way for over 3.5 decades. I consider myself as an average and typical outdoor-type person that participates in the hunting sports. I don’t have the benefit of a money tree in my backyard; therefore I must take advantage of what public land has to offer. There are some tremendous opportunities to kill very respectable, mature bucks on public land. I hope by sharing some of my knowledge, this article will bring your level of public land, woodland hunting success up several notches.
First, let me clarify what I define as forested land. To most, this means that deer have no, or extremely limited access to crops such as alfalfa, beans, corn, etc. This type of land exists all over the country, but for the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the upper Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast. The forests of the west central and western parts of the U.S. are excluded as they present their own, different challenges.
The first step I always take is to check out and e-scout areas I am interested in hunting by accessing Google earth. This is a great tool and easy to use. Also, I get a USGS Topo map of the area I plan to hunt. These maps typically have old trails and two tracks marked that may not be able to be seen due to overgrowth and also show things such as elevations and wetlands. I personally love the hardcopy maps, because I can mark old scrapes, rubs, and good trails while I am doing my “on the ground” scouting.
The next step is to physically get out to the areas you selected on Google maps and scout. One of the things I always keep in mind is that most hunters do not travel more than a half-mile from their vehicle. Knowing this, you may want to look for areas that are a little more difficult to access, as this will decrease the chances of seeing other hunters.
In heavily wooded areas, look for old clearcuts or fresh logging activity. These areas are deer magnets for feeding. If there is no logging or old clearcuts, that’s okay. While easily identified, clear cuts are certainly not the only place that deer frequent.
Absent recent clearcuts, I search for transition zones. These are areas where there is a clear demarcation of hardwoods and pines. Alternately, I look for edges of big swampy areas bordering higher and drier land. Bucks love to travel the edges of these borders. When walking these areas, you will likely find old scrapes and rub lines along the border. Finally, pay attention to the types of trees that are around you, and, specifically for oak trees.
Oaks provide high-energy forage. Deer use this food source early and throughout the archery season in most places, but will also paw through even several feet of snow to reach acorns if they are still around in November and December. Remember what I said about carrying a map, because you need to make notations on this map of where you find all of the food, rubs, scrapes, and trails.
Should you have some hilly areas or higher ridges in the heavily forested land, investigate these thoroughly. Some believe that 15 or 20 feet makes a difference in these areas for only reasons the deer understand. However, the reason for this is that deer love to bed on higher ground. They can catch the wind easier giving them the advantage of escaping undetected. While scouting these areas, you should look for flat areas or bowls on top of this higher ground. I most often hunt these locations early in the season.
After you have completed your scouting and reviewing what deer sign you have marked on your map, you will have a good idea where to place your stand. I recommend starting on food sources early in the season. Deer are still in their habitual feeding and bedding activity. Then, as the pre-rut and rut heats up, be prepared to move to the border zones where you find old scrapes, rubs, and rub lines. This is also a good time to employ some mock scrapes and some scent pads (where legal).
Of all of the above strategies, I can’t emphasize enough how important to mark deer sign on your map. This is a tool very few use, and yet it is so easy to take advantage of. By doing this, you will get a much clearer idea of the feeding and travel corridors the local deer use, the location does and their patterns during the season. This will no doubt increase your chances of encountering a buck.
The final thing to keep in mind when planning your public land hunt is access to and from your stand. If you need to cut trails or trim brush to access your stand, then do so. This will not affect deer activity in and around your stand site as long as it is done a month or so before season opens.
Keep in mind, as the rut heats up, you may have to move your stand or place an additional stand in or near the transition zones you discovered earlier as bucks love to travel and mark these locations. It was on one of these that I harvested my best big-woods buck to date—a heavy beamed, dark horned 9-point that was one of the few deer I saw in three different sits on that location.
Follow these tips and your success rate on public land big-woods bucks will dramatically improve.