Shooting Your First Public Land Buck: 3 Things You Need To Know First
With the rise of social media and the internet, access to information has never been more accessible in human history. You can learn almost anything you want to learn about with a quick search on Google. If you want to learn how to tie a tie, there are thousands of tutorials online. If you want to learn how to be a day trader, there are numerous online courses that teach you how.
In the hunting world, one of the most searched terms on Google is how to kill a mature public land buck. If you're an experienced hunter looking for a new challenge, or a novice hunter seeking your first big game experience, hunting whitetail deer on public land can be an exciting and rewarding adventure. Hunting on public land is quite different from hunting on private land, and there are 3 important things to consider before you go.
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The first thing you need to do before you hunt on public land is e-scout. Start by researching the area where you plan to hunt. Look at maps of the area and study the terrain, vegetation, and other features that may impact your hunt. Mapping apps like OnX have features that help with learning the terrain, identifying different tree species, discovering old and new clear cuts, and finding those tucked out-of-the-way spots that could possibly be overlooked.
Different environments have different areas that could potentially hold deer, but there are a few commonalities that all terrains have. No matter if you are e-scouting a swamp, open prairies, farmland, or hill country, deer still use edge habitats to travel.
Edge transitions are prime places to start looking such as clear-cut edges, swamp edges where hardwoods meet cattails, field edges in farm country, or wooded creek bottoms in the middle of wide open grasslands. These places typically have scrapes, rub lines, and pinch points that all can lead to a shot opportunity on your first public land buck.
Deer will also use the topography of the area to travel as well. Saddles in hill country are great places to look in hill country for multiple trails intersecting with a potential hub scrape right in the middle. In open prairies, river bottoms and creek drainages allow bucks to travel safely and can provide excellent bedding opportunities.
Small depressions or ditches in farm country fields can offer excellent funnels for deer traveling from bedding to food. Subtle increases in elevation in swamps can mean that area is above the waterline and could be a major travel corridor for bucks checking scrapes.
Boots On The Ground Scouting
The arguably more important aspect of research is scouting. Boots on the ground in those areas you marked when e-scouting will help narrow down your search for that perfect tree. Pins dropped on a mapping app are free, so drop as many as you want and walk those areas to either cross that spot off of the list or mark it as a spot you want to come back and hunt.
When scouting public land for a potential place to hunt, you not only have to scout for deer sign but human sign as well. If you come up on a creek bottom in the open plains and come across 2 parking lots on each side of the creek and multiple treestands in the actual bottom, cross that spot off of the list. You'll most likely see more hunters than deer even if the area is loaded with scrapes.
Keeping going until you find a spot with more deer sign than human sign. Most of your human sign will be within the immediate vicinity of parking lots and access roads. You could dive in deep and go miles back into the public and find a hidden gem that no one wants to walk to like Meat Eater's Tony Peterson. You could also find a hidden buck bed 50 yards off of the parking lot that a big mature buck uses to watch all of the hunters walk in from and hunt it like The Hunting Beast Dan Infalt.
There's no "one size fits all" when it comes to public land scouting. The key is getting out there and putting eyes on the spots that you marked on the map. They could be dynamite spots 2 miles back in hill country. They could also be smaller swamps right off of a parking lot that everyone walks right past. The important part is to have multiple spots where you think you could tag out.
A big advantage available to everyone that hunts public land is trail cameras. They are your eyes when you can't be in the woods. Good places for trail cameras or cell cameras can be travel corridors in between bedding and food, hub scrapes on transitions or edges, or trails coming out of bedding areas.
You can either use cell cameras for MRI or Most Recent Information to tell you as it is happening when the deer are on their feet in the daylight. You can also use trail cameras for long-term data. This will allow you to have a season's worth of data that you can use for years down the road that you can go back into to see if there are any patterns. You can see potential patterns such as bucks starting to hit a certain scrape once the temperatures drop below a certain degree or a spot where mature bucks spent their summers and then return to for a couple of days in the rut in search of hot does.
One of the biggest differences between hunting on public and private land is the number of hunters you may encounter. Weekends will be crowded no matter what state you are in, so plan accordingly. If you only have a week of vacation where you work, pay attention to the weather and your trail cameras.
Cold fronts in late October and early November are absolutely magical to hunt, and everyone knows that. Odds are that parking lots will be full on the weekends when the weather gets cold. To combat this, if you have to set vacation days early in the year, plan your vacation days around the best days of the year to hunt to give yourself some weekdays to hunt public when everyone else is stuck at work.
If you have a job that is flexible with off time, watch the weather and take the day off right after a cold front hits and the temps drastically drop from one day to the next, especially if it is on a weekday. You could potentially have the woods to yourself with big bucks running around everywhere while everyone else is at work.
Trail cameras will be your best friend when it comes to hunting public land as well. Cell cameras can tell you a lot, but on public land, they can tell you even more. They can provide intel on whether other hunters are using the area, especially on scrapes since that is what most people look for to hunt. They can tell you when mature bucks are daylighting on days that you wouldn't expect, especially during the "October Lull" when most people aren't hunting.
They can tell you when the first doe comes into heat, especially when you have three bucks coming by right after a doe walks past your cell camera on October 28th. They can also tell you how far away a buck is bedding from your trail camera. If he is showing up right after dark, you are pretty close to his bed. If he's showing up at 1:00 in the morning, odds are he's bedding pretty far away.
Hunting whitetail deer on public land can be a thrilling and rewarding experience, but it's important to be prepared. Scout, scout, and scout some more. Be prepared for competition, and have multiple spots as backups. By following these tips, you can increase your chances of wrapping your tag around your first public land buck.
It's also important to practice good hunting etiquette when hunting on public land. Respect other hunters by not encroaching on them, and always follow safety guidelines when hunting with other people nearby. Having multiple spots you can go to as backups will make your time on public land more enjoyable.
Just because that tree you've hunted all of your life is "your spot" doesn't mean that no one else is allowed to hunt in that area. It's public land and everyone has a right to use the land to hunt.
Written by: Lucas Jones