When it comes to hunting on public lands, it’s rare to find consistency from stretch to stretch. Each area presents its own challenges and often has little in common with the next. Over the years, one trend I continue to see is mature males using public land as a part of their range, rather than living exclusively on it. Of course, there are exceptions, including large BLM tracts, 10,000-acre national forests, and the like.
Because males do not spend all of their time on public land in many cases, it is vital to find the areas with the best chance of hosting a male in daylight. When you find one of these rare sweet spots, you can find out exactly when and how it’s using the area and hunt it down accordingly.
Greater and better use
It’s no secret that public land dollars are masters at reacting and circumnavigating pressure. The key to beating them at their own game is to determine what a particular dollar offers. Start with a map far enough out to cover at least a 2-mile radius. Take note of where potential food sources, security cover, and travel corridors might be. Based on that broad view, draw conclusions about how far the food is from the deck or vice versa. Do this for multiple properties in one area. Once you identify what looks good, take your e-scouting a step further to dig into the best access, potential travel routes, and general use areas like bedding and prep spots.
Don’t be fooled into thinking there is little or no food on public land if you don’t see agricultural fields or planted areas. While these food sources may have strong drawing power to attract deer, a deer’s diet is still primarily made up of native vegetation. You won’t know what quality of food the property has until you put your boots on the ground. Whether you’re looking at home or on a short trip out of state, use antennas to prioritize properties worth exploring. This is essential to maximize your time when searching for a mature male on public land. Once you’ve got your list of properties set up, it’s time to narrow down the main options.
Working from the outside in
You can draw some useful conclusions from the maps, but perhaps the most useful of all is the property line. One of the best ways to start learning about public lands is by walking the boundaries. Here’s a necessary disclaimer: I am in no way advocating hunting property lines. This strategy simply helps you see where deer most commonly come and go on public lands. Don’t be that hunter. Be careful of the line and give the landlord the respect and courtesy you would like in his situation. Once you determine these entry and exit locations, follow them further into the public land. The goal is twofold: prove or disprove your predictions about the best use of property for a dollar, and identify ambush points to hunt them down.
Consult your previous mapping to think about the use of the property while you explore. If the area offers more food, you can structure your approach primarily around a nighttime strategy. If it’s more of a safety cover and bedding, you’ll have a few more options. Take note and determine key locations such as funnels, transitions, and other potential ambush sites.
Putting it all together
Now that you’ve determined the highest and best use for a dollar and narrowed down a specific area you’re using on the public parcel, it’s time to mark your death spot. Thinking carefully about the details, conditions and other key points helps to maximize the chances of choosing the right moment. Trails and travel routes are a good starting point, but digging deeper is essential.
Pay close attention to the sign, not just the scuffs and scratches, but also the position of the scuffs and scratches in relation to the paths of travel. Then, think analytically about what prevailing wind directions offer a deer’s scent advantage when traveling. Ask yourself how the terrain and structure can allow you to manipulate the direction of the wind to get a false sense of security for the money. Divide your exploration by types of vegetation. Look for spots in thick cover with diverse plant cover. Wooded areas with different types of trees and understory often channel movement along transition points where one type meets another. This outside-in approach gets you into the area most used by a male in daylight.
Consider other influencing factors such as hunting pressure, food sources, and the phase of the season you plan to hunt. All of this affects the travel routes and signs you see. Efficiently exploring the highest and best use of a portion of the crowd by examining the perimeter of as many quality stretches as possible will help ensure you remain effective, adaptable and have plenty of options throughout the season.