Every year, KC Smith travels from his hometown in Texas to states across the country in search of whitetails from public lands. And every year, he punches a few labels. Here are his top tips for traveling whitetail hunters.
Set realistic expectations
While every whitetail hunter dreams of tagging a 200-inch trophy on public land out of state, Smith said he can’t count on that opportunity and needs to adjust his expectations.
“I don’t think too much about trophy potential,” he said. “Realistically, I want to go out there and have a good hunt and kill a really respectable deer in public.”
If you can accept that states with over-the-counter labels and limited public access will mean a lack of age class, you may even be successful with a 3-year-old in a place like Texas.
But the unpredictable challenge of chasing whitetails on public land isn’t for everyone.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to be an itinerant public lands hunter,” Smith said. “You have to be able to appreciate what you’re doing, appreciate the landscape you’re in, appreciate the animals and like it.”
Choose the right time and place
Smith plays the points game in Iowa, but prioritizes states with high tag availability and over-the-counter tags.
“I’d rather spend my time exploring over-the-counter states and discovering something cool than spending a lot of time thinking about dots and how to draw.”
It focuses on the current season, putting boots in the spring or summer as much as possible because crops and hotspots can change dramatically from year to year.
“Same-year exploration is very valuable,” he said. “Being on the ground is invaluable. You can’t map that.
Smith considers population density and how it influences the amount of public land in a state. He says hunters underestimate the amount of land available to them, and groups of deer can still be found in states with low density but plenty of public access.
When fall rolls around, hit up the initial archery in states like South Dakota, where you rarely meet another bowhunter. Hunting public land in a variety of states will help prepare you for when he finally gets the dream tag of his.
“Go find places where you have to find signs rather than interpret them,” he says. “Go practice in a state that’s easier to draw or over-the-counter, that’s similar habitat, and learn how deer interact there; It’s not going to be much different in Iowa or wherever you go.”
push the limits
Smith says that while traditional whitetail wisdom dictates specific dates and locations for the best opportunities, these rules don’t always hold true across the board.
“There are so many arbitrary and imaginary lines that we put on ourselves that animals don’t give a damn,” he said. “Don’t let human boundaries affect your deer hunting, in every sense of the word ‘boundary,’ except property lines.”
Deer will cross paths and even major interstate highways, and not just during the rut. Smith also believes that there is much more to pre-oestrus and post-oestrus activities, and the exact timing can vary from deer to deer.
“Anytime in the month of November, you can have a male who wants to hang out with his friends, you can have a male who runs around like crazy in zombie mode chasing males, and you can have a male who is hanging out with this girl making sure he’s within five feet of her all day,” he said.
Learn as you go and adapt
While Smith uses tools like e-scouting apps and cellular trail cameras, he doesn’t rely solely on his intelligence and adjusts strategy when he travels to hunt on public land on a tight schedule.
For example, you’ll find a public farm land and hang a camera on an obvious trail where you’re sure deer travel at night. If you capture photos of a shooter, you will determine the direction the male is moving and direct him half a mile away during the day.
“I try to be wisely aggressive,” he said. “You make the most aggressive move you can and it will still be a smart move”
But if the game plan fails, Smith says you can’t be afraid to scrap days of exploration and start over.
“Being able to adapt, learn and change is very important. You can’t fall in love with a specific place because honestly, it’s not like you love it and think it’s a great place to kill a deer. It’s that you’re proud and you think you’re smarter than the environment around you,” she said. “You have to put aside the herd and do whatever it takes to maybe find a deer.”
If you’re hunting where you have access to the entire state, rather than a single zone, set a deadline on one area and pull the plug if you’re not hunting a good deer within a set number of days.
Smith says that you should never waste precious time for the sake of your ego and you should always be prepared with solid backup. And that Plan B must be significantly different from your Plan A, not just a different place in a similar habitat.
No matter the end result, you will learn a lot.
“It’s about accumulating knowledge,” he said. “And the way you do it is the experience.”
For more tips on traveling to hunt whitetails on public land from KC Smith, listen to episodes 446 and 507 of the Wired To Hunt podcast.
Featured image via Captured Creative.