How to explore whitetails on public land in the off-season

In a classic bait-and-switch move, I’ll tell you something anticlimactic: You should start exploring public land in winter like you would any deer terrain. Walk around, take notes, check last season’s sign, and try to read the terrain so you’ll be better prepared next fall.

All this is something simple and valuable for the hunter of public lands. But there’s more to the story if he wants to use his February findings to keep abreast of deer movement throughout the season. In this case, you must first recognize the inevitability of hunting on public lands: the inconsistency in deer patterns.

This is the exact opposite of much of the whitetail advice out there, which not only relies on consistency, but actively encourages hunters to go to great lengths to ensure it.

From food plots and bait sites to many popular habitat improvement strategies, the idea is often to create an area that not only houses deer, but encourages them to return to visit every day and every year. Hunters appreciate this because it makes things much more predictable, which, not coincidentally, makes things easier. There’s nothing wrong with improving the land, but this modern whitetail mentality tends to seep into all aspects of deer hunting, even when it’s not directly applicable to your situation.

If you’re a public land hunter, you can’t rely on altering the landscape to ensure consistent deer use. You need to hunt them where they are and how they behave.

The image of the great deer
A few years ago I had a conversation with Alex Gyllstrom, a Wired to Hunt contributor who also works for Whitetail Properties. One of the things Alex said during our conversation that stuck with me was, “A real understanding of deer land is what kills the bucks.”

This may seem superficial, but it is not.

When talking about deer from public lands that might make their way around their range in response to hunting pressure, having a good idea of ​​where they might end up at any given time is huge. This is the real key to winter exploration on land that anyone can hunt.

If you know the deer should be in a specific location, but instead find some new companions and some newly installed cameras when you arrive in mid-October, it’s time to adjust. There will be other places that the hunters are ignoring, which is also where the males could be.

It’s not always easy. But finding those areas becomes a simpler proposition if you’re intimately familiar with the ground. That’s one of the reasons I try to do as many miles as possible in February and March. Sure, I love finding deer sheds and concentrations, but I also want to understand the playing field I’ll be hunting.

Every creek crossing, every oak floor, every clearcut, it all matters. That knowledge is what helps guide decisions at the time when the dollars aren’t doing what you expect them to because your competition has invaded last year’s honey holes.

This is the biggest and most important step in the exploration of public lands in winter. Learn it well, learn it extensively, and then start getting a little more granular.

where two worlds meet
If you’ve racked up multiple 20,000-step days in your winter exploration on public land, you’re doing just fine. Now is the time to fine-tune your search to combine a public lands mentality with the very things private land explorers identify.

The rublines, scratches, pounded trails and all the still visible deer signs from last year are there for the taking. It is there for you to find and connect to your general understanding of the use of deer in that terrain. Instead of calling it good enough when you come across a hillside bench that’s littered with ruts, ask yourself why it was there and if it’ll come back.

Was he there staging or sleeping? Is your use of that bank a response to the pressure of hunting at the top of the ridge above and the valley below? Last year’s dollar sign allows you to speculate on why it is where it is and allows you to file it away for this year. It provides a great starting point and may be all you need to fill out your label this season.

Also maybe not. This sign might get you closer, but it might still require a little extra exploration during the season or maybe a spotting at the post to guide you to the current movement of the deer. This is important to understand because it is crucial to the process. You can explore winter with all your heart and think you have everything dialed in, but hunting competition and the whims of prey animals often conspire to produce unexpected activity in the forest. Usually an unexpected and unwanted lack of activity, really.

To keep that to a minimum, you need to have a good idea of ​​where to go next when a place has cooled down, especially if it never got hot in the first place. A great way to accomplish this is by really learning every inch of your deer terrain over the winter, which is an opportunity every public land hunter has right now.

Featured image via Captured Creative.