By: John Eberhart.
Grabbing my bow, backpack and freelance pack I set off through the public land timber to a patch of white oaks I’d hunted the previous season. To my disappointment none of the oaks had acorns, the two scrapes from the previous season were inactive, there were no nearby rubs and the heavily used runways from the previous season were barely noticeable.
It was late October and the mature bucks were beginning to break their nocturnal habits in search of early estrus does which I term as the pre-rut and because of that it was the first time in my hunting career that I had to improvise and search the vicinity for a location offering doe traffic and henceforth, visual buck signposts.
The breeding season concept in this big woods area was simple; find a white or red oak with acorns or other preferred browse which attracts does and that female traffic would attract the males.
After about a quarter mile walk I came across a large sprawling white oak. The ground was littered with acorn hulls, deer droppings and it was bordered by a cut-over consisting of dense eight foot tall poplar saplings with fresh rubs along its edge. There were also several well-used runways that fed into the feeding location.
About 10 feet from the oaks trunk the lowest branch hung low enough for me to jump up and grab. I pulled myself up onto it and crawled on the branch to the trunk and then climbed up another 15 feet to where I could sit on one branch and have my feet on another.
About 2 hours before dark a doe and her twin fawns stepped out of the saplings moved in and began feeding on acorns. Ten or so minutes later the unmistakable sounds of a buck chasing in the saplings made the doe uneasy and she and her fawns left the scene in the opposite direction.
After a long period of quiet time I heard the chasing again, and as hard as I tried to see within the saplings, they were just too tall and dense. The sounds kept getting closer until a doe busted out of the saplings. With her mouth open, tongue hanging out, and panting with every breath, she was desperately trying to put some ground between her and her persistent pursuer. Within moments a huge buck for that area appeared with nose to the ground in hot pursuit.
I came to full draw and had to make three vocal doe bleats, each louder than the previous to get his attention and stop his hurried pace. As he stood looking over his shoulder to see where the other doe was, I took the 25-yard quartering away shot. The shot was true and after about 80 yards the big 10 point fell to the ground while running in full stride.
If that hunt seemed archaic in terms of climbing and sitting on limbs, it was because it took place in 1976 prior to steps, stands, and all the other paraphernalia we have available today. What was not archaic was the beginning of what I refer to as freelance hunting, which I have done successfully on many occasions since.
To me, freelance hunting can be defined in three different styles or methods:
- Going into a new piece of property with your hunting gear, searching for the best available deer sign and then immediately setting up on it and hunting.
- Hunting in a pre-set location for a while and sensing the location is not going to produce so you pull your set-up gear and search of a new and better location to hunt the remainder of that day’s allotted time.
- Or as previously described in the 1975 hunt, when you get to your pre-set location and the sign doesn’t warrant a hunt you immediately freelance for a better location.
The more stash of hunting options a hunter has the more dangerous and consistently successful they will be.
Over the past 20 years Michigan’s Kevin VanDam has been the country’s best and most accomplished bass fisherman because he has the complete arsenal of being able to fish the many variations of weather and water conditions and is proficient with every type of bass fishing lure known to man. No matter the fishing situation, Kevin takes full advantage of them by having so many options available to him that he is knowledgeable about. Hunting is no different.
Mid-morning to early afternoon freelance hunting is an aggressive hunting plan or a reactionary hunting method skill that every bowhunter with access to a large enough parcel of property should have in their arsenal and most public lands in Michigan fall into the large parcel category.
Let’s put the reality of freelance hunting into perspective for Michigan hunters. While there are some fortunate hunters that have large private parcels to hunt in Michigan, that situation is not the norm. The general landscape of the heavily hunted areas in Michigan’s southern half of zone 2 and majority of zone 3 is fragmented into private parcels that are simply too small for freelance hunting. Freelance hunting can however work well on the large tracts of state or federal properties in all 3 zones.
On the small free permission private parcels I’ve had the opportunity to hunt over the years my post-season scouting ventures had familiarized me with every inch of the property so I already had hunting sites in every decent or potentially descent location.
If allowed, post season scouting can be a double edge sword of both negative and positive. Due to crop rotations or the annual changes in mast or fruit production, it’s not uncommon during post season to set up at locations with lots of deer sign only to have it be devoid of sign next season. That’s why I try to set up at all potential locations that may become hot hunting sites like at obvious mast and fruit trees that have no sign from the previous season because they might during the next season when they produce food.
The common denominator of freelance hunting is it’s always done without any previous knowledge of the final hunting location. In 2017 I went in to hunt a red oak which had several scrapes beneath it in 2016. The scrapes were inactive so I crossed a nearby river with the waders I took in for that very reason and took a 9 point from another pre-set location. Although I moved to another location, that was not a freelance hunt because it was pre-set location.
I bow hunt in Michigan until the gun opener in an attempt to take one of our super smart, mostly nocturnal mature bucks and usually on November 15th I travel out of state to continue bow hunting for those more simple minded, lightly pressured mature bucks. Several of my freelance kills have occurred on these short-term trips where I had minimal time to scout, all day to hunt, and large tracts of land to wander on.
Early November is when many Michigan hunters take their out of state trips because their time is limited and they want to take advantage of the rut phases when mature bucks move more regularly during daylight hours and are more susceptible to tactics, both of which are due to the areas having many more mature bucks than in Michigan and them having to compete more for breeding rights because of it.
Freelance hunting during the brief rut phase periods is an excellent exercise in judging and immediately reacting to fresh sign because you do not have the luxury of unlimited time to wait for things to happen at pre-set locations.
When preparing to hunt a large area of land go online and print aerial and if the ground is hilly also print topographical maps. Most terrain features such as timber, funnels, saddles, draws, inside corners of crop fields, marshes, and swamps will be fairly obvious and you can pinpoint and mark areas on the maps where you want to concentrate your scouting and location preparation efforts.
On freelance hunts or on hunts where I think I may need to freelance once I check out a pre-set location, below my hunting pack I carry a pre-loaded freelance fanny pack containing everything needed to set up a location. It contains a; climbing harness, 18 steps, bow hangers, folding saw, reflective tacks, bow rope and a compass. I keep the maps in a Zip-Lok bag and carry them in my backpack for reference if needed.
While freelancing I don’t have the luxury of a pre-set, non-intrusive entry route so to keep from leaving human odor on any vegetation I may brush against, I always wear the properly cared for ScentLok suit (jacket, pants and gloves) and rubber boots that I’ll be hunting in. Once on stand I also wear my head cover with drop down facemask to finalize the scent control regimen during the hunt.
When freelancing search for active scrapes, mast and or fruit trees that are dropping food, rub or scrape lined runways in transition funnels between bedding areas, well used runways along creek or river bottoms, and well used travel routes between bedding and feeding areas. There is not enough time on freelance hunts to explore every aspect of the property in detail and these specific target areas should yield opportunities.
While commonly seen on TV, I rarely set up along exposed crop fields or open areas because I’m so accustomed to hunting in Michigan where mature bucks rarely move into them during daylight hours. Even on my out of state hunts I’ve found that setting up locations with adequate perimeter and transition security cover to yield the most consistent results.
When freelancing, if possible pick a tree where the most sign is within shooting range and that requires the least amount of trimming and lane clearing, this will aid in keeping; human odor, the visual alterations and the strong odor of your cuttings to a minimum. When pursuing mature bucks in heavily pressured areas, even the minimal odor of fresh cuttings at a destination location can alter their mindset and cause them to alter their routine.
If a freelance site doesn’t meet expectations pull your gear and reload your freelance pack for the next time. With this system it’s also easy to adjust to distant visuals the next day as you can silently move in and prepare a new tree in a matter of minutes.
Since 1981 I’ve exclusively hunted from an arborist style harness that I re-designed and it rolls up and easily fits in my backpack with all my other gear and layering garments and negates carrying around heavy, noisy and cumbersome hang-on or climber stands. It also has many other advantages over any conventional stands that are too innumerable to list.
There is a new harness on the market called “Mantis” and it weighs 15 ounces, is made from quiet fabric and rolls up a bit bigger than a softball and can only be purchased on www.Tethrdnation.com and no, I have no monetary reason for endorsing this harness. It’s simply the lightest and most mobile harness available.
I laugh at TV commercials where hunters walk down nice clear two tracks and lanes with their stands on their backs. That scenario is far from reality and even more so when freelance hunting through public land parcels where lanes and two-tracks don’t exist and where security cover is required for any reasonable chance of an opportunity.
On a freelance hunt I suggest your first hunt remain clean (no tactics unless an out of distance buck is seen) in a new location that has active sign. A clean hunt will allow the destination location to work on the merits you chose it for, whereas the improper use of tactics may unknowingly alter that traffic. If you return the next day and you have confidence in your ability to perform tactics properly and at the right times of day, go for it.
In 2003 on what was to be an all-day sit at a pre-set location, after a couple hours on stand I freelanced approximately a quarter mile deeper into the timber before finding an active scrape area and rattled in and took a 180 inch 12 point there just before dark.
On a planned all-day hunt in 2007, after sighting only two deer in the morning I got down and freelanced. About 300 yards later I discovered a large active scrape area in a transition zone and set up on it for the remainder of the afternoon. I took a 135 inch 10 point from that freelance location early in the afternoon.
While I definitely do not recommend frequently adjusting your position due to boredom, if the actual sign you set-up a location for does not exist, freelancing may be warranted. Successful freelance hunting will give you pride in knowing that you have the ability to adjust to the areas current activity. If you feel the need to adjust, try this freelancing method, you will be surprised at how productive it can be.
Editor’s note: While there are thousands of hunters with several bucks in the record books, what separates John’s accomplishment of having 50 record book bucks from 32 different properties (31 Michigan and 19 out of state) from any other hunter in the country is that he’s always exclusively hunted on public and knock-on-doors for free permission properties. He’s never owned, leased or paid a dime to hunt anywhere.
Whether you hunt public, free permission, family owned, leased, managed or out of state properties; attending one of John’s 2 day in-field/classroom workshops will give you the knowledge to bag those big bucks you get on camera. For information on Eberharts Whitetail Workshops or his instructional books and DVD’s please visit: www.deer-john.net or contact John by e-mail at: email@example.com