By: John Eberhart.
Public Land Strategies
Something that receives very little print or TV and video footage for the amount of hunters that do it, is hunting on public land.
Hunters with private land options rarely gravitate to hunting open to hunting public lands simply because no matter how much hunting pressure private parcels in a given area receive, nearby public lands will typically receive much more and be far more difficult to hunt successfully.
In Michigan however and even in our heaviest populated areas, there are public land gems that can provide somewhat consistent opportunities at mature bucks for hunters willing to work above and beyond their competition.
The open to hunting public lands I’m referring to are those where any licensed hunter can go at any time and hunt within the parameters of our general state laws. These public lands are not to be confused with State and Federal duck or goose preserves and vacation parks where hunting is allowed by some form of controlled allocation or permitting basis in order to keep the herd in check. Public lands with special stipulations oftentimes offer better hunting than private lands.
Public Land Reality
The principal difficulty with open to hunting public land is that every person hunting there has the same right to be there as you do. There’s no such thing as your spot! Encroachment is not only normal, it’s to be expected if you hunt in a normal fashion.
When lots of hunters target every antlered buck and many target any deer, including button bucks, you have heavy consequential hunting pressure, or hchp for short, and statistically there’s no state where it’s more evident than on our Michigan public lands.
Public lands located near areas with large general populations definitely have it the worst from a sheer hunter density standpoint due to lack of local private access and limited public land. Because of the nature of uncontrolled hchp, deer residing in such areas are far more in sync with their survival instincts than their brethren on private lands.
We do not have exclusivity on the desire to survive and in hchp areas deer either learn quickly how to evade hunters or they suffer consequences by getting wounded or killed, it’s that simple. To be somewhat consistent at taking mature bucks from heavily hunted public lands you have to outsmart the deer and outsmart and outwork the other hunters. To me, it’s the ultimate test of one’s hunting abilities.
Think about it, public land hunters have to deal with immense competition, they have zero control, they’re oftentimes hunting areas with few if any 3 ½ year old or older bucks, the deer are extremely conditioned to avoiding hunters, there’s no guarantee other hunters won’t hunt near or in their set-ups when they’re not there, expensive stands must always be removed to keep them from being stolen, hunting apparatus’s must strap-on because nothing can puncture the tree, trimming branches or cut shooting lanes is illegal, marking entry and exit routes allows other hunters to find your location and set up on top of you, and during firearms season some public lands are flat out dangerous to be on.
Then of course there’s squirrel and upland bird hunting that is totally out of a bowhunter’s control and typically any nearby gunfire will stifle the daytime movements of mature deer.
Motion cameras and signposts often prove mature bucks exist on public lands even though they’re rarely seen during daylight.
Now here’s the absolute beauty of bowhunting public land for those willing to do the work. When you combine hchp with the survival instincts of whitetails, a natural byproduct occurs. The most sought after deer are pushed into difficult to access areas where few if any hunters are willing to go. This dramatically reduces the areas a mature buck may move or transition through during daylight hours and dramatically increases the amount of land you can immediately discard for scouting and hunting on.
My background for writing about hunting Michigan’s public land is that I’ve exclusively hunted public lands and knock-on-doors for free permission properties for 52 bow seasons and have hunted 18 different chunks of public land in Michigan, as well as public lands in Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa. In fact, I’ve never owned, leased, paid a dime to hunt anywhere in my life, or hunted over a food plot, mineral lick, or bait.
Side Bar: Statistically, Michigan is the most heavily bowhunted state in the country and John has 27 bow killed bucks listed in Michigan’s record book and has taken 18 P&Y class bucks on his 19 out of state hunts during Michigan’s gun season.
Proper scouting strategies equate to success during season
Scouting and preparing locations in remote areas should begin as soon as your season ends and can continue until spring green-up as the visual sign such as runways, droppings, hubs of activity, scrapes, utilized licking branches, and rubs from the past season remain identifiable. During this period you can scout to your hearts content because spooking deer has no effect on their movement habits next season.
Typical prolonged pre-season scouting intrusions in hchp areas are definitely not advised as they will either push mature deer elsewhere or stifle their daytime movements.
Many hunters replicate the generic hunting practices seen on TV shows, videos and in print media such as hunting; perimeters of short crop fields, in exposed areas, in open timber with no understudy, in easily accessed areas, and performing a list of fake tactics, and while these practices work in the micro-managed and lightly hunted areas they hunt, they rarely if ever work on hchp public lands. The difficult hunting conditions surrounding heavily hunted public lands are exactly why media personalities don’t hunt them and can’t intelligently talk about it.
When competing against many hunters with similar generic styles of hunting, you should never expect better results unless you think you’re just luckier. To remove luck from the equation you must scout, prepare locations, and hunt in a manner outside the mainstream.
A rule I rarely waver on when scouting public ground is no matter how good the signposts, runways, or a location looks, if it’s easily accessed, I will rarely prepare it as a hunting location because other hunters will also access these areas during their pre-season scouting ventures nearly guaranteeing that any mature bucks activity at them, will take place during the security of darkness, negating it as a productive daytime location.
Now is when personal desire, dedication, and work ethic come into play. I scout for locations in areas where my access will require either; using hip boots, waders, canoe, boat, or crawling on my hands and knees through brush.
You must think to yourself, if all the hunters in the area were trying to kill me, what area would I gravitate to where I might possibly feel secure moving in, or transitioning through, during daylight hours. In hchp areas, it must be considered that bluntly.
Use Internet aerial photos to help locate; isolated islands in swamps and marshes, areas across streams, rivers, or lakes that have no other access, or openings surrounded by large areas of bedding brush. Quite often these areas are unidentifiable while on foot, but once found on maps you can take the necessary gear to access them for further investigation.
Once in a remote area search for the best destination areas or convergence points the area offers. Deer that had been pushed into these areas will have found the best available food sources and there should be enough visual sign to acknowledge it during post season.
In order of importance look for old apple trees, white oaks, red oaks, or whatever food bearing trees your part of the country is noted for. If during season any of the trees bear food, deer will feed at them before leaving the secure area to feed elsewhere after dark.
While food sources are a mainstay focus for normal scouting and hunting practices, they’re not a must have when scouting remote areas where survival instincts trump food. After dark a deer can easily travel a mile in 10 minutes to feed elsewhere.
If fruit or mast trees exist and you prepared locations at them, a just prior to season speed-tour of them will be required to see if the trees bear food. This tour needs to be done during midday while utilizing your best scent control regiment and if possible do it during a rainy or windy day as either will aid in masking your noise and dissipating any residual odor.
If the trees bear food and there is fresh sign, hunt a couple times during the first few days of season and then leave the entire area alone until the rut phases when more deer will have been driven into the area and the peak in testosterone levels will likely have mature bucks moving during daylight hours in search of estrous does.
In small remote areas your rut phase hunting plan should be to only hunt when you can commit to all-day hunts otherwise you’d spook deer with evening entries or with morning exits. Also in these secure areas a buck could at any time of day wander by with or in search of an estrus doe. In fact, midday between the hours of 11am and 3pm will likely be your best opportunity times in such areas.
It’s imperative on morning hunts to be on stand and quiet at least an hour and a half prior to daybreak so you don’t spook any deer with your entry. It’s also advised to limit hunts in these types of locations to three or four per season.
On many occasions, after scouting public lands I’ve immediately abandoned them because they simply didn’t have areas remote enough to weed out other hunters due to difficult access. I don’t hunt, just to say I’m hunting and if that were the case I’d hang in my saddle from a telephone pole in my yard.
On the extreme opposite side of the difficult to access areas is finding locations extremely close to roads if the right types of security cover and conditions exist. If the property borders a well-traveled road or major highway that hunters won’t be walking down, and in areas where there’s dense enough security cover to block a visual from the road, scout the first hundred yards along it.
I’ve taken 5 mature bucks within 80 yards of major highways, one on a morning hunt, three during midday, and one on an evening hunt.
While I rarely hunt below 25 feet high on public land in Michigan, there are times when ground blinds were necessary and they were in remote locations where other hunters finding them were not a huge concern. Ground blinds should be as natural looking as possible by using existing deadfalls and natural debris and totally clear the ground within them to bare dirt. They will need a little cleaning up during season, but it will be minimal.
TV and video hunters can get away with using pop-up blinds in the micro-managed areas they hunt but on public lands you don’t have that luxury and they’re definitely not advised as they stick out like sore thumbs and will get picked.
On hchp public lands, don’t use decoys as mature does will usually spook from them and loudly stomp and snort, and mature bucks will rarely commit to coming in close enough to them for a shot opportunity.
Some tactics can produce success if performed; in the right places, at the right times of day, at the proper volume, and infrequently.
Subtle sparring sequences (not aggressive with big antlers like on TV) can draw in mature bucks during the first few days of season when bucks are jostling for dominance pecking order or during any of the rut phases when bucks are fighting for breeding rights.
Cold calling with doe bleats and an occasional grunt can also work but they must be subtle enough that if a buck is bedded within hearing distance and doesn’t respond, it won’t alarm him to the point that if he does get up during daylight, he may move in your direction out of previous curiosity.
Make sure any noise tactics are performed in areas where there’s adequate perimeter security cover, otherwise bucks will hang up out of range because there’s no visual to commit coming in to.
When the rut phases arrive and testosterone levels peak, mature bucks will move some during daylight hours. You must keep in mind however that other hunters have pressured the outlying property and frequently performed faulty tactics, making responses to your tactics far less likely. Allow your location to perform on the merits you chose it for.
Typical public land hunter timing creates a situation where deer often become conditioned to heavier evening pressure, with a major influx of pressure on weekends. If your schedule allows it, adjust your hunting to Wednesdays, Thursdays, or Fridays when there’s less hunter activity and a better chance of daytime movements.
The GRAND BEAUTY of learning to hunt public ground successfully is that after a few years you’ll be able to go anywhere, at any time, under any conditions, and be successful because you’ll have learned how to be detail oriented and to deal with hunter competition.
Editors note: John Eberhart is an accomplished bow-hunter that specializes in heavy consequential hunting pressure areas with 27 bow killed bucks listed in CBM’s recordbook from 19 different properties in 10 different counties. John produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series titled “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and co-authored the books, “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails”, “Precision Bowhunting”, and “Bowhunting Whitetails The Eberhart Way”. They are available at: www.deer-john.net