The Reality of Hunting Public-Land Whitetails
Don't let the excuse monster eat you up and leave you deer-less.
Today it seems like you can’t swing a dead cat at a bow range without hitting a flat-brim-hat-wearing, ironically mustachioed hunter who looks down on anyone who treads upon private ground during hunting season. Public land has become a badge of pride and a litmus test for real hunters these days, but for many, it’s not a trendy luxury to choose to hunt open-to-all ground.
It’s a necessity.
And despite the constant social media feeds showing the contrary, public land whitetails don’t come easy. For most, they don’t come at all. The reasons for unfilled tags are many, but nearly all of them can be avoided when you stop making excuses.
Here are some of the most common reasons we give ourselves to not hunt—or not to hunt well—and how to avoid them, not only to enjoy our time on public dirt, but also to succeed where most hunters fail.
No Good Land
How often do you hear—or say—there isn’t any quality public land in your neighborhood? Another way to say this is that there isn’t any easy hunting to be found on shared ground within an hour of where I live. Either way, quality is in the eye of the tag-holder, and most of the time the land we swear is worthless is the same land we’ve never set foot on. Or haven’t hunted in a decade. Get out there on that whitetail wasteland and look around, and you might find that you’ve been missing out. This happens to yours truly every year around the Twin Cities where I live. There’s plenty of competition out there in the woods, but plenty of deer, too. You just have to figure out how to avoid one while bumping into the other.
A Depressing Hit list
Today’s whitetail world is dominated by hit-list bucks and developing long histories with individual deer. Sure, you can’t babysit a buck on public land from a spike to a 160-incher, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t 5.5-year-old deer out there. Public land generally gets lumped into one category, which is meh at best. Just like private ground, however, the opportunities vary a lot from state to state and parcel to parcel. I’ve hunted states like the Dakotas, where my odds of seeing a mature buck are higher on public land than at home on private ground. It’s all about perspective, but the reality is that if your standards are mature-buck-or-bust, you can have a good season on ground that is open to all.
Chock-Full of Idiots
If you have the perception that public dirt is at capacity when it comes to terrible hunters, you may be almost right. When you’re exposed to the general hunting public, you’ll see a spectrum of skills, and at the bottom end, it’s not pretty. This isn’t unique to public land hunters and can be observed among general outdoorsmen of all stripes at any late-August archery range—or, if you want a real treat, at a public-boat access on Independence Day. The thing is, on public dirt you’ll encounter hunters of all skill levels, but the worst hunters will also be those that tend to be easiest to avoid. Walk a half-mile and you’ll about be there. Double that distance and the fumblers and bumblers will be nonfactors.
No Food, No Fun
If you spend time scouring tracts of public land via aerial photography, you’ll often notice a lack of destination food sources. Now, some big-buck stronghold states like Iowa have public land that is covered in agricultural fields and food plots. Other states, not so much. Setting out on whitetail ground that doesn’t feature a dreamy beanfield is a scary proposition for some deer hunters, but the bucks will be there. This is because public land often becomes public because it’s useless to farmers. The creek bottoms, bluffy hillsides, and wetlands that can’t be tilled are in low demand and have the tendency to end up as state or federal property. While those grounds may not appear to have easy food-to-bed, bed-to-food patterns, they usually have the best bedding cover around. Any whitetail hunter worth his camo knows that that’s not nothing.
Too Much Work
It’s certainly nice to hang stands all summer, trim shooting lanes, and prep ambush sites to the highest comfort level possible. Unfortunately, that’s a private-land hunter’s reality. Public land regs vary from property to property, but generally speaking, you’re not going to be on the right side of the law if you trim a bunch of branches or saw down a dozen saplings to create a shooting lane. In fact, on a fair amount of public ground you have to put up and take down your stands daily, and you will be considered a criminal if you use a screw-in bow-hanger. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s reality. The plus side of this extra work is that it’ll keep a lot of your competition at home or sitting on the ground with their backs to a tree spring-turkey style instead of going aerial to outsmart bucks.
Nontypical Hunts Are Stupid
This isn’t about antler symmetry, it’s about rethinking what conditions make the best hunts. On tightly controlled private ground, the early-November cold front that swings down from Canada and drops the temperatures 20 degrees overnight is money. On public land, it just means that a lot of your competition is going to be out and about. The conditions that get deer moving sans any pressure are different than those that get public land bucks on their feet. This is all tied to how many people are in the woods. You may want a crisp November morning with frost on the ground and a northwest wind, but so does everyone else. I’ll take rain, wind, and heat over what are considered good whitetail conditions any day of the week. The fewer the hunters, the more the deer will move. You just need to rethink what makes for quality hunting conditions and get in a tree when others won’t.
It’s not uncommon to hear hunters’ laments on the intelligence of mature bucks. Private-land deer that get old are brainiacs, but a public-land buck with some gray in his muzzle? That buck is a whitetail MENSA member that makes Elon Musk look like he’s been eating lead paint chips his whole life.
These are rabbits with antlers, and their intellectual capabilities are highly suspect. They are survival machines and nothing more. They need food, water, and, most importantly, security. That might mean holing up throughout the day on a hummock in a cattail slough that is impossible to approach quietly. Or it might mean traveling through the cover with the wind in his face at last light, just like most deer. When we assign them too much credit for mental horsepower, we give ourselves an excuse to fail or, worse, to not hunt. Don’t do that to yourself.
Get Your Head Right
If you wade through the dudes posting flex-in-the-mirror gym selfies and the yoga-pants wearing huntresses flaunting their, uh, shooting skills, you’ll see people doing amazing things on social media. They’re out there running mountain marathons, dropping dozens of pounds of body weight, and, in many cases, arrowing good deer on public land. The people who are killing it in life are an inspiration, and they all share a couple of things: discipline and a great attitude. It’s totally woo-woo, but if you believe you won’t succeed hunting on public dirt, then you absolutely won’t. A piss-poor attitude about where you hunt and how hard it will be pretty much ensures the worst outcome. Get your head right and understand that if you put in the work and stop making excuses, you can do what many will say can’t be done.