Hunting Mature Whitetails On Public Land
By Derek Malcore | Originally PUBLISHED May 2nd, 2022 - Updated 10.23.23
First off, hunting public land is NOT the same as hunting private property. I realize that is quite obvious, but it is a significant statement for this article and how I personally hunt. I do not mean to take away credit from hunting private land or diminish the accomplishments of those who have had success there. Still, the way I hunt on public ground is vastly different from how I would hunt on private land. Let me explain why and how.
From an early age, I was soaking up everything whitetail hunting. I read all the books, subscribed to all the magazines, and had a plethora of Monster Buck, Prime Time, etc., hunting VHS tapes (does anyone know where I can get a VCR 😂?) I loved reading about all the strategies and setup and watching filmed hunts of big midwest bucks. But even at a young age, I noticed a very substantial disconnect between what I was watching/ reading and what I was actually doing with my father in the deer woods. We didn't scout the same stuff as I saw in videos. We didn't hunt the same terrain as I read many articles about. We didn't see near the same movement and action with bucks and does seemingly frolicking across open pastures and fields. It was like I had been studying for a big test, but I showed up in the wrong room on test day and was being tested on a totally different subject.
Maybe some of you feel this way also. I think it's essential to address those who grew up without the "real world" scenarios. Like many youtube channels provide today, we were misled by the industry and what we learned from their content. Here is how I believe we can correct what we think we know about deer hunting.
If you are interested in finding the biggest buck a piece of public land offers, you don't need to start by locating the food source. Despite what all the magazine articles and hunting videos have shown you, showcasing beautiful green food plots and cornfield stands. That is not what you need when scouting public property. Much of the info has been about finding a good food source, locating big buck sign like rubs, scrapes, tracks, and then reverse-engineering the travel back to bedding. Maybe that works for you, but I've learned that scouting in that way is a significant waste of my valuable time.
My process is always the same when scouting any "new to me" piece of public property. I study aerial and topo maps of the area and how the features inside the public boundary relate to what's on the other side of the fence. I mark every area that looks thick, nasty, and difficult to hunt. This includes slashings, swamps, grassy areas, and CRP. After I have looked over the maps and marked each spot that entertains my curiosity, it's time to scout. Let's face it, the deer and, most importantly, mature bucks spend the majority of their time wherever humans spend the minority of their time. PERIOD.
When I get boots on the ground, I head directly to the areas of interest marked. The thick nasty cover, the small steep knobs near edges or swamps, the places I think a mature buck can evade other hunters and grow old. Is there a place where a buck can hide and grow old? That is the question that I am most interested in answering when looking at or scouting any public property.
If the property is primarily hardwoods or open timber, I typically don't waste my time. I want the areas that make you scratch your head, walk back and forth and back again, thinking, "how the hell am I going to be able to hunt this spot?" The more often you can put yourself in spots like this, the more big buck encounters you will have.
When I approach the areas I've marked, I'm looking to see how the deer use that particular terrain. Most importantly, I am searching for rubs. I am very, VERY interested in finding and locating rubs, especially clusters of rubs, even on small trees. I have always had an infatuation with rubs. I believe that they can tell you so much about a buck. The buck's personality, when and how he uses an area, and how large its antlers are. If the pin I've dropped on Spartan Forge is near a buck bedding area, a person should start to see buck sign as you approach or reach the edge of the area.
Typically, bucks will do lots of rubbing in feeding areas (and make most of their scrapes in these high traffic areas), on transitions or edges, and on the very fringe of their bedding areas. Ideally, I am trying to find the later, clusters of rubs on the outer perimeter of buck bedding. Have you ever been scouting and found a thick edge with small brushy trees that were almost all rubbed? Typically poplar, willow, alder, and pines tend to be the type of brushy edge vegetation here in WI that can be found near many buck bedding areas. If you can locate an area with 10 or more "trashy" or "shaggy" style rubs on any size trees, you have just found a great spot to hunt a mature buck.
These clusters of rubs are where a buck is getting up out of its bed, slowly and methodically smelling and looking for danger, and working his way out of his bedding area. From what I have found on many public land spots, a buck will usually have these "clusters" of rubs within 70 yards of his actual bed. This is the buck showing you where he will end up in daylight. The bucks will often get up from their bed near sunset, stretch, relieve themselves, and begin assessing for danger. This usually entails standing in one spot for 5-10 minutes. Then they will slowly work their way toward the edge of their comfort zone, which is mainly dependent on that specific area and the terrain around them.
Let the rubs show you that edge. Wherever you find those clusters of rubs is where that buck felt safe enough to move but wasn't comfortable going any further. Like a teenager at the mall, he loitered. Those bucks will stay just inside the cover where they feel safe. That's why we see clusters of rubs on the fringe of bedding. That buck feels safe and is making rubs, establishing his area, working on those neck muscles, while he waits for the safety of darkness.
The buck is showing you exactly where you need to hunt to have the best chance at killing him in daylight. Do not be discouraged if you are finding less and less deer sign. This can be very normal and actually beneficial. Hunters have been ingrained to find extensive trails, lots of tracks, and heavy deer traffic areas. Most, if not all, of these things, will not help you kill a mature buck. That is precisely why the food sources don't really matter. The beaten-down deer trails crisscrossing in the oaks don't matter, and the edge of the private land field doesn't matter. That big old buck is likely not making it there in daylight. Are there exceptions? Of course. Do people sometimes shoot big bucks in open areas laced with deer tracks? Of course. But ask yourself this, how many times have you set up in an area similar to what was just described? Beaten down runways, tracks everywhere, big rubs and scrapes, deer hunting heaven! Outside of the rut, how many times have you ever seen a mature buck come strolling through that spot? In my experience, in setting up hundreds of times in that type of "Monster Bucks VII" hunting video style location, you will be significantly disappointed.
Therein lies the most significant difference between hunting public and private property. It's the how and the where. On public ground, as mentioned above, I hunt very aggressively. As close to the fringe of bedding as possible. I am often climbing and setting up my tree stand over a period of 30-60 minutes because if my plan works out, the buck I am hunting is less than 100 yards away, often closer. This requires an aggressive attitude to go right in after the best area on the property, but also a very delicate touch for knowing how close is too close and getting that tight on that old buck while being able to set up and get situated without tipping him off.
Maybe an unpressured buck is making it a couple hundred yards during daylight and feeding on acorns or in a field with shooting light still on your side. In those circumstances, there would be no reason to risk bumping the buck out of his bedroom, and I could hunt less aggressively. I certainly would allow the pressure to dictate where I hunt on private property.
The takeaway from this article is this. When you are looking to scout and locate a spot to hunt a big buck on public property, forget trying to "reverse engineer" a buck bed. Pay less attention to the big sign near food; the most prominent trails and runways are not the best way to kill a big buck. Instead, focus on the areas of the property that would be the most difficult to hunt. Literally, look at the map and ask yourself, if I was a 5-year-old buck who knew where people hunted me most, where could I hide? Mark those locations and focus all of your scouting efforts on the pockets of thick hard-to-hunt areas. If you find buck rubs and sign there, it's worth hunting. If you don't find buck sign there but see historical rubs from seasons past, keep it marked on your map and check back in early October to see if food sources have changed, and bucks may be back in that spot. Suppose you don't find any good buck sign near potential buck bedding areas. In that case, I personally recommend not wasting any more time on that property.
Hopefully, this will help you put your valuable time in the woods to better use and close in on a big buck this season.