How to Hunt Big Bucks on Public Land
Hunting and killing big whitetail bucks on public hunting land
By Derek Malcore | PUBLISHED August 10th, 2022
In the previous article, we looked closely at the process of trying to scout and locate areas where big mature bucks are spending time on public property. If you haven't had the chance to read it yet, I suggest looking back on it and giving it a read. The key takeaways were that any piece of land (public or private) MUST have terrain where big bucks can live and grow old in security. This could be a sanctuary area that people don't enter, a location of heavy cover, steep hilly terrain, or even areas close to roads or human activity that aren't occupied by hunters. Bucks need places to hide to grow old, and once they have found a site that provides that type of security and sanctuary, you can bet that they will continually use it until it is no longer safe.
Regarding locating areas like this to hunt, my focus was almost entirely on finding locations with concentrations of rubbing activity on the fringes of the secure bedding area. If you are finding rubs in the beds or around the edges of the bedding area, you know that bucks are using that security during the hunting season. If you can find spots that showcase rubs from multiple periods, such as historical rubs from years past, rubs that appear to be dull in color and made during the early season alongside newer, more colorful rubs. This proves that you have found a location that affords a buck optimal security throughout the fall and is not dependent solely on vegetation for cover. The more rubs you find clustered around cover and bedding, the better that spot will be, and typically for longer durations of the season.
Every late winter/ early spring, I aim to get boots on the ground of as many properties as possible in hopes of locating at least 10-12 of these types of spots. Not every public or private property has these spots, so sometimes, a person needs to know when to cut the cord and move on or chalk up a good-looking spot as a travel location or rut stand. These locations are not bad at all, just less likely to have a mature buck walk past them during legal hunting hours. This is where I see many hunters go wrong. For many years, most hunters who have learned from magazines and hunting videos seem to be hunting "rut" stands and significant travel corridors all season long. There tend to be extensive heavy trails, scrapes, and rub lines in these spots, and when found in the typical hardwoods setting, hunting is easy as there are plenty of trees to choose from. The critical aspect that is often forgotten is that mature bucks aren't consistently traveling through these spots in daylight outside of the rut. They always wait for the safest time to leave the safety of bedding in a secure location, every day of the season, without fail.
So you've found a great-looking area with plenty of trashy rubs and some sort of security cover or terrain for a buck to hide in. Now how does a person set up to kill that buck? Here is where things get tricky. Figuring out the best way to hunt and kill that buck is the gray area that many hunters, myself included, have to think hardest about. Finding the location was actually the easy part, and every time you see a spot like that, you will begin to notice just how consistent and similar these types of areas that big bucks like to live in are to each other. With practice and experience, it will become easier and easier to pick out locations on aerial and topographic maps that provide all the elements needed for a buck to call it home.
The first key, truly an integral part of having an opportunity at the buck, is to try your hardest to make your scouting trip a "one and done" type of scout. The "one and done" approach is to scout out a great-looking area, find the bed, follow the entry and exit trails to find the best location to set up and kill the buck, prepare a tree, locate the best entry to hunt, and then never come back until it's time to hunt. Remember that mature bucks have chosen this location because it is safe from humans. Not necessarily human presence, but from hunting pressure.
If you find an excellent buck bedding area, scout it, come back and check it out again, and continue building up your presence there. The buck will be on full alert and under the impression that his security has been compromised. This is how I've tried to do my scouting for the past 10-11 years, and it has made a HUGE difference in the number of mature buck sightings I've had while hunting.
While this is not always possible and in-season scouting is a crucial part of finding hot sign, it is the absolute best technique I know of to get close to big bucks.
To illustrate my point (which of course, is nothing new, the old adage that the first hunt in a stand is best is all about limiting human scent and presence to an area), I would like to share an incredibly interesting experience that I witnessed about 8 years ago. While hunting in NE Wisconsin in the National Forest, my father and I scouted a cool area that featured a small wet slough extending from a marshy swamp into some lowland pines and evergreens. The higher fingers of woods on each side both had nice runways paralleling the slough, and just before the tip of the slough, there was a great trail crossing the wet bottom. Rub lines were coming out of the marsh on both sides. My father and I both agreed that this would be a great place to ambush a cruising buck moving from one point to the other and wanted to stay in thick cover.
My father opted to hang a camera on the main crossing trails and return to set up a stand if the camera showed any promise. A few weeks later, my phone started dinging as my father sent me several photos showing some nice bucks traveling past his camera.
He decided that this location was worth a hunt or two and brought a treestand with him on his next camera check so he could prepare the stand site. He called me later that evening to tell me about it. We had both been looking around the area for trees to hunt out on the first day we located the spot and knew it would be tough to set up as most of the trees were very small. He told me over the phone that he had difficulty finding a good setup and ended up walking around looking for the right tree much more than he wanted to. He did find a tree and got his stand hung on October 8. Almost a month later, my father went in to hunt the spot, and after a slow sit, he checked his camera to find something incredible: one singular deer photo. Almost a month had passed since the last time he had checked the camera, and there was only one photo of a deer…ONE! Now, yes, this is the "Northwoods," and there are fewer deer than in other areas of the state, but this was so unbelievable, so unreal, that it was laughable.
The singular deer photo that the camera captured was in fact the biggest buck in the area that we had been trying to hunt for 4 years. A smart old 8-point we called "Ice Pick" due to his long pointed brow tines and continually growing straight up. The camera showed many photos of my father walking back and forth past the camera, treestand in hand, searching for the perfect tree. The following picture was the most telling. Ice Pick was the first deer to walk through one day after my dad had been setting the stand. It was a nighttime photo around 9pm. Ice Pick entered from the thick pines just south of the slough crossing and was in an alert stance, all four legs grounded evenly, head back and ears forward. After that, no other deer moved past that spot for almost an entire month. I believe the buck smelled the disturbance, knew something was wrong, and stomped in that place, most likely several times. Deer have interdigital glands between the "toes" on each hoof. These glands leave an individual scent that deer use to identify and sometimes track other deer. When deer stomp their feet, they leave an alarm scent meant to notify other deer and animals that pass by that spot that there is danger present. I believe that after other deer smelled the individual alarm scent from the oldest buck in the area, they knew that it was unsafe to pass by that area, and they all avoided it. Had it been a fawn or young buck that had done the same thing, it may have caused some alarm and awareness in other passing deer, but because it was the oldest buck in the area, I believe it really altered how the other deer related to that spot.
This example can be applied to any situation where hunters interact with a location. This is why the One and Done type of scouting is so vital to killing big bucks. They are aware of EVERYTHING that happens in their core area. It is time-consuming to locate these outstanding areas that hold big bucks, so it is essential that once you find one, you do everything in your power to KEEP it a safe area for the deer living there. Less is more.
With that being said, I believe that if you are scouting outside of hunting season and find a good area, it is your job to scout it thoroughly and do your due diligence to learn the intricacies of that area before determining an area ambush site. Your scent is already there. The deer will already notice your presence, so use this disturbance to walk out all the trails, scour the edges and exits of the area, and gather as much information as possible before committing to an ambush site. After you feel like you have taken in all the visual input (trails, beds, rubs, scrapes, cover), it is time to think about how the deer are using the wind and thermals in that location.
If you are hunting in the evening and the thermals begin to pull your scent downward as the sun dips behind the trees, determine which low areas will be affected. Is that where you expect the deer to approach? How do hills, ditches, waterways, and tree edges affect the wind movements in that location? If it is a good location, you can bet that the bucks are using the wind and thermals to their advantage to find danger before leaving their security cover. This often forces a hunter to find ambush locations barely outside the areas with the heaviest sign.
We know that so much of what a mature buck does is based on his nose that we must consider how he will interact with the wind and thermals as he uses each location we hunt. Our success depends on it.