It’s a challenge

When I first moved to Southern Indiana I was forced to start hunting public land. In Michigan I had always hunted private property that I knew like the back of my hand. Getting on deer was much easier in those days. Now I hunt primarily on a 26,000 acre state forest. When there is so much land it can be intimidating when first starting out, but the information in this article should give you some insight on where to look for deer.

Where to start

The way I look at it is there are three ways to go about hunting public land:

  1. Go further into the woods than anyone else is willing to go
  2. Find a spot that other hunters over look
  3. Find a spot that other hunters won’t go because it’s too difficult

You should capitalize on all three of these techniques, and I suggest having multiple spots to hunt. You want a spot that is easy to get to for those days that you get out of work early, and you need to get into to the woods quickly. You want a spot that is deep in the woods for the weekends when everyone is out enjoying the public land. A spot that is difficult to get to is my go to for gun season. I will have a spot scouted out weeks in advance because that is the place you are least likely to encounter another hunter.

Going further

When you decide to trek into the deepest parts of the wilderness you are putting distance between you and the other hunters in your area. Sometimes this is necessary, but I only do this as a last resort. Dragging a deer isn’t easy and it is painful when you have to drag it for what seems like forever. Of course, the reward of getting a nice buck will make that drag worth it.

Going far into the wilderness requires some homework prior to heading out. You want to make sure your scouting efforts pay off. It is best to look at a topographic map to gain insight on the terrain. I’m sure you have used google earth for scouting purposes before, and if you haven’t you need to start. Studying the lay of the land can reduce the area you plan on scouting, and it can help you pinpoint locations that will have high deer volumes. I’m not going to go into the details of topography in this article, but I will write an article specifically for understanding topography and terrain.

Going further has it’s benefits, but it can be time consuming. I primarily use this technique on days that the public land has a lot of human activity. The deer will feel less pressured as you get further away from other people, and you are less likely to have a person walk through while you’re on stand.

Overlooked spots

This is my favorite type of spot because it’s generally easy to get to, and it provides great hunting opportunity. Finding an overlooked spot will require much more scouting, and will most likely require a few days with little action on stand. You are pushing boundaries when you use this technique. You are getting close to what deer feel are safe havens. You don’t want to fully intrude, but instead ease your way into the spot where deer start moving about an hour or so before dark.

Finding an overlooked spot can be difficult, but it starts by finding the feeding areas or topographic hot spots. Feeding areas will vary, but a good indication of a feeding area is a lot of tracks and droppings. These areas are enticing to the novice hunter who will likely set up at such a spot. You, however, know that these spots are usually vacant of deer until the night casts its shadow.

When you find the feeding area you need to move away from it. The direction you will go depends on topography and habitat structure.  Again, I’m not going to get into detail about those factors in this article. You move to where you start seeing game trails. These are the areas you will start to set up in. You sit one or two nights, and you mostly observe. If you see an adequate amount of deer you stay put in that area. You can move your stand to increase shot opportunity.

If you don’t see deer you move further down the trails, and look for the more heavily used ones. Again, set up and observe. You repeat this process until you find the deer zone. It’s there transition areas from bedding to feeding. These areas offer great opportunities, and the deer are less alert and act more natural.

Difficult to get to spots

These spots are the ones that other hunters won’t go because they aren’t willing to be innovative or dedicated enough to go there. There can be a multitude of difficult to get to places:

  1. A hill that is too steep
  2. A river is in the way
  3. A thicket blocks easy passage

Above are a few examples of spots that are difficult to get to. The willingness to traverse a barrier will open up ample opportunity for the public land hunter. It is important to remember that the habitat still needs to be suitable for deer. This technique is pretty self explanatory so I won’t go into detail on it.

Scout hard and often

When you’re hunting public land you need to be scouting constantly. The early season will have deer changing patterns over night. A hot spot can turn cold, and you need to have multiple back up spots. I will dedicate whole days to purely scouting. It can be hard to give up a night of hunting, but it’s important to have a knowledge of multiple areas.

Scouting should start by studying topographic and satellite maps to find areas that create high volumes of deer. When you find these areas you should scout them, and really study the area. You need to think critically when scouting for deer. Analyze your surroundings and the sign that is present. It will tell you a lot about the deer in that area.

End note

For places with extreme pressure, a combination of these techniques may need to be utilized. After gun season in 2017, I was faced with a challenge. My most prized spots seemed to be void of deer. I put the bow up and decided to focus my efforts on scouting. My hope was that by the time muzzle-loader season rolled around I would have a spot that would produce. I opened my search to places I haven’t considered before.

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I finally found a spot that was far, and had a feature that made it difficult to get to. There were two ways to get to the spot I found. One way presented a difficult hike down one steep hill face and up another. This way is one that most wouldn’t be willing to do. It was physically challenging to do. The other way was a long, but easy hike to the steep hill. Then getting up the hill was the difficult part.

I decided to take the hike down one hill and up the other. When I got to the top of the hill I was sweat drenched and breathing hard. I picked the tree that presented the best view and wind play. I climbed the tree with my climbing stand and sat patiently for about 25 minutes. At this point my bowels started to wrench. I thought my pants would be filled with that of which a toilet should be filled with. I ended up making it down the tree and used a fallen tree as my bathroom…I was down one sock afterward.

I decided it was too late in the hunt to climb the tree again and found a nice spot a few yards away from my tree to sit. I sat for about 45 minutes when I heard the familiar sound of a deer walking through a forest of dry autumn leaves. I couldn’t believe my ears. The deer sounded fairly close, but I didn’t see it come from anywhere. I got my muzzle-loader up and ready for action.

The buck was hidden from my view by a fallen tree…not the same one I used as a bathroom. He kept making his way up the hill I was on. Finally, he came into view. It wasn’t the biggest buck in the woods, but it was one that I would gladly take on my last hunt for the year. I picked a spot to focus my scope that would offer me a clean shot, and when he stepped into my cross hairs I squeezed the trigger.

The hit was a good double lung, but the buck made a good run. I tracked him for a ways, and when the darkness started to set in I decided it would be in my best interest to head back to the car. The next morning me, my dad, and my brother headed out real early to finish tracking the buck. My dad and brother complained at the distance and difficulty of getting to this spot, but the spot produced when all others failed.

We found the buck not far from where I stopped tracking, but unfortunately, the coyotes found it before us. The whole hindquarters was essentially gone. My dad and I debated on what to do and decided to salvage from the ribs up. That was the portion that was untouched by the coyotes. We were pleased with the amount of meat we were able to get from what the coyotes left.

The buck was a seven point. Not the biggest buck in the woods, but it is one that I will always remember. This was the first deer I have ever taken with a muzzle-loader. It reminded me of how dedication and perseverance can be rewarding.

So remember, there are deer on these public lands even when it seems like they are nowhere to be found. Use these techniques to help find areas with little pressure, and when the hunting gets tough scout harder.