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Ohio Public Land Whitetails

By Freddie McKnight

-- One minute I was watching a pair of yearling does contentedly feeding in my direction. The next, I was watching the largest buck I have ever seen while in a treestand. It was chasing a doe, presumably the yearlings' mother, and was slowly working my way. It was hard to believe that this buck lived on public land.

The bruiser was a heavy and wide 5x6, with a split P-2 on the left beam and a drop tine growing off its right base. It was huge in body, too, dwarfing the mature doe. I badly wanted to put that deer on my wall, but it wasn't to be. Another doe came in from the east, directly downwind and almost eye level to me. She snorted, and the bruiser melted back into the brush and out of my life.

In my home state, the hunt would have been over and I would have packed up and gone home. But I was in southern Ohio during the height of the rut, and I wasn't going to leave my treestand. My patience paid off later that evening when three other bucks came off the same ridge from where the big boy had appeared. While they weren't in the same class as the earlier buck, they were respectable.

The three kept chasing a doe between me and the next hunter to the south, Buckmasters editor Ken Piper. Between the disappearance of the monster buck and the appearance of the three bucks, I heard Ken shoot his Horton crossbow. After imagining the sequence of events might have happened at Ken's stand, I refocused my attention as one of the three bucks broke off from the chase and headed to my calls. When it was broadside at 27 yards, I put an arrow into him.

After the cover of darkness moved in, Ken and I discussed the evening's hunt. I had seen a total of 18 deer, including five bucks. Ken had seen about a dozen, with three bucks. Another hunter had spotted six deer, including several bucks. Ken had taken a large doe and then, without a second tag, could only watch when an 8-pointer and then a 10-pointer went by. The other hunter passed up a buck and couldn't get any shooting at a doe. It was an incredible night of hunting, made all the more special because we were on public land.

Ohio is known for producing big bucks; there are enough of them listed in any of the record books to make this state a must for the diehard whitetail trophy hunter. What is not so well known is that the Buckeye State also has plenty of public land, with more than a million acres of ground scattered across the state. These hunting areas range from small parcels of less than 100 acres to large tracts with thousands of acres. Just about any of these locations is capable of producing a monster buck and is worth examining if you're looking for a new area in which to hunt for your own trophy.

Prior to packing your hunting gear and heading to Ohio, look at the Division of Wildlife website (www.dnr.state.oh.us) for more information. This site lists 99 parcels of land open to public hunting and fishing. Complete with maps and descriptions, it allows hunters to do some scouting from home before setting foot in the woods. Notice that a few have special regulations, such as requiring a free permit before you hunt, or primitive-weapons-only restrictions.

Public lands have been home to many big Ohio bucks, such as the 196 6/8-inch 12-pointer taken from the Brush Creek State Forest in Adams County several years ago. The buck lived amid the 13,500-acre tract, which is largely comprised of steep hardwood ridges and deep hollows.

Interspersed within this public tract are many private holdings. Situated along the bottomlands, these tracts are mostly cropland, with corn, soybeans and alfalfa. The deer tend to fatten up on these crops under the cover of darkness, then seek out bedding areas in the rough terrain of the public tract. If a hunter remains on stand, he can expect to see at least one or two good bucks under the right conditions during a week-long hunt.

Another nearby public tract that produces good bucks is the Shawnee State Forest. Located in both Adams and Scioto Counties, this public tract was the victim of a massive ice storm in 2003. The storm wreaked havoc on the landscape, downing a massive number of trees. Now, much of the 63,000-acre tract is in a recovery phase, with large areas of thick regrowth that is the preferred holding cover for big bucks.

Further to the north in Trumbull County, another area of bottomland cover exists in the form of the Grand River Wildlife Area. At 7,200 acres, it's not one of the bigger tracts, but its composition more than compensates. The region is an extensive network of bottomlands, with numerous beaver ponds and swamps. The resulting mix of water, muck and mud are enough to keep many hunters from penetrating its interior. This lack of pressure provides a safe haven for deer to elude hunters Ñ and a potential gem for the sportsman willing to put in the effort into hunt such a location.

Forked Run State Park in Meigs County is another bottomland hotspot. Only about 800 acres of the park is open to hunting, and the closed areas are whitetail havens. The deer don't often leave the no-hunting area because of the abundance of crops grown on the nearby private land. But if you time it just right, you can catch deer as they pass through the open hunting land between the crops and their sanctuary.

Possibly the most attractive public parcel in the entire state is the 833,000-acre Wayne National Forest. It's made up of smaller tracts scattered about three main sections in southern Ohio. The boundaries are not always marked, which puts the burden of responsibility on the hunter. Under Ohio game law, a person hunting on private land must carry written permission for the private tract they are hunting. The penalty for not having the proper documentation could be a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail.

Personal experience has taught me that the best way to keep track of the national forest boundaries is to purchase a county map of the region you plan to hunt. These maps can be obtained at the county courthouse.

As with other public hunting land, pressure can be intense. In Ohio, hunter numbers peak during the gun season and during the first week or so of the archery season.

Ohio has over-the-counter licenses, and deer hunters are able to take a maximum of three public-land deer during the course of the hunting season (with the correct number of purchased permits). Deer permits are good for any of the archery, muzzleloader or firearms hunting seasons, which start in late September and continue through early February.

Ohio's reputation for producing big bucks continues to grow, as does the state's deer herd. With more than a million acres of public land within its boundaries, there are bound to be more big bucks taken in the future. I know I'm looking forward to a rematch this fall with the drop-tined buck in a certain hollow of southern Ohio. Maybe I'll see you there, too.

--Freddie McKnight 

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