By Travis J. Faulkner
Writer Travis Faulkner has taken several trophy-class bucks on public land. He says it requires persistence and a good game plan, developed just for high-pressure hunting areas.
Most deer hunters believe it isn’t possible to regularly take trophy bucks on public land. Such results have to happen behind a high fence at some expensive hunting lodge, right? The truth is that some of the biggest bucks have been taken from areas that any of us could hunt. While pursuing bucks on public land creates challenges, a dedicated hunter who does his homework can and will be successful.
Targeting areas that receive intense hunting pressure is no picnic, and matching wits with a buck that has become a master escape artist is the ultimate test of a deer hunter’s skills. A buck that has survived a few seasons on public land is a completely different animal. You are dealing with a shrewd dude that knows exactly how to pattern hunters and can slip through the woods like a ghost.
Luck is a ticket that will only take you so far, and eventually it will run out. As for me, I’ll take consistency over luck. In order to tag bucks that will make your hunting buddies green with envy, you have to change your hunting techniques. Over the years, the following strategies have enabled me to fill a trophy room full of heavy-tined bruiser bucks from areas that are hunted hard every season.
Doing your homework will dramatically increase your success. The goal is to develop an intimate knowledge of a trophy buck’s patterns and the area you are hunting. Take time to study aerial photos and topographic maps. You can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time from the comfort of your home without spooking deer.
First pinpoint high-traffic areas so you can cross them off your list. Avoid areas with easy access - places close to roads or ATV trails. These locations will be hit the hardest during the opening weeks of deer season.
Next look for potential bedding and feeding areas, along with possible escape routes and travel corridors. Locating these key features on paper will save time and prevent you from walking aimlessly across a large tract of land.
After pinpointing areas that have potential, I put on knee-high rubber boots and carefully walk these locations, looking for fresh sign. Next, I utilize several lock-on trail cameras to determine the caliber of bucks in the area. I can’t overstate the importance of a few good trail cameras. You can locate travel routes, food sources, bedding and staging areas without spooking or educating mature bucks. The biggest plus of digital cameras is being able to record the dates and times that bucks are using a particular area. If you pay attention to the time stamps on the photos, you can often learn a deer’s pattern.
If you really want to do it right, take note of the wind direction and speed for each day you have buck photos. Write that information in a diary, or even right on the pictures.
Utilize Hunting Pressure to Your Advantage
One thing hunting pressure is good for is generating deer movement. A little bit of human scent and noise really gets whitetails stirred up and on the move. Spend some time scouting other hunters. Look for treestands, old ground blinds, trail markers and heavily worn back roads.
In most cases, hunters won’t venture too far off the beaten path. The bulk of the hunting pressure will take place a few hundred yards from parked vehicles and easy-access areas. Set up on the backside of known hunting pressure. Hunting funnels along escape routes on public land is a deadly strategy for monster bucks.
Hunt the Thick and the Ugly
You will have the most success hunting escape routes that lead directly into the thickest and ugliest cover in the woods. These entanglements serve as protective sanctuaries that veteran bucks will use season after season. Big bucks and thick cover go together like biscuits and gravy.
Position a treestand overlooking aged clear-cuts or old-growth thickets in hard-to-reach areas. Bucks feel protected in thickets and will gravitate to these areas when the pressure is turned up. Sometimes it’s better to ignore hot deer sign like fresh rubs and scrapes to hunt lightly worn travel routes leading into heavy cover.
Keep in mind that deer will react to the pressure and will likely deviate from the patterns you established before hunting season. I have taken several wallhangers just after daylight as hunters are entering the woods, and also during mid-morning when everyone leaves to grab a bite to eat.
The Scent Factor
One of the biggest mistakes hunters make is failing to take scent prevention seriously. A buck’s nose is its main defense. He lives by his nose, and any unusual scent in the woods will hurt your chances of shooting a mature animal. Scent prevention - or even scent paranoia - is one of the most important steps to becoming consistently successful.
The first thing to learn about scent elimination is that no single product is 100 percent effective. You must develop a complete regimen and follow it to the letter. Wash your hunting clothes with scent-eliminating detergent and store them in a sealed, scent-proof bag inside a plastic container. Shower with scent-eliminating soap and wear light clothing in the field when traveling to your stand, even in cold weather. Thoroughly spray your entire body and gear with a scent-eliminating spray, and never put on any of your hunting clothing until you reach your stand. Always play the wind, and complete this ritual by wearing a carbon suit and knee-high rubber boots.
Remember that the wind is not reliable, and also that you are dealing with ever-changing thermals and currents. All it takes is a swirling wind to destroy all the hard work you put in preparing, scouting and hunting a big buck. I know that my scent-eliminating habits have been directly responsible for the opportunity to take many of my bucks.
Entry and Exit Strategies
Sometimes the quickest and easiest route to your stand is NOT the best option. The odds are pretty good that you will never shoot a mature buck from public land if you sound like a wounded elephant on the way to your stand. Take as much time and effort planning your entry and exit strategies as you do with your actual hunt setup. It’s hard work, but I have walked a couple miles out of the way to keep from spooking deer.
In order to formulate safe routes in and out, consider where the deer will be when you are walking to the stand. Next, after picking the right travel route, cut or clear a path that allows you to walk quietly. This means trimming overhanging branches, removing saw briars and other obstacles. Remember that you will be carrying more equipment when you come in to hunt. Also be aware of regulations about cutting live plants on public land.
Fickle Lady Luck
Any hunter can luck into a big buck; we’ve all seen it happen. But we all know a few hunters who seem to take big bucks on a regular basis. That doesn’t happen by accident. Whether they realize it or not, those consistently successful hunters do a lot of little things that add up to big bucks and big taxidermy bills.
If you want to fill your tag from a heavily hunted area this season, give my strategies a try. Persistence and a good game plan are what it takes to drop the monster buck that has been haunting your dreams.
-- Reprinted from the August 2007 issue of Buckmasters Magazine