Five public land spots where you can really get away from the crowds.
By Darren Warner
I hunt deer in Clare County, Mich., where 21 hunters per square mile invade the woods each fall. Like me, many of you spend the bulk of your time trying to tag mature whitetails in areas where deer face an onslaught of arrows and bevy of bullets.
But if you look hard enough, there are still places in the U.S. where you can have the woods almost to yourself. The downside? The hunting’s hard and you’ll need a strong arsenal of scouting and hunting skills.
Deer numbers in these locations tend to be lower and the habitat can be harsh, but the reduced hunting pressure allows bucks to reach maturity. When you bag one, you can take satisfaction in knowing you accomplished deer hunting’s toughest challenge — taking a mature buck on public land.
Following are five public land hunting hot spots. I’ll tell you where to start, what licenses you’ll need and other valuable information to make your hunt successful.
North Maine Woods, Maine
The Pine Tree State boasts one of the largest timbered areas in the country. The North Maine Woods (NMW) contains over 3.5 million acres of top-quality commercial forest land, owned mostly by private timber companies.
The St. John and Allagash rivers flow through the NMW, inspiring famous writers like Henry David Thoreau and whitetail fanatics like R.G. Bernier (www.bigwhitetail.com).
“When I’m hunting the North Maine Woods, I first look for smaller streams and rivers, because deer gravitate to them,” Bernier says. “I also look for elevation, because bucks will be on the elevation.”
For $8 a day or $50 for all deer seasons, anyone with enough grit and gumption can track whitetails until their heart’s desire or their legs give out, whichever comes first.
Park your truck along T14 R 12 to access miles of rough country between the St. John and Allagash, or set up camp at any of several Public Reserved Lands in Aroostock County, including Round Pond, Deboullie, Squapan and Eagle Lake.
Famed deer trailer and guide Hal Blood is another well known NMW deer hunter. Blood literally wrote the book on following big buck tracks when he penned “Big Woods Bucks: Secrets of Tracking and Stalking Whitetails.”
“Right now, I would say the best bet for hunters would be the western side of the state where the New Hampshire border joins Quebec North within 20 miles along the Quebec border to Saint-Pamphile,” said Blood. “Most of these deer winter in Quebec where the climate is milder.”
When roaming the NMW, bring your own water. Lakes and streams aren’t tested, and could contain the protozoan parasite Giardia lamblia. Go to www.northmainewoods.org for a list of roads maintained in the winter.
Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky
Of the five hotspots covered in this article, the Land Between the Lakes (LBL) National Recreation Area gets the most hunting pressure. I included the portion of the LBL in the Blue Grass State because I recently discovered that if you’re looking to take a book buck with your bow, Kentucky’s the place to go.
Kentucky has long been known for yielding record book bucks, and 2010 was a very good year.
The Kentucky LBL has more than 100,000 acres of rolling wilderness. It’s surrounded by water on three sides, so you won’t have trouble determining if you’re still on LBL land. Oak and hickory stands dominate the landscape, with the land growing flatter as you head south.
“Near the border of Tennessee is a good spot to hunt,” said David Yancy, a wildlife biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
That doesn’t mean hunters should ignore the northern portion of the LBL. In September 2010, Kentuckian Layton Hudson arrowed an 11-pointer with 11-inch P2s in one of the northern hunting units.
“The mosquitoes were horrible that day — to the point where you could hardly breathe,” remembers Hudson. “In the morning, nine bucks walked out about 100 yards away, and several of them went right by me. I shot my buck at 60 yards. The really neat thing about it was I brought my daughter back during gun season in November, and she killed one of the other nice bucks.”
Besides applicable state licenses, hunters are required to have the $20 LBL permit. Archery hunting is open to everyone, but gun hunts are doled out on a quota basis. Hunters need to apply in July at www.lbl.org/hunting.html. Any LBL deer harvested is a bonus deer and does not count toward statewide bag limit, but hunters are limited to one LBL buck.
Marquette County, Michigan
Named for Father Marquette, the famous Jesuit missionary who visited in the 1600s, Marquette County is the largest county in Michigan. The terrain varies considerably, from the rocky Huron Mountains in the north to sloppy swamps and flatlands in the south.
Much of the county land — owned by the state of Michigan, the National Park Service and commercial forestry companies — is open to public hunting.
Locals prefer hunting in and around the Huron Mountains, where you’ll find huge rock outcrops, maple and spruce forests and thick cedar swamps.
“Sometimes you can see only a few yards in front of you, and other times you’ll be able to see 300 yards,” says Marquette County hunter Terry Weigold. “I look for hemlock draws and other features that funnel deer, and then I just track one. Sometimes in the thick stuff you’ll see broken saplings high off the ground. That’s when you know you’ve found a good non-typical.”
Weigold waited until the December muzzleloader season to harvest a 160-inch 13-point behemoth.
“I started tracking him early in the morning and didn’t catch up to him until 4 o’clock,” Weigold said. “Bucks will travel several miles and then make a big loop and come back. If they’re making long strides, you better run after them or you’ll never catch up.”
When hunting northern Marquette County, look for mature bucks between Pine and Rush lakes. If hunting the southern part, take County Road 573 and then hike in near Silver Lake.
Those looking to pinpoint public hunting lands in Michigan and plan their next hunting trip can use Mi-HUNT, a web application that allows users to view all land open to public hunting. Interactive layers also display vegetation types, topography, foliage cover and even recreational facilities like campgrounds, trails and boat launches. Visit www.michigan.gov/mihunt for more information.
Boundary Waters of the Superior National Forest, Minnesota
The one million acres that comprise the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) lie within the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. The BWCAW is big, wild country with no roads, no agriculture and no logging.
Marginal habitat, severe winters and a ton of timber wolves mean low deer densities. But you’ll still find mature, 200-pound-plus bucks carrying 140- to 160-inch headgear that are wired and wary. You might only see five whitetails a day, but two of them could be shooter bucks.
As the name implies, you’ll need a good canoe to traverse much of the BWCAW. Winter freeze-up usually occurs around Nov. 1. After that, you’ll have to hoof it.
“It doesn’t pay to come here until at least mid-October, because there’s no buck movement before then,” said Stu Osthoff, who’s spent more than 30 years hunting the BWCAW. “The idea that you’re going to set up between a bedding and feeding area is a pipe dream. The deer feed here and there while they’re on the move.”
Osthoff edits the Boundary Waters Journal (www.boundarywatersjournal.com), a quarterly publication that’s a great resource for nonresidents who’ve never been to the BWCAW.
“It’s pretty well-recognized that the western half has higher deer densities and better habitat,” added Osthoff. “West of Basswood Lake is where I do most of my still-hunting.”
Newbies can take Highway 169 to hunt near Crab and Cummings lakes. Another option is to set up camp off the Echo Trail and hunt near Bootleg Lake or the Little Indian Sioux. Hunters aren’t limited to using designated campsites in the off season. You’ll need a free visitor permit, available at U.S. Forest Service offices or online at www.recreation.gov (type Echo Lake (Minn) in the search box).
“If you’re looking for a true wilderness experience for deer hunting, you can be totally alone here,” Osthoff said. “There’s no such thing as a No Trespassing sign.”
Big Game Management Unit 1, Idaho
In Idaho’s northern Panhandle region, you’ll find Big Game Management Unit 1, where 69 percent of the land is open to public hunting. The state’s Access Yes! Program also provides access to private land for public hunting (http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/ifwis/huntplanner/accessyesguide.aspx). Last year alone, the program opened up more than 400,000 private acres for average Joes like you and me.
The Selkirk Mountains run through Unit 1, one of the most beautiful high-alpine ranges you’ll ever see. Below the Selkirk are wet forests teeming with cedar stands and heavy understory — and heavy-antlered whitetails.
“Lowland elevations include farmland and woodlots in the eastern half of the unit, to semi-continuous coniferous forest in the western part of the unit,” said Idaho Department of Game and Fish biologist Jim Hayden. “Elevations range from about 2,000 feet near Bonner’s Ferry to about 8,000 feet in the northwest corner of the unit. Most whitetail hunting occurs below 4,500 feet.”
Unit 1 consistently ranks among the highest deer harvest units in the state, with hunters taking nearly 7,000 each year (including mule deer). The good thing about hunting Idaho is your deer tag is good for a whitetail buck, mule deer buck or even a mountain lion, as the deer and cat seasons overlap.
Travel on foot behind gated roads, which are closed to motorized vehicles until Nov. 14. Be on the lookout for grizzly bears, and keep a tidy camp.
The bottom line is, if you put in the time and effort, you can tag a mature whitetail in any of these hotspots. And the best part is you don’t have to shell out thousands of bucks to bring home a big-bodied buck.
Information and Licenses
(Prices from the 2011 deer hunting seasons)
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Big game hunting license: $114
Archery hunting: $74
Crossbow permit: $55
Muzzleloader permit: $69
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Annual hunting license: $130
Deer permit: $60
LBL permit: $20
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Firearm (includes muzzleloader) or archery deer tag: $138
Combination** (two tags): $276
**Enables hunter to harvest two bucks. The first buck must have three points on one side and the second must have four points on one side.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Deer archery: $140
Deer firearm: $141
Deer muzzleloader: $140
Idaho Department of Game and Fish
Deer tag: $301.75
Hunting license: $154.75
Archery permit: $20
Muzzleloader permit: $20