When it comes to hunting public land, attitude and preparation go a long way.
Photo: Andy Treistad missed this buck during a special military base hunt. He returned the next season to finish the job.
I heard all the horror stories of hunting public land and felt bad for anyone who had to put up with the perils of such places. The biggest complaint always went back to hunting in pumpkin patches — patches of woods with dots of hunter orange as far as the eye could see.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I heard it was nearly impossible to hunt near agricultural land, where all the monster bucks live. In the midst of hearing all of these misgivings, my little haven of private land got sold. The new owner politely told me I’d have to find another place to hunt ... permanently.
When I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I started to study public hunting land in Wisconsin. I had no idea there were so many options. Public land might fall into one category, but it’s not all the same. Public land offers opportunities that are as diverse as antlers, and hunters are limited only by the amount of research and scouting they are willing to put in.
While I was sobbing about getting tossed off “my” private land, Mike Kuehnast, owner of Animals Taxidermy, told me to cowboy up and tag along with him on a Saturday morning while he checked his traps on county land south of Eau Claire. That walk was the genesis of my current hunting strategy. Mike convinced me that hunting public land has advantages over squatting on the same place year after year regardless of herd numbers and hunting conditions.
“I’ve had numerous opportunities to hunt both public and private land over the years, and my success with a rifle runs better on public,” Mike said. “You must decide what type of hunting you want and find an area that meets your desires.”
If you want to hunt all day without seeing another hunter, then you’ll need to target a big area with few access points. There is a general progression in the size of woods as they go from national, state, and county forests. National forests offer the largest tracts of uninterrupted land. There is hardly a state that doesn’t have some sort of national forest within its borders. National forests were originally set up to provide multi-use ecosystems from logging, to grazing and recreation. Hunting has always been a major consideration.
If you target a section of woods that bans the use of off-road vehicles (and most do), pick an area that allows you to get a mile or more from the nearest road. One mile will eliminate 90 percent of the competition. Set up to take advantage of deer movement caused by the presence of hunters closer to the roads.
Getting a big buck to your truck when you’re a long way into the woods can be daunting, but there are options. Mike uses a two-wheel cart that gets into some pretty tight places. He has pulled many deer out by himself. Some states allow you to quarter or half the deer in the field. I hauled out several deer after a little field butchering during my decade in Montana. A good hunting partner will cut the work in half, plus it’s more fun and safer to hunt with a friend.
Logging is a part of the national forest system that has been a boon to whitetail hunters. The first thing your dad taught you about deer is that they are browsers. Historically, lightning strikes and the subsequent forest fires provided browse. A few years after a fire went through an area, deer numbers were sure to increase.
Modern logging has taken the place of fires. From clear-cutting to selective logging, deer reap the benefits. The clearcuts in the Lolo National Forest of the Seeley-Swan valley in Montana provide excellent habitat that has produced tremendous bucks, including the state’s No. 1 whitetail. If you are a hunter who enjoys exploring new areas, keep track of logging operations on public land and take advantage of them.
Bucks like the ones you find in the deep recesses of national forests dispel the myth that it takes agricultural land to produce big racks. Wildlife manager Beau Liddell, who works for the Minnesota DNR, said, “Deer in agricultural regions depend heavily on natural forage. Their dependence on crops is somewhere around 20 percent in most regions. Genetics and age are more important than diet when it comes to size.”
State forests have many of the same characteristics as national forests, but on a smaller scale. The regulations vary between states and from one forest to another. Many states have programs and management hunts that change on an annual basis. Study the regulations and plan a strategy ahead of time to get a jump on the competition.
My heart is near and dear to county forests. There are several within easy driving distance of my home in Eau Claire. Hunting county forests allows me to sleep in my own bed and get up at a reasonable hour. I use a climbing stand that I carry in on my back.
Mike has drilled it into my head that sitting in the stand all day is the surest way to fill my tag, but he didn’t tell me I had to climb into the same tree every day of the season. You can’t place permanent stands on public land, but there’s nothing wrong with having multiple trees picked out ahead of time.
By having several options that we’ve studied by map and in the woods, county land allows us to think on our feet and change plans on a daily basis, depending on conditions.
And speaking of maps, they can save time and money regardless of what type of woods you target. Not all maps are equal, and I use two when pinpointing a stand site. Detailed topographic maps and a county plat book work hand in hand. Topos reveal swamps, ridges, and funnel points; while plat books hold the secrets of access points, lumber-leased land, and other opportunities that might not show up on a topo map that is several years old.
Mike is a consummate treestand hunter. He has become an expert at using other hunters to push deer toward him. It’s a fact that a few hunters in the woods are good for those who have the patience to sit tight and wait for the action to come to them. Mike studies public land and sits where he figures the deer will go when they are spooked. With his help, I shot a mid-130s county-land buck in 2006 that was obviously running from someone who bumped it out of its bedding area.
“Hunting any public land allows you to make long-term plans,” Mike said. “I concentrate on a couple of woods close to home so that I can get into them often. From trapping to looking for sheds, I know it’ll pay off to learn a public forest thoroughly, because I won’t get kicked off just when I’m starting to learn the habits of the deer.”
And don’t overlook special hunts. Military installations often open their gates to hunters in an effort to cull deer, and wildlife refuges and recreation areas are often open to public hunting in some manner. Lottery-drawing hunts are designed to manage game, so not only will you forgo most of the hassles of getting into the woods, you can obtain information on where the herd is concentrated. Urban areas are increasingly offering hunts to knock down deer numbers in city limits and parks, where deer are eating everything in sight. These special openings are nearly all archery hunts, but it is a chance to see some really big bucks.
Most permit drawings take place in the spring before the season begins, so keep abreast of them. Take advantage of the Internet to pinpoint areas of interest. Ask your local and state DNR offices for updates and upcoming possibilities. There are countless public hunts that have slightly different season openings and regulations than the regular statewide dates. The information is out there if you are willing to be proactive.
Today’s deer hunter is forced into being a year-round hunter. Your savvy must go beyond reading sign and placing yourself in the right place at the right time. Hunting public land doesn’t have to be a curse. I’ve seen too many hunters throw up their hands in disgust and quit hunting when they got pushed off private land. Hunting on public land is what you make of it. Take advantage of the opportunities and keep pursuing that passion.
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• Bucks In The Hood: You Can Play an Important Role in Controlling Suburban Deer.
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• In a Zone: Break down buck behavior to know where to set up stands.
This article was published in the September 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.