Phil McDonald is a passionate and avid bowhunter. When he isn’t spending time with his wife and two children, he can be found with a bow in his hand. Over 30 years of bowhunting experience has led to the harvest of numerous whitetails, mule deer, and antelope. His specialty is finding and hunting big whitetails that have been pressured and pushed to small wood lots and fence rows that can be found in much of the midwest and some western states. The information and experience that Phil possesses are invaluable to those HuntDIY followers that are looking to find and harvest big pressured bucks.
It’s a well-known fact that all but six states in the United States have a huntable population of whitetail deer. A few of these states are better known than others for producing big bucks. Every whitetail populated state has in common public land hunting opportunities. Public land comes in different forms, including county-owned, state-owned, federal-owned, and even privately-owned lands that the government leases to allow public access.
With bowhunting’s increasing popularity, it is difficult for the working-class hunter to obtain private access to hunt mature whitetails. It has become a game of pay to play. Learning to hunt high-pressured public land becomes necessary if you hope to notch your tag and fill your freezer each year. If bowhunting — and killing — big bucks each year is the goal, it becomes increasingly challenging to be successful on public ground. Yet, dedicated bowhunters will commit to finding and outsmarting mature bucks.
When I say commit, I am referring to putting boots on the ground and hiking to places that other hunters would never think of going because it’s just too hard to get there. A place that if you arrow a big-bodied whitetail, it will all but kill you to get it out. Once discovered, this location will most likely hold deer that have not seen hunting or human pressure in quite some time.
If you are one to commit, here are a few tips for hunting — and killing — big bucks on public ground.
Scouting for Big Bucks From the Easy Chair
Finding these places can be difficult, but not impossible. I generally like to start by scouting from afar, or in other words, from the comforts of my recliner, and in the current age of technology that we live in, it is easier than it has ever been. Smartphone and computer apps like OnX Hunt have made electronic scouting not only easy but fun and effective. The high resolution of these maps, the capabilities of adding layers, property lines, and waypoints, and the topographic mapping features allow you to identify potential places big bucks hide and aids you in planning possible routes to make your approach.
Getting started is not as hard as it may seem. First, look for locations far from easy access points, such as roads and parking lots. Remote places are sometimes few and far between, depending on the size of the piece of public land you are hunting, but somewhere on that public land is a deep dark ridge or swamp that holds a good population of deer and most likely a mature buck or two.
If you are not familiar with reading a topographical map, this is a skill you should learn; it makes this scouting stage of this process much more effective. Once you have at least one hard-to-get-to location uncovered, mark the location(s) on the map. Next, add layers to identify terrain features, such as ridges, benches, ravine headers, and potential creeks or other water sources. This step will vary slightly depending on the software or app you choose.
Seasoned whitetail hunters know, deer, especially big old bucks, are edge animals. They use foliage and terrain to determine their movement, as long as the prevailing wind allows it. Edges are not necessarily simply a field edge. A natural edge is a dividing line between two different habitats, for example, thick foliage meeting open timber. Big bucks tend to follow the downwind side of these edges.
Even with the aid of an aerial photo or a topo map, finding edges can be a challenge while scouting at home. However, identifying ridges, which are also great places to ambush big bucks, is much easier. Deer generally travel just off the crest of a ridge, along the downwind side, where they feel more concealed and can use their noses to smell anything on top of or on the other side of the crest.
Deer also seem to bed in these same types of locations. When deer bed on a ridge, most often, it will be just off the crest of the ridge, on the downwind side. Deer, especially big bucks, will take a position that allows them to smell danger approaching from upwind and see any danger downwind. During the rut, this also allows bucks to smell or see any hot does passing through the area.
Where The Rubber Meets The Road
Once you have located a potential big buck hotspot on a map, it’s time to put boots on the ground. It’s best to do this after the season has ended. It’s a huge advantage to do this after a recent snowfall. The snow highlights deer travel routes and bedding areas. Scouting after the season has ended provides an opportunity to locate freshly shed antlers, dropped by big bucks that made it through the previous season.
When scouting after the season ends, do not worry about disturbing deer. It’s a great time of year to gather intel without the risk of blowing a big buck out of the country. If you happen to bump deer, it’s likely going to be from their beds, which is valuable information. While bumping deer provides intel, do not make a habit of bumping the same deer habitually. Deer are fairly tolerant animals and will come back to an area, but if they are repeatedly harassed, they will abandon the area and search out less pressured areas, hence why they were in this spot.
Remember this critical note when it comes to scouting an area. Do your best to be diligent and thorough in your initial scouting trip.
Mark the following on your map or app:
- bedding areas
- food sources
- water sources
- locations shed antlers were found
- and possible treestand locations
If done correctly, you will not have to return to the area again until closer to the time you wish to hunt, ultimately allowing deer to live undisturbed in the area until it’s time to make your move.
Get Elevated for Big Bucks
Hard-working, blue-collar bowhunters are constantly faced with the challenge of finding affordable and reliable equipment in an overwhelmingly saturated market. Do not be discouraged; it’s possible to hunt public land whitetails at a minimal cost.
On top of warm, comfortable hunting apparel, scent-proof boots, and a bow that shoots straight, the only other item you will want to consider is a reliable, packable treestand. Packable stands can be climbing stands or a hang and hunt system.
A climbing stand, in my opinion, puts a hunter at a considerable disadvantage. Climbing stands limit a hunter to a specific type of tree. It has to be incredibly straight and free of limbs to climb easily, forcing a hunter to choose a spot based on the tree instead of picking a tree that is the most advantageous ambush. A hang and hunt system shines, allowing a hunter the best hide for a successful harvest.
Put Your Hard Work To Use for Big Bucks
Many experts agree that the best time to hunt and kill mature public land whitetails is during the cruising phase of the rut. During this time, big bucks are likely to be on their feet during daylight hours and check the doe bedding areas. Once the peak of the rut hits, mature bucks become incredibly unpredictable and are easily led away from their core area by a hot doe. If your target buck(s) appear to have left the area, don’t worry, bucks will typically return to their home territory after the rut. When they do, wear your best cold-weather gear and hunt hard through the late season.
Hunt hard-to-get-to locations all day when possible. Big bucks are often killed between the hours of 10 a.m and 2 p.m. Continuously monitor the wind direction, and move your stand location if and when the thermals and prevailing winds put you in a bad situation. Having an easy option available is why identifying stand locations while scouting is essential. Instead of wandering around looking for a tree to get into, you can quickly pull your stand and move to a predetermined location without causing too much disturbance.
While hunting public land whitetails, or any whitetail for that matter, concentrate on doe bedding areas during the cruising phase of the rut. Get in tight on these areas and always hunt on the downwind side. Big bucks will often cruise downwind of these doe bedrooms to scent-check. A position 30-40 yards downwind and the edge of the bedding area is a perfect big buck ambush site.
Hunt DIY is a comprehensive resource for DIY hunting adventures. Zach Bowhay and other HuntDIY contributors share their knowledge and experiences from years of successful — and not-so-successful — hunts through articles with high-quality imagery and videos. Hunt DIY strives to show the average hunter — one with a busy lifestyle and on a modest budget — how to produce above-average results. Follow Zach Bowhay and his hunting friends and family into the backcountry.