The words “national forest” generally create a mental image of large blocks of uninterrupted timber and big-woods hunting. So when you hear that Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio encompasses some 244,000 acres of public hunting land, you might just roll your eyes and move on.
That would be a mistake. These acres are a patchwork of oak-hickory hills and grassy vales bordered by private tracts, many of which offer deer destination food sources in the way of crops and hay fields. Because of the fragmented nature of these national forest lands, there’s an incredible abundance of places to hunt deer that not only feed and bed on land you can hunt but spend time in adjacent private fields you can scout from a distance and then sort out a huntable pattern. And except for small areas bordering campgrounds, lakes and high-traffic areas, the national forest is all open to the public for deer hunting with bow, crossbow, muzzleloader, slug gun or even specific centerfire rifles during on each weapon’s respective season.
If you want to penetrate deep into the woods, you can do that. If you want to hunt the edges, you can do that, too. You’ll find quite a few hunters on these lands, but the areas are so vast and so spread out that hunter density is somewhat reduced. Many local hunters have stands close to the road to hunt on evenings and weekends, leaving harder-to-access areas almost unmolested.
Many areas have horseback riding trails, hiking trails and ATV trails, all of which offer easy access to deeper parts of the larger blocks. Many of the smaller blocks are one square mile or less, and some are overlooked by hunters because of the sheer volume of land to hunt.
Because of the fragmented nature of this forest, you’ll need a good map showing boundaries and property ownership. I highly recommend carrying a GPS with a property boundary feature, such as the program offered by OnX Maps (onxmaps.com). There also are detailed maps on the Wayne National Forest website (fs.usda.gov/wayne); you can order paper maps, as well.
For purposes of simplification, the forest has been divided into three primary districts: Ironton, Marietta and Athens. Each consists of a collection of properties from large to small. The county with the largest amount of public land in national forest is Lawrence, with 26 percent of its acreage — 75,000 acres — open to public hunting. This isn’t all in one contiguous block, but rather is broken into dozens of pieces bordered by private land.
There are many campgrounds available for those who like a bit more comfortable experience, and some stay open during deer seasons. If you don’t mind a more rustic camping experience, dispersed camping is allowed, meaning you can pitch a tent or park an RV in out-of-the-way places and “rough it.”
The deer habitat is characterized by wooded hills and valleys, many of which feature small seasonal creeks. The tops of the ridges tend to have open canopies with large trees, while the bottom areas are thick with brambles. Bucks mainly bed in the lower areas and cruise the ridges, especially during the rut. In many areas, bucks will bed just over the top of a ridge with the wind at their back with good visibility in front of them. Some bucks are shot by hunters sneaking through these areas during firearms season, which occurs the week after Thanksgiving.
The most successful hunters have learned where the deer feed on natural foods and planted crops. Oak and hickory trees are abundant, and the deer can be found feeding heavily in the hardwoods when mast is dropping. Trails along the ridges and sidehills connect these areas.
Private land in the bottom areas might be fallow, grassy fields or planted into row crops or hay. When the deer are feeding on these crops they’re often bedding in the surrounding hills within the national forest. This can create a perfect opportunity to ambush a buck in between.
Because of the huge quantity of land open to the public, the fragmented nature of the lands in public ownership and the fact the hunting pressure is so spread out, some bucks have a chance to mature and reach their genetic potential. Ohio is still something of a sleeper state for traveling whitetail hunters, and Wayne National Forest is one of its public jewels. Driving around the area, you’ll find more popular public access points with trucks sitting in them during peak hunting times. There will be license plates from surrounding states and several farther away. You’ll have to work hard to find a place to yourself that has all the right ingredients — but it can be done, as evidenced by the number of 130- to 150-class bucks that come from these lands each year.
The nonresident hunting license fee in Ohio has long been a bargain, but it’s starting to go up. Planned annual bumps have been implemented, increasing the costs of licenses and tags each year until 2020. That year their combined cost will be $248 ($74 for a nonresident hunting license and $174 for a nonresident deer tag). That’s an increase of roughly $100 from where the price has been for a number of years.
So Wayne National Forest has great potential for the traveling whitetail hunter on a budget. But if you want to hunt this vast group of landholdings, view it as a multi-year process. Heading out there for a week of hunting will only allow you to scratch the surface. Plan to make it an annual event, spending most of the first trips doing more scouting and learning than hunting. Over time, as you find more good spots and add them to your knowledge base, the big picture should begin to come together.