Boots on the Ground Scouting on Public Land
You can go digital to find potential public-land hotspots. But you'll still need to ground-truth them to formulate a winning hunt strategy.
When it comes to whitetails on public land, it’s either look for the type of small property that offers everything you need or find a big-enough piece of ground so you’ll eventually be able to find deer where other hunters don’t or won’t go.
That seems simple enough, and it can be. It can also be a pain in the neck that results in plenty of false starts. That’s the reality of public-land hunting. But there are some things you can do to ensure your time is well spent during the scouting phase.
It all starts with your smartphone or tablet. By now everyone’s heard about the value of digital scouting, but that’s only a part of what you can be doing from home. There’s a whole world of information out there about prospective deer hotspots, but you need to suss out the good info from the bad.
Here’s how to do just that.
DIGITAL MYTHS & REALITIES
A lot of hunters, when looking for public ground, will post on Internet forums. This seems like a solid idea, but it usually doesn’t yield great results. The odds of running across another hunter who will give you solid, actionable intel are poor. Meanwhile, plenty of folks out there will steer you wrong just to keep you out of their spots.
This problem is way too prevalent in deer-hunting circles, and it’s rampant when a nonresident inquires about hunting opportunities with a bunch of a state’s residents. This mentality is fodder for another article, but suffice it to say that advocating to punish a fellow deer hunter because he or she lives across state lines is going to catch up to all of us and prove to be a bad move in the next few decades.
While you might find some value and make a good friend with a forum query, a safer bet is to dig into your own due diligence. Aerial photography and mapping apps are good places to start. But even before that, figure out where you want to hunt — and why.
Are you looking to make a weekend trip, or just find a spot down the road from your house where you can hang a stand? Are you looking to head out of state and hunt bucks of a caliber you can scarcely find in your own neck of the woods? All these questions need to be answered honestly.
Either way, if you’re looking to find a decent spot to hunt, you must factor in a parcel’s proximity to metro areas. The closer you are to a lot of people, the closer you’ll be to a high concentration of deer hunters. Trust me, I live in the suburbs of Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
If you want to find good deer hunting on public land, you usually must look at least two hours from a major city. Even farther is better, of course. While digging around for something that fits this criterion, don’t be afraid to simply Google “deer hunting on X property” as it relates to a potential spot.
Just as a hot walleye bite in the spring draws hordes of boaters looking to load up for a fish fry, when the deer hunting is good somewhere, the secret gets out pretty quickly. This might mean that while you investigate an area that looks just right, it might just be one of those places everyone wants to hunt this year. This type of spot is easy enough to find and usually a wise decision to avoid.
If you can find them, look for under-the-radar areas that aren’t typical destinations. This is far easier when planning a roadtrip versus simply trying to find a spot close to your house.
Once you find a few areas that look interesting, keep researching.
THE BEST FEATURES
Conventional wisdom says that if you can find bedding and feeding areas via satellite imagery, everything will come together nicely. The problem with that plan is that if you’re going to focus on feeding areas on public land, you’ll have company everywhere. There’s nothing simpler than identifying a destination food source for whitetails, and it’s something everyone hunting the area will do.
Last spring, I hunted turkeys on public land in Iowa. I wanted to learn some ground so that when I cash in my preference points for deer, I’ll have a good chance to arrow a bruiser. What I saw as far as tree stands left up from last season was what I see everywhere: The easy food is always covered in hunting pressure. It just is. We all like to hunt field edges, but public bucks figure that out before they grow their first rack.
You must go deeper and give up on the no-brainer spots, because they probably aren’t going to produce. Look at the aerial photos, and instead of trying to find where the bucks will bed or fill their bellies, find the spots your fellow hunters won’t walk to.
If it’s a mile or more in, you’re onto something. The general hunting population doesn’t want to work that hard for deer. While some folks are go-getters who will hoof it deep into a tract of public ground, most won’t. If you will, you can get to deer that encounter far less hunting pressure.
That’s a start.
When you identify a few spots like that, you must figure out how to access them. The easy two-track winding through the property might be it, but it will also be the way all your competition gets around. A better bet is to wade the creek that borders the boundary, or find some other method to slip in.
I can’t stress this enough: Access is huge, and it’s not always easy to come by on public land. So the digital work you do to find a hard-to-reach honeyhole is only Step 1. You also must dig into the aerial photos to see how you can get into and get out of there. This is where the ground-truthing comes into play.
WALK IT, LEARN IT
I’ve killed a few deer over the years by picking a tree I’d spotted on aerial photography and then hiking in to hunt it. These were almost all opening-weekend deer that had yet to feel the pressure of a few weeks of the season. While this strategy can work, it’s much better to lay eyes on your spots well before the season.
This allows you to, at first, figure out whether your hunches based on digital scouting were on point or not. I’d say that at least 60 percent of the spots I convince myself will be productive for whitetails turn out to be something else when I get in there. Sometimes the spots are just duds; other times it’s just too difficult to find a way to hunt them correctly. Either way, I’d rather learn that before the season than when I’m slipping through the woods in October with a stand strapped to my pack.
Not only is it beneficial to get in and figure out whether your spot will pay off or not, but also to see which kinds of stand trees are available. This is a big one if you plan to go aerial, because the best spot in the world won’t do you much good if you plan to get into a tree and there isn’t a suitable option around.
Knowing this ahead of time can save you from a lot of frustration. If tree stands or saddles aren’t a necessity and you’re open to a ground game, figure that out as well. Natural blinds are easy enough to work with, but remember to look at the options critically.
I don’t know how many times I’ve hiked into a spot during a scouting trip and said to myself, I can just tuck into that deadfall and arrow them as they cruise past, only to return and find the deadfall is 30 yards too far from the main trail or doesn’t offer a tenth the cover I need.
Pay attention to those details when you zero in on ambush sites on public land — because the more pre-season work you do, the better off you’ll be. This naturally applies to the access routes, as well.
I’m a big fan of actually walking my planned access routes to my chosen trees or blind spots so I know what I’m getting into if at all possible. For example, this past season in Oklahoma I found a spot that had a winding creek on it. The creek looked perfect for access on the satellite imagery, so I based my hunting plan around it.
The problem was that the waterway was much deeper than I anticipated. To reach the public bucks I was hoping to run into, I only had a few options for crossing the creek. My whole hunting plan changed when I saw the depth I was dealing with.
While a spot 10 hours from home doesn’t lend itself to easy in-person scouting trips, the lesson stands: If you can scout your access routes and truly suss out how they’ll work for you, do it. You won’t regret it come fall.
This isn’t the fun type of deer scouting that involves checking trail cameras or watching distant bucks through the spotting scope. It’s like the difference between running repetitive dribbling drills in basketball versus scrimmaging. While one is more enjoyable, the best outcome during a game will often come from working on fundamentals. When it comes to whitetails, those “drills” involve summer hikes in sweaty, buggy terrain to round out a plan that began via digital scouting and Internet sleuthing.
Thanks to technology, researching public hunting spots is much easier than ever. But it’s still not easy. Maybe Step 1 or 2 is, but when you really boil down the process, you must put in some sweat equity to see the whole thing through until the end. It takes a commitment, but the good news is that if you’re willing to do it, you can have quality sits on ground open to anyone — and that’s not nothing.