Feeling discouraged after three days of hunting a large piece of public land in northern Missouri, I decided to take a drive.
Despite the fact it was Nov. 3, I climbed out of the stand at 9:00 a.m. and jumped into my truck for a quick look at another property I'd earlier researched. It was 30 minutes away, and I calculated I could spend about three hours scouting it before returning for the evening hunt.
I'd studied this other property extensively through aerial photos and had called a wildlife agency biologist to inquire about its potential. The biologist had told me some 130- to 150-class bucks are taken off the 4,200-acre property each year. I'd asked quite a few questions, but I was about to learn I'd neglected some important points.
I first drove around the north side of the property and spent 20 minutes walking down a fencerow, looking at scrapes and rubs. I drove back into each road access as far as the gates would allow, glassing and comparing aerial photos to what I was seeing from the ground.
I found most access points had at least one pickup truck sitting at them, most of them bearing nonresident plates. Clearly there was a fair amount of hunting pressure on this property.
But the biggest disappointment would come two hours later, when I arrived at the largest parking area on the south side. There I was greeted by six parked vehicles, and collectively they had license plates from five states: Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Alabama. And this was midday; what would evening bring?
I didn't kill a buck in Missouri that year, but the lesson I learned from that scouting foray has stayed with me. I've learned to anticipate hunting pressure before I leave on a DIY hunt, then use info to further gauge what I see when I arrive.
I attribute much of the hunting pressure this particular property receives to the fact it's right on the Iowa border. Everyone interested in trophy whitetails wants to hunt Iowa, so hunting just across the border is seen as the next-best thing while waiting to draw one of those limited Hawkeye State tags.
One reason I want to know if the local biologist and game warden see a lot of out-of-state hunters on a piece of land is that nonresidents tend to hunt a bit differently from most locals.
There was a time when you could get a mile off the road in almost any public hunting land and find yourself alone. Most local hunters are going out briefly before or after work, so on weekdays they don't have time to walk way back in.
They mostly hunt within a quarter-mile of a road. But with the increase in nonresident hunters traveling to chase whitetails on public land, even the most out-of-the-way places now get some hunting pressure. Nonresident hunters have more of a "do whatever it takes" mentality than do most locals, and they'll pull out all the stops.
Those hidden gems few people knew about years ago — funnels, secluded food plots, creek crossings and saddles — are right there in plain sight on free Internet aerial photography websites. And many nonresidents wisely use these tools for finding spots worth hunting.
So these days, whether I do my research via telephone or email, I ask very specific questions. Rather than just ask how much overall hunting pressure a property gets, I probe for details that will help me understand how it's spread across the property.
"So these days, whether I do my research via telephone or email, I ask very specific questions."
For instance, are there particular areas on the tract to avoid, based on pressure? In which areas do most hunters tend to focus their attention? Are some other parts overlooked? Do locals flock to the property on weekends?
I also ask about the number of phone calls and emails this agency employee receives about the property. And I take it a step farther. "What do you normally tell the people who call?" The answer will help me learn if I'm getting the same spiel everyone else tends to get.
Always ask if the property features any spots that are very difficult to get into or are avoided for some other reason. One of the biggest bucks I've shot on public land was taken because a land manager had said to me, "Nobody goes back in there." I love hearing that.
LEARNING ON THE GROUND
Your work in understanding and adapting to the hunting pressure on a piece of land continues after you arrive.
Maybe I just have the gift of gab, but I never pass up an opportunity to chat with another hunter I meet. It might be at an access point or back in the woods somewhere. I ask direct questions, and at first most fellow hunters probably think I'm prying for information — but I quickly make it clear I'm not. I might ask them specifically where they're hunting, but I usually start out by telling them where I'm hunting to put them at ease. I've found it pays off in the long run.
I'll tell them I want to avoid walking in on their hunt and usually say something like, "There's no sense tripping over each other and making things difficult. Let's keep each other in the loop." I'll exchange phone numbers with them and often text them to inform them where I'm going, when I'll be hunting a certain stand, etc. By working together, we both benefit — and I've made some good friends in this way over the years of doing it.
For example, after I shot a nice buck in an out-of-the-way area a few seasons back, I could hardly wait to get back the next year and hang a stand in the same tree. But when I arrived, I found another bowhunter's stand in a tree only 10 yards away. The stand was vacant, so I went ahead and hung my stand and hunted that evening without shooting a deer.
The next morning, there was already a truck at the access point when I arrived well before daylight, so I waited three hours before going in, just to avoid messing up prime time for the other bowhunter. Sure enough, when I sneaked to my stand, I found him in his.
This other DIYer turned out to be a likable guy. The fact I'd sat in my truck for three hours convinced him I was someone he could trust. He told me which days he could hunt, and we negotiated a schedule in which we'd take turns. He was considering moving his stand 50 yards closer to the river, he informed me.
That was right where I'd one of my stands the previous year.
Sure enough, two mornings later at first light I watched a buck walk by the unoccupied new stand setup. I sent the guy a "you should have been here" text with a smiley face, and he texted back that I should consider hunting his new stand the following morning. Well, the wind was right for that plan the following morning, so I did. And I shot a buck out of his tree stand!
I've found I can't fully anticipate all hunting-pressure scenarios. But by asking very specific questions of people who are around a given property all the time, I can get a good feel for what to expect when I arrive. I still have a backup plan in place, of course, but doing as much research as possible reduces the chances I'll need to resort to Plan B.
I'm convinced most DIY hunters are good, friendly people willing to form a mutually beneficial alliance if you approach them in the right way. Until proven otherwise, I'll continue to believe it's better to work with others, rather than against them.