Solving the Public-Land Puzzle for Bowhunting Whitetails
About 10-12 years ago, road-trip hunts on public land in faraway places were just gaining traction. Sure, some folks have been doing it — me included — longer than that, but it received little publicity until folks started realizing the potential.
Fast forward. Tune in to a few YouTube channels, and you’ll quickly find that hunting whitetails DIY style on public land is all the rage today. Everyone and their great uncle do it. But, there’s a difference between doing it and doing it well.
If adventure is your sole goal, all you need is your bow, a license and a good attitude. But if you want to find regular success on public land, you must approach it tactically. Public-land bucks don’t reach maturity by making mistakes.
Here’s a fresh outlook that my friend and whitetail guru Jared Scheffler of Whitetail Adrenaline uses to annually get close to large public-land bucks.
Choosing a Property
Obviously, all properties aren’t created equal in terms of whitetail potential. It takes a careful eye to distinguish the best of the best.
“When I begin hunting each year, I’m either stepping foot onto the property for the first time, or it’s been a year or two since I’ve been there,” Scheffler said. “I often start by driving around the perimeters of each parcel, if possible. It might take me a few hours to do that or it could take most of the day. Either way, it’s time well spent. I try to determine where hunting pressure is concentrated, how crops have changed since I was there last, and get my finger on the pulse before I start hunting.
“Public-land deer adapt and adjust their patterns based on crop rotations and hunting pressure,” Scheffler stated. “If they didn’t, we’d all kill more big bucks. Sometimes I get lucky and find that things haven’t changed, but I don’t bank on that. In most cases, deer will be in places where they aren’t getting messed with, and that can change from year to year.”
Your hunting strategy is important to consider when choosing properties to hunt.
“Since I like to spot and stalk, I generally look for ground that’s a bit more open,” Scheffler shared. “I usually sit back and observe a little bit before I dive in. I rely heavily on getting a visual on bucks. Deer sign is great, but nothing replaces the visual of a large buck on a public property during daylight hours. If I don’t get that visual within a day or so on a five-day hunt, I typically move on and find another property. One of the largest factors in my success is discrediting land that’s not worth my time.
“Of course, I have seen mature bucks moving during daylight on properties with very little sign,” Scheffler continued. “My point is that you can’t always rely on sign, especially during the rut when bucks are moving a lot.”
Details, Details, Details
When striking out onto a new public-land parcel, it’s incredibly easy to bump deer. Wind is number one, but there’s more to consider.
“I’ve been hunting from the ground for nine seasons now, so I’m going to speak on that front,” Scheffler said. “It’s a constant game of being passive and aggressive. I find that I need a balance of both to avoid blowing deer entirely out of the area.
“If I go into a property that’s fairly open and with some wind to disguise my approach, I usually move at a quicker pace,” he continued. “If I’m in thicker cover or conditions are calm, I slow way down. Regardless, you’ll need to know when to put on the brakes entirely, and that’s if you’ve spotted a deer or think you’re closing in on a bedding area.
“Granted, I’m not as bothered when I bump deer as I used to be,” he said. “When I used to hunt from treestands, I was waiting for deer to come to me. Now, I hunt exclusively on the ground where I’m often going to them.
“My cameraman and I actually jumped the biggest buck I’ve ever shot in Iowa,” Scheffler continued. “He was with a doe, and they took off running. I didn’t expect to see him again, but 5 hours later while moving up the draw, we spotted him, and I moved in and arrowed him. It proves that it’s not over when you’ve jumped a mature buck. In fact, jumping bucks during lockdown has been beneficial for us several times. They usually don’t go very far. We give them time to calm down and then go look for them.
“I also believe public-land deer tolerate being jumped more than private-land deer,” he added. “It happens more often than we even realize. I’ve even witnessed where one deer snorts and other deer don’t even care. They snort at skunks and all kinds of stuff, so it doesn’t necessarily mean danger.
“Case in point: We’ve jumped does, had them run 100 yards and stand there and snort; shortly after, their snorting pulled in bucks that we were able to kill. It’s a strange tactic, but we’ve seen it work,” he said.
Developing and Going with Gut Feelings
Every situation is different, and making good decisions can be difficult. It’s a skill that develops over time.
“Most often I trust my initial gut feelings,” Scheffler said. “Whether it’s my feeling about a property or my instinct on what moves to make in order to intercept a buck, I’ve learned to trust my gut. Many times, I’ve made the wrong decisions. That’s part of hunting. But when I look back on all of my decisions collectively, I see that my hunch is usually right.
“Someone who’s been hunting on public land for at least a few years will generally have more accurate gut feelings than someone who’s never done it before,” Scheffler added. “My suggestion is don’t overthink it. It’s easy to want a buck so badly that you overanalyze situations and make stupid moves. Believe me, I know because I’ve done it my share of times.”
Closing the Deal
A good hunter can encounter at least one great buck on public land during a weeklong hunt, but encountering a mature buck and punching an arrow through his vitals are two very different propositions. Yes, closing the deal is the pinnacle; indisputably the most difficult part of hunting on public land.
“Many things run through my mind when I spot a large buck,” Scheffler said, “but I immediately focus on my plan of attack. In some situations, I must move instantly. In others, I need to stay put for a bit. When I spot a buck cruising, I strategize a plan to get in front of him and cut him off. If I realize that the terrain won’t permit that move, or if I don’t have enough time to pull the maneuver, I might call at him as a last resort.
“In situations where a buck is running does around,” Scheffler continued, “I’ll often lay and wait for them to make a move or bed down. Once they bed, I can plan a stalk. Closing the deal involves making tough decisions. It goes back to the gut feelings I talked about earlier. Ultimately, you must decide what to do, and often you must act on it quickly, or the encounter will end with an arrow still on your bowstring. Heehawing around or overanalyzing things can cost you shot opportunities.”
This is probably a very different article than you imagined when you read the title, but it’s a fresh look at how to find the right piece of public land and then put yourself into a position to kill a mature buck. Scheffler does things differently, but he finds regular success on big, mature bucks. Try out his program this fall and see how it goes.