Tips for Hunting Public Land Bucks This Season

Relatively low deer numbers and thick, steep habitat can make public land in the Appalachians a challenge to hunt. Photo by Rick Small

Even though I'm only 16 years old, I've been fortunate enough to harvest several mature bucks off public land in North Georgia. While a lot of serious trophy hunting in this part of the U.S. (and elsewhere) is on managed private land, that's not how I was brought up. I cut my teeth on public-land hunting, and ever since that's where I've focused my efforts.

Sometimes public land gets a bad rap for being overcrowded and overhunted. From what I've seen, this couldn't be farther from the truth — assuming you know what to look for in selecting a location and are patient in hunting it. Right here in Georgia are many thousands of acres of public land open to any deer hunter who purchases a hunting license, Big Game License and Wildlife Management Area (WMA) stamp.

Getting Started

As with any other new hunting land, the first thing you need to get is current imagery of the area you want to scout. The best I've found is Google Earth. It will allow you to see the lay of the land, including ridges, valleys, pinch points and possible access routes used by other hunters. I'm looking for places that let me get away from other folks, as much as that's possible on land anyone legally can hunt.

Hunter was just 12 when he took this trophy. The kill was made on an October 2011 public hunt in the mountains. Photo courtesy of Hunter Galloway

The next step, of course, is to put boots on the ground. There's no better tool than time spent in the woods scouting, and I mean days of it. In my case, I'm out there as much as school will allow.

To kill a mature buck, you must have one in the area. Most North Georgia public-land gun hunts are held during late November or early December, when the bucks are in rut. So I'm looking for fresh buck sign. In the mountainous properties I hunt, rutting bucks tend to run high ridges with some type of thicket nearby. Around here, that's usually mountain laurel. This is the type of place in which I'll start looking for fresh scrapes and rubs.

Once I find fresh buck sign in an area, I try to determine how the buck is traveling his scrape line or rub line and will place a stand close by that route. Of course, in scouting and setting up I try not to spread human odor around the location. I spray down my boots with Scent-A-Way before even walking into the area to look for a good spot. This decreases the chance of the buck spooking if he crosses my path.

During the Hunt

When I'm ready to climb into my stand to hunt, I put out a little deer urine nearby. Then, as shooting light arrives, I start blind calling with a grunt tube about every 30 minutes. And I'll hang with it, spending every morning and afternoon hunting that stand until I fill my tag or the hunt period ends.

If there's hunting pressure around the area, staying on stand can help you use that disturbance to your advantage. Few public-land hunters will sit in one spot for many hours on end. By maintaining your vigil, you can take advantage of what I call "the push." It even can help you see a good buck you weren't set up on, simply because he gets bumped your way.

Last Dec. 3, I was able to harvest a mature buck on a North Georgia public gun hunt. A Department of Natural Resources biologist aged the deer at 5 1/2 years old. He's the third buck of at least that age I've harvested off public land.

On this particular hunt I had my stand hung to let me watch a mountain laurel thicket on a ridge, as described above. I'd found two scrapes and two rubs in the area while scouting. That might not sound like enough buck sign to justify setting up in a place, but I had other firsthand information to go on, as well. The previous season, I'd spotted a mature buck in the area. While I hadn't been able to get a shot at him, I felt confident he was still there.

As is probably true anywhere else you hunt, weather can play a big role on public land in the Appalachians. You can have high winds, rain, freezing rain and/or snow. In fact, days before my 2014 hunt we had three of these four difficult weather conditions in the area. But the first day of the hunt broke with only moderate wind, clouds and drizzle. I had faith deer would be moving.

In hunting these areas, I've noticed if you get into your tree stand about an hour before daylight, to the deer you're just another bump in the dark. That morning I got on stand long before shooting light and settled in. I planned to stay there till 3:00 p.m.

Hiking in far from the parking lot has led the author to several Georgia trophies. Hunter downed this impressive 4x4 when he was 13. Photo courtesy of Hunter Galloway

But I didn't have to. Right at 11:00 I caught movement to my left and noticed a mature buck slipping in my direction. When he got within 30 yards, he stopped and started nosing the wind. I'm not sure if he was sniffing my doe-urine dripper or something past it, but regardless, he gave me the opportunity I needed. As the saying goes, when I squeezed the trigger he dropped out of the scope.

Hearing the shot, my dad had hiked to my stand, and we celebrated my biggest buck to date. We took many photos, then caped, quartered and packed the deer back to camp. Another successful public-land trophy hunt was in the books.

In Conclusion

I feel blessed to have had the experience of taking several great whitetails already in my young hunting career. Public-land hunting of course isn't easy, especially if you're after a trophy. But for those willing to work, the opportunity is there.

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