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.

Kyle Heuerman

Any serious whitetail hunter knows that it's not often that we get a second chance on the buck of a lifetime, or even a first chance for that matter. But luck was on the side of Kyle Heuerman and his girlfriend Jennifer Weaver when they put an arrow through this 196-inch Illinois brute.

Read the full story.

Joe Franz

We estimate he was 7 1/2 years old. That's based on photos from 2010, when he clearly wasn't over 3 1/2. When I got him he weighed over 300 pounds on the hoof, as suspected. Official B&C measurer Glen Salow came up with a 'green ' gross score of 258 7/8 inches. After the 60-day drying period, he again taped the rack. This time he got a gross non-typical score of 261 3/8, with a net of 230 7/8. The gross score evidently makes this the highest-scoring wild whitetail ever harvested on professional video.

Read the full story.

Jon Massie

Jon's no stranger to free-ranging whitetails across the central plains, having guided a number of clients to trophies and harvesting many big ones himself. In fact, going into 2013 he'd shot two net Boone & Crocketts: one a non-typical scoring over 200, the other a typical from public land. With such success behind him, Jon felt all of his hunting dreams already had come true. At least, he did until a buck he'd never seen showed up on one of his trail cameras.

Read the full story.

Tom Boyer

Knowing I couldn't even come to my knees without breaking the little concealment we had, I decided to lie on my left side, using my left elbow for as solid a rest as could be achieved within the slight incline of the old fencerow. But when I shouldered the rifle, the sight of the crosshairs oriented at a 10-4 o'clock angle was definitely a different look from the normal 12-6 position we all practice from. Even so, I didn't figure that would matter if I aimed at the right spot and squeezed off a clean shot. I settled the crosshairs where I needed to place the bullet and steadied the rifle. Whispering 'fire in the hole ' while floating the crosshairs on the spot, I gently squeezed the trigger until the recoil removed the buck from my view.

Read the full story.

Teddy's Buck

With a whopping 40 inches of non-typical growth, he has a gross Boone & Crockett score of 215 3/8. The rack's 21 6/8-inch inside spread certainly helps to show off its unique character. He was just a special deer, and very much a result of patience in both management and hunting.

Read the full story.

Ryan Sullivan

Ryan Sullivan was only 19 when, during the 2013 season, he arrowed an Arkansas buck of gigantic proportions. Like many of his fellow Arkansans, Ryan is a deer and duck fanatic. For several years, however, he gave up most of his duck season to lock horns with the world-class buck.

Read the full story.

Junior Key

Junior's outstanding whitetail is the biggest ever recorded from Monroe County, and he ranks as one of the Bluegrass State's top bucks from the 2013-14 season. This great non-typical also is the latest member of Kentucky's all-time Top 30 list.

Read the full story.

Mikell Fries

At 16 yards, Mikell took aim at the giant and released his arrow. In an instant, the shaft had passed through him. The deer instantly whirled and ran out of sight . . . but then, within seconds the archer heard him crash to the ground. 'I remained in the stand for several minutes to gather my thoughts and calm down, ' Mikell says. 'I'm sure the entire encounter only took a few minutes, but it seemed an eternity. '

Read the full story.

Bill Robinson

Three double-digit tines of 10 2/8 to 13 5/8 inches, plus 7 1/8- and 9 3/8-inch brows and a 21 3/8-inch inside spread, add plenty to this regal crown. Put everything together and you have a gross 9-point frame score of 193 6/8. That's as big as it sounds.

Typical asymmetry and 11 6/8 inches of abnormal points total 25 1/8 inches of deductions, so as a typical, the deer nets 'only ' 168 5/8. But the 8×5 rack's total gross score of 205 4/8 is much more reflective of its stunning size. Regardless of score, the Robinson buck is clearly a marvel of nature.

Read the full story.

Nick Drake

The action was fast and furious right from the get-go. At daybreak a doe busted through the cedar thicket with an eight-point suitor following close behind. The doe, however, wanted nothing to do with her pursuer and jumped into a nearby pond in an attempt to flee the buck. This, however, wasn't the last of the action. Nick continued to watch several bucks harass does throughout the morning, but chose not to take a shot at them.

Read the full story.

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