When to Stay Put or Abandon Public Land
When the DIY hunting gets tough, how do you decide if you should give up on that spot?
One thing that always amazes me is how I can imagine the exact scenario in which I’ll arrow my next buck here in Minnesota. This is probably due to an overactive imagination to some extent, but is also influenced by the amount of year-round scouting and planning I do. When working on a whitetail plan, it’s pretty easy to get locked into a specific outcome. After all, we deer hunters are optimists if nothing else.
That said, what also amazes me is that without fail, things never shake out exactly as I’ve planned. This goes for my home-state hunts and is a virtual rule when I travel out of state to hunt public land for a few days. In those scenarios, it’s pretty much a given that I don’t really know how things will work out. All I’m confident in saying is that they won’t mirror my pre-hunt mental gymnastics.
What I’ve slowly come to realize is that I’m basically going to get things wrong more often than not. We all do when it comes to deer, which is why our successes are so special. But while this is reality, it seems as if failure tends to fracture us into two categories: the die-by-the-plan hunters in one group, those who are willing to rethink their strategies in the other.
Which faction is correct depends on an awful lot of variables.
Because I spend over half my deer-hunting time on public land, I’m pretty conditioned to having sits blow up on me because of other hunters walking through. On occasion, it happens because of hikers, horseback riders or you-name-it.
My first instinct is to decide the sit is over and that I should pack it up. If someone comes into my area and sets up a stand, that’s usually what I do. I’m never more amazed than when a hunter does that due to the whole common courtesy thing, but it happens. This is the worst hunt-buster out there, except for maybe dogs running through. In either case, I’m gone.
If it happens to be a farmer checking fences or taking a look at his cattle, I’ll ride out the sit and consider my spot worthwhile. I can remember quite a few years ago sitting in a natural blind and watching three does work down a ridge and then out of my life. A few minutes after they disappeared, I heard the distant putter of an ATV and suddenly had three deer in my lap. The lead doe stopped at 15 yards, which was a mistake on her part.
Last year, I watched a rancher in North Dakota cover every square inch of my best deer spot in a UTV while checking his cattle. This was on private land enrolled in a public-access program for hunting, so it was in effect “public” land. I’d already hiked in quite a distance and didn’t have a Plan B, so I decided to stick it out. With 15 minutes of daylight left, a small herd of whitetails walked through. The only buck in the group ended up wearing my tag.
If someone stumbles through your setup, consider how much of an impact that really has. If it’s just routine farming or ranching activity, ride it out. If it’s some joker deciding to put a climbing stand 25 yards from your setup, bail.
The Tweaker vs. Lost Cause
What if your well-laid whitetail plan simply doesn’t produce any sightings of the right deer? I have permission on a southeastern Minnesota farm where I’ve hunted since I was 15 years old. There’s one spot where a few ridges meet, and it serves as a pretty reliable bedding area. The way the land is laid out allows for whitetails to bed somewhere on those ridges and play the wind while keeping an eye out for danger approaching from their upwind side.
This area has a lot going for it if you’re a mature buck seeking a secure hiding place. Which means that if you’re hunting a mature buck, it’s a real challenge. I’ve spent 22 years trying to figure out how to hunt that spot well, and I have yet to get it right. The closest I’ve come was last season, when I mapped out a long route through the standing corn to sit a stand I’d hung at the very fringe of the bedding area. What I figured was that if I slipped in there in the dark, I’d be able to catch some deer walking back through at first light.
The first time I sat there, it worked. I was helped by a killer acorn crop that slowed down the deer as they worked their way from a nearby alfalfa field to the ridgetops. Honestly, that was the first time in over two decades that I felt I’d hunted the area as it should be hunted.
As a life lesson, I’m not sure what to make of it. I’ve literally tried dozens of stands and approaches to that area over the years, and most of the time I simply couldn’t buy a deer sighting. That told me the herd was probably onto me. The solution last year, which resulted in my notching my buck tag, was a pain in the neck but worked. I also let a buddy sit there later in the season, and if it wasn’t for a poorly timed wind switch, the spot would have produced for him as well — on a buck 25 inches bigger than anything he’s ever arrowed.
In a way, I’ve reset myself with that one spot multiple times while powering through the overall plan to figure it out. But sometimes I think we give up on spots after a season or two without considering how the local cover might change or how nearby food sources might later alter deer movement to put it in our favor.
Some spots are just good, but very difficult to hunt. That doesn’t mean impossible, and it might just take some tweaking to your stand location and/or how you get to it. Occasionally, you do run into great spots that are lost causes. I see this most often when it comes to islands of high ground in cattail sloughs. Deer love them, but they’re very difficult to hunt.
Momentary Lull — Or the Dead Sea?
Sometimes our faith in a specific spot is a curse, not a blessing. When we’ve invested time into scouting and hanging a stand in a certain area, a lot of us become really committed to that setup. The problem is, it might not be any good. Or it might have been good once, but not now.
The worst thing we can do as deer hunters is push a dead program. This can mean hunting a poor spot, or it can mean hunting a spot until it’s poor. Either way, if you keep hunting there, you’re going to spend far more time playing games on your smartphone than watching deer.
Learning to recognize the dead program versus a momentary lull in the action is important. Some magical spots are season-long producers, while far more are good only at certain times of year. If you’re hunting a killer rut pinch point at the end of September, you might just have your timing off. If that same rut funnel doesn’t produce the first week of November, something else was wrong. It’s either been overhunted or wasn’t the gem you thought it was.
I’m a firm believer that in many hunting situations, resetting is a better idea than powering through. This is due in no small part to the fact that hunting in new spots tends to produce more encounters with new deer; going back to a setup over and over has the tendency to reduce sightings.
It’s also due to the fact that when we decide a certain ambush site is the golden ticket, we often use that belief as a shortcut to actively hunting deer. What I mean by this is that when we settle on a good spot, we can convince ourselves it’s the only place we need to be. The hunt for the right place is over — now it’s just a matter of waiting out a big buck and filling a tag when he inevitably shows up.
Deer hunting is way, way more complicated than we give it credit for, if for no other reason than the sheer number of variables that affect each minute of any sit. Essentially, it’s easier to rely on a few spots, whether they’re any good at the moment or not. Or whether they were actually any good to begin with. Accepting that we all get it wrong far more often than we get it right is the first step to understanding if you’re staying in your lane or veering straight into the ditch.
Whitetail hunting is a dynamic pursuit, and it’s especially that way on land you don’t control. You must be willing to consider what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. Honestly assessing both will help you make better decisions on how to proceed. It’s not easy, but it’s the best way to make the most of your time in the woods each fall.