When hunting public ground, look for hard-to-reach areas or small isolated tracts of land as these areas are often neglected by other hunters.
One of the most satisfying aspects of deer hunting is spending hours in the field carefully patterning the movements of deer, then using that knowledge to ambush your quarry as it goes about its daily routine of feeding and traveling when the season opens.
Unfortunately, most of the deer we pursue today are heavily pressured by hunters. Unless you hunt during archery season or on large tracts of privately owned, heavily controlled land during modern firearms seasons, you'll probably find it tough to enjoy this pleasant experience.
This shouldn't ruin your hunt, however. It simply changes the nature of the challenge facing you. How well you cope with this pressure element in today's hunting equation often determines whether you have enough venison to fill your freezer or have to head to the grocery store's meat department.
One of the first things to think about is the option of avoiding the most heavily pounded areas. You may think without a large tract of private land available that you are forced to go to areas thick with other hunters, but if you really sit back and analyze the situation, a different story reveals itself. The vast majority of these hunters are in areas within a quarter to half mile of a road or parking area. On big tracts of federal or state lands, you often can get beyond most hunters by simply starting earlier and walking in a bit farther. Study topographic maps and find areas where no roads or trails are present, then look for features that would make them prime deer habitat.
There are other alternatives as well. Ride a mountain bike to reach lightly pressured areas. Float down a river in a canoe or johnboat, or motor across a lake to a parcel of public land that is hard to get to from a vehicle. Hunt islands, which can be magnets for deer when hunting pressure intensifies. Make sure the place you hunt is on public property, though, or obtain permission in advance from the landowner.
Scout for Sign
Check out such potential areas before the season to see if there are tracks, trails, rubs and/or other signs of deer use. Then try to determine the animals' patterns of movement. The nice thing about these locations is that the bucks are not as apt to change their routines much after hunting season arrives because they rarely see people.
Besides seeking out hard-to-reach areas, also consider hunting isolated, cut-off tracts of public land that are so small they tend to get neglected by other hunters.
Unpressured bucks are less apt to change their routines after hunting season arrives because they rarely see people.
Public areas are usually big spreads with plenty of parking areas and good access. But often there are also a few small parcels that are cut off from the main acreage. If there's no easy parking, these isolated patches of habitat – sometimes just 50 or 75 acres – may hold several deer, and if it's really overlooked, possibly a nice buck.
Dense cover or steep rugged terrain are the keys. When bucks feel the pressure of just a few hours of hunting, they immediately move to places where they can escape the pressure from humans.
Look for a rugged area with jumbled cover where an old buck might feel safe. This can mean thick brush along a creek bottom or in a swamp, hollows full of vines and blowdowns, a bench just below a mountain ridge, knolls and hills overlooking feeding areas or a patch of mountain laurel or dense stand of conifers in an otherwise open, mature hardwood forest.
It's tough, but taking these pressured bucks is definitely an achievable goal. One way is to strip down to the necessities and get mobile. Leave your tree stand or blind at home. Bucks in this situation tend to be so attuned to their habitat you'll probably spook the animal just by setting up. Rely on camouflage, immobility and patience instead of equipment. Begin hunting the minute you enter the woods. You may have to relearn how to walk soundlessly, recognize places to blend in and sit perfectly still.
Slip in to the downwind edge of a mature buck's hideout or the thinly outlined trails leading to it, and sit back against a big tree or rock outcropping. Or hunker down in the branches of a blowdown. Don't alter or brush it up in any way. Silence is key. Wear camouflage clothing except for the required blaze orange and put on a face mask. Wait patiently and watch intently. The buck you're after may get up to stretch, urinate and nibble on honeysuckle, or perhaps he'll slink in after a night's feeding.
If you're hunting with a partner or partners and it's legal, you might also consider organizing drives through pockets of thick cover. Focus on small pieces of dense cover so inconspicuous other hunters ignore them. Post standers on the side seams where deer might curl out, and have the drivers on the edges move slightly ahead of those in the middle to herd the bucks inward. Also station one or two hunters behind the drivers to get a shot at a buck that lays low and tries to escape out the back.
Silent drives are best. A crosswind is ideal, so bucks don't scent walkers or standers. If that's not possible, set up with the wind blowing toward the posted hunters, using the scent of the drivers to help push the deer.
Split-Second Shooting Required
Regardless of how you hunt these deer – stalking, driving, whatever – it's a good idea to go to a rifle range and practice getting on target fast. You won't have much time when you surprise a buck in dense out-of-the-way cover. A split-second shot is required.
Many hunters I know prefer a scoped rifle in this situation, setting the variable on low power. If there's not time to get the animal cleanly in the crosshairs, they don't fire. Others prefer hunting with open sights or a shotgun with buckshot.
Use whatever you're most comfortable shooting, but be practiced enough you can make a good shot when you see the right deer. Move at a moderate walk on the edges of and through bedding cover, but make as little noise as possible. You need to analyze trophy quality and age quickly and be prepared to shoot immediately.
When you do bag one of these difficult, elusive animals, you'll find the feeling of accomplishment runs much deeper than when you score on a private area where there's less challenge involved. That makes the extra effort worthwhile.