Succesful Strategies for Mature Public Land Bucks
While I love hunting I am, by most any measure, an average hunter and even that might be a little generous. Fortunately I have some friends that are well-above-average hunters and I've convinced a few of them to share some of their hard-earned insights for this BLOG.
The first is my friend Alex Chopp. I met Alex through a former co-worker (now his wife). Suffice it to say Alex is an overachiever, earning a degree in BioChemistry from the University of Michigan and a degree in Business from Notre Dame - he doesn't do anything half way. He is an absolute beast of an angler but even more than that, he is a hard-core, bushwhacking, go-where-no-one-else-will public-land bow hunter. And he kills big bucks. Regularly. He's also one of the founders and CMO of Latitude Outdoors, a brand new company breaking some really cool ground in the mobile hunting gear (specifically saddles) space (latitudeoutdoors.com)
I hope you're hungry because Alex is about to serve up a double helping of knowledge - grab a cold beverage and remember to chew slowly.
Here are some of his strategies:
If you go on YouTube and search “bow hunting strategies for whitetail deer,” you will get endless results that all discuss different methods. Hop on Google and search “how to shoot a mature whitetail on public land” and you will have a similar experience. Pages and pages of the so-called or self-proclaimed experts lecturing their audiences on how to kill a mature deer using revolutionary techniques. I will be the first to tell you, I am no expert, nothing I do is revolutionary, and I hope to god this article doesn’t come across as a lecture.
In the sections below I’m going to layout a process I use to develop rut spots that consistently produce quality opportunities during specific time frames. This process relies on a continuous testing procedure that acts as a funnel, and results in a growing portfolio of extremely high probability setups. This framework facilitates constant improvement and ensures that every hunting season is better than the last.
Where to Start- Picking Spots to Test
For me, every hunting season starts with the map. And I’m not talking about the fold up maps that you keep in your glove box. The old school guys might scoff at the modern map apps that are now available, but the reality is these apps are an incredible tool and are a necessity for anyone trying to find a balance between their job and hunting season. I use OnX, but there are several options available (Huntwise, Hunterra, Huntstand, etc) and they all work. The reason for starting with the map is fairly obvious, but what to look for is a topic for discussion.
This may be the result of years of public land brain washing, but my number one priority when I begin analyzing the map in search of a new spot is always the same: difficult access. I specifically look for two features: water and distance. By water, I mean water access. A creek you need waders to cross, a lake that requires a canoe but doesn’t have a boat launch, or a swamp that’s so muddy you have to navigate it wearing those weird duck shoes (https://www.mudderboots.com/). By distance I mean having the ability to hike at least two miles from the access point without moving closer to another access point. Without moving closer to another access point- I want to repeat this because it’s an easy mistake to make if you don’t closely inspect potential spots. Trust me, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve made a long hike through some nasty terrain only to have another hunter from a different access point walk under my tree after I finally got set up. It’s an unpleasant feeling. Take some time to carefully analyze the access points. Here’s an example of a difficult-to-access spot I would mark for further consideration.
After I find a spot that appears to be difficult to access, I immediately start looking for some quality bedding areas. My favorite bedding areas are big swamps with a lake in the middle. The lake was added as a feature of interest after I witnessed five bucks stand up along the lake in the photo below. After thinking about it, it makes perfect sense, and I was honestly a little disappointed that I hadn’t figured this out years ago. My theory is the lake eliminates 180 degrees of danger for a deer. They have no predators in or on the water, so they can focus all their attention in one direction making it impossible for anything to sneak up on them. This theory could be completely wrong, but I know for a fact deer like to bed on the water’s edge.
After you have identified a potential swamp bedding area, you can toggle your map settings to the topo layer to confirm the bedding area you found is, in fact, a nasty swamp. On OnX, you’re looking for the blue marks. See the topo map below for an example.
Although swamps with a body of water are my first choice, there are other types of bedding areas that give a spot potential. Deer also love tall grass. If you find a spot with tall grass and 6 to 8-foot shrubs, the ones that are seemingly impenetrable, you’re in business. Finding these spots can sometimes require some in-person scouting. Over time, you will start to learn how specific terrain in your region appears on the map. When you find an awesome bedding area in person, see how it looks on the map so you can easily find other similar areas without having to check them out in person.
The final step in my bedding area due diligence circles back to the access discussion above. I never mark a bedding area that can be accessed from multiple directions. Ideally, the bedding area is surrounded by private land or water on three sides. This reduces the probability of an over-confident Eberhart want-to-be stumbling through your buck’s safe zone only to turn around and stumble back to their truck after water fills their boots. You have to give these guys credit though because they usually run to a laundromat, dry their stuff, and return to try again that evening. Love the effort but hate the disturbance. One incident like this and your chances of shooting a mature buck will likely disappear. This isn’t a shot at the buck bed strategy, but too many hunters forget that a key part of this strategy involves getting into the stand at 2 am and sitting until after dark.
Obviously considering food sources is important, but this can be difficult just looking at the map. Certain food sources, like agriculture fields, are easy to recognize on the map. Agriculture fields are easy to pick out, but still require some in-person inspection on a yearly basis to see exactly what is planted in those fields. When it comes to analyzing the map for potential spots, I place much less emphasis on food sources. Food sources can be figured out later on as you scout these spots. But even when I scout spots in person, I don’t necessarily focus on food because deer eat just about anything. Furthermore, it’s likely the mature bucks on public land are mainly nocturnal until the rut, so shooting one early in the season requires you to hunt close to bedding areas instead of traditionally targeted food sources. In my opinion, a heavily used food source is only icing on the cake when it comes to identifying new setup locations. With that being said, if you do happen to find a food source that appears to be heavily used, set up a camera to see if you can pattern a buck using it.
The Big Picture
Most of the time a quality piece of property will contain multiple bedding zones, food sources, and travel routes. Once you mark the important features, you can take some time to hypothesize how deer might be using an area. The best spots will work as a system and figuring out how this system works is what ultimately leads to success.
Having a complete “system” is important and the amount of pressure in a given area directly affects your chances of taking a mature deer. Analyzing the map should ultimately lead to a list of areas to invest more of your time. Your time is valuable, and effective targeting can exponentially improve your success rate. Your hunting strategy should be similar to your investing strategy. Consistently invest in companies (or hunting spots) with big potential and you will eventually hit a home run. Overtime your portfolio will grow and eventually produce consistent profit (or mature bucks).
At this point in the process I usually have three to five spots that I think have potential as consistent rut spots for the future. The goal now is to confirm these spots are worth hunting during the season by doing some in-person speed scouting. Since you have already spent significant time studying the map, your scouting efforts should be as quick as possible. It’s great if you can do this in the early spring but I do this all the way up to opening day, and even sometimes during the season. I’m not overly worried about scouting too close to the season, or during the season, because I have no expectations of shooting a deer the first year I hunt a spot. Remember, this is all part of a plan to develop spots that consistently produce in the future.
Typically, I only scout a spot once before I hunt it for the first time. I don’t prepare any trees because I have no idea where I should be set up yet. I scout every new spot the same way by simply walking the edge of bedding areas. This tells you a lot about the area and how deer are moving. Look for the obvious signs of deer movement and find some big tracks as evidence of mature deer in the area. Obviously finding buck sign is nice, but not necessarily a deciding factor when it comes to stand locations. My two most consistent spots barely get any rubs or scrapes.
These first scouting efforts in new spots only have two purposes in my opinion. First, I want to confirm deer are using the area. This helps me judge habitat quality and hunting pressure. Don’t let stands left on the property fool you. Most of the time the stands have accumulated over decades and it’s possible the area actually sees very little pressure. The second purpose of these scouting efforts is to identify a few key zones on the property that are worth testing when the season starts. You will typically find multiple deer systems within an area and these can be broken out into individual zones. It’s important to visualize an area like this because it will help you track down a buck travelling from one zone to the next. There are a finite number of travel routes a deer will use, and overtime you will learn the system well enough to optimize your setup locations.
Equipment and Other Important Considerations
I don’t have much to say about this. It’s a backpack and it needs to carry your stuff. Most options out there will work just fine with some customization efforts. Last year I used the Insight Vision pack because it carries your bow. The pack’s core concept is nice, but it lacks durability and is cumbersome to deal with in the tree. I will not be using this pack again next year. Long story short, pick a backpack that’s super durable, quiet, and has loops you can use to get creative packing in all your stuff.
Climbing sticks are a must if you plan to hike back into public land. For years I preset stands with the traditional tree stand ladder sections. Apparently, I was in pretty good shape back in the day because I simply can’t do it anymore. I exclusively use the modern climbing sticks now and they work great. I use the Lone Wolf sticks (original version) and the API Outdoors Huntin’ Sticks. Both work great. There are even some better options out there now that are lighter and smaller. I haven’t used them so I’m not going to comment on them, but you have several options in this category. The one recommendation I would make is to get sticks that have steps on both sides. They are slightly bulkier, but it really makes no noticeable difference walking in, and the difference in functionality climbing up the tree is significant.
Tree Stands vs. Saddles
This is a hot topic right now, so I’ll spend some time sharing my opinion on this. Both of these methods have their advantages and people have their preferences for different reasons. Personally, after lugging traditional stands/climbing stands back in some nasty terrain for years I now exclusively hunt out of a saddle. The packability of a saddle simply can’t be matched by any tree stand on the market, so if you’re planning on going the mobile hunting route your money should be invested in a saddle system. With that being said, there are still some advantages a tree stand has over a saddle.
Tree stands give you a much larger platform. This allows you to move around a little easier in the tree and can make a weak side shot easier. The larger platform makes set up a little easier as well because you can set your backpack down and get organized. At first glance, a tree stand can also be more straightforward in terms of setup for some people. There are more steps in the process with a saddle that can be a little over whelming at first. Tree stands are also very comfortable. I love my Lone Wolf stands and can sit in them all-day no problem. The saddles currently on the market are getting better in terms of comfort, but a tree stand still wins in terms of comfort compared to current saddle options.
The saddle market is currently catching fire and new options are popping up almost monthly. The current market leaders are Tethrd, Aerohunter, and Trophyline. There are some other smaller companies out there as well with some interesting concepts. I have limited experience with most of the models currently on the market and they can all be placed in one of two categories: comfortable or compact. At this point, the saddle market forces you to choose between the two. Do you want to be comfortable in the tree or do you want to be compact walking in? If you’re looking for the light weight, compact option, Tethrd is currently your best option. If you’re someone looking for comfort, then Aerohunter is your best bet. However, there’s no reason to rush out and sacrifice comfort for packability or vice versus because more options are coming.
Two years ago, the dilemma between packability and comfort led myself and two of my hunting buddies to design our own saddle concept, and this is why I have limited experience using the saddles currently on the market. Our goal was to create a saddle that’s compact walking in AND comfortable in the tree. Our company is Latitude Outdoors, and we will be releasing our saddle this spring. I will stop there because I don’t want to turn this article into a marketing piece, but I would be doing you an injustice if I omitted our concept as an option.
Let me quickly summarize my opinion on tree stands vs. saddles. If you are hunting public land and end up adopting a strategy that resembles the one laid out in this article, you should probably be using a saddle system. The saddle method allows you to easily move around to optimize your set up locations, and you will be able to hike longer distances through tougher terrain. Saddles of the future will also be multifunctional allowing you to consolidate the equipment necessary for all steps in the hunting process. These future technologies will help you pack gear in and out of your spot, set up in a tree, and get your deer out of the woods. The versatility and convenience of a saddle simply cannot be matched by any tree stand currently on the market. Learning to use a saddle system can be a little cumbersome at first, but in my opinion it’s well worth it. I’m wearing a saddle in the picture below so you can see how compact it is.
Water access essentials
Water access is a huge part of my strategy solely because less people are willing to deal with it. I have a canoe, a kayak, and an inflatable kayak that I use for different situations. I really like using a canoe because of its size. It’s very easy to load a deer up in a canoe and paddle back to the truck. However, canoes lack maneuverability and can cause issues it you’re getting into some tight places. Aluminum canoes are also extremely loud, so in certain situations they are not the right solution.
When dealing with tighter/shallower water access I typically use my 12 foot Ascend Kayak. Its super stable so I can stand up in it if necessary. This kayak also has a heavy weight rating so I can get a deer out on it too, it’s just not as convenient because the deer usually ends up in my lap. If you quarter out your deer you won’t have any issues. Kayaks are definitely quieter than an aluminum canoe so if you need to be stealthy this is probably the way to go.
Sometimes I will also use an inflatable kayak. I use this in situations where I have to hike back to a body of water and then cross. Honestly this is not a pleasant experience because the inflatable kayaks still have some significant weight to them, I think mine is 40 pounds. With that being said, if you find a spot that requires this process, you’re almost guaranteed to rid yourself of any hunting pressure.
Often times you can use water access to reduce hunting pressure without needing a canoe or kayak. I have several spots that simply require waders to cross a river or creek and this simple, extra step is usually enough to turn the majority of hunters away. I usually wear in my waders, cross the water, and then ditch my waders in a bush before I continue on to my spot.
As a final note on water access essentials, always make sure to keep an extra set of clothes in the truck. You’re going to get wet at some point I promise. Having an extra set of clothes will allow you to continue your hunt instead of calling it a day. I would also recommend using dry bags if you’re wading through water over your waist. There have been a number of times where I accidentally dipped the clothes strapped to my backpack in the water and it’s extremely disappointing when you have to put on a wet coat after you finally get setup in the tree. I will sometimes ditch my dry bags with my waders depending on the situation. Just make sure they’re hidden so someone doesn’t snag them.
Your hunting clothes are an extremely important and sometimes overlooked component of your hunting set up. Packing the appropriate clothing for specific weather conditions can be a challenge, so using a layering system and the right materials can really help.
Proper layering is relatively self-explanatory, but Ill share how I like to layer just in case this is an issue for anyone. When I walk into the woods, I’m wearing the smallest number of layers possible. For as long as I can remember I have walked in with nothing but an Under Armor long sleeve shirt and my base layer pants. Don’t get me wrong, it can be cold as hell at first, but I always seem to warm up within minutes. By the time I get to my spot I’m usually drenched in sweat no matter the temperature outside. If you are someone who sweats a lot, like me, you’ll want to pack an extra top base layer so you can swap them out when you get in the tree. I take my sweaty top and put it in a gallon size freezer bag so I can pack it, and all the sweat, away in my backpack. The reason for this is twofold. First, everyone knows when you sweat you start to stink. Think of a workout shirt after you go to the gym. You definitely want to contain this as much as possible. Second, you want a dry base layer to stay warm. A wet shirt, once it’s covered in all your other layers will not dry. Even the Under Armor shirts will stay wet. Replace the wet shirt with a dry one and you will be significantly warmer throughout the hunt while containing some body odor.
After my base layer I like to use Patagonia nano puff jackets as insulation before my top layer. These jackets/vests are super lightweight, packable, and warm. I will layer multiple vests and jackets depending on the temperature, and finish layering with my main coat. Some of the nano puff stuff does make some noise, but once you cover it up with your top layer its perfectly quiet. Same goes for your pants. The nano puff pants are perfect as a base layer. Relatively cool and breathable walking in, and warm in the tree. You just have to be careful because this stuff will snag and tear. I always have my nano puff stuff covered with a tougher layer.
To be honest, I am not nearly as careful as I should be when it comes to scent control. My scent control process is super simple. I wash my stuff in scent free detergent (not the expensive hunting stuff, just regular scent free detergent) and then keep it in a sealed plastic tote. I usually have about an hour drive to my hunting spots so the only other thing I will do is run an Ozonics unit in the bed of my truck in an attempt to rectify any scents on my backpack, waders, boots, etc. I don’t use any activated carbon or scent sprays. Mainly because I don’t really know if I believe in these solutions and based on my experience, they seem unnecessary.
Timing is everything. The most effective way to shoot a mature deer is to pick the right days to hunt. Part of this is properly timing the rut in your area, but another huge factor in picking the right days is weather. Ill preface this by saying there is nothing different or revolutionary about my weather preferences, but I’ll share anyway in case there’s anyone new to the sport reading this. Based on my experience, and well-known facts backed by significant research efforts, the two most important weather factors that affect deer movement are barometric pressure and temperature. Temperature is easy. You want it cold. Yes, being on the backend of big temperature drop is nice too, but as long as it’s cold (ideally below freezing) you can check the temperature box in my opinion. Barometric pressure on the other hand requires a little more analysis. The best days for me usually involve rising or falling pressure. My favorite barometric pressure to hunt is 30.2 mm Hg. If I ever see a rising or falling pressure that’s going to include a pressure reading of 30.2 mm Hg I do everything I can to get in the woods. Another factor to consider with rising/falling barometric pressure is wind. The rate at which the barometer will rise and fall is directly related to wind speed. In other words, if the wind is howling, you’re likely in the middle of a rapid pressure change. Rapid changes in pressure are good but hunting in super windy conditions can be difficult for a multitude of reasons. Point being, you need to find a balance between wind speed and pressure changes. I typically try to avoid hunting in wind speeds greater than 15 mph. Deer will still be on the move in higher wind speeds, it’s just tough hunting, and in my opinion, unnecessary. Long story short, I like to target rising and falling pressures above 30.00 mm Hg.
Another weather condition Ill touch on is rain. If you’re in late October or November and you get some rain, experienced hunters will tell you to make sure you’re in the woods, and I would agree. Some people, including myself, believe the rain forces scents to the ground making it easier for deer to pick them up. Furthermore, it’s a fact that deer like high humidity levels. Moisture, in general, helps a deer smell. I can attest to this based on years spent observing deer movement in different weather conditions and thousands of trail cam pictures. A significant percentage of big bucks I catch on camera are moving in the rain during late October and November. Hunting in the rain can be unpleasant, but if you’re able to invest in some good gear and timing is right, it can be well worth your time.
I briefly touched on wind speed above and how it relates to pressure changes. Another major factor to consider is wind direction, and if you’ve spent any time studying hunting strategies this topic has probably come up a lot. There are two major questions that need to be answered when considering wind direction. How does wind direction affect deer movement? And, what is the best wind for a specific setup location?
First, let’s discuss general deer movement as it relates to wind direction. Generally speaking, deer like to move into the wind. Reasons for this are fairly obvious. Wind blowing into a deer’s face will bring the scents right to them as they move around. Wind direction is a huge factor during the rut because bucks will typically be travelling on the downwind side of doe bedding areas searching for a hot doe. I witness this every single year. This is a fact and it should be used to your advantage.
Now, how do you position yourself based on the wind? Or which set location would be best to hunt given a specific wind direction? Ask these two questions to a group of ten different hunters and you’ll probably get ten different answers. I take some risks when it comes to wind direction. I’m usually set up right on the edge of a doe bedding area and the wind directions I target for specific set up locations depends on if I’m hunting a morning or evening. In the evening, I actually like the wind blowing into a bedding area. This is going to sound crazy to some, but it works for me every year so I’m going to stand by it. Why do I like this set up? Because I know deer are going to want to move into the wind. Once you get to know a spot well enough, you will start to understand exactly where the deer are bedded. So ideally, you want to be set up so the deer are technically down wind of you, but not directly in your line of scent. See the map below to visualize what I mean.
In the mornings, I pay less attention to the wind, especially during the rut. There are two constants during the rut that you can use to your advantage. One, does will be returning to their bedding areas, and two, bucks will be travelling on the downwind edge of those bedding areas. These two constants combined with wind direction tell me where to set up. An example of this is shown below.
The Season Starts
Once the season starts all of your prep work is done and all you should have to do is make small adjustments as the season progresses. Ideally, you have found 2 or 3 new spots that you want to test and have your consistent rut spots that you know will give you an opportunity at a mature deer in November. For me, early season is a time for observation. During the first couple weeks of these season I hunt as much as possible. I alternate between my targeted test spots and try different set up locations in each of the ‘zones’ we discussed earlier. I’m constantly moving trees and hunting different conditions to see when and where each of the new spots produce the best deer movement. During this time of year I’m mainly focused on figuring out the does in an area. I want to know how and when they are moving, and I want to figure out exactly where they are bedding. If I happen to stumble upon some really consistent deer movement, figure out exactly where the does are bedding, and get a good buck on camera, I will back out of the spot and save it for the pre rut. Eventually you will get good at finding these spots quickly and will be able to start with more test spots from the beginning.
Pre-rut October 24th-November 4th
During the pre-rut, my focus is always on the test spots that I determined to have the most potential during the early season. I was able to find consistent deer movement in these spots and know exactly where the does are bedding in relation to my set up locations. Hunting these spots during the pre-rut will tell you if they’re worth hunting when the rut finally kicks in. You should see some younger bucks moving around, an increase in sign, and you might even get lucky and get a shot at a mature deer. This testing stage for me determines if I will return during the second week of November. This is one of my favorite stages during a hunting season because you don’t have to worry about disturbing the spots. They are only test spots so it’s stress-free hunting, and you have a legitimate chance of having quality encounters.
The Rut November 5th - November 15th
Game time starts November 1st. I stick to the test spots for the first few days in November because I want to see how they perform in terms of rut activity, and because I have complete confidence in the rut spots I have developed in the previous years. If you have truly found a consistent rut spot, you should only need 2 days max to get an opportunity at a deer you’re comfortable shooting. This is obviously dependent on weather to a certain extent, but you should know the spot well enough to pick the right days. The rut is fairly consistent, and you will know when it’s going to happen, or when the opportunity window has passed. If the opportunity passes at one of your rut spots, you can move onto another. Ideally you have a spot that’s on fire the first week of November and another spot that peaks during the second week. This may sound like a fantasy, but I promise you it’s possible. I have two spots here in Michigan that peak at different times like this and they are only 15 miles apart. One of these spots has produced a good Michigan buck three years in a row.
Public land is different from private. It’s dynamic and you have no control. In my opinion, all you can do is try to manage the variables and develop consistent spots by committing to some sort of testing process. For me, this testing process begins with a map analysis to identify spots with potential. In order to minimize pressure on these spots I scout them only once and use the hunting season to gauge a spot’s true potential. Why not have the chance of shooting something while you’re figuring out an area? These spots might turn out to be worthless, but that doesn’t matter to me because I know I have consistent spots to fall back on when November rolls around. The best hunters are those who spend the least amount of time in a spot to minimize pressure. This is hard though, right? When hunting season rolls around we want to be in the woods as much as possible, so feed your appetite for time in the tree with some new test spots. Take the time to thoroughly learn these new spots, and then you can hold onto the good ones and replace the ones that don’t produce. Over time you will be able to pinpoint exactly where and when you should be during prime time, capitalizing on each spot’s opportunities in the least amount of time possible. You will have more opportunities, shoot more deer, and every season will be better than the last.
After looking back on what I’ve written, I feel like I have failed at my goal of not having this sound like a lecture. However, I will stay true to the fact that I am no expert and nothing I do is revolutionary. This is simply the routine I have fallen into after years of trial and error, and hopefully you can use some of these concepts to enhance your own strategy. If you have any comments or questions feel free to reach out to me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!