By Alex Comstock
Hunting public land is something that hunters across the nation can find challenging, no doubt about that. There is a major difference in hunting public land compared to being able to manage your own property or even hunting private property by permission.
Recently, I was able to talk with Aaron Warbritton of Midwest Whitetail about how he attacks that public land hunting challenge himself. The conversation was quite interesting, as he dives deep into how he approaches public land year-round for mature bucks, and if you’re taking on that same challenge yourself – his advice is sure to help.
Q: First off, what’s the allure of hunting public land for you?
A: I’ve hunted public land at some level my entire life. I love the ability to hunt tons of country and not be confined to a small property. Sure you can control more factors when hunting small areas, but you lose the adventure aspect of hunting. We hunt close to 20,000 acres of public land and see something new almost every day. It would take me my entire life to figure out every inch of it, but that’s WHY it’s so fun.
Q: At a high level, what do you do during the offseason to figure out what public land you want to focus your attention on to actually hunt?
A: Scout, scout, and scout some more. I want to hunt a mature buck where he lives during daylight, so during the off season we’re looking for bedding areas. Better to do this in early spring and late winter. It’s easy to read last year’s sign and figure out where the buck we were chasing was living all fall. Then if we observe a mature buck in late summer, we know the likely spots he’ll be bedding. So I guess to answer your question, I’m NOT choosing a specific area during the off-season. Scout aggressively during that time. Cover every square inch of those properties if you can. Even pick trees for stand locations. Many times we are tromping through these bedding areas in spring or summer and not returning for several months. First time in is your best odds at a mature buck. You want to do all your intensive scouting during the off-season so you can catch them by surprise in the fall.
Q: After deciding where you want to hunt, what’s the next step? What else do you look for while scouting? Are you looking for beds, running trail cameras, a combination of things? How do you decide what tree to pick out for a stand?
A: We’re scouting for different things at different times of the year. Off-season is when we scout beds and bedding areas. Then we do some observation sits during the summer looking for velvet bucks. Once September arrives I’ll start getting cameras out and scouting feeding areas. Low impact is key this time of year. This is when we also start scouting for people. The hunting pressure will change each year from spot to spot. Best time to figure this out is during deer season.
We’ll run two different types of trail camera setups. I’ll leave some in an area all year if it’s high impact – if it’s near a bedding area or tree stand location for instance. Those cameras won’t be touched all season. However, we’ll learn a ton from them after. The other type of camera setup is for use in-season and setup in feeding areas (low impact) to monitor specific bucks in the area.
Our stand trees are normally located close to bedding. The most effective spots are in staging areas adjacent to bedding. We rarely have success sitting right over a food source unless it’s close to bedding. Public bucks just don’t move far during daylight because of the pressure. Definitely a combination of things.
Q: Once you have a spot picked out, how do you go about accessing your stand during season? Are there any types of creative ways you can get into an area where nobody else goes, and can do it in a manner where you don’t bump deer in the process?
A: Each situation is different. “Think outside the box” is the best tip I can give. Water access is my favorite because it’s dead quiet in a canoe or kayak and most people won’t go to the trouble. It allows us to access spots that are lightly pressured. Big bucks on public land live in areas where they don’t encounter human scent. Sometimes you’ve got to hike several miles to find that spot. This makes it tough to avoid spooking a few deer. It happens. But to get back where the bucks live you’ve got to push the limit.
Q: How do you deal with other hunters and hunting pressure?
A: We avoid it if we can. Hunting pressure will change from year to year on a spot so you have to scout for that as much or more than the deer. We always try to talk to hunters if we encounter them. I’ve found it’s best to cooperate with others on public. Many times I’ll tell them where we’re hunting and they’ll do the same. That way we don’t step on each other. The last thing I want is to see somebody at the parking lot then walk two miles only to have them in a tree 30 yards away. That helps no one. Try to go “past the boot tracks” as we say. Further than anyone else and you’ll start getting into better stuff.
Q: What part of the season do you focus on when it comes to public land? Is there a heavy emphasis on the rut, or do you get into some areas during the early/late season as well?
A: Early season and the rut is what we target. Not so much late. We time our hunts in October depending on observation sits, trail cameras, and weather. I plan to hunt more this October over buck beds than ever before, there is very little hunting pressure and bucks are predictable.
Rut hunts can be good but this is also the time with the most hunting pressure. We try to hunt during the middle of the week and midday if possible, and bounce around a lot. The hunting pressure will force deer into pockets, so when you find the deer it can be crazy. Best advice I can give during the rut is to stay mobile and have multiple spots in your back pocket.
Q: What would be your number one piece of advice for somebody who wants to shoot a mature buck on public land?
A: Scout for BUCKS during the off-season and scout for PEOPLE during season.
This can mean hunting 50 yards off a road or two miles back in a swamp. Big bucks will be living where people don’t go. Find that spot and you’ll have success on public land.
You can follow along with Aaron’s public land hunts this year at MidwestWhitetail.com
– Alex Comstock, Whitetail DNA