Public wetlands are preserved for ducks, but the real cattail trophies might be whitetail bucks.
Killing big whitetails year in and out is an unlikely feat, even for the best hunters on quality private lands. On heavily hunted public lands, most bowhunters would consider it impossible. But three Midwestern bowhunters -- Dan Infalt, Jarrod Erdody, and Lee Gatzke -- have proven it can be done. Over the past few years, these three men have developed strategies for hunting public marshes that annually produce bucks equal to those taken by many hunters on quality private lands. Here are the methods behind their marsh madness.
Jarrod Erdody relied on post-season scouting to pattern this Midwestern marsh buck.
"People don't realize that huge bucks live in public marshes because the deer are often so nocturnal you'll never see them unless you hunt in staging areas just off their bedding areas," Erdody said.
"While most people consider a staging area as a block of cover just off a food source, we consider a staging area as a spot just off where bucks sleep. That's because on public ground, you won't see bucks during legal shooting hours unless you are extremely close to where they bed."
The three hunters have another reason for hunting near known bedding sites. "Consider the bed of a buck the hub of a bicycle wheel," Gatzke said. "The buck may have three trails leading to and from his bed. Much like spokes on a wheel, the trails come closer together at the hub -- the bed. Farther out from the hub, the trails spread farther apart. The closer we are to the bed, the better our chances of seeing the buck walking one of those spokes."
Of course, hunting near bedding areas in marshes has its risks, just as it does in any whitetail hunting. But, as discussed below, the rewards often justify the risks.
AERIALS AND ACCESS
Success begins with knowledge of the land and deer. To gain that knowledge, Infalt estimates that he scouts four or five days for every day he spends hunting. The first stage of scouting a public marsh takes place on aerial photos.
"The photos allow us to see several things," Infalt said of himself and his partners. "First, we can see high ground in the marshes and how to access it. Second, we can see public parking areas and other obvious access points.
"But we don't use just public parking. We may see a key point or staging area on a photo that we would like to hunt. If a road runs close by, we can hunt spots far from public parking by simply having a buddy drop us off on the edge of the road and pick us up later. We can extend our range to hunt spots a long ways from public parking."
While most hunters wouldn't even consider walking a quarter mile through cattails as an acceptable way to get to a post, these three hunters love it.
"For one thing, you won't have pressure from other hunters," Erdody said. "Plus, the cattails offer you cover for getting to your spot. People think the noise of pushing through cattails will blow deer out, but if you do it right, that doesn't happen. You must move slowly and not make any foreign noises. Deer are used to hearing other deer and animals walking through the marshes. After an hour or so, the deer settle down and just assume it was another deer walking. Of course, you have to play the wind."
When the cattails are too thick to walk straight through, the hunters walk on deer trails through the marshes.
Lee Gatzke's trophy attests to the value of his marsh madness methods.
"You can get away with this so long as you never go farther than you want to hunt," Infalt said. "You NEVER want to go a step farther on the trail than you want to sit. For example, if I have a stand that is 40 yards down the trail, but I know the deer is 80 yards down the trail, I haven't messed anything up.
After initial scouting on aerial photos, the three hunters continue their scouting on foot by walking to investigate firsthand all potential areas they have identified on the photos. They want to have prime spots thoroughly researched before hunting season.
"Looking at potential spots post-season is great for figuring out where bucks bed without having to worry about spooking them," Erdody said. "We even go into bedding areas hoping to spook bucks out. When we see a buck we might want to hunt, we take pictures of his tracks and study them. All tracks vary in some way, so when the season comes, we can match the track and know if a buck is still using the same bed.
"When we do bump out a buck, we follow his tracks in the snow to analyze his escape route. We may also find alternative beds. We're looking at everything, including what the wind is doing when we bump him. When the season comes, we match up the scenario so we know where to hunt under specific conditions."
Of course, while scouring the marshes on foot, the guys are always noting potential stand trees.
"Mature public bucks are most vulnerable in transition areas along the edges of the marshes," Gatzke said. "Good stand trees there are scarce. Generally, they're small and not very hunter-friendly. We often set up in trees that most guys would think are ridiculous in size, but that's all we have.
"And that's not all bad, because the key is to hunt low, just above the brush. That way the bucks won't see you silhouetted against the sky.
"Remember, also, we're hunting public ground where we have to take our stands in and out every time we hunt," Gatzke continued. "So each time we must set up totally quietly.
"Even so, when we do finally sit, we know it may be for only one time, because more often than not, that one hunt will burn up that spot. Once a spot gets molested, we move and hunt the next spot the buck likely will reposition to."
SEEING THE LIGHT
"Scouting is an all-year process that never ends," Infalt said. "If shining (spotlighting) is legal in your state, it can be one of the most important tools to use." (Editor's Note: Check regulations in your area. Spotlighting is not universally legal.) The group likes to shine fields starting in June and running until the start of the bow season. Many people shine at roughly the same time every night, but these three guys vary the timing.
"We shine quite a bit just after dark," Erdody said. "When we spot a good deer at that time, we know he was probably bedded fairly close. We can then look at our photos and assess where we think he is bedding."
To get a different perspective, the three hunters also shine much later in the night, sometimes well after midnight.
Dan Infalt carved an inconspicuous trail through the cattails to reach this Wisconsin buck.
"We have seen a buck in one field at 9 p.m., and then have seen that same buck a half-mile away in another field at midnight," Infalt said. "Observing this kind of movement helps us pattern where bucks might bed come morning.
"If we're shining in a new area just before hunting season, we avoid the temptation to dive in and scout on foot. We wait until the day of a hunt to scout, and then we determine if that spot should be hunted. Patterns change. The buck you see in July will likely be doing something else come fall."
The hunters also videotape bucks they see at night. The camera often picks up deer the hunters overlook with the naked eye, and the tape gives them a permanent record to study later. By the beginning of the season, the hunters pretty much know all the bucks in any given marsh they plan to hunt.
SCOUT AND GO
Once the season opens, the hunters regularly check all of the intelligence gained during the off-season to see if things are getting "hot."
"When we spot-check our areas, we always have stands on our backs," Infalt said. "That way, when we are scouting, we are hunting too. If I'm out there checking a spot and it looks good, I'm not going to leave to try to find a 'hotter' spot. I'm going to hunt right at that moment because things are happening, and I have already scented up the area.
"We avoid heavy stands. We use Lone Wolf Alpha hang-ons and climbing sticks because they are lightweight and quiet. We use climbers only if we know ahead of time the trees we're going to climb are straight -- which is rare in marshes."
"Remember, we only hunt these spots once or maybe twice a season, because each time we go in, we are wrecking the spot," Infalt said. "And no amount of scent control can prevent it, not on public ground."
The beauty about hunting public marshes is that they are vast, and offer a ton of likely bedding areas. If you burn one up, you find another.
"It's not like hunting a private 40 acres," Erdody said. "On a small piece of private land, a guy will want to stay away from bedding areas and just hunt the edges or funnels. If he bumps a deer out too often, the buck will just relocate.
"In hunting marshes, you want to locate as many staging areas as you can before the season so that you have tons of options for wind and other hunting pressure. That way, you never run out of virgin spots.
"Dan has hunted one public marsh for 20 years and has built up a circuit of spots, each with a good tree for a stand, and a good way to access it. This isn't an overnight process. It's hard work -- that's why it works, and few people do it."
Hunting public marshes is hard work, and Erdody, Infalt, and Gatzke claim that there is no magic for taking mature, public-land bucks. While most hunters dream of the rut kicking in, these guys shun it.
"Sure, a guy can get lucky during the rut, because bucks are cruising and using funnels and stuff," Infalt said. "But you can't pattern them. So hunting a specific buck like we do is almost impossible.
"Hunters today are influenced by all the ads and hunting programs that show people rattling or using special scents and attractants during the rut," Erdody said. "When hunting so close to bedded bucks, the last thing we want to do is let them know anything is going on. One grunt will put a deer on alert.
"Why would we want to do that? Again, we are patterning deer. So we already know we are in the game. The only time I'd grunt is if I see the buck and know for sure he's not coming within range. More than likely the spot will be ruined anyway, so I might call as a last-ditch effort."
A DEER TALE
Infalt employed these strategies to take a Pope and Young 10-pointer on a public marsh in Jefferson County, Wisconsin.
"I had a spot picked out that was just 100 yards from the public parking lot," he said. "Most guys parked in the lot and hunted a large woodlot that was easy to get to. "Just off the parking lot, some really thick brush and small trees bordered a large cattail swamp. I saw a large willow tree out in the middle of an acre of solid brush. I assumed there was a dry area out there because a tree that big would need solid ground to grow on. It looked like a perfect place for a big buck to bed."
Well before the season, Infalt scouted the area on foot and, sure enough, he found big tracks, a bed, and several old rubs near the willow. The place held promise. Now the challenge would be hunting there without spooking the buck.
"Long before the season, I picked out a tree and made a small path leading from the edge of a public road running perpendicular to the public parking lot," he said. "When the wind was right, I had a buddy drop me off several hundred yards from the spot, and I walked on the paved road to my trail.
"I had to know right where I was going, because I knew the buck would be bedded within the acre where I planned to ambush him.
"I got there at noon and took a couple hours to walk about 60 yards. Really, in a situation like this, noise is as critical as wind. If a buck hears one clinking of metal, he won't come out until after dark. I was only about six feet up in the tree when I killed him. If I'd gone any higher, he could have spotted me from his bed under the willow."
Dan Infalt, Jarrod Erdody, and Lee Gatzke have no secrets for taking big, public-land bucks year in and year out. They simply put in a lot of time and a ton of effort. To outsiders, their efforts might seem like madness, but their results prove the method. Author's Note: To learn more about hunting marshes, check out the DVD, Hunting Marsh Bucks, at www.bloodbro.com. The author is an outdoor writer and partner in the marketing agency Bast-Durbin, Inc. He lives in Slinger, Wisconsin.