Are too many hunters and too few deer really cause for despair? Not when you use your head.
By Joe Blake
THE FOG LAY LIKE a thick soup all around me, oozing across the landscape and limiting visibility to less than 100 yards as I made my way across a grassy field toward a funnel created by the field edge and a cattail swamp that lay beyond. It was early November, and despite warmer-than-average temperatures, the damp, penetrating chill of the foggy afternoon made me pull up the collar of my wool jacket as I reached a gnarled old oak that would become my perch.
Quickly climbing aloft I pulled up my gear and settled in; soon the squirrels returned to the busy hoarding of winter stores all around me as the woods resumed its business in the wake of my passing. In the distance Canada geese called, and the steady, measured rustling of dry leaves nearby caused my heart rate to pick up a notch before I was able to identify the visitor as a lone ruffed grouse. With the woods settling down around me it was time to make something happen, so I stood quietly and raised my rattling antlers in hopes an amorous whitetail was cruising nearby.
Bringing the antlers together, softly at first, I twisted and turned the cast set of bone this way and that in an effort to simulate sparring bucks testing each other for any sign of weakness. In the silent womb created by the enveloping fog even this light tickling of antlers sounded impossibly loud, but I followed my mock shoving match up with a couple of soft grunts and then traded the horns for my trusty Golden Hawk Magnum.
In half the time it takes to relate the story, the steady approach of something large coming out of the swamp reached my ears and I scarcely had time to get into position before the fat, young 8-pointer ghosted into view. At 8 yards the buck paused and tested the wind; next season he would definitely be cause to tighten the grip on my 60-pound recurve, but today I remained motionless and let him continue on his way.
Twice more during the afternoon I lured belligerent young bucks within sure range of my stickbow. Once, I heard a considerable amount of crashing coming from a thicket behind me, but it was impossible to catch a glimpse of the participants because of the heavy fog and dense brush.
Finally, with shooting light prematurely gone because of the dreary day, I packed up my gear and headed back to my pickup nearly a mile away. Reaching the parking area on this large piece of public hunting land I found two other bowhunters loading their gear and lamenting the fact that this management area had "too many hunters and no deer anymore!" When they asked if I'd had any luck I replied with "not much" and then smiled wryly as I pulled out of the parking area and headed for home.
EVERY YEAR MORE HUNTERS vie for less land to hunt on, and this overcrowding is a constant source of misery for some. With private land becoming more difficult to find because of leasing, development, and other problems, the majority of hunters are forced to pursue their passion on public hunting areas. While some choose to grumble about dwindling opportunities and overcrowded hunting conditions, those willing to hunt smart and use other hunters to their advantage can find excellent hunting on public lands, and big bucks to boot!
The fact is that, in many regions, public hunting lands comprise the very best habitat available, and good habitat will grow good deer. The key to successfully hunting these areas is threefold: hunt when, where , and how other hunters can't, won't , or don't! Let's take a look...
When One of the very best ways to avoid other hunters is to hunt when they can't hunt, when they won't hunt, or when they don't hunt. If your personal situation allows this flexibility you can definitely find excellent hunting opportunities on public land. Weekends on heavily hunted tracts are generally crowded, and the deer lie low then because of the increased activity.
However, after a couple days of relative quiet at the first of the workweek, the deer will settle down and resume somewhat normal patterns, making midweek hunting exceptional. I rarely see another hunter during the middle of the week, and that translates into good deer hunting. In fact, I took a record class buck here in Minnesota a couple years back on a Thursday afternoon on a heavily hunted piece of land less than a mile from a small town!
Other considerations as to when to hunt public lands to avoid other hunters might include mornings, Sunday afternoons, or days when the weather is nasty. Many hunters don't or won't hunt in the morning because they don't like to get out of bed and head to a cold treestand in the dark, and many more hunters head back home early on Sunday so they can catch their favorite football team. Either way, the woods are less crowded and the opportunity is there for serious hunters.
Another good time to be afield is during inclement weather, when Mother Nature has forced all but the most dedicated hunters to head for home. Years ago, when I still lived in North Dakota, I regularly hunted a large area of public land that was overrun with bowhunters in September and October. But it was a lonely place indeed in December when cold and snow made hunting uncomfortable. Lonely except for all the deer!
Where Within any given public area, some places appeal more to deer than others, and some areas are more difficult to reach for whatever reason. Usually these are one and the same. There is a direct correlation between the amount of effort it takes to reach a certain destination and how many people hunt that spot: if you can get a quarter mile from the nearest parking spot you will lose probably a quarter of the other hunters; if you can get a half mile back in you will lose over half the other hunters; and if you can get in a mile or more you will most likely have the spot all to yourself!
On the Wildlife Management Area mentioned at the beginning of this story there was tons of deer sign in the woods close to the road that bisected the area, and that's where 90 percent of the other hunters spent their time. But that sign was made at night and the deer spent most of their time back in the heavy swamps far away from the road and its easy access. That's why I was able to rattle in three bucks that afternoon while the other two hunters saw nothing.
And you can do the same. When you first locate a potential hunting spot check out any and all access points, and then start your scouting as far from these points as possible. I'd bet my favorite bow that you will find plenty of deer and not many hunters.
Joe Blake, an avid traditionalist and a regular contributor to Bowhunter, lives in Minnesota. He hunts whitetails throughout the Midwest and Canada.
Also seek out spots that other hunters might simply overlook. I have hunted one such area here in Minnesota since I was a kid, and have taken deer there up to a 130-class 8-pointer. The Waterfowl Production area isn't very large to begin with, and there is very little in the way of typical deer cover, just a small patch of woods where an old homestead once stood. Combine this with the fact that it's possible to look right down main street of the small nearby town from almost any tree on the place, and you can see why most hunters drive right by without a second glance. That's okay with me. The deer are there and I have the place to myself.
How With so many hunters in the woods nowadays and so much good information available on hunting whitetails, it's no wonder that deer are becoming accustomed to our behavior! The deer are actually patterning the hunters before the hunters can pattern the deer! The key to hunting pressured deer is to try unorthodox methods, so you're not one of the masses educating bucks every time you head to the woods.
Treestands are great, for example, but in some heavily hunted areas the deer are so used to danger from above that they walk around with their necks craned skyward - if they spend any daylight time among the trees at all.
I used to spend a lot of time on a large piece of public land that consisted of a vast cattail slough on one side and several tree rows and small groves on the other. To say there was a treestand in every available tree might be overstating the case a bit, but not by much. While the area was covered with rubs and scrapes the bucks rarely ventured outside the untouched sanctuary of the slough during shooting hours. From nearly any tree you could watch many bucks as they milled around out in the thick stuff while waiting for the hunters to head for home, but I never saw a hunter attempt to hunt them in the slough - except me. I dug a pit blind on a small piece of dry land out in the middle of nowhere and had shooting opportunities virtually every time the wind would allow me to hunt there!
For most of us, the possibility of owning several hundred acres of prime hunting property is a dream that will likely never materialize, so we must make the best of public lands and their pressured whitetails. The deer are definitely there, so taking them becomes a matter of using our intelligence to figure out where the deer - and the hunters - are and what they are doing. Once we learn to hunt when, where , and how other hunters can't, won't , or don't we're on the right track to bagging high-pressure whitetails.