For best success on public lands, forget where the deer are. Hunt where they're going to be.
I lashed two cedar trees together in a thicket to hold my stand, and this doe was a nice reward for my efforts.
The butterflies started to flutter in our stomachs as Eric and I neared the National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) where we would be hunting for three days. If our scouting was accurate, we were about to do our part in controlling the deer herd on the refuge. Weeks earlier, we'd heard about the special hunt to reduce the deer population and called the refuge to gather details. What we learned had us excited.
As an incentive, the refuge would tag up to three deer for each hunter, meaning those deer would not count against the state bag limit. High deer numbers, free tags, and a few days of bowhunting -- what more could a guy want?
Well, our hopes were dashed as we drove into the refuge parking lot opening morning. Apparently, we weren't the only ones having visions of abundant deer and free tags. The parking lot looked like Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving. I'd never seen more camouflage in one place! Our hunting success was not good.
Fast-forward to the same refuge hunt one year later. The parking lot looked about the same on opening morning, but instead of fighting a sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs, we rejoiced, and with headlamps piercing the early morning darkness, we walked toward our chosen spots with confidence. As the first day drew to a close, we had arrowed two 8-pointers and a doe, a far cry from the previous year. To make our feat even more amazing, 300 bowhunters had bagged only 12 deer total!
What changed? Did we scout harder? Shoot straighter? Or just get lucky?
In a nutshell, we hunted smarter. That first season, the mass of hunters in a small area was unlike anything we had ever experienced. Sure, we'd hunted pressured deer on public lands, but nothing that compared to that.
The second year we adapted, and, now, with many high-pressure hunts under our belts, we've refined our tactics to use hunter pressure to our advantage. If you find yourself participating in short, high-pressure hunts, these tactics will work for you.
The Obvious Spots
Conventional wisdom tells you to forget the obvious spots and dig deep for success. During normal public-land hunts, I follow this mandate to a 'T', but high-pressure hunts are not "normal." Thus, the first places I often look are the seemingly obvious ones. Just because a spot is easy access doesn't mean it isn't good. In fact, you might find the best stand sites literally under your nose.
My second year on that crowded NWR illustrates the point. Rather than showing up hours early and frantically trying to reach my stand before anyone else, I took my time getting ready. After most other hunters had hit the woods (running), I slipped into a stand right behind the check station.
Although I could easily eavesdrop on conversations of the wildlife technicians manning the check station, I was confident because I doubted anyone else would think, or want, to hunt that close to the parking lot. If that was true, the deer might just remember a safe haven from the previous few hunts.
My hunch proved right when a buck came sneaking into the thicket 15 minutes after daylight. At 10 yards, the buck whirled as the Snuffer-tipped Beman slammed into the sand beyond him. I was the first hunter to the check station that morning!
I shot this 3 1/2-year-old buck one sweltering afternoon on a national wildlife refuge in Georgia. Other hunters had bumped him and pushed him to me.
Forget the Sign
Good deer sign excites me as much as it does the next guy, but in high-pressure hunts, I pay little attention to sign. The first year on the NWR, I let the sign lure me in -- along with every other hunter -- and the results were less than stellar.
With a high volume of hunters in the woods, I just don't believe many (or any) deer will be following normal behavior patterns. Most deer will be skittish and looking for cover. If you get nothing else from this article, remember this -- you need to be where the deer are going, not where they've been.
Eric's and my favorite high-pressure stand of all time is one that rarely has a deer track anywhere near it. In fact, the area is so devoid of sign we can easily show up the first day of the hunt with stand on back and be 99-percent sure the tree will be unoccupied. Few deer live year-round in this spot, but they immediately head there for refuge when the pressure heats up. This particular stand site accounts for the majority of deer we shoot on this NWR, including the two 8-pointers mentioned above.
When scouting for potential stand sites, look primarily for two features: pinch points (funnels) leading to escape cover, and the cover itself. Hunting pinch points that lead from areas of high hunter densities to escape cover is probably my favorite tactic in these situations.
Preferably, the pinch point will adjoin a good feeding or staging area such as an oak flat -- the type of area you normally would hunt if you had the property to yourself. Many hunters will see all the fresh sign in a spot like that and immediately be suckered in. While they're all concentrated there, you should be hunting the backdoor escape route leading to the security of cover. That's where you'll intercept deer seeking refuge from the masses.
Generally, classic funnels you can readily spot on aerial photos will catch the eye of other hunters, so you should avoid these. Look for subtle funnels, like a topographical break in the terrain; a body of water, like a lake edge; or a manmade feature that will constrict deer movement.
One of my favorite pinch points is located on either end of a dam. The well-maintained dam separates a waterfowl refuge impoundment from a saltwater marsh. It makes perfect sense that it would be a hotspot because it's the only crossing point for a quarter-mile. Still, no one else ever hunts there, and I can only guess other hunters avoid it because they assume no self-respecting deer would cross a dam 30 feet wide and 100 yards long with zero cover.
But when the pressure is on, deer do the unexpected. A few years ago, I shot a nice 8-pointer at one end of the dam. He definitely had been bumped by other hunters. Fortu
nately for me, the buck made the fatal mistake of pausing to survey the dam before crossing.
When I say thickets, I mean THICKets. When scouting for potential thickets, search for areas you think most hunters will find appealing -- remember the locations with good deer sign? -- and then look for thickets you think any deer using those areas will flee to.
At times, you may decide to hunt a thicket itself, especially if you cannot find a good pinch point leading to the thicket. Many times, a deer will pause to watch its backtrail when it reaches the security of a thicket, so place your stand just inside the perimeter of the thicket where you will get a shot as the deer pauses to check its backtrail. Some thickets may be only a quarter-acre in size. With these smaller spots, it's easier to determine where the deer will enter. Deer don't need much cover to hide, so never assume a thicket is too small to be worthwhile.
A few seasons ago, I'd located a thicket near a feeding area showing lots of fresh sign, and I was pretty sure the deer would flee to the thicket when other hunters arrived. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a tree big enough to hold my stand, but rather than giving up on the spot, I lashed two marginally sized cedar trees together to hold my stand. My effort paid off when a doe came sneaking in to avoid the pressure.
Stand Hours -- Your Best Friend
During many managed hunts, hunters must be in their stands during set hours. Stand hours typically cover a specific time frame in the morning and evening. As far as I'm concerned, stand hours can be your best friend. Remember, if you're applying the tactics discussed above for pressured deer, you are already in a spot that deer are either passing through or seeking as escape cover.
Because you're not hunting trails or traditional deer sign, you need to rely on the tendency of other hunters to get itchy feet. It's been my experience that many hunters will climb out of their stands -- to search for better spots or to start tracking deer they've hit -- as soon as the stand hours end. That's the very time you should sit tight and ready yourself for the rush that should be coming -- if you've picked your spot well. And it might benefit you to be in your stand at least one hour before the start of stand hours. My friends and I have had many deer pushed to us by hunters making their way to their stands.
On one particularly crowded morning, I found myself sitting in an incredibly dense wax myrtle thicket with a maximum shot distance of 15 yards. I had not seen a deer all morning, but soon after the end of stand hours, I could hear voices heading my way. Fifteen minutes later, I was down inspecting my arrow at the head of a heavy blood trail. Don't be one of those hunters who can't wait to get out of his stand because he didn't see anything. In my opinion, you should not expect to see much activity until the end or beginning of stand hours. So stay put!
Days to Hunt
I may be missing some great hunting opportunities, but I strongly believe that on heavily pressured areas, opening day is by far the best. Period. Remember, you are relying on other hunters to push deer to you -- not on natural deer movement. By the second day, most deer have figured out the game and have gone underground. A thicket that held no deer before opening day will be full of deer on the second day, and you'll just bump them out as you enter to hunt. So you're defeating your purpose then. Personally, if I can't hunt the first day on special hunts, I just sit the hunt out for the year -- simple as that.
Obviously, I do not stake my entire season on high-pressure public hunts. Rather, I see such hunts as a fun diversion from my normal hunting routines. But make no mistake -- public hunts can produce plenty of meat for the freezer and trophies for the wall. You just have to learn to work under pressure.
In addition to being an avid bowhunter, the author is a full-time wildlife biologist. He lives in Shelbyville, Illinois.