October 22, 2021
It's a combination of things. It’s knock-on-door permission going by the wayside. It’s an influx of new, full-of-piss-and-vinegar bowhunters. It’s cagey veterans craving a new bowhunting adventure. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying public-land whitetail pursuits are growing in popularity.
The idea is pure: Matching wits with a wild critter on its home turf, knowing said turf is open to every soul on the planet. It’s a noble pursuit, and those who harvest a mature buck, or any buck for that matter, quickly earn a Yoda-like whitetail rep.
Hard to believe? Jump on any social-media platform, and you’ll quickly realize it’s those posted pictures of hunters with their bow resting on the side of a downed public-land bruiser that get the most attention. Social media has romanticized public-land hunting. Sadly, it’s this notoriety alone that drives many bowhunters to open-access dirt.
More than half of my whitetail missions each fall are of the public kind. I love the challenge and pure joy these hunts provide. What I do want you to understand is that for many, these hunts quickly turn sour. Not due to lack of game or hunting ability, but an absence of needed gear. So, if you’re looking to jump in with both feet, the following gear advice I’ve gleaned through years of experience will prepare you for any public-land hunt you’re planning.
I was new to the public-whitetail game. My buddy wasn’t. It was the early season, and the plan was to hunt isolated waterholes sprinkled across a particular section of ground in South Dakota. I’d done my homework. I had three lightweight stands, climbing sticks, and other necessary in-the-tree gear. Then the heavens opened up with a vengeance, and the original plan to hunt water was now null and void.
After some scouting, it became evident that my best option was to tuck into a few cedars along a pounded travel corridor. The cedars were too small for a stand, but a ground blind would be perfect — except I didn’t think to bring one along. Fortunately, my hunting buddy and public-land veteran, did. The next day he killed a 145-inch buck.
I’m not a fan of penning anecdotes about my shortcomings as a bowhunter, but my goal has always been to help and motivate others to be better. You never know what curveballs Mother Nature or other hunters will throw at you. You have to be ready for anything. For this reason, these items are always loaded in my truck before I leave the house for any extended whitetail hunt.
Two lightweight treestands and climbing sticks. Lone Wolf’s Alpha Hang On II and Millennium’s MicroLite M7 paired with Lone Wolf’s four-pack of Climbing Sticks or Millennium’s M250 Aluminum four-pack of sticks are my preference. Both stands fit in the most gnarly trees, and when hunting ground where stands can be left up, this duo is a great option to leave in likely kill spots.
One tree saddle. Kill a buck from a tree saddle, and that buck instantly becomes better than one killed from a stand or blind. Yes, I’m being facetious. I like a saddle, but not nearly as much as I do a lightweight hang-on. Still, tree saddles are a great tool. Just be sure to learn the ins and outs of whichever model you decide to use well in advance of your hunt. My saddle choice is Tethrd’s Phantom.
One ground blind. I hate to pack the weight and have had some success with a panel blind, but I do love the comfort and total concealment of a hub-style blind. Although these large ground forts can be hard to blend in, they have become a pivotal tool in my arsenal. Look to quality hides with brush loops from Primos and Ameristep.
One bow-mounted decoy. If you don’t have a bow-mounted whitetail fake from Ultimate Predator Gear, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You never know when you’ll have to stalk a buck tending a doe along a fenceline or in the middle of a large weed patch. Attach a pair of Stalker Antlers to the Stalker Doe and voilà, you’ve got a buck. And don’t be afraid to set a 3-D buck decoy in the open and back into the brush with a Stalker Doe mounted to your bow. You become part of the decoy spread, and I’ve yet to find a more exciting way to bowhunt whitetails.
A Worthy Pack
You’re not bowhunting the Back 40. You’re bowhunting open-access deer ground that will often require you to wander miles from parking lots. A small, diminutive pack isn’t going to cut it. Purchase a comfortable, spacious, and load-bearing pack. Many popular whitetail haunts are of the walk-in variety. Most of these locales don’t allow wheeled access. You’ll be packing everything on your back, and should you down a buck, you’ll need a pack to haul him back to camp. Here are a few to consider.
Mystery Ranch Treehouse. It’s a 4.6-lb. pack designed for whitetail hunters. Unlike most whitetail packs, the Treehouse has a volume of 1,890 cu. in., and the internal frame provides a great combination of rigidity and flexibility. In 2020, I carried out a pair of de-boned bucks, along with all my other gear, in this pack.
Badlands Superday. This 1,950-cu. in. pack has seven pockets, hip-belt pouches, and lots of room for gear. Bedroll and other straps help with stand-and-stick attachment.
Kifaru Duplex Ultralight Frame & Stryker XL Bag. This is a bag and frame system, and although a bit pricey, you’ll cheer its performance. The pack has a volume of 1,500 cu. in., and the external part of the pack is fitted with multiple tab loops for compression straps for attaching stands, sticks, and other necessities. The pack can be separated from the frame, and quarters or boned-out meat can be placed between the pack and frame.
ALPS OutdoorZ Hybrid X. Some call it overkill, I call it perfect. This pack is spacious (2,750 cu. in.), and its numerous straps are perfect for attaching a stand and sticks. Then, when you skewer that big buck, you can tote it out with ease.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
You know what calls you like, and you know raingear, food, scents, knives, and water are staples. However, those new to the public-land game will often overlook some of the following must-have items that have saved my bacon many times over the years.
Game Bags. You won’t be dragging your deer out whole, and you may not be able to get a game cart to it. For this reason, I always have game bags in my pack. They are crucial for keeping meat clean, and allow you to easily separate quarters and boned-out pieces.
Pack Tarp/Emergency Blankets. As you separate quarters from your buck’s body or meat from its bones, you’ll need to set that meat somewhere. I pack a small, washable pack tarp at all times. Before I start cleaning my buck, I lay the tarp out, place rocks on its corners, and go to work. Emergency blankets will cost you about $2 a pop at Walmart and also work extremely well. Dispose of them after use.
Scent-Free Field Wipes. Not only do they help keep the backside clean, but they’re perfect for a full-body, in-field “shower.” My favorite application, however, is for cleanup after breaking down a buck. Look to wipes from Wildlife Research Center.
Headlamp. It sounds like a no-brainer item. Trust me, it’s not. Last year, I stumbled across three different hunters. All had killed a buck at last light; not one of them had a headlamp, because they were all used to being close to home or close to the truck. Get a quality headlamp like Coast’s FL78R. Not only does this lamp provide red and green LED illumination, but you can also adjust the beam via the twistable bezel. Use the rechargeable battery pack for normal operation, and keep extra AAA batteries inside your pack as it will run on either.
Rubber-Coated Wire. This stuff is great for keeping stands and sticks hushed during transport. The last thing you want is metal clanging against metal. Use this wire to keep metal contact points from opening and clanging against one another.
First-Aid Kit. Accidents happen. Remember, you’ll be climbing trees, hanging stands, cutting rope, caring for meat, and walking miles. Be sure your pack harbors a quality first-aid kit. My advice is to spend the money. My kit contains 125 pieces of equipment, and over the years I’ve used it for everything from a scorpion sting to severe burns to serious lacerations.
Nylon Rope. You’ll find a million uses for it — from building extra bow-tote ropes to hanging meat back at camp to tying a buck’s leg to a nearby tree so you can work on a quarter of meat.
Garmin InReach. There are multiple models and multiple data plans to choose from. You can decide what’s right for you. When an InReach is in your pack, you and your loved ones can rest easy. You never know when an emergency will arise, and there will be times when cell service isn’t available.
No, it wasn’t a tale of pulling the dupe on a public-land monster or providing tips about how to pluck a buck from pressured public dirt. However, it’s these tools that have made my public whitetail pursuits safer, more enjoyable, and more successful.