The thing about agriculture and food plots on public land is that they are magnets for hunting pressure. I have killed a few deer over the years on opening weekend on these types of spots in various states, but this usually involved getting away from the crowds, or extremely hot weather that shut down most hunters.
A general rule I have is that if it looks too dreamy, it’s probably a lost cause. And then there is the issue of not having any of the typical destination food sources on your chosen chunk of ground. This is a big-woods hunter’s dilemma, but can also be found in ag-heavy states like Nebraska, where if the ground can be farmed, it will be — but it will also most likely be private.
This, as you can imagine, also changes the scouting game. Instead of sitting back with a spotting scope and watching bachelor groups, or hanging a few cameras on the edge of a beanfield, you’ve got to approach summer scouting differently. The first task is to take inventory of all the potential food sources that provide more than browse.
This might be the state-planted ag field on the public land, or more likely it will be the lush alfalfa field a half-mile away on land that is off limits. In the big woods, it might be the sole hayfield within three sections, or it might just be a fresh clearcut.
Aerial photography is the simplest way to narrow down the options for groceries. Look not only at the ground you hunt but the properties around it as well. Public land often lacks the calories deer are looking for, but it rarely lacks bedding areas. This means that they might call the public dirt home base while traveling to and from a distant (private) food source.
Walk, Look, Drive, Wonder
Just seeing the neighbor’s fields doesn’t do you much good until you get out in the summer and take a walk. You want to know not only what’s growing nearby but how deer will access those spots. That matters a lot, and it allows you the chance to piece together a plan.
For influential food sources that you can’t see from inside the public land you’re hunting, figure out if you can see them from a road. I’ve got a spot in northern Wisconsin that consists of hundreds of acres of timber, but in one spot it borders a small field. The back of the field, which is closest to the public, is a place I always make a point to look at a few times in the summer. I might see half of the bucks in a whole section there on any given night, just by creeping along a public road. It’s not my favorite way to scout, but it tells me an awful lot about what’s living there.
It also helps me build a plan for when I get out and burn some boot leather. If I know where the deer are likely to head to, I can figure out how to catch them staging in the morning or evening. This is a good strategy for private land, and an absolute killer strategy for heavily hunted public dirt.
The main goal of this type of scouting is to answer the simple question of where deer are likely to start from, where they’ll end up, and how they’ll travel between both spots. It really is that simple.
Nothing has changed how we scout like trail cameras, but a lot of hunters use them to confirm what they already know. For the public-land hunter, trail cameras should be used to actually scout and answer some questions.
If you’ve got a few potential destination food sources figured out in the surrounding area, start trying to map out individual travel routes. Now, it’s obvious that in a lot of places, July bucks are not November bucks. When they are bachelored-up, they might be doing something different from what they will be doing come bow season — but not all of them.
Hanging cameras on trails in the cover to figure out what is walking where, is a good way to eliminate dead spots and hopefully key into the daily habits of a good buck. Even if I only get a picture every two weeks of a velvet buck heading to, or coming back from a food source, I feel like I’m ahead of the game. If he’s mature and uses a trail with any level of consistency, then you’re dialing ever so slightly into his preferences.
This strategy also works for big-woods deer that might not live within 20 miles of a field. Clearcut edges, swamp crossings, and other question-mark areas might clue you in to how a buck goes from his favorite bedding island to his favorite meadow, or maybe to a spot that offers up some seasonal mast. This kind of trail-camera work is boring and often unproductive as far as filling up SD cards with pictures of monster bucks, but it’s valuable.
And when combined with a strategy to identify all potential nearby food sources, it can allow you to get some real deer work done in the months when it might feel somewhat hopeless for the public-land hunter.
Scouting Essentials: Easy Camera Recon
Cellular trail cameras are insanely addictive and can prove to be a huge asset in certain areas. Unfortunately, they are generally pretty expensive as well.
Luckily for us, Moultrie has decided that it’s not only the caviar munchers and the one-percenters who should get deer images sent right to their phones. Their new XA and XV-6000 Cellular Game Cameras are $120, and allow you to access your photos, change camera settings, and monitor battery life all through the Moultrie Mobile App.
Another option is the Cuddelink Gen 2 from Cuddeback. Their daisy-chained camera system allows you to put out up to 24 cameras, all of which report back to a home camera with imagery.
The Gen 2 can be accessed via smartphone, tablet, or computer, which then allows you to view and change camera settings.
Anyone who doesn’t want to deal with cell plans but wants the best quality pictures a camera can capture, should check out Browning Trail Camera’s latest — the Strike Force HD MAX ($150).
Adjustable trigger speeds, .6-second recovery time, and the ability to capture high-res images and video make this camera an easy choice for gathering public-land recon.