Public Land Success Depends Upon Your Efforts
By Mac Chilton
Hunting public land whitetails in any state is tough. If that state has minimal public lands, the task can be that much tougher. Iowa is composed of 36 million acres, and of that land, roughly 1 percent of it is state owned recreation land. If you add in our habitat and access program and county conservation ground, Iowa has roughly 500,000 acres of public hunting areas. To put that in perspective, that’s approximately the size of Clayton County in Northeast Iowa. If we take into consideration that in 2016, of the 171,000 hunters who hit the deer woods in Iowa, 16,000 of those hunters were nonresident. If half of those nonresident hunters were on public lands, that would leave each hunter with about 63 acres to hunt, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the resident public hunters. With that being said, having a successful hunt on public land may seem unmanageable, but it is very much possible. It will take some hard work and persistence, but people do it every year. In fact several world class bucks are harvested each year on public lands. Follow along and I’ll give you the basics that you need to know to bag that public land trophy this fall.
Be a step ahead of everybody when the season rolls around by doing your homework this summer. Begin by looking at aerial photos. Find the areas with food sources and thick timber. Once you’ve located them on a map, it’s time to hit the woods and observe them in person. Confirm where the deer are bedding, traveling, and feeding. Make note of areas that look good to hang a stand or two. If you’re able to, hang some trail camera’s also. They will give you an idea of what deer you may encounter in the future, and help you understand how the deer move. You may want to be creative in how you hang them. At the very least, you should secure them with a cable lock. Many people also like to hang them about 10 feet up in a tree and point the camera down. You can do this by using a climbing stick to get to the camera. Neither of these ways will guarantee that you won’t have a camera stolen, but it will be better than nothing. You will be amazed what you can learn after just four or five scouting trips and hanging a couple of trail cameras on one property.
When deer hunting on public land, I try to choose large tracts of property. I usually stay away from small parcels, especially if those parcels are popular among other hunters. That’s not to say that those areas don’t have deer or even big deer, but when I’m hunting, I don’t like the idea of not knowing how many other hunters are on the property and where they’re at. If I choose large properties, I can assume that most of the hunting pressure will be nearest to the parking lot, which will leave the secluded areas full of deer. One study that I read claimed that 85% of public hunters hunted within a radius of 1/3 of a mile from the parking lot. If you’re willing to put in a little extra time and effort by walking a mile to your stand, your chances of encountering other people decrease, while your chances of encountering more deer increase.
Early season can be one of the best times of year to kill a deer no matter if you’re hunting public or private land. I especially like this time of year on public land, because there is very little competition in the woods. Many hunters will take their vacation days to hunt during the rut. It’s hard to blame them since this is without a doubt the best time to kill big bucks. However, having the whole property to yourself, before the deer have been pressured, and while bucks can still be patterned, can be a huge advantage. This is when your scouting will come in handy also. You’ll need to know where the deer are bedding and feeding, and how they are moving between the two spots. You can also look for the first few cold fronts of the year, and hunt the front and back end of them. Deer movement is usually at a maximum during these times, so the hunting can be great. October can be magical or it can be disastrous, it really just depends on what the weather is doing and the amount of homework you have done ahead of time.
Maybe being respectful to other hunters on the property you hunt won’t help you kill a deer this fall, but it certainly won’t hurt your chances. If you encounter another hunter in the woods, don’t try to ruin their hunt. Get to where you’re going as quickly and quietly as possible. If you see them in the parking lot afterwards, you can ask how their hunt was, if they’ve been seeing much movement, or if they have any other stands in the area. Ask for their phone number too. If you can coordinate when and where you’re each hunting, you can avoid disturbing each other on future hunts. Do not make a big deal about running into other hunters in “your spot.” Maybe you were the first one there, and maybe you tried doing everything right just to have someone else walk right through your set up, but remember that everybody has the same right to be on the property as you. If you know someone is in a certain area, do not go stomping through there. You can try to quietly walk around where they are at, or leave the area completely to go to another spot. Most importantly, do not take or tamper with other people’s stands or cameras. They worked too hard to get them and put them up, just to have someone mess with their stuff. If you’re respectful to others, they will be respectful to you, which will ultimately lead to a better hunt and better experience on public land. Who knows? You might just find somebody that will help you track and drag out a deer in the middle of the night too. Bottom line, when hunting public lands treat others the way you would want to be treated. I think if you extend a branch of common bond with the hunters in the area you will be much better off in the long run.
Hopefully by now you understand that there are no big secrets to killing public land whitetails. It comes down to doing your scouting and being prepared before the season begins, getting away from other hunting pressure, and using other creative techniques in order to wrap your tag around a big buck this year. If you are looking for more things related to public hunting, I would suggest looking into The Hunting Public on social media and YouTube. I am in no way affiliated with them, but I’ve learned a lot stuff from watching their show and listening to their podcast. They have some great content, and are becoming a big name in the outdoor industry. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve learned at least one thing to help you in the woods this fall. Good luck!