how to hunt public land

10 Ways to Increase Your Odds When Hunting Public Land

Hunting on public land can be a thrilling adventure that captivates the interested of more and more hunters each season.  YouTube videos and Instagram are filled with harvest photos from fellow public hunters from across the country.  Many of which are hunting same areas that you and I are hunting, or at least we have the opportunity to hunt.  That’s the beauty of public land, the reward for hunting public land and the challenges that it brings shouldn’t be a daunting task.

When it comes to public land, you’re going to have competition from other hunters and the deer that you’ll be hunting tend to be a little smarter than the deer on your own Back Forthy.  In this article, you will learn about four effective strategies to increase your odds of success and turn your public land hunts into unforgettable memory that lives on through grip and grin photos for years to come.

Scout From Anywhere with OnX Hunt:

tips for using a topo map

OnX Hunt is a go-to mobile hunting application for digital scouting. OnX offers detailed maps that highlight property boundaries, public and private land ownership, and topographic features that will help you locate the beset possible hunting locations for the public land tract that you’re interested in. Spending time with digital scouting maps before your hunt allows you to identify promising hunting spots and avoid trespassing on private property. You must know where you’re standing! Dissect each piece of public ground that interests you by marking potential stand locations, bedding areas, and food sources.  Also, plan your entry and exit routes accordingly.

Key Features of OnX Hunt and Similar Apps:

  • Property Boundaries: Clearly delineate public and private lands, ensuring you stay within legal hunting areas.
  • Topographic Maps: Analyze terrain features such as ridges, valleys, and water sources to locate ideal hunting spots.
  • Waypoints and Tracking: Mark waypoints for scrapes, rubs, and other deer sign, and track your movements to establish productive patterns.
  • Offline Maps: Download maps for offline use, so you’re never without crucial information, even in areas with poor cell reception.
  • Wind Direction: I use the wind indicator each day during hunting season to check which treesetands have good wind, and which I should avoid.  You can plan this out months before your first hunt by marking the preferred wind direction for each hunting location.

Other Notable Apps:

  • HuntStand: Offers similar features to OnX Hunt with detailed mapping, property boundaries, and weather updates.
  • ScoutLook: Focuses on weather conditions and scent management, providing detailed forecasts and wind maps to help you stay undetected.

By leveraging these mapping applications that are specifically tailored for hunters, you can scout extensively before setting foot on public land, maximizing your chances of filling a tag. Technology doesn’t replace traditional scouting, but it gives you an advantage when showing up on a new property for the first time.  I also use my OnX Hunt app during the hunt to help determine wind directions and weather predictions.

Ask the Professionals for Advice

Years ago, hunters didn’t have social media or online hunting forums, so if they had questions about hunting out of state, they picked up the phone and called local state and wildlife biologists to pick their brains on the best possible locations to go in search of big bucks, or whatever game animals they’d be pursuing in the area. You can also reach out to game wardens, local conservation organizations, and even local sporting goods stores might have someone knowledgeable enough to point you in the right direction.

This is a great way to find out about the area from a factual perspective and not a snapshot perspective that other hunters see from their treestand.  Utilizing statistical data to derive factual answers will help determine where your best chances of success are and these professionals will have access to that information.  You could also send them an email, but a phone is much more personal. The guys from The Hunting Public use this method to ensure they’re following local state rules and regulations when planning for their upcoming hunts.

To help make the conversation go smoothly, you should have a list of questions written out ahead of time and let the conversation take you where it leads you. Ask basic questions about the deer population and hunting pressure in the area, as well as specific questions about crop rotations and food sources in the area.  One of the most important questions that many hunters might ask is about the trophy potential for the public land in the area. It’s also a good thing to ask about EHD and CWD outbreaks in the area.  CWD often comes with specialized hunting regulations in the area, while EHD poses a direct threat to the overall deer herd, drastically reducing deer numbers in affected areas.

You should be asking questions about regulations for the property that you’re interested in, including ebike rules, the use of screw-in treesteps, atv use, and overnight camping.  Even license information can be tricky from state to state.  It’s a good idea to make calls early in the year as you start to plan your trip, as well as right before you plan on leaving for you hunting adventure.

Pre-Season Scouting Trip

public land shed hunting

The most beneficial thing you can do is take a pre-season scouting trip to the area you’re planning on hunting.  This can be a shed hunting trip in February, or maybe you’ve got an extra day or two that you can make the trip down in mid-October before you Rutcation!  The information that you will gain during a pre-season scouting trip can really increase your odds.

If you take a spring scouting trip, it’s important to understand that you’re looking a deer sign from the entire sign, with the freshest sign being made after the close of hunting season.  Fresh sign, especially big buck tracks, are a good indicator that there’s a big buck that avoided hunters the previous season.  During a spring scouting session, get aggressive. Locate bedding areas, rub lines, and funnels that deer will naturally use during the rut. It’s not a bad idea to plan a spring scouting trip during turkey season or before spring green up in search of shed antlers.

In-season scouting can be very beneficial, just make sure you bring along some trail cameras so that you can inventory of the deer in the area.  You might find that the spots that look the best, are being hunted by other people, or that there aren’t deer in the area during this time of the year.  Sometimes, eliminating areas that you’re interested in the biggest key to finding the right spot on public ground.  If you’re going to hang trail cameras on public land, make sure it’s legal to do so first.  Also, you’re going to want to make sure that you lock them good.  Security boxes, padlocks, and Python locks will help keep an honest thief out, but keep in mind that it is public land.

How to Hunt Public Land:  Plan Your Entry and Exit Routes

inside field edge treestand location

The next crucial step in increasing your odds on public land is planning your entry and exit routes. One of the most common mistakes hunters make is spooking deer on their way to and from their stands. You can hopefully avoid this by scouting for potential bedding and feeding areas and avoiding them during your walk to and from your treestand.

To be honest, not all hunting locations are suitable for hunting.  Some of my best stands limit my hunting time because it’s hard to get in and out of there without spooking deer.  Wind direction is crucial during this time because you do not want to bump into deer by them smelling you as you walk in.  Here are a few tips to help you avoid bumping deer to and from the stand.

Tips for Planning Routes to and from the Stand

  • Wind Direction: Always approach with the wind in your face to prevent your scent from blowing towards your hunting area.  Ensure that your wind isn’t going to blow into deer bedding areas and avoid hunting spots where you can be approached by a downwind deer, ruining your chances at a shot opportunity.
  • Natural Cover: Use terrain features like ridges, valleys, and thick cover to stay out of sight.  Avoid open fields and don’t walk on the crest of the hill.
  • Avoid Noisy Terrain: Steer clear of dry leaves, branches, and other noisy ground cover. Opt for soft, quiet paths when possible.  Maybe a small ditch with water in it, or a moss-filled path on the edge of the hill.  I would caution you on walking on well-traveled deer paths though.  This will help you avoid being smelled.

Utilize Trail Cameras Strategically

scrape stick licking branch system

Trail cameras are an invaluable tool for gathering intel on deer movements and taking inventory of the overall health of the local deer herd.  It’s a special feeling the first time you see a big buck on camera. When used strategically, they can provide insights that are impossible to obtain through scouting alone.  The longer the trail camera stays untouched in the area, the more intel you can gather.  One of the most beneficial things that I’ve done in my trail camera strategy is letting them soak all season long, only checking them after the season.  Now, you miss out on the intel that you need to make an adjustment and kill a buck that might be walking through that area, but it provides you a season’s worth of information without the fear of human pressure.

Now, that’s not likely for most hunting scenarios and it’s important to know how to effective utilize trail cameras on public ground.  For starters, make sure they’re safe from theft.  You can do this with cable locks and security boxes.  However, the best method is by hanging them high in the tree.  I carry a climbing stick with me to hang camears out of reach for both hunters and bears!

Choosing Locations for Trail Cameras on Public Land:

Place your trail cameras in high-traffic areas like trails, food plots, and water sources. My favorite place to set trail cameras are on active scrapes.  If you can find a big community scrape, you’ll be amazed at how many bucks come through the area, mainly at night.  Also, the more cameras you have at your disposal, the better.  Just make sure you document where you put each one so you don’t forget where you put them.

Bedding areas and large rubs can be hit-or-miss with trail camera photos, but if you can find the right spot, this might yield high-quality photos of a big buck that you could put your tag on!  I prefer cellular trail cameras in areas that I plan to hunt and traditional SD card cameras, or non-cellular trail cameras, on areas that I need to gather intel.

At the start of a public land hunt, or any out-of-state hunt for the most part, I throw a few cameras in my backpack so that I can deploy them at need when the opportunity presents itself.  During the rut, I’m not afraid to check a trail camera regularly, especially on an out-of-state public land hunt.  However, I usually don’t check a camera unless I’m walking by it to hunt that day.  These cameras provide me the most data on hunting trip, just don’t forget to retrieve them before heading home.

Adapt to Hunting Pressure

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Public land can see a lot of hunting pressure, especially during the rut. You may find yourself in the situation where the presence of other hunters makes you change your hunting strategy.  You can spend all year long preparing for a public land hunt, only for someone else to have had the same gameplan you did and be sitting in the tree you picked out month in advance.  To avoid this, you have to be able to adapt when hunting throws you a curveball.

Finding Less Pressured Areas:

Hopefully, you were smart enough to have a back-up plan.   Putting all of your eggs in one basket is a recipe for disaster.  Just like you should have a stand for different wind directions, you should also have a back-up hunting location for when other hunters pressure the area.  This is especially important during gun seasons.  For instance, in Ohio, deer drives are very common during the gun season and you can find yourself covered up with an orange army on the first day and good luck convincing a group and 15 local hunters that you were there first and you should get to keep the spot to yourself.

Instead, use your mobile apps and trail cameras to identify areas that are less frequented by other hunters. If that doesn’t help drive around and look for vehicles parked near public land and go where no one else is.  Deer will often move to these quieter areas to avoid disturbances, sometimes within eyesight of where hunters are.  I recall a video from The Hunting Public where they watched a big buck watching a group of hunters doing a deer drive.  Once the coast was clear, the migrated out of the area in a safe direction, only to be shot by Aaron.

Timing Your Hunts:

Consider hunting during off-peak times, such as weekdays or midday, when there are fewer hunters in the field. Deer often adjust their patterns to avoid peak hunting times, and you can take advantage of this behavior.  There’s no busier time of the year than during the rut on most public land.  So if you can find the opportunity to hunt public ground during the pre-rut or even during the late season, you might find yourself with hundreds of acres of hunting ground, all to yourself!

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