How to Hunt Deer on a New Piece of Public Land

Hunting season is fast approaching and hunters will soon be flooding the woods in hopes of filling a tag.  Whether you live in Midwest where there’s a Booner behind every tree (I’m joking) or you live in an area where you’re lucky enough to see a deer, let alone kill a big buck.

Regardless of your current situation, you can always improve it.  One of those ways is by finding new hunting spots, whether it’s local to you or in a place in the country that’s been made famous due to the size of the bucks that roam the area.  Maybe, there is a piece of public land close to your house that you have never set foot in because you’ve got a Back 40 that’s produced a few bucks through the years and you’ve been content in playing the waiting game.

With hunting season growing closer, I challenge you to capitalize on the opportunity to hunt a new-to-you piece of public ground this season.  Test your skills and your woodsmanship in a new area with the goal of learning!  Granted, the reward might be a freezer full of venison and a taxidermy bill, but the experience is worth the effort nevertheless.

Digital Scouting is Your First Step to Success

OnX hunt public land example

The very first thing you should do is grab your phone and start breaking down the property on your favorite hunting map application, I use OnX Hunt for my digital scouting.  Take a good look at the property and it’s surroundings.  Pay special attention for roads and access locations and mark them on your map appropriately.  Take a mental note of the crops and cover that the area offers, not just the property that you’ll be hunting.

Ask yourself the question, what makes this property unique?  Look for things that deer need, such as food, cover, and water and if those parts are missing on the surrounding private properties, you might be looking at a hidden gem.  Roads, houses, access points, and water all influence deer movement throughout the property, as well as terrain features and a lot more.

Once you find these areas it’s time to put some boots on the ground and scout!

Ground and Pound Until You Find the Deer

Once you’ve thoroughly directed the public ground and the area around it, it’s time to hit the ground running and try to determine if these areas of interest are areas that are suitable for hunting during the season.  As important as e-scouting or digital scouting is for success, it’s the boots-on-the-ground approach that turns your best guess as to where a big buck might be living, to a filled tag this fall!

Be on the lookout as you dissect the tract of ground on your feet as the best sign might be where you least expect it.  If there’s a pinch point that is easily identifiable on the map to the newest of hunters, then its probably going to be an area that gets hunted by other hunters.  Just because it looks good on paper, doesn’t mean that it’ll work out.  Do not ignore fresh sign!  One of the biggest mistakes hunters make is not following their intuition when it comes to reading deer sign.  Sometimes, it’s best to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, maybe it’s the essence of deer that recently crossed through the area.

If legal, bring a few trail cameras along with you when scouting, just be sure to lock them up tight because remember, it’s public land and any other person could walk through that area tomorrow and take your camera.  Trail cameras are not legal in all areas of public land, so be cautious and check your rules and regulations first.  For me, trail cameras are a vital part of my hunting season.  Not only do I find joy in checking my trail cameras, but they also gather key information that helps me locate and kill big bucks each season!

During your boots-on-the-ground scouting session, you should be eliminating the waypoints that looked promising but didn’t have deer sign in them and highlighting the areas that have the best sign.  One feature that I like to use is the tracker feature on my OnX Hunt app.  The Tracker feature shows me every step that I took and this is especially helpful when walking deer trails or logging roads.

E-Scouting Again?

onx hunt tracker feature

Yes!  It’s time to study the area one more time before heading in to start hunting.  By now, you should have identified waypoints of interest that are worth hunting and eliminating areas that aren’t. Hopefully, you remembered to turn on the tracking feature and you saved a copy of your route, as well as marked new spots with fresh sign along the way.  Don’t forget where your trail cameras are located also.

We will then use this data to determine how we will access the property and preferred hunting locations.  If you happened to locate any potential bedding areas, those would be good to have marked as well.  When walking to and from your stand for the first hunt, you want to try to avoid sending your scent into one of these areas.  Usually, the path of least resistance isn’t the best route for sneaking in and out of your hunting stand, but finding a quiet route based on wind directions will be challenging. In fact, it’s often more challenging than finding the right spot to hunt as a bad access route can ruin a good hunting spot.

Let’s Go Hunting!

Hunting a new trace of public land can be a challenging, yet rewarding experience.  Quality scouting, both digitally and the boots on the ground approach will produce results if you apply what you’ve learned here. The biggest thing that I’ve found with hunting public land is that no matter how solid your game plan may be, you have to be able to adapt when life throws you a curveball.

Challenges may include competition, as other hunters may find interest in the same area that you plan to hunt, or their reckless disregard for scent control might ruin your hunt.  Either way, you have to be able to adapt on the fly, which may include seeing deer crossing just out of range and you need to tear down your treestand only to move it 20 yards around the hill for a better shot at the next opportunity.

Here’s a pro-tip for hunting public land that is blatantly obvious but I’ll claim it’s a pro-tip.  Try hunting during the week instead of the weekend.  The majority of hunters only hunt the weekend, so you’ll have less competition Tuesday through Thursday than you will during the weekend!  Keep your eyes peeled for fresh sign in the form of tracks, scrapes, rubs, and deer sightings, as any of this could mean a change to the deer travel patterns and how they’re using the problem at that time of the season.

shooting deer from a saddle


The best advice I can give you is to not give up.   Hunting public land is challenging, no matter how easy the guys on YouTube might make it look sometimes.  Every season, I find myself bouncing around a piece of public land and I keep striking out, but as a great UFC fighter once said, I don’t lose, I learn!  So keep learning and keep hunting.  When in doubt, scout instead of hunting.  In-season scouting is a great way to break up the monotonous seat time that the stresses of all-day sits during the whitetail rut can bring, so don’t be afraid to spend a day scouting instead of hunting!

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