After that rich uncle you never liked very much anyway died and didn’t leave you enough money to buy a fiddle let alone a farm, did you give up on finding even a small bit of deer hunter’s paradise? I share your dream, but the unvarnished truth is that we already own undivided shares in approximately 2,230,000 acres — that’s just a tad shy of 3,485 square miles — of public land, almost all of which is open to deer hunting.
I apologize to those among you whose legs aren’t long enough to hike over that much land, but space restrictions prohibit giving advice on how to eliminate the 3,484 square miles you don’t want to hunt in any given season. Instead, I’m going to get right down to the nitty gritty of what you need to know to be a successful public land deer hunter.
Although there are a few small properties managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation where deer are the only legal game, there aren’t any public areas in Missouri that ban access to nonhunters. Elsewhere, deer hunters share the habitat with small game hunters, waterfowl hunters, turkey hunters, fishermen, mushroom gatherers and people who simply enjoy being outdoors.
Therefore, public land deer do not behave anything like the deer you’ve read about in far too many articles being written by far too many self-described experts. For example, if a public land buck — or any other buck for that matter — temporarily, let alone permanently, abandoned its core area every time its space was invaded by a human, the buck couldn’t stop running until it reached northern Canada.
The truth is that generations of public land deer have adapted to the fact that seeing, hearing and smelling humans are normal parts of the background “noise” its ultra acute senses are constantly registering. The deer doesn’t ignore this information to be sure, but it does put it into perspective. Is the human where the deer might expect a human to be? Is the human inside or outside of that particular deer’s comfort zone? And by far most important, is the human exhibiting behaviors or scents that indicate it is an active predator?
Even a dumb whitetail — if there is such a thing — can process this information with incredible speed. What it will do with the information is far less predictable, so the best we hunters can do is play the odds.
Whether scouting or going to and from stands spend as much time as possible following vehicle trails and other paths which show obvious signs of human use even if it means going out of your way. I use a pair of Alpen 8 x 42 binoculars — chosen because they’re the only ones I’ve found that I can use equally well with or without my glasses — to scout beyond the boundaries of the trail. Conversely, if I spot something I want to take a closer look at, I’m not bashful about leaving the beaten path behind. After all, if it hadn’t been me who spooked that deer, sooner or later it probably would have been spooked by a squirrel hunter.
Just as is the case anywhere the species is found, any terrain feature or combination of features that concentrate deer movement into a narrow corridor is a prime location for a stand, but everyone knows that. If I can — and I often can — I like to find a heavily used trail that shouldn’t be there. Or, more correctly, one that only the deer know the purpose of. The odds are good I’ll face no competition from other hunters anywhere along such a trail.
I use fixed position stands on several of my favorite public areas. Such stands cannot be placed prior to September 1 but can remain in place until January 31. Each stand must be clearly marked with the owner’s name and either address or Conservation ID Number. Stands are left at the owner’s risk, of course, but so far every stand I’ve lost was taken from private land. I’d like to think that’s because the people who hunt public property have more integrity than do those who trespass on private land.
The argument between those who think public land hunters need to get as far from the parking lots as possible and those who think stand location is paramount will never be settled. If you’re young, and/or you’re a member of a cooperative group, I see nothing wrong with seeing what’s over the hill and across the creek. Conversely, if you’ve seen the far sides of hundreds of hills and creeks, and/or you prefer to hunt either alone or with a single partner, never forget that the ultimate goal of every hunt is get your deer back to the truck with you still alive.
In regard to that last comment, based on my own experience, let me warn you that the average deer now weighs at least 300 pounds more than it did only 20 years ago. Moreover, that same deer’s weight will increase exponentially as the distance from the truck increases.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]