Where Do I Deer Hunt?
Where to Deer Hunt…
Here’s how to find a hunting spot.
Public land deer hunting is generally more difficult, but the rewards can be sweet. (Photo by Russell Graves.)
– By Tony Hansen
Plenty has been written about tactics for hunting deer. But here is the single best piece of deer hunting advice you’ll ever get: Hunt deer where deer live. Genius, right?
In all seriousness, finding a place to hunt deer can be one of the more difficult aspects of the hunt. But it doesn’t have to be. Hunting deer on public land isn’t just an option for many hunters, it’s their only choice. But you need not feel at a disadvantage. Public land hunting is tougher. There’s no denying that. But it can also be extremely rewarding and, with a little legwork, plenty productive. Here’s how to get it done:
The first step is just finding a public parcel to hunt. Fortunately, that’s one of the easier tasks in the process. Most state game agencies offer a section on their website dedicated to helping hunters find publicly accessible lands. Some are traditional publicly-owned parcels, while others may be privately-owned but open to public hunting through special programs or agreements with state game agencies.
Don’t overlook lands owned by local units of government – counties, cities and, in some states, school districts. Many of these lands offer public hunting and are less pressured simply because they’re not as well-known.
When it comes to public hunting lands, there are generally three types of ownership: federal, state and local.
- Federal. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manage millions of acres of land owned by the people of the United States, and much of it is open to public hunting.
- State. Most states own some amount of public land, usually in the form of state forests or Wildlife Management Areas. Again, the majority of these lands are open to, and even managed for, public hunting.
- Local. Don’t overlook lands owned by local units of government – counties, cities and, in some states, school districts. Many of these lands offer public hunting and are less pressured simply because they’re not as well-known.
Public rule No. 1: Feel free to brag. But never reveal your hunting spot. (Photo by John Hafner.)
The key to successfully hunting public lands is to determine from the outset what you’re after. Of course, whitetails have to live in the area. That’s a prerequisite regardless. But if you’re specifically looking to tag a big, old buck, you are usually going to seek out areas that are more remote and difficult to access. But if you simply want to spend a few days in the woods and have a reasonable expectation of killing a deer, you usually have more options. Here’s how to narrow things down.
- Desk Research. To find these areas, just look at a map. Most federal agencies will include fairly detailed maps of public lands and include trails, roads, terrain types and any hunting closures and exceptions. The U.S. Forest Service also offers paper topographical maps for purchase, and many GPS units offer special mapping cards and software that will show property boundaries. State lands are also usually well-defined by state agencies with website links to maps, details and hunting information. Most state areas are also included on quality GPS mapping cards and systems.
- Secret Spots. Many locally-owned lands and private lands with public hunting arrangements will not be featured on maps or GPS units. In a way, that’s part of their appeal. To find them, you must find them. And that will eliminate a lot of the pressure usually associated with public land hunting. Start by contacting local units of government, and they should be able to get you started.
Now that you’ve found a parcel of public land and narrowed down your prime location, it’s time to think about what you’ll need to actually hunt it – and what you’ll do after you’ve downed a deer.
Here are some tips to consider:
- Access. Most public lands will not allow motorized vehicle access beyond trailheads and parking areas. Does that mean you’re left to foot traffic only? It might. Or it might mean you can use a bicycle or, perhaps, a horse for deeper access. Check all rules and regulations, and then make a plan.
- Trim the Weight. Foot access is usually the only means of transportation on public lands. And that means you’re going to need to haul stands, climbing sticks and assorted gear into your location. Plan – and pack – accordingly. Inventory every piece of gear that you intend to take with you. If it’s not absolutely essential, consider leaving it back in the truck. Save weight where you can and your back will thank you for it later.
- What About Your Deer? Getting your gear into an area is one thing. Toting a 200-pound whitetail out is quite another. A wheeled game cart can be a life-saver here. Literally. A study conducted by a team of heart specialists in Michigan has shown that hunting can cause heart rates to skyrocket to dangerous levels – with the act of dragging a deer causing spikes in cardiac activity of lethal rates. Your best option for hauling a deer out of the woods? A team of buddies. Take plenty of breaks, take your time and enjoy the haul.
– By Will Brantley
Leasing hunting land – as in, paying a landowner for the hunting rights to his property – is such a popular trend among today’s deer hunters that in some areas, it’s considered standard hunting procedure.
Some hunters view leasing as a negative thing. The subjects of the complaints are varied and complex, but suffice it to say that when money is changing hands, some are bound to dislike the results. The truth is, when done properly and professionally, leasing can be your most economical option for having a very good deer hunting spot.
Most leasing agreements are arranged on a dollars-per-acre basis. The rates per acre vary widely across the country. The perceived quality of an area’s deer hunting combined with area hunter demand and the quality of the actual dirt at stake determine the rate. Prime farm country in the heart of southern Illinois, a region known nationwide for producing big bucks, is probably going to cost more to lease than a heavily wooded West Virginia hillside, for example.
Deer camp. It’s an American tradition. (Photo by Russell Graves.)
Leasing agreements range from a handshake and a few bills between a single hunter and a farmer to formal, legal contracts between multiple members of a hunting club and a farming operation. Regardless of the arrangement you choose to make, it’s always important to lay the ground rules ahead of time. The property owner needs to know what you intend to do. Plant food plots? Clear some brush with a bulldozer? Build permanent box stands? Set up a camper? Are you signing a multi-year agreement? If not, can another group of hunters step in and offer the farmer more money than you’re willing to pay next year?
At the same time, potential lease partners need to be in agreement on the rules at the outset. Are there limits on shooting young bucks? Who does the work and pays for the food plots? What about guests? Can your buddy bring his six cousins in for opening day of gun season?
These things may seem inconsequential, especially when you’re planning to lease a neighbor’s farm with a group of close friends. But be aware that friendships have been dissolved as a result of hunting lease disagreements. Iron out the details ahead of time, and the experience will be better for everyone in the long run.
Many a hunter dreams of owning his or her own little slice of heaven. Realtree.com is the place to be for hunting advice, but we don’t give financial planning advice. Whether or not you are prepared to purchase hunting land is strictly your decision. And maybe your bank’s. But, as the old saying about land goes, they ain’t making any more of it.
As with leasing rates, the cost of hunting ground varies widely depending on location and the perceived quality of the property. Typically, the price is determined on a per-acre basis. If shopping, check around for land prices in your area, keeping in mind the location and layout. Fifty acres of prime, tillable farm land may cost significantly more than 100 acres of clear-cut thicket, for example (even though the clear-cut thicket may provide better hunting). Increasingly, the hunting value is being considered in the overall per-acre cost of land in many areas.
Whether or not you are prepared to purchase hunting land is strictly your decision. And maybe your bank’s. But, as the old saying about land goes, they ain’t making any more of it.
You can shop for hunting land on your own, or enlist the help of a real estate agent. These days, there are many real estate companies that specialize in brokering hunting property. There are good agencies right down to the local level. If you go this route, it’s important to be up front with your agent about the type of ground you’re after, the money you have (or don’t have) to spend, and the debt burden you’re willing to take on. This way, no one’s time is wasted.
Buying land is more expensive than leasing land. No doubt about that. But to many who do it, the extra cost is more than offset by the pride and satisfaction of having “your own place” to do with as you wish. Shoot only big bucks. Shoot all bucks. Plant food plots. Build box blinds. Wheel in a mobile home, stake out some pink flamingos and throw a raucous party the night before deer season, if that’s what you like. The ground belongs to you.
Just be safe and have fun. Check out more tips for buying hunting property here.
Identifying Existing Food Sources
Browse and mast are key food sources wherever whitetails live. (Photo by Tony Hansen.)
Regardless of the time of year – early season, late season, even the rut – a whitetail’s daily movements are dominated by food. While a deer’s dietary requirements and preferences change throughout the season (and sometimes, even by the week), some food sources are standout favorites every fall.
Food sources on a new hunting spot can be basically broken into one of two types: existing and introduced. If you’re scoping out a new farm to buy or lease, or maybe even a public spot you’d like to hunt, identifying the existing food sources will tell you a lot about the current deer-holding potential, and what could potentially be done with food source enhancements.
Natural Browse: You’d think any block of trees would be full of the small bushes, twigs, seeds, berries and leaves that make up the bulk of a whitetail’s daily diet, but you’d be mistaken. Old-growth hardwood forest and dense evergreen canopies shade out the forest floor, preventing that thick understory – and the browse it produces – from growing. Though open ridges with big timber are productive hunting spots at certain times of the year, thick, early successional stuff like clear-cuts and even selectively logged woods provides tons more browse and much better cover.
Mast: Nuts, acorns in particular, are hugely important to a whitetail’s fall diet. And that’s where those big, open stands of hardwood timber can come into play. There are some 60 species of oak in the United States, and deer preferences for their acorns vary too widely by region to cover here. But in general, white oaks are preferred to other oak species because the acorns they produce have lower levels of tannic acid, which give acorns a bitter flavor.
Crops: If you’re scouting an area that has browse, cover and water, you have the basic elements required for whitetail habitat. In the East, most of these areas have at least a few mast-producing trees as well, and this natural, woodland style habitat comprises the bulk of available public hunting areas. But a food source on a potential hunting spot doesn’t have to be “natural” to be pre-existing. And it’s no secret that more whitetails live in farm country. Row crops, namely corn and soybeans, are a huge reason why Midwestern states like Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin have so many deer. The way the in which deer use these crops changes during deer season, since fall is also harvest season, but there’s no question that the presence of row crop agriculture typically makes a huge positive impact on area deer numbers.
Introducing Food Sources
For many of today’s deer hunters, the first thought upon acquiring a new lease or buying a new farm is enhancing the available food supply. Although adding more food sources isn’t universally the answer to getting more deer to use your hunting property (in some situations, creating additional cover can be more effective), it does help in many situations. And there are two basic strategies for doing this: planting food plots or baiting.
Where legal, baiting can be a great strategy for getting a shot. (Photo by Russell Graves.)
Baiting: Where legal, baiting can be a great strategy for getting a shot. First, some ground rules on this polarizing topic. We’re not here to advocate for or against baiting. In many places, hunting deer over bait is illegal. In others, there are laws regarding how close you can set up to bait. And in a few, you can pour out a corn pile, climb a tree 20 yards away and shoot the first deer that walks in, if you so desire. It’s up to you to learn and adhere to the regulations in the area you hunt.
From a management standpoint, baiting has its drawbacks. It’s widely believed that concentrating animals over bait is a fast way to transmit dangerous diseases, including CWD. Baiting inherently requires more human interaction, which means more scent left behind and a potentially spookier overall deer herd. But baiting, where legal, can be the fastest, most effective technique at your disposal for putting deer within range. And that’s the whole goal of going deer hunting, right?
Although apples, feed blends and myriad other goodies are sometimes used for bait, whole shelled corn is the overwhelming favorite. It’s easy to obtain, not overly expensive and whitetails love it. It also works pretty well when used in conjunction with a timed feeder. Such feeders have the advantage of holding substantial amounts of corn secure from the weather for an extended period of time, and limiting how much the deer (and raccoons) are able to eat in a given day. The drawback to them is that it can take months, even a full year, for area deer to become conditioned to them. And even at that, my success at drawing mature bucks in to timed feeders has been limited at best.
Corn poured straight onto the ground, or into a feed-on-demand “gravity feeder” – learn how to make one– is the better bet to start drawing in deer fast, especially older bucks. Deer will often find a corn pile overnight if it’s established in a high-traffic area, and will continue to visit it even a day or two after the last kernels are consumed. A corn pile on the ground is one of the quickest, deadliest ways to get your deer on a small tract of ground that otherwise lacks top food sources. It’s especially effective early and late in the season.
The food-plotting topic is so large that entire books have been dedicated to the subject. For near endless reading and video food plot tips, we recommend visiting the Land Management section of Realtree.com. But in the meantime, here’s the crash course.
Types of Food Plots
Turnips are a great food plot choice for the late season. (Photo by Tony Hansen.)
Turnips are a great food plot choice for the late season.In a perfect world, deer managers who have big chunks of acreage, fat budgets and good equipment plant numerous food plots that vary in size and plantings for maximum nutrition and attraction. In the real world, deer managers are doing their best on small farms, planting the openings that are available with an old, broken down tractor, an ATV, or maybe nothing more than a hand-sprayer and a rake.
The good news is, even a small-time manager can improve his or her hunting with the addition of food plots, and good plots can be established with minimal equipment. It’s simply a matter of how hard you’re willing to work on them. Here’s a look at the general types of food plots, and who should consider planting them.
Perennial Food Plots: Perennials like clover, chicory and alfalfa last for several seasons once established (maintenance provided, of course), and they offer near year-around nutrition to your deer herd.
The good news is, even a small-time manager can improve his or her hunting with the addition of food plots, and good plots can be established with minimal equipment. It’s simply a matter of how hard you’re willing to work on them.
They’re a good bang for the buck, and likely the most popular style of food plot. Perennials work in ¼-acre kill plots and 30-acre destination plots alike.
Annual Food Plots: Annuals, including cereal grains, corn, brassicas, soybeans and peas are good for a single season, but can provide amazing deer-drawing power with some careful planning. If you have ample tillable ground, equipment and time to plant, it’s tough to argue with the effectiveness of row crops like soybeans and corn. If you need to grow something fast that’s highly attractive, cereal grains and turnips are usually a good