Public Land Deer Hunting
By: Jordan Marsh
It’s no secret that Wisconsin is a top tier and destination deer hunting state. Hunters from across the country venture to Wisconsin every fall to chase the elusive whitetails that fill the landscape. The Badger State has had plenty of Boone & Crocket and Pope & Young deer taken being that it’s one of the highest harvesting states of those records every season. The nine-day gun deer season is about as big of a tradition as the holidays. As the woods turn into blaze orange, businesses literally shut down, and the sight of seeing a hunter’s “trophy” in the back of the truck is just the daily norm. We are fortunate to live in a state with a good population of whitetails, but we are even more fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to access hundreds of thousands of acres of public land.
Certain areas of the state have more public land than others. The northern part of the state offers big chunks of land to hunt with not only state and county forests but there is also Managed Forest Land (MFL) that is open to hunting as well. Sometimes private landowners will put their land in MFL for a few different reasons but there are also paper companies that will do the same. These areas are open to hunting as well and offer more land opportunities. Public land hunting can be intimidating and it has gotten a bad rap for being over pressured. The general sense is that there is a hunter around every corner. I cannot speak for every chunk of public land, but with the amount that is available to us; with a little prep work, scouting time and determination, one can get away from the crowds and enjoy the solitude of the woods while still seeing deer.
Growing up, my family had the privilege to hunt on 40 acres of private land. I remember as a kid going out a few weeks before the gun deer season to take a walk in the woods, check for deer sign, remove the leaves from our “stand,” which was at the peak of a hill where you could cover a big low land area and also collect firewood. Yes, I said firewood. Growing up my dad would start a fire for us kids to stay warm and comfortable as we would sit all day long. I always get a puzzled look from people when I tell them we would have a fire, but it didn’t seem to bother the deer. The only logical sense I can make of it is that many of the houses and cabins in the area had wood burning stoves and the deer were used to that smell. In a sense, I think maybe it helped us as the smell of the smoke could mask the human scent. I have no proof of it but it makes sense to me and we saw plenty of deer that would walk by us at 40-50 yards and the fire never seemed to bother them. The land we hunted on at that time was an older gentleman’s who decided to sell the property. After my family turned down the first opportunity to buy it, we found out it had sold and the search was on for a new property to hunt.
Deer hunting land in the state of Wisconsin is basically seen as a sacred chunk of property that is held for family or the closest of close friends. We wanted to keep the family aspect and tradition together of all hunting the same spot so we decided to venture out to the public land and try our luck the future season. We chose a spot that my dad had hunted as a kid. There was a lot of area to explore and it was fun to hear my dad talk about past stories of deer and hunting situations.
Due to the amount of area one can look at on public land, it is best to get out a few weeks before the season to start looking for deer sign. If you just walk out on opening day and hope for the best, you are not putting the odds in your favor. You are also asking for the situation where you see several people dressed in orange as the sun comes up. I like to get off the beaten path and find areas that people don’t tend to want to walk through, but the areas where deer like to travel. What I mean by that is, as humans, we tend to walk main walking trails or logging roads and setup just off of them. It’s the easy way to do it and makes for dragging a deer out much easier than going through swamps, thickets, and also up and down hills. However, those are the areas the deer like to go, and I like to go where the deer like to go to up my odds of seeing and hopefully harvesting a deer.
There are two ways that I like to hunt public land – one way is by using a climbing treestand and sitting on a good traffic area while the other is still-hunting. Both have been very effective for me and each one has a time and place. I like to start off the gun deer season by sitting. I get in the woods early, about an hour and a half before the season opens. I make my mile walk in to the spot I choose to sit. I have an opening day spot that I have sat in for about the last 8 years. I found this location by just walking the terrain a few weeks before the season.
What I did was located an area of the public ground that was between two bodies of water. These are small ponds but I use them as pinch points because I know when the deer travel, they will walk around them rather than choosing to swim or walk on the open pond if it happens to be froze over.
Next, I wanted to find where the deer travel between those spots. By scanning the ground, I found the first trail and I followed that trail until I found another trail that intersected the same one. Whether it was luck, a little hunting intuition, or a little bit of both, I found an area that had a few adjoining trails all coming together in the same general area and I quickly realized that the deer use this area to travel frequently. After scanning the area, I found the tree I could use for a climbing treestand and made some mental notes as to where I thought the deer would come from. The area I chose was a tight spot with thick cover, rolling terrain, and some nearby swamps which always seem to be key when finding deer movement.
As opening day arrives, deer go into survival mode. So, finding locations where they can sneak and stay low are key target areas. I bet my farthest possible shot from my stand is about 60-70 yards and that’s pushing it. Most of my action is going to be close, up tight and personal, but I know the rewards will be high if I patiently wait them out.
However, choosing an area with thick cover does have its drawbacks. First off, when you see deer coming, you must get ready immediately as it happens fast and furious. Secondly, you need to anticipate where your shot will happen. I look to see where the deer are moving to, pick a small opening, and if it’s a deer I’m going to harvest, I need to be ready to fire into that opening as soon as the deer walks into it. Lastly, you might not be in an area that you see a lot of activity to keep you occupied. Since I cannot see a long distance, I am scanning the same little areas and patiently waiting. The wait is a part of the chase that keeps you coming back, and if you sit in these areas long enough, the reward is going to be seeing a whitetail walking by.
I personally am a fan of sitting all day long on opening day. With as many hunters that take the woods on opening day, I have the strategic plan that other hunters will be moving around to kick up other deer. This is why I choose to hunt pinch points because those deer sneak past to avoid the pressure. The following days are when I change my tactic up.
Generally, on the second morning, I will sit for the first few hours as hunters filter in and out of the woods hoping for the same result, but after that, I take to my feet for my best chance to see a deer. Hunting pressure is what makes these animals hold tight. Bowhunters are in the woods weeks before the firearm season but once the orange army hits, the deer hit a different mode, and all they are trying to do is hang low and not be seen. You will see less and less deer movement unless the elements get them moving.
Still-hunting is a very unique way to hunt and it is a science in itself on how to properly do it, but it has a fairly good success ratio. This is the part about public land that is awesome. Not only is public land great for being able to hunt multiple habitat covers, but also you can walk around and cover ground. Sometimes there is more ground than you can handle.
I remember hearing about this tactic as a kid. My dad would tell me to take two to three steps, and pause. Two to three steps, and then pause… Doing this takes an immense amount of patience and sounds great until about 5 minutes into doing this and you realize you have walked about 10-15 yards. I personally am a little more aggressive and I will do a very slow, almost continuous walk with my head up, on a swivel, but almost as importantly, I use my ears.
I think one of the key ways to make this tactic effective is you need to pause and stand still for a small amount of time. This may be 10-15 seconds or it may be a few minutes at a time. Many hunters will walk through the woods at the same pace and even though they are looking for deer, many times they will walk right past them. Unless you cross right into that whitetails comfort zone, they will not move. I believe they wait for you to walk past them and then once you get a distance away, they jump up and run where you just came from. Unfortunately, I can say this from personal experience. However, I learned from a few of those situations. I adapted and figured out that deer will hunker down because they know a human will just walk by. But with a slow walk, stop, scan and continue, it makes them nervous and they will stand up and try to make a move.
The reason I like to use my ears is that I have shot a few deer while still-hunting by hearing a deer move even before I laid my eyes on them, or they lay their eyes on me. You may hear them crashing through the woods to avoid another hunter or they may be just naturally moving. Those are some cases I have heard them. When I hear the movement, I wait and look out for possible openings the deer may walk through. Once I identify those openings and verify what I hear is a deer, I then ready myself for a shot. I went three straight seasons without shooting a deer in my stand but all three of those seasons I was successful harvesting a deer slowly walking through the woods still-hunting.
I like to target areas that I can find an open and safe shot opportunity. Walking on main trails and logging roads, are great starting places as many times deer will cross these areas and even bed close to them. Also, deer that are hiding in thick areas, hard to get to swamps, etc., are not the deer I am trying to target. I am looking for areas of hillsides and high visibility open-wooded areas because the deer that you are going to see are also looking for predators and trying to soak up some warmth from the sun if it’s a clear day outside. Another reason I am trying to concentrate on open timber areas is the fact that when you do bump a deer from its bed, they will run for a short distance and many times they will stop to survey the situation before moving on again. This is a great time to shoulder the gun and make a quick decision if you are going to shoot or not.
Public land hunting is different and can be very fun. In a way, it’s a unique challenge to hunt the open woods and even with high-pressured areas, rewards can be just over the next hill. Whether you’re a trophy hunter or looking for some venison to fill the freezer, there are plenty of public land areas around the state of Wisconsin. With a little extra effort you will see some new ground and most importantly, have the opportunity to enjoy time in our great natural resource.