Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Hunting public land creates an amazing opportunity for hunters because everyone has an equal opportunity to find success and adventure. As deer hunters, we are so blessed to have millions of acres of public land at our disposal to pursue these incredible creatures. Many of these lands our families have hunted for generations and are as well-known as the backs of our hands.
Although those familiarities and traditions are something we all cherish, expanding our horizons and adventuring into the unknown can bring new opportunities that we never thought were possible. Deciding to take the leap into a new piece of public land can be intimidating but narrowing your scope on a few key features can be the difference between success and frustration.
One of the most intimidating parts of stepping foot on a new piece of public land is knowing where to start. The vastness of some public land can deter many hunters from even taking the chance to hunt unfamiliar territory.
For instance, the Wayne National Forest in Ohio is a staggering 240,101 acres! However, by focusing in on a few potential locations within a vast piece of public land, the intimidation factor can subside and the chances for success greatly increase.
With the technology available today and advance of satellite imagery, you can quickly and efficiently figure out a new piece of public land before ever stepping foot on the property. Every hunter has a different approach to tackling new public land, but these key features have proven to be success in my adventures onto unknown public lands.
Finding Unpressured Deer
It’s no secret that killing unpressured deer is way easier than pressured deer. The more pressure deer receive, especially mature bucks, the less likely they’re going to get up on their feet during daylight hours.
Pressured deer don’t necessarily disappear or move out of the area in a lot of cases, but they will not get up on their feet until well after shooting hours. An area could have tons of fresh sign and hold lots of bucks, but if there is heavy hunting pressure, the odds of catching a buck on his feet during daylight diminishes.
Although it’s one of the most challenging steps, finding an area with low hunting pressure is the first key in narrowing down a vast piece of public land.
When it comes to finding unpressured deer, I have two rules that have produced almost every mature buck I’ve ever killed off public land; hunt farther in than anyone else is willing to go or hunt within close proximity of private property.
The best spots I have ever found are both miles away from the nearest road and border private land. Using satellite imagery with public land boundaries, such as those offered by
HuntStand, is essential for identifying areas with unpressured deer.
From the comfort of my home, I hone in on areas of public land surrounded by private land or areas with limited access. With smaller tracts of public land, hunting the edges of public and private land is your best bet to finding unpressured deer.
When dealing with large tracts of continuous public land, going deep is the most effective way I’ve discovered to find less pressured deer. Finding unpressured deer doesn’t always mean going miles and miles from the nearest road, but it is one of the easiest to do at home.
As a typical rule of thumb, the farther in you go, the less hunting pressure there will be. With less hunting pressure in a remote location, not only are deer more likely to move during hunting hours, but the chance of a buck reaching maturity in these areas increases as well.
If you are also able to identify these remote areas that border private property, your odds of finding a higher number of unpressured deer increases even more. Once found, you can then begin selecting stand locations within these prospective locations.
Food Sources and Bedding Areas
After identifying several locations with theoretically low hunting pressure, my next step is to direct my attention on food sources and bedding areas within those location.
Looking at satellite images is my primary method for identifying food and bedding sources, but you can also put boots to the ground and note where these areas are. Depending on the geographic location of the public land, food sources or bedding areas may be so abundant that it does not narrow your search significantly if at all.
For example, a piece of public land I hunt in Ohio is primarily recovering strip mining ground, which makes for brush so thick you can hardly walk. In an area like this, identifying bedding areas is almost pointless because they are so abundant.
Likewise, a piece of public land I hunt in Maryland is almost entirely made up of white oaks and creates an abundance of food during good mast crop years. Knowing whether to focus your attention towards identifying food sources or bedding areas can save you a great deal of time and frustration.
Identifying killer food sources varies a lot between geographical locations. In most locations, agriculture, mast crop, and browse are the primary food sources available. When focusing on food sources, I will first look for agricultural areas on private land that border the public land.
When relying heavily on digital scouting, identifying agriculture areas is typically more reliable than identify areas with oaks. Finding a heavily producing stand of oak trees can be one of the effective food sources to kill deer, but in most cases, finding these areas requires physically checking to see which stands of oaks are producing that year and if deer are feeding on them.
Areas with oaks should still be identified as potential spots but require a little more work to confirm that they’re being used reliably enough to hunt. When planning to hunt areas such as the big woods of northern Pennsylvania, which has no agriculture at all, identifying stands of oaks or favorable browse may be your only choice. But when agriculture is present, it is safe to assume that deer will be feeding on those sources.
When looking for bedding areas, I try to identify places where deer would feel secure and use all their senses efficiently. Finding a buck bedding area can require a lot of on-foot scouting and be difficult to identify by solely digital scouting. That being said, I usually focus in on doe bedding areas assuming it is a rut hunt.
I start by looking for potential bedding areas in proximity to a food source. These areas include thickets, laurel patches, clear cuts, and steep hillsides. Focusing in on bedding areas located close to food sources gives you a better chance to of catching deer moving in daylight hours.
Hunting close to bedding areas always requires a little extra caution, but has proved extremely effective, especially on public ground.
After identifying areas of unpressured deer, food sources, and bedding areas, the final step is finding funnels to seal the deal. Funnels make the difference between being in the ballpark and being in the game.
Bowhunting is a game of inches. When a few yards can be the difference between success and failure, finding funnels can make all the difference in the world. Some funnels can be easily identified using digital scouting, such as saddles or ravines, while other may require you to analyze the location first hand.
To start looking for funnels, I find pinch points between bedding and feeding areas. These pinch points include strips of land between two bodies of water, strips of trees or brush between fields, and areas between cliffs or high-walls. Other funnels are not as noticeable such as a blowdown, creek banks, and rocky terrain.
Mapping Trophy Whitetails is a great resource for finding and hunting natural funnels!
These types of funnels can change from year to year and should be checked for changes when hunted later. If planning to hunt the rut, hunting funnels can be one of the biggest factors in success as bucks quickly cover ground from bedding area to bedding area. If you can identify an area of unpressured deer with food sources, a bedding area, and a funnel, you are likely to have found a honey hole.
When looking at a vast piece of public land, narrowing your scope will make you feel less intimidated and increase your chances of success.
By looking for unpressured deer, food sources, bedding areas and funnels, a large piece of the public land will be eliminated and your efforts can be focused in the right direction.
When it’s time to step foot on the prospective public land, your scouting efforts will be a matter of verifying potential spots rather than starting from scratch. Hunting a new piece of public land can be frustrating but overcoming the challenges and having success is one of the greatest adventures and accomplishments you will ever have as a bowhunter.
Narrowing down a vast public land into smaller potential areas, makes overcoming these challenges easier, increases your chances of success, and makes the whole experience more enjoyable. With millions of acres of public land at our fingertips, pick a new piece of public land and go have an adventure in the unknown today.
About the Author
From a very early age, I have been obsessed with the pursuit of hunting public deer with a bow. Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, I was fortunate to hunt deer close to home but also travel to several surrounding states with my father who is equally passionate about bowhunting. Through hunting multiple states every year, I have learned a lot, made a lot of mistakes, and have had a little success along the way. Each fall, I look forward to learning something new and taking on new challenges and adventures that public land has to offer.
If you like what you read, be sure to subscribe to our email list to never miss a beat!
**Some links are amazon affiliate links, you can read our full affiliate disclosure on our contact page**