Follow these tactics to harvest big bucks on a tight budget.
In these uncertain economic times, deer hunters are looking for ways to save a few bucks while having an opportunity to still chase bucks. Each year the price for hunting leases increases. Fewer hunters are able to afford hunting club dues or lease a plot of land with their buddy. However, there are plenty of quality bucks roaming public land.
Mention public land hunting and a majority of deer hunters will shake their heads in disapproval. Could these guys be wrong? Here in the Cotton State, millions of acres of public hunting land are available for little or no cost. Each year many deer hunters are successful at filling their buck tag on public land.
For many deer hunters across the state, a good piece of public land is probably only an hour’s drive away. While other hunters may have the same location in mind, certain methods and tactics will enable you to find your own spot. With some planning and scouting, you can tag out your buck without breaking your budget.
Use a map
Probably the main types of hunting on public land in the state are on National Forests (NF) or state wildlife management areas (WMA). Alabama has four NF areas and 38 WMAs available for public hunting. The NF encompasses some 667,000 acres in 17 different counties. On the WMA side, there are over 800,000 acres of land open for hunting. One of the first things public land hunters should do is pick up a map of the area they intend to hunt.
The Internet is the top choice in searching for maps and locations. Forest Service maps can be obtained at any forestry service office or online. WMA permit maps indicating roads, check stations, food plots and other information can be obtained online at outdooralabama.com, at Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources district offices, or at local stores where hunting licenses are sold.
“Hunting the WMAs is a good bargain,” explains Brandon Howell, Area Biologist for the Choccoloco WMA near Heflin, Ala. “For $15 a hunter has access to every WMA in the state.”
There is no fee for hunting the NF lands. But a current Alabama state hunting license is required for any type of land being hunted.
Topographical maps of your specific hunting area can be downloaded from various websites. These topo maps will use contour lines to show how steep specific hills and ridgelines are before setting foot in the woods. The closer the lines are together on the map, the steeper the terrain. Creeks, swamps, lakes and other features will be indicated on the map and can save some legwork.
“Satellite maps of hunting areas are easy to get off the Internet,” advises Ken Ballard of Lincoln, Ala. “Google maps is probably the most common site to get one.”
With the satellite maps or photos, Ballard says it’s easy to see the types of trees, roads and open spots on the ground. Most websites will let the computer zoom in to fairly close detail. Certain sites will allow the user to toggle from satellite image to topo map. This will give a lay of the land for the hunter and a potential starting point.
A companion to your map is a handheld GPS unit. These devices can help the hunter scout out an area, calculate distances and assist in getting back to a starting point, your truck. Current models also offer topo maps already loaded or memory cards to add or enhance the standard maps in the GPS unit.
At first, hunting a large tract of public land may seem intimidating. Where do you begin? Deer have travel corridors and trails across ridges and hills and will generally follow these same routes throughout the season. The key is to do some scouting and locate some of these trails.
“I start off checking out old logging trails,” mentions Donnie Maddox of Munford, Ala. “There are usually some old roads or trails from logging operations near access roads.”
Maddox has been hunting deer in the Talladega NF around the Mount Cheaha area for many years. This section of public land covers some 230,000-plus acres of land. Over the years, he and his brothers have figured out where and how to hunt deer in this section of public land.
Once Maddox has located an old logging trail, he will follow it back into the woods away from the main road. The trails will usually follow a ridgeline or around the side of a large hill. Maddox will look for any type of deer sign, such as tracks, rubs, scrapes or droppings.
“You have to get back off the road away from people,” Maddox advises. “Sometimes I will walk in for 30 or 45 minutes to reach my hunting area.”
Maddox mentions that any easy-in easy-out trail will attract deer hunters. Serious hunters will want to hunt areas less frequented by other hunters. This means locating areas that are not as easy to reach or that lazy hunters avoid. Spots that have a lot of deer size close to easy access will also have hunters waiting in line to hunt the area.
Ballard agrees that finding locations other hunters may not look for or want to hunt is a helpful tactic. He mentions a place he found on NF land just over a steep hill. Hunters in the area bypassed this area for easier walking. Just over the hill was a large hardwood hollow with flatter terrain. A thick grove of pines trees made it a perfect deer hideout.
Deer are browsers and will move through woods, fields and swamps selecting the most nutritious foods. In the early autumn months, almost every hunter will target acorns for their stand site. This is generally a good bet for the deer hunter. However, on public land, every other hunter will have set their stands near the same acorn trees. The strategy is to avoid the other hunters.
“Find a few oaks close together and isolated,” Ballard reports. “If these are near a thicket, then that makes the area even better.”
Old logging areas or cutovers also provide various deer foods. Open areas allow sunlight to filter through foliage to the ground for additional growth of natural forbs. Old logging roads are also prime spots to check for various deer foods. Trucks and equipment have disturbed the soil and presented a decent seedbed for natural plant growth.
Biologists like Howell and others plant food plots in the WMAs for deer, turkey and other wildlife. Most deer hunters will frequent the plots or openings either early morning or late afternoon. However, bucks may make a visit during the midday hours when hunters are not present.
One of the keys to hunting these food plots is to set up on trails leading to the opening. Many hunters will place their stand in a tree close to the plot. Savvy deer hunters will find a trail leading to the food plot and fix their stand about 100 yards off the food plot.
“Don’t set up right on the trail,” Maddox advises. “Back off away from the trail 20- to 30-yards. The deer coming in will be less likely to see or smell you.”
Change your approach
Hunting on public land requires a bit of change. Deer hunters must rethink their approach to their usual hunting habits. One change is to vary your approach to your stand. Do not enter and leave the same way every time. Also, hunt the wind. If your selected spot is not approachable due to the wind direction, change your direction of entry or hunt a different spot.
“It’s a good idea to have a backup plan,” mentions Ballard. “There could be someone parked near your first spot when you arrive.”
Sometimes another hunter might just be stopped at your location. That doesn’t necessarily indicate he has found your location. A few hunters may be hunting parking spots. They have seen a vehicle parked there and wonder what is going on. But chances are they will not venture very far from the road.
Hunters on public land should always have a second or third hunting location in mind before reaching their first spot. Weather, other hunters, or other variable could force a change in your plan of action. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to reach your secondary locale.
Use other hunters to your advantage
Maddox suggests hunters stay on stand past the midmorning time slot. Some deer hunters will get edgy or hungry and begin to make their way back to their truck. The stirring around of the impatient hunters can bump a buck in your direction. Oftentimes, the other hunter will never see or hear the deer.
Another tip for hunting in a crowd is to set up in the opposite direction from where other hunters are entering and leaving their stand sites. A majority of hunters on public land will enter and leave at the same spot. Clever hunters will want to enter from a different direction and set their stand opposite from where everyone else is hunting.
“Sometimes you have to drive a little farther or walk a little longer,” comments Ballard. “On public land you want to hunt where other people aren’t.”
Deer hunters on public land should also search out escape routes used by deer. Most of the time, it will be some type of thick cover. Deer will want to move into heavy brush or close-knit pines to avoid detection. Also, they congregate in swampy areas or river sections where the vegetation seems impenetrable.
Heavy hunting pressure will usually push bucks into nighttime movement. However, these bucks will want to move around during the day and stretch their legs. Midday hunting can be successful on public land. Most of the other hunters have headed home or to grab some grub for lunch. A wise hunter will set up in the midmorning and hunt until late afternoon.
Hunt the rut
With so much public land available across the state, deer hunters can select the time and place for areas based on the rut. Bucks are up moving during the rut and the chances of putting your tag on one is much greater.
The rut usually begins around mid-November in the northern and eastern part of the state. By late December until the end of January, the rut is happening from mid-state southward.
Plan your trip to a WMA or NF based on the rut timing. Hunters can contact the ADCNR district biologist for the area they plan to hunt to inquire on the rut times.
Hunting public land takes some planning and a little work. But the rewards can be great without breaking your budget.