If you're a public-land hunter looking at a 5,000-acre tract to hunt this fall, it's easy to envy those who have access to farmland or ranches overrun with deer. But the low deer densities typical in large forests have one huge advantage: big deer. They get that way from having little competition for food and light hunting pressure. Where deer are few, bucks need to go far to find companionship, and the more a buck moves, the easier he is to bag.
The challenge lies in figuring out where to hunt in what can seem like a sea of featureless woods, where buck sign is usually widely dispersed. The key is knowing what to look for:
These are important in any deer habitat, but especially where bucks spend a lot of time roaming large home ranges. Mark obvious ones first, such as saddles (low gaps in ridges) and narrow strips of woods between open areas like beaver ponds or clear-cuts. Then take a closer look, because identifying subtle corridors is vital to a successful strategy.
Look for shallow or narrow stream crossings, fingers of dry ground through swamps, a strip of dense pines through open hardwoods, a swale or gully just low enough to hide a buck, and the heads of steep washes on hillsides. Very steep terrain can create "hard" funnels that force deer to cross at certain points, such as a ledge along a sheer hillside. These funnels can produce a good buck year after year.
Unlike in farmland rich with corn, alfalfa, and soybeans, highly preferred foods are comparatively few here. You need to find them.
In most of these areas, whitetails will choose white oak acorns above all other foods. An isolated patch of white oaks surrounded by other trees is ideal, of course, but even when white oaks are widespread, deer often prefer the acorns from specific trees. If you find white oaks that are dropping acorns but have no deer sign nearby, keep looking until you locate tracks, droppings, or rubs beneath a productive tree or trees.
If you find a rub line near a funnel or white oaks, you're in great shape. Likewise, taking a stand along any series of rubs that you discover is also a good bet. But finding fresh examples (particularly in sequence) isn't always easy. First, deer may not begin making them in earnest for another few weeks. Second, in vast woodlands they tend to be more dispersed and therefore harder to locate.
The trick is to look a little closer; the distance between rubs on a line is apt to be greater here. Don't give up searching too soon. Also, remember that old rubs can be valuable sign, as big bucks tend to revisit them year after year. Find one fresh marking along an established rub line, and you're in business. For as long as fresh rubs continue to appear on that line, you're in the right spot.