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BuckTracker: I'm Going Public

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October 17, 2008

BuckTracker: I'm Going Public

By Scott Bestul

I won’t blow smoke at you; I get to hunt some pretty cool whitetail property each fall. For starters, I’m a member of a club that leases about 1900 acres not far from my home. The habitat is marginal at best but hey, there are always good deer there. I’m also fortunate enough to know some kindly landowners who let me chase their deer for free, and some of these farms are outstanding. Then of course there’s the outdoor writer deal; on occasion I get invited on a freebie trip to hunt with an outfitter, usually one guiding in a place with a heady reputation. I’d be foolish to not partake in at least some of this rich opportunity…And I do.

That said, I still hunt public land. Yeah, the places we all love to hate. Full of weekend warriors, bordered by shot-up signs, and inhabited by bucks either too dumb to change addresses or too smart to get shot. I hunted a state tract yesterday afternoon, as a matter of fact. Got skunked, but had a great time.  And I didn’t blame the state-owned parcel for the lack of deer movement.

I also didn’t kick myself for not choosing any of the private ground I could have easily visited. As a teenager, I earned my stripes hunting on public ground and I’ve continued the tradition for several reasons. First, public hunting areas don’t always deserve their bad reputation, and I’ve got the bucks—and memorable encounters—to prove it. Second, I was raised by Norwegian/German folks, so I am by nature uncomfortable with privilege…even if I pay for it (the lease thing) or its handed to me (the kindly-farmer-and-writer things). And, finally—and perhaps most important—I just adore a challenge, and killing a good buck on public land is about as good as that gets.

I’ve never completely ignored public ground in my 30-some years of bowhunting, but this fall I’ll be focusing my attention on state-, federal- and county-owned ground. I’m curious to know if there are any other public-land whitetail guys out there? What are your triumphs, your trials, your memorable stories? I’d like to swap stories this season from time to time. I’ll be poking around some small public tracts near my home, and visiting the Big Woods of northern Wisconsin in a couple weeks. Any one care to compare notes?

Comments (23)

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from chance wrote 5 years 20 weeks ago

any luck?

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from Chuck P wrote 5 years 22 weeks ago

I hunted a public land behind my house over ten years ago. Believe it or not after about 10 minutes in the stand, I downed not one but two 8 pointers scoring 129 and 128 in central Wisconsin. Yes it was pure luck but walked out into the middle of a swamp and found about 10 trails intersecting and set up. I then grunted and within seconds got a response grunt. I turned to see a buck walking threw the pines about 75 yards away. After shooting him I turned and seen another one not 10 yards from me trying to sniff me out. I have not returned because of the tough walk out there and much too old to handle something like that but both on the wall and very proud.

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from Scott Bestul wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

Gentlemen: Thanks for sharing your story and comments. I truly enjoyed hearing from other public land guys! Perhaps we can continue to update this post with reports on our progress...or lack of it!I'm heading out this afternoon to scout a public tract near my home. Scrapes are really being laid down right now, so I'm hoping to locate a couple of good bow stand sites for next week.Rob S., I'll be hunting county/state forest in NW Wisconsin, primarily with bow. But I may return for a late muzzleloader hunt, depending on my schedule.Good luck to all!

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from Shane wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

I am originally from the mountains of Virginia smack in the middle of the Washington/Jefferson National forest. I still have yet to shoot a nice buck there but I have had encounters with nice deer and even some monsters. One thing about that much land on any given day a record book class deer is possible. I now live and hunt in eastern NC and only private land. The "big bucks" here are considerably smaller and I may be the only person who feels boxed in by only hunting 2400 acres.

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from Trevor Kettles wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

Last year on Nov. 2 I shot my first buck ever with a bow on public land in Iowa. I was set up on a huge rub I'd found earlier in the week. This was the second time I hunted this spot. I was in a climber about 15 ft. up. I set up on the edge of the timber facing the rub with a field at my back. Around 4:30 a doe came trotting in all nervous and looking back. I immediately stood up and waited, but nothing came. She slowly disappeared into the thick brush to my right. About 20 minutes later I saw movement coming from the brush only this time it was antlers I saw. I realized it was a shooter. Once I determined it was a shooter I only focused on where to draw back and where to stop him and where to release the arrow. Well, at fifteen yards I drew back as he walked behind a tree and then I grunted at him. He took two more steps and stopped behind another tree and I waited and waited and waited at full draw with an old bow. I was beginning to shake because of muscle failure from holding so long, but he finally stepped out and I drilled him in the shoulder and he only went 60 yards and piled up. I still didn't know how big he was until I got up close. He is a main frame 10 pointer with 6 kickers. His gross score as a typical is 166. I knew there were big bucks out there, but to see a big buck on public land is tough I feel. Now I see him everyday, on my wall.

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from tim wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

public land has one major drawback tha i personally witnessed just two days ago. trophy hunters. by this i mean the guy who sets up bait and permanent blinds in the safest place a deer can find and takes only the head of the monster buck. guess he's not man enough to get the whole deer out.

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from dave wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

tv shows are phoney all them big whitetails that see run about 5000 to ten grand and thats all they ever get is gig ones,i set and looked at a horse trailer here one day with about 15 whitetail bucks in it and they were all record book bucks heading to some place so they could sell them to a tv bowhunter, hunting any more is so phoney if ya watch thses shows aint even real hunting

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from dave wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

all i got to hunt is public land and its got more big whitetails on it then any where does,iam in south dakota

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from John wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

The privileges of having and hunting public land should never be ignored. I'm blessed to live in an area with ample public land, and I hope it is never sold off.The deer are not nearly as bountiful or big as the farmland deer, and they are certainly very wary. I'm OK with adjusting my expectations. We have an epidemic of extremely unrealistic expectations in our hunting community, just as we do in our society at large. Too many folks no longer "stop and smell the roses". Most TV hunting shows do not help us to construct realistic views of our challenge.

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from Gritz wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

I grew up in Northern Wisconsin on a dairy farm along the Wisconsin river. I have never in my life had to compete with another person (that wasn't family) for my deer. We all split up, space out, and listen for each others shots. I am used to getting excited when I hear a big shot close by because it is probably my brother, uncle, father, or friend, depending upon the sound of the boom. That has changed. I went to college. I got married. I bought a business. Now I live in south west Wisconsin and the only land I own is my front lawn in town. So I tried my hand at the public land down here. Yellowstone Lake State wildlife land is roughly 4,000 acres of dream land for deer. Also for hunters. Yet the county is mostly made of farming communities who have their own land. I didn't know what to expect. I tried my hand at an early October Doe hunt here and even though I bumped into a few people here and there I was relatively surprised at how safe I felt and how alone I felt (especially an hour after sun down as I dragged my doe the mile and a half back to the car). Public land is different. When you hear a shot close by your heart sinks. But if you are into hunting for the sake of getting out in the woods and meat is a surprisingly pleasant occasional result, then public hunting is great. I think that people would be surprised at how many people don't scout early on. That is important because if you have a perfect honey hole set up and you get there at daybreak and there is someone perched ten feet from your spot you have to be willing to concede and move on. So the key is options, and the more you poke around in the off season the more options you have. Now I have to go cut up some steaks so my wife can have her parking spot back in the garage.

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from Rob S. wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Where are you going to be hunting Scott?? and bow, rifle, or muzzleloader or all three?

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from Rob S. wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Our hunting group owns land in Northern WI that is surrounded by 1000's of acres of public land, and i love it. I love huning big woods, and just seeing deer there is half the challenge. Between wolves and people it can be hard to even see deer, but a guy in our group shot a 140 inch 10 point 2 years ago. Its a big challenge, but that makes it all the better. And there are big bucks back in the miles of wilderness, you just have to scout and know where to go.

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from jcarlin wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Mr. Bestul,I suspect you'll find that 95% of us are public land hunters if for no other reason than lack of options in some locals, or the vast amount of it in others. I haven't had the luck to bag a true trophy here in the public woods of PA, but I've laid eyes on a couple that are still the first things that pop into my head when I think of the tracts they were on. They may be a little less common, but they're out there. If I'm ever so fortunate as to bag one of these "everyman's giants" I'll know I've accomplished something.Joe C.

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from Dr. Ralph wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

My biggest buck was taken on Cheatham Wildlife Management Area. Public land with over 20,000 acres every inch of it crawling with hunters... they imported a whole lot of Michigan bucks to improve the breeding stock and it worked. If you're lucky or good enough to find one it will be a monster. Study the maps and find the farthest place from any road and take off at 3 AM for a leisurely two and a half hour stroll. Then sit motionless until dark. The fools will drive them past you.The biggest buck I ever saw (in Tennessee) was also there. Missed him three times at over 300 yards while he completely ignored me trying to tear trees down with his huge rack. This boy was so full of testosterone he was absolutely crazy... reminded me of myself at sixteen.

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from John D wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

I love the challenge of hunting public land, and never knew any different until about 4 years ago when my employer said they had 3,000 acres and I could hunt it all I wanted if I kept up with it.I had to totally change my hunting style, in that I used to avoid obvious buck sign (close to roads, beat down trails, scrapes, highly visible rub lines) and opt for secondary travel areas used when the crowd hits the woods.Now I can hang a stand on the buck sign. Novel idea. But I do miss the sacrifice. I'd sometimes hike 2 to 3 miles or farther from the roads and parking areas to hunt the thick stuff, and every deer kill required hours of sweat and blood through the thorns to get them out. Wait a minute. I don't miss that. Good luck!

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from Greg Brush wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

well put, scott, and a wonderful attitude! you are a refreshing change from the snobby pay-to-kill elite hunters (at least in their heads!) that seem to increase each year! good luck to you this fall!

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from robert wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

actually 7 bear in 5 years is what i meant

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from robert wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

i would rather hunt farm land but i love going to mtns that are public here in pa two years ago i got a ten and my friend got a12 point(a basic 10 but had double brow tines)we have also got 7 bear in 2 years here.

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from Mark B wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

The last couple of years I have only hunted public land. Either National Forest Land in VA, or public land in PA. I was fortunate enough to get a nice 10 pointer two years ago in VA. I passed up a few small bucks last year in VA and missed a nice buck in PA with my Bow. The challenge of public land is what makes the kill that much sweeter when you are able to get a nice deer. I would rather put all my time and effort into public land and shoot a decent buck, then go to an outfitter and shoot a monster buck, there is just a greater sense of accomplishment knowing that you not only outsmarted a public land buck, but a handful of other hunters as well. Plus any buck taken on public land is a monster in my opinion.

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from I'm in school right now wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Whenever we can't find the deer on our land, we go hunt public land. We have had some pretty cool times there. One time, we were actuall pheasant hunting in a public land area that had a very promising slew. Instead, we got racks flying everywhere. We saw a couple of 4X5 deer and one that had 6 points on one side and at least 5 on the other. No pheasants to speak of but it was still pretty cool. We're gonna deer hunt the area this year.Nate

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from Mike wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

There are some big whitetail on our public lands but they are very wary - only seen them a handful of times, usually before or after season, or footprints in the morning. People say they go to the adjacent private lands during season, but one day, after another hunter walked right by my stand, I got up to move and a buck the size of a horse busted from only 20 yards behind me. Really have to work at hunting and, if you hold out for a trophy you might go home empty handed. As someone pointed out in another blog - the ones I let walk left some pretty good memories. Those and the ones I busted taught me some lessons, too.

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from Jonny wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

I hunt mainly all public land in eastern SD, 2 years ago missed a big buck, but overall, public land around here is pretty decent, especailly if ya get away from the bigger towns.

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from Tom Sorenson wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Public land mule deer and elk guy, here. Does that count? I feel a little hypocritical during hunting season because all off season I keep saying "more people need to get involved in hunting!" Then I go hunting this year and the place I hunt was over run with hunters - and I was angry that there was so many other people there! That doesn't make much sense - but there it is. I agree that one of the greatest challenges is getting a nice buck or a nice bull on public land - and it's one I completely enjoy.

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Post a Comment

from chance wrote 5 years 20 weeks ago

any luck?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Chuck P wrote 5 years 22 weeks ago

I hunted a public land behind my house over ten years ago. Believe it or not after about 10 minutes in the stand, I downed not one but two 8 pointers scoring 129 and 128 in central Wisconsin. Yes it was pure luck but walked out into the middle of a swamp and found about 10 trails intersecting and set up. I then grunted and within seconds got a response grunt. I turned to see a buck walking threw the pines about 75 yards away. After shooting him I turned and seen another one not 10 yards from me trying to sniff me out. I have not returned because of the tough walk out there and much too old to handle something like that but both on the wall and very proud.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Scott Bestul wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

Gentlemen: Thanks for sharing your story and comments. I truly enjoyed hearing from other public land guys! Perhaps we can continue to update this post with reports on our progress...or lack of it!I'm heading out this afternoon to scout a public tract near my home. Scrapes are really being laid down right now, so I'm hoping to locate a couple of good bow stand sites for next week.Rob S., I'll be hunting county/state forest in NW Wisconsin, primarily with bow. But I may return for a late muzzleloader hunt, depending on my schedule.Good luck to all!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Shane wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

I am originally from the mountains of Virginia smack in the middle of the Washington/Jefferson National forest. I still have yet to shoot a nice buck there but I have had encounters with nice deer and even some monsters. One thing about that much land on any given day a record book class deer is possible. I now live and hunt in eastern NC and only private land. The "big bucks" here are considerably smaller and I may be the only person who feels boxed in by only hunting 2400 acres.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Trevor Kettles wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

Last year on Nov. 2 I shot my first buck ever with a bow on public land in Iowa. I was set up on a huge rub I'd found earlier in the week. This was the second time I hunted this spot. I was in a climber about 15 ft. up. I set up on the edge of the timber facing the rub with a field at my back. Around 4:30 a doe came trotting in all nervous and looking back. I immediately stood up and waited, but nothing came. She slowly disappeared into the thick brush to my right. About 20 minutes later I saw movement coming from the brush only this time it was antlers I saw. I realized it was a shooter. Once I determined it was a shooter I only focused on where to draw back and where to stop him and where to release the arrow. Well, at fifteen yards I drew back as he walked behind a tree and then I grunted at him. He took two more steps and stopped behind another tree and I waited and waited and waited at full draw with an old bow. I was beginning to shake because of muscle failure from holding so long, but he finally stepped out and I drilled him in the shoulder and he only went 60 yards and piled up. I still didn't know how big he was until I got up close. He is a main frame 10 pointer with 6 kickers. His gross score as a typical is 166. I knew there were big bucks out there, but to see a big buck on public land is tough I feel. Now I see him everyday, on my wall.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from tim wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

public land has one major drawback tha i personally witnessed just two days ago. trophy hunters. by this i mean the guy who sets up bait and permanent blinds in the safest place a deer can find and takes only the head of the monster buck. guess he's not man enough to get the whole deer out.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from dave wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

tv shows are phoney all them big whitetails that see run about 5000 to ten grand and thats all they ever get is gig ones,i set and looked at a horse trailer here one day with about 15 whitetail bucks in it and they were all record book bucks heading to some place so they could sell them to a tv bowhunter, hunting any more is so phoney if ya watch thses shows aint even real hunting

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from dave wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

all i got to hunt is public land and its got more big whitetails on it then any where does,iam in south dakota

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from John wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

The privileges of having and hunting public land should never be ignored. I'm blessed to live in an area with ample public land, and I hope it is never sold off.The deer are not nearly as bountiful or big as the farmland deer, and they are certainly very wary. I'm OK with adjusting my expectations. We have an epidemic of extremely unrealistic expectations in our hunting community, just as we do in our society at large. Too many folks no longer "stop and smell the roses". Most TV hunting shows do not help us to construct realistic views of our challenge.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Gritz wrote 5 years 25 weeks ago

I grew up in Northern Wisconsin on a dairy farm along the Wisconsin river. I have never in my life had to compete with another person (that wasn't family) for my deer. We all split up, space out, and listen for each others shots. I am used to getting excited when I hear a big shot close by because it is probably my brother, uncle, father, or friend, depending upon the sound of the boom. That has changed. I went to college. I got married. I bought a business. Now I live in south west Wisconsin and the only land I own is my front lawn in town. So I tried my hand at the public land down here. Yellowstone Lake State wildlife land is roughly 4,000 acres of dream land for deer. Also for hunters. Yet the county is mostly made of farming communities who have their own land. I didn't know what to expect. I tried my hand at an early October Doe hunt here and even though I bumped into a few people here and there I was relatively surprised at how safe I felt and how alone I felt (especially an hour after sun down as I dragged my doe the mile and a half back to the car). Public land is different. When you hear a shot close by your heart sinks. But if you are into hunting for the sake of getting out in the woods and meat is a surprisingly pleasant occasional result, then public hunting is great. I think that people would be surprised at how many people don't scout early on. That is important because if you have a perfect honey hole set up and you get there at daybreak and there is someone perched ten feet from your spot you have to be willing to concede and move on. So the key is options, and the more you poke around in the off season the more options you have. Now I have to go cut up some steaks so my wife can have her parking spot back in the garage.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Rob S. wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Where are you going to be hunting Scott?? and bow, rifle, or muzzleloader or all three?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Rob S. wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Our hunting group owns land in Northern WI that is surrounded by 1000's of acres of public land, and i love it. I love huning big woods, and just seeing deer there is half the challenge. Between wolves and people it can be hard to even see deer, but a guy in our group shot a 140 inch 10 point 2 years ago. Its a big challenge, but that makes it all the better. And there are big bucks back in the miles of wilderness, you just have to scout and know where to go.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from jcarlin wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Mr. Bestul,I suspect you'll find that 95% of us are public land hunters if for no other reason than lack of options in some locals, or the vast amount of it in others. I haven't had the luck to bag a true trophy here in the public woods of PA, but I've laid eyes on a couple that are still the first things that pop into my head when I think of the tracts they were on. They may be a little less common, but they're out there. If I'm ever so fortunate as to bag one of these "everyman's giants" I'll know I've accomplished something.Joe C.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dr. Ralph wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

My biggest buck was taken on Cheatham Wildlife Management Area. Public land with over 20,000 acres every inch of it crawling with hunters... they imported a whole lot of Michigan bucks to improve the breeding stock and it worked. If you're lucky or good enough to find one it will be a monster. Study the maps and find the farthest place from any road and take off at 3 AM for a leisurely two and a half hour stroll. Then sit motionless until dark. The fools will drive them past you.The biggest buck I ever saw (in Tennessee) was also there. Missed him three times at over 300 yards while he completely ignored me trying to tear trees down with his huge rack. This boy was so full of testosterone he was absolutely crazy... reminded me of myself at sixteen.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from John D wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

I love the challenge of hunting public land, and never knew any different until about 4 years ago when my employer said they had 3,000 acres and I could hunt it all I wanted if I kept up with it.I had to totally change my hunting style, in that I used to avoid obvious buck sign (close to roads, beat down trails, scrapes, highly visible rub lines) and opt for secondary travel areas used when the crowd hits the woods.Now I can hang a stand on the buck sign. Novel idea. But I do miss the sacrifice. I'd sometimes hike 2 to 3 miles or farther from the roads and parking areas to hunt the thick stuff, and every deer kill required hours of sweat and blood through the thorns to get them out. Wait a minute. I don't miss that. Good luck!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Greg Brush wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

well put, scott, and a wonderful attitude! you are a refreshing change from the snobby pay-to-kill elite hunters (at least in their heads!) that seem to increase each year! good luck to you this fall!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from robert wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

actually 7 bear in 5 years is what i meant

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from robert wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

i would rather hunt farm land but i love going to mtns that are public here in pa two years ago i got a ten and my friend got a12 point(a basic 10 but had double brow tines)we have also got 7 bear in 2 years here.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark B wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

The last couple of years I have only hunted public land. Either National Forest Land in VA, or public land in PA. I was fortunate enough to get a nice 10 pointer two years ago in VA. I passed up a few small bucks last year in VA and missed a nice buck in PA with my Bow. The challenge of public land is what makes the kill that much sweeter when you are able to get a nice deer. I would rather put all my time and effort into public land and shoot a decent buck, then go to an outfitter and shoot a monster buck, there is just a greater sense of accomplishment knowing that you not only outsmarted a public land buck, but a handful of other hunters as well. Plus any buck taken on public land is a monster in my opinion.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from I'm in school right now wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Whenever we can't find the deer on our land, we go hunt public land. We have had some pretty cool times there. One time, we were actuall pheasant hunting in a public land area that had a very promising slew. Instead, we got racks flying everywhere. We saw a couple of 4X5 deer and one that had 6 points on one side and at least 5 on the other. No pheasants to speak of but it was still pretty cool. We're gonna deer hunt the area this year.Nate

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mike wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

There are some big whitetail on our public lands but they are very wary - only seen them a handful of times, usually before or after season, or footprints in the morning. People say they go to the adjacent private lands during season, but one day, after another hunter walked right by my stand, I got up to move and a buck the size of a horse busted from only 20 yards behind me. Really have to work at hunting and, if you hold out for a trophy you might go home empty handed. As someone pointed out in another blog - the ones I let walk left some pretty good memories. Those and the ones I busted taught me some lessons, too.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Jonny wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

I hunt mainly all public land in eastern SD, 2 years ago missed a big buck, but overall, public land around here is pretty decent, especailly if ya get away from the bigger towns.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Tom Sorenson wrote 5 years 26 weeks ago

Public land mule deer and elk guy, here. Does that count? I feel a little hypocritical during hunting season because all off season I keep saying "more people need to get involved in hunting!" Then I go hunting this year and the place I hunt was over run with hunters - and I was angry that there was so many other people there! That doesn't make much sense - but there it is. I agree that one of the greatest challenges is getting a nice buck or a nice bull on public land - and it's one I completely enjoy.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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