Big Bucks in Public Places

They never grow large by being stupid.

Field & Stream Online Editors

My friend Bob Borowiak has bow-killed 10 trophy-class whitetails, but his biggest-a buck that field dressed at 257 pounds and measured 159, Pope and Young-came from a state-owned public hunting area. Bob found the buck's scrapes and his huge, splaying track while scouting with two friends. Calling his buddies over to examine the spoor, Bob was amazed when they showed no interest in hunting the monster whitetail. "This is state land," one sniffed. "If that buck isn't nocturnal, he's probably just passing through." Undaunted, Bob hung a stand, waited for the right wind¿¿¿and tagged the giant on his first outing.

For many hunters, trophy whitetail and public land are mutually exclusive terms. Admittedly, there are public tracts where the odds of finding a mature buck are steep. But for hunters willing to do some legwork, it's possible to tag a trophy on ground accessible to anyone. Here are four tips for pulling it off. * Think big and ugly: Nasty country limits hunting pressure and allows bucks to mature. Seek trophy bucks in large, untrammeled tracts where access is difficult and other hunters fear leaving the road.

Midwesterners should investigate the "big woods" areas in northern Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In the Northeast, New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have square miles of near-wilderness habitat almost untouched by hunters. Southern whitetailers should follow the example of my Louisiana buddy Kyle, who takes dandy whitetails by boating to Mississippi River islands so remote even duck hunters won't mess with them.

  • Expand your definition: Public land doesn't have to mean a 100-acre plot with shot-up signs at every parking lot. Timber and paper companies get tax breaks when they allow sportsmen to access their land holdings. Military facilities and national wildlife refuges frequently hold limited-entry hunts to control whitetail herds and can produce tremendous bucks. State-, county-, and city-owned parks present an expanding base of opportunity for trophy hunters. You may not draw a tag to hunt such areas every season, but they're usually worth the wait.

  • Strike when the hunting is hot: Bob Borowiak bagged his monster during that narrow window of the pre-rut when bucks are rubbing and scraping and most vulnerable. Breeding activity always pulls trophies out of the public-land woodwork, but the rut isn't the only show in the woods. I've had outstanding hunting on public areas during the late season, when snow falls and temperatures drop. In many areas, game managers plant food plots on public grounds, and winter deer are always suckers for an easy meal. If it's cold and nasty and you wait by the food (most hunters won't be joining you), a mature buck might follow his belly and make a deadly mistake.

  • Dare to be different: Sometimes trophy bucks exist even in hard-hunted areas. But they live in odd, undisturbed spots, travel and feed when other deer don't, and are hypersensitive to the sights, sounds, and smells of man. To kill such a buck, you have to separate yourself from the pack. Scan aerial photos and topo maps to locate remote covers. Focus your efforts on weekdays when hunting pressure drops. Take a backdoor approach to your stand sites instead of tromping to them from the parking lots used by everyone else. That mature buck is alive because he knows how most hunters behave; it's up to you to throw him a surprise party.