How and Where to Kill a Whitetail Deer on Public Land
The odds of shooting a deer on public land are not only good, but pretty damn extraordinary if you follow our advice
You’ve heard the clichés about public-land deer: Walk farther, be smarter, and don’t get your hopes up. In an era of manicured private farms and ridiculously high expectations, the idea of pursuing mature bucks on nonexclusive dirt can seem laughable.
Here’s a reality check: Public properties from coast to coast produce great deer every year. Further, some folks have become incredibly proficient at hunting such spots, and it’s not because they rely on secret tactics. Instead, they base their approaches on experience, innovation, and hard-earned knowledge.
Bucks From the Big Woods to the Midwest
Todd Mead, of Queensbury, New York, grew up in the deer-poor, hunter-heavy Adirondack Mountains, and for years has consistently killed big bucks on public land from the Northeast through the Midwest. He’s written three deer hunting books: Backcountry Bucks, A Lifetime of Big Woods Hunting Memories, and the recently released Pursuing Public Land Bucks.
“Everyone has their own style,” he says. “Hunting on private land just isn’t me. When I sit on a food plot, I’m bored out of my skull.”
Mead doesn’t just hunt public land out of principle. Actually, he views public whitetail hunting a bit differently than many folks. “I hunt public land because I believe a lot of it is actually less pressured than the vast majority of private land across the country,” he says. “It’s just a matter of finding areas that are overlooked.”
Mead acknowledges that human pressure can make public-land deer more difficult to hunt than their private-land cousins, but he believes many hunters give public whitetails too much credit.
“I’m not sure that deer on public land are any smarter,” he says. “There are just more people they have to contend with. They find their own hiding spots, and a lot of guys overlook these spots. Magazine articles and videos, usually say to go as far as you can from people. But I tell hunters to just hunt overlooked areas.”
Specifically, Mead looks for thick cover on public areas other hunters aren’t using. Then, he’ll explore those spots, crawling on his hands and knees if necessary. “Private-land hunters say, ’Don’t go into the bedding areas,’” he says. “That’s the first thing I do. People freak out about going in the woods. I say, ‘Why not?’ I try to look for sign in all the hiding spots a deer would use to get away from a little bit of pressure.”
While scouting, Mead looks for areas with several large scrapes and spots where runways come together—areas that likely attract multiple bucks. In the Midwest, he focuses on finding licking branches, as bucks typically return to those spots. If areas with heavy sign border thick cover, they’re gold mines, and Mead knows he can eventually kill a deer there.
If Mead thinks an area looks promising, he might return to set up climbing sticks and a hang-on stand. However, he’s also killed many public-land bucks while sitting on the ground, making sure to set up at a large tree that will hide him from a buck’s likely approach route.
Mead also uses trail cameras. He typically hunts with his father and a friend, and they run more than 50 cameras at multiple areas — including about 17 in the Adirondacks — to find areas where bucks move during daylight. The images they compile reveal up-to-the-minute information, making it easier to stay abreast of deer movement and patterns at many locations.
“If you have a big buck that shows up on the camera, he’s probably coming back there next year during the same time frame,” he says.
Mead traces much of his success to hard work and dogged persistence. For example, if he notices a lot of hunter activity at a wildlife area on the side of a mountain, he’ll walk several miles to the backside of the mountain to avoid the crowd. And he rarely takes a day off of hunting, knowing that dedication and time on stand ultimately result in success.
Pottenger’s Power Plays
Troy Pottenger lives in Idaho’s Panhandle region and hunts public-ground bucks throughout the Northwest and Midwest—from 5-acre parcels in Iowa to million-plus-acre tracts of land near his home. Pottenger also works with Lone Wolf Custom Gear and Buck Fever Synthetics, and films for Whitetail Addictions. He targets older deer, and all but one of the bucks he’s killed over the past 20 years were 5 years old or older.
“I can’t remember the last time I hunted private land,” says Pottenger. “I don’t like fences and property lines. If I want to kill a big buck, I want to be able to go after him.”
And that, he says, requires substantial effort to find areas where public-land deer feel safe and he can avoid competition from other hunters.
“It really all boils down to pressure,” he says. “I’ve watched deer behave differently and be more tolerant in areas with less pressure. I think you get away with a lot more on an unpressured deer than you do on a deer that’s savvy. Sometimes, I’ll set a stand and a buck comes through later that day.
“I just play off of human competition and try to avoid it. I hunt some pretty secure travel routes for deer that not a lot of other people will hunt. I target places where deer still move during daylight and where they feel safe, and those are not always easy places to get to.”
Pottenger says his primary strategies differ from those used by most hunters. Like many hunters, he runs multiple trail cameras during the season and off-season. But while hunting, he focuses on finding large community scrapes, often deep in the woods, where deer feel safe enough to check them during daylight. Typically, he finds those areas near security cover, off the beaten path along large timbered ridges where several doe travel areas intersect.
“I hunt deer from August 30 through January on licking branches,” he says. “I only target maybe 10 percent of the scrapes in the woods, and those are the big community scrapes that all the deer in the area use and have used for generations.”
If Pottenger can’t locate a community scrape, he’ll make a mock scrape, often in areas with great security cover and where rubs and other sign indicate high deer usage. He’ll go into great detail to create a scene that closely resembles a community scrape, enhancing it with Buck Fever scent. Soon, several bucks usually start marking and checking the area.
“Those big mature bucks really come back during daylight, looking for the buck that just invaded their territory,” he says. “They want to see who the new dude is checking out their girls. It’s fun to watch it work.”
Pottenger says his stand sites are typically very close to security cover where big deer bed. Usually, when he’s hunting in the mountains, he’ll place a stand 200 to 300 yards away from a bed, and in the Midwest, he’ll place one 100 to 150 yards away. He pays close attention to the wind patterns—especially thermals in hilly or mountainous areas.
The Best Places to Hunt Public Land Deer in the U.S.
Don’t be afraid to chase public-dirt bucks this fall. Your success might not rival the achievements of Mead and Pottenger, but you’ll likely learn a ton about the habits of deer and become a far better hunter. And any buck you drag from public land will be a special trophy. Here are some places to try.
Designated bowhunting-only state properties.
Varied opportunities abound at state wildlife areas, including properties in coastal marshes or upland forest areas. Some areas are bowhunting only, some have mandatory antler restrictions, and others require hunters to hunt from established stands.
Much of northern Maine—including the North Maine Woods region—offers ample public hunting.
State forests and wildlife management areas in the western part of the state offer traditional mountain hunting for whitetails. Properties in eastern Maryland offer more flatland opportunities. Public lands on the lower Eastern Shore also offer the chance to hunt sika deer.
The Wachusett Reservoir and Sudbury Reservoir lands were just opened to deer hunting, so they have higher deer numbers than surrounding public areas.
This state offers abundant public access.
Deer management zones 5 through 19, 36, 49, 50, and 51 have the highest populations of deer.
The Adirondack Mountains in northern New York and the Catskill Mountains in southeastern New York offer thousands of square miles of wilderness hunting.
Susquehannock State Forest in Potter County.
Arcadia, Big River, and George Washington management areas.
Birdseye Wildlife Management Area.
Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area and the William B. Bankhead National Forest produce some of the biggest public-land bucks each year. Barbour WMA is also a great public area for adult bucks.
Mike Freeze Wattensaw WMA or Freddie Black Choctaw Island WMA Deer Research Area.
Central Florida: Ocala and Three Lakes Wildlife management areas are large properties that don’t require quota permits, and many hunters find success there. Camp Blanding WMA is another large management area, with many days during the general gun season open to first-come, first-served daily quota permits. Twin Rivers and Guana River WMA also offer multiple types of quota hunts.
Northern Florida: Blackwater WMA is a large area with quota and non-quota hunts. Joe Budd WMA archery and muzzleloader quota hunts also offer good opportunities for mature bucks.
The Hilliard Plantation Tract of the Chattahoochee Fall Line WMA is a relatively new area that the state is shifting toward a premier public land-hunting experience.
Big Rivers WMA in Crittenden and Union counties, in the Green River Region, consistently stands out. It’s mostly a quota-only draw.
This state has ample public opportunity on state and federal lands. Public lands in the northeastern part of the state on the protected side of the Mississippi River remain some of the most productive. However, large pine-dominated forests in western Louisiana produce good numbers of deer and have a lower number of hunters relative to eastern spots.
Large game lands with remote areas that must be accessed by on foot or by boat are solid bets.
Check out the Webb Wildlife Management Area complex, which is comprised of three adjoining WMAs: Webb, Hamilton Ridge, and Palachucola. Hamilton Ridge and Palachucola WMAs are in the SCDNR’s Lottery Hunts Program but are generally open (no drawing) during the late-September-to-early-October archery-only season.
Cheatham WMA is a popular property that produces quite a bit of success, with a mixture of quota and non-quota hunts. Hiwassee and Yuchi wildlife refuges have growing deer herds the state would like to reduce, so those areas are good for hunters seeking antlerless deer. Because of its small size, Yuchi Refuge has all-quota hunts, so you must apply. Hiwassee Refuge also has quota hunts but has a non-quota archery hunt.
Most Department of Game and Inland Fisheries WMAs offer good deer hunting opportunities.
The Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.
Dixon Springs State Park in southern Illinois will roughly double its huntable acreage this fall. In northern Illinois, Redwing Slough Lake will open to youth hunters this year. Central-Illinois hunters can check out public lands along the Illinois River, including Anderson Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area, Sand Ridge State Forest, and Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area.
Hunt the Yellowwood State Forest and the Hoosier National Forest. Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area in the northeastern part of the state has one of the largest deer harvests on a state fish and wildlife area.
The Stephens and Yellow River state forests.
Seek overlooked parts of public lands or walk-in hunting access properties.
Check public spots in Wexford, Missaukee, Gladwin, and Ogemaw counties.
Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area offers 41,000 acres of hunting ground in the remote northwestern part of the state.
Look for large tracts of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Missouri Department of Conservation manages numerous public lands throughout the state, some of which allow method-specific hunts.
Check out properties enrolled in the state’s Open Fields and Waters program, many of which might be overlooked for deer hunting because they’re not primary deer habitat or are signed up for upland bird habitat.
Look into properties that are in the state’s Public Land Open To Sportsmen program.
The Tranquility State Wildlife Area in northern Adams County covers about 4,500 acres and offers a good mix of habitats, including hardwood ridge tops, cedar thickets, prairie fields, and some row crops.
Check out state walk-in program properties.
The state features quality public lands in every county, including state wildlife and fisheries areas, plus national, state, and county forests.
Idaho is comprised mostly of public lands. More than 62 percent of the state is federally managed public land—mostly national forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service and mountainous and desert rangelands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks works with willing landowners to provide hunting access.
The entire state features a huge amount of public land.
Check out the state’s interactive and searchable Hunt Regulation Webmap.
Look for remote public areas, of which there are many.
Arizona is almost 70 percent public land, including state forests and properties managed by the Arizona State Land Department, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Check out the “Where to Hunt” section at azgfd.com/Hunting/Units.
The Ruby Mountain Wilderness Area 10 and Toiyabe Range Area 17.
The Jemez Mountains in the Santa Fe National Forest are a great spot to hunt mule deer. Recent habitat work and wildfires have greatly improved forage conditions and cover for deer, and herd numbers are improving.
The Kaw and Three Rivers WMAs, and the Black Kettle National Grasslands.
National forest land in the eastern portion of the state is a great place for people without access to private land. Kerr, Matador, Chaparral, Elephant Mountain, Mason Mountain, and Gus Engeling WMAs offer popular draw hunts for hunters seeking quality bucks.
The Central Mountains Manti Unit.