Public Land Bowhunting During The Pre Rut
By: Heath Wood
While participating in an October managed archery deer hunt in southern Missouri, my father, brother, and a few friends would all arrive a day before the two-day hunt to scout for the most deer sign to then be able to hunt that area throughout the weekend.
The large Missouri ranch consisted of nearly 24,000 acres. After entering a draw, three hundred bowhunters were selected to hunt for two days. When three hundred hunters take off from one location, nearby deer will likely feel hunting pressure.
Our group didn’t have much luck during the first few seasons we were drawn. Yet, I was intrigued at how a few hunters consistently scored a mature buck.
I loitered the area when visiting the conservation department check-in station, trying to learn the hunter’s secret. I questioned hunters about where they hunted and how far they traveled. Most of the bucks harvested during the two-day hunt were taken towards the back end of the ranch that bordered public land. The Missouri Department of Conservation owned the ranch we were hunting. However, everything inside the border fence (not a high fence) was prohibited from hunting, except during the two-day managed hunt. The deer inside the ranch fence were free-range deer that could easily travel from public land to the managed area as they pleased. During the two-day hunt, it seemed as if the ranch deer fled farther distances to avoid the hunting pressure, and that is where the hunters were able to harvest mature bucks.
Fast forward twenty-five years later, and I find myself hunting public land and reverting to those hunters who hiked deep into the timber to avoid pressure from other hunters to find bucks with the same idea. I am forever grateful to have lived my entire life in a small rural area in southern Missouri. In our area, many people’s way of life revolves around hunting and fishing.
When the November firearms portion of deer season occurs, our small rural area quickly becomes populated with hunters, ready to take on the ten-day season. Many of the public land in our area reminds me of the days we hunted the managed deer hunts with numerous other bowhunters. Every access point for miles typically has a vehicle parked and hunters nearby. For many years, I would become discouraged by the number of other hunters hunting private land. Little did I know, I was missing out on excellent hunting opportunities.
After contemplating public hunting opportunities near my home, I had a change of heart. I thought to myself, I should be glad that there are as many hunters who love the sport of deer hunting as I do. Never wanting to be pessimistic about fellow hunters, especially in the present time, our country needs as many hunters as possible. I also began searching for different times and tactics to how I could successfully hunt public land.
Beat The Crowd
Most visiting hunters who hunt public land transpire during the firearms season, near the rut, in early to mid-November. To gain an advantage, I try to hunt public land during pre-rut in mid-October. By hunting several weeks before the rut, I can hunt while deer are traveling on their natural travel routes instead of areas where they seek cover when hunting pressure has peaked. In mid-October, hunters can search large timber areas where acorns are falling, and deer feed heavily, preparing for the upcoming rut. Big timber areas are also ideal locations for hunters to find buck signs such as rubs and scrapes on hunting public land. I constantly look for food sources such as acorns and water from creeks or natural ponds. I also try to find draws, pinch points, and the side of ridges where bucks often travel out of sight. When I find good signs that bucks are nearby, I return with my Hawk Rival Lite Hang On, Helium Climbing Sticks, and bow. With the lightweight setup of the Rival Lite and Helium Climbing Sticks, I can easily backpack them into an area, hunt, and travel back out. Traveling with my equipment helps to avoid leaving my stand in place for other hunters to find my hunting area or, even worse, have my stand stolen, which unfortunately happens when hunting in public areas.
Pack Up and Go The Distance
My first choice is to hunt before others. However, when hunting in public areas where many others are doing the same as myself, I revisit the days of management hunts and follow in the footsteps of those hunters, putting on my Tenzing Lumber Pack, and walking into an area much farther than the average hunter. While walking beyond the average distance, I use a hunting map app such as OnX Maps. Again, I look for draws, pinch points, and ridges where bucks have likely relocated to avoid hunting pressure.
When hunting deep into an area, it is vital to pack for an entire day. If the hunter invests the extra effort to travel farther than others, only to hunt a couple of hours and then walk back out, the additional labor is pointless. Instead, pack a Tenzing pack with plenty to drink and a few snacks to last through several hours of hunting.
When hunting deep into a public land area, I choose to go into stealth mode. I do not use any calls, scents, or other tactics to lure deer. Instead, I wear quality clothing camouflaged from head to toe; it keeps me warm and dry for an extended period. The goal is to stay quiet and be patient. If the hunter stays invisible, often mature bucks ease their way through, trying to avoid pressure, providing the perfect opportunity to harvest one.
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