Mark my words: More and more bucks will be shot on public lands in the 21st century, and a few will be bigger than you can imagine. How can I be so certain? North America has fallen in love with managing deer, particularly so on private lands. Look at the facts. The Quality Deer Management Association has more than 40,000 members across the continent devoted to the practice of deer management. Companies such as Hunter’s Specialties and Mossy Oak have devoted enormous energies to food plot seeds, farm equipment and even property sales. And if you haven’t noticed, the pages of hunting magazines and Internet sites showcase more and more big bucks with almost unbelievable measurements.
Many trophies are the result of pampering whitetails on private lands. But even if you don’t have access to private holdings, the private-land management craze might be the best thing to happen for public-land hunters since the creation of the “walk-in” programs, which have added millions more acres into the public domain.
Here’s the overriding factor why private management pays off for some lucky public-land hunters: Unless you high fence a property, you simply can’t contain a wild whitetail from roaming. It’s in their nature. Young bucks disperse to find territories of their own, where mature bucks won’t bully them, and mature bucks are the goal of most private land managers so there more and more bullies. Mature bucks rarely turn down a confrontation, but young bucks routinely disperse to avoid conflict and find greener pastures characterized by fewer run-ins with old bucks.
Another factor researchers note is the nature of whitetails to disperse from areas of high-population densities to low-density areas. When a place gets overcrowded, whitetails look for some space.
But it’s not just the young bucks that have a wandering spirit. With more whitetails being managed for an older age class on private lands, it’s in the nature of mature bucks to disperse, especially when looking for a hot doe to breed. The goal of many deer managers is a one-to-one buck-to-doe ratio. On aggressively managed properties, this means less breeding for big bucks, and when a buck gets to breed only once a year, it increases the probability that bucks living primarily on private land will eventually walk right past a public land hunter.
Public Land Gems
Some states also deserve some credit for managing deer better in certain locales. Limited-quota hunts in specific hunting zones on public lands have been increasing the age of bucks. Specialized bowhunts, such as urban hunts in public parks, coupled with the lower success of bowhunting, also pushes the age class of whitetails higher. Toss in the fact that there are more whitetails than ever before in modern history and there’s good reason to consider public land for your next whitetail hunt.
If you don’t believe you have ample public land to hunt, maybe you’re not looking in the right location. The two heavyweights in the public land business are the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The National Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land throughout the United States, including forests and grasslands from east to west and north to south. The Bureau of Land Management has authority over 270 million acres. Granted, much of the BLM land is in the West and Alaska, but parcels can be found nationwide, it just takes sleuthing to discover if they have potential for whitetails.
States also administer vast tracts of public land, including states east and west of the Mississippi River. For example, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation provides more than 1.6 million acres of statewide wildlife management areas for hunters. The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources has 1.4 million acres under state control enrolled in their wildlife management area program.
Not only do states own land, but they’ve been savvy enough to lease land and open it to the hunting public in vast “walk-in” programs. States such as South Dakota have more than 1,000,000 acres enrolled, and similar programs can be found nationwide, especially in the bird-rich states of the middle nation. Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming and others offer walk-in lands that may cater to upland game hunters, but whitetails have discovered the properties as well.
Be sure to research the public lands in your backyard. Check with the public land agency for your state to review its catalog. Sometimes there are smaller tracts of public lands, such as those owned by school systems, open to hunting and situated squarely in the middle of large blocks of private land.
Have you considered hunting in a state park, a city park or even a federal wildlife refuge? Even though their names have a connotation for providing a safe haven, the breed-like-a-rabbit trait of whitetails requires even wildlife sanctuaries to use common sense in managing wildlife.
How about the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the lands they manage? These public lands are often associated with water projects, but the edge habitat they create is ideal for whitetails. One of my best whitetail hotspots borders a Corps’ project and the deer routinely travel between private and public land. Speaking of publicly owned land, many military bases now hold deer hunts to aid in keeping a balanced herd. Camp Ripley in central Minnesota and Fort Riley in northeast Kansas are just two to consider.
If you want to discover public land whitetail hideouts, your best resource is the Internet. State and federal agencies list their public land holdings on their websites, and provide maps and directions. Once you have an idea of where property is located, you can research and scout at home with programs such as Google Earth and Mapquest. These portals allow you to use satellite imagery to zoom in on hunting hotspots. In the old days you actually had to order aerial images, but everything you need to speed-read a hunting property is at your fingertips on the Internet.
The United States Geological Survey also has endless data available by linking to its website. It is one of the world’s largest online databases for free public maps and aerial photographs of the United States. Click onto your state and zoom in to get an astronaut view of your public land honey-hole.
Every public hunting area isn’t going to have a rosy picture. It’s your job to sort through them and distinguish the good from the bad. If you’ve been avoiding public lands in the past, I think you’ll discover there are better options than ever before.