Photo by: Charles Alsheimer

Many Midwestern deer hunters make the mistake of overlooking public land. Stereotyped as small chunks of crowded last resorts, public parcels in the Midwest are often misunderstood. The truth is, millions of acres of public lands across the Midwest produce trophy-­class whitetail bucks each fall.

Conservation Areas, fish and wildlife areas, state forests, national forests, and wildlife refuges are all managed in some capacity for wildlife by their respective agencies, making these lands some of the best habitat around. Bucks don’t know if the property they inhabit is public or private. What they do know is that when hunting pressure is applied, they must retreat to the most remote areas they can find.

In agricultural portions of Midwestern states, where some of the largest deer in the country roam, the majority of the land is fragmented into woodlots ranging in size from a few acres to a couple hundred. The larger portions of land are agricultural fields. Public lands, like Conservation Areas, are typically 1,000 to 5,000 acres. Hunters might pressure these properties, but they are also the largest expanses of continuous and remote cover around. Mature bucks have learned to avoid hunters in order to survive. If you want to tag a public-land monster, then you have to figure out where to look.

Know Your Neighbors

Take a midday ride around the perimeter of a public parcel on a hunting-season Saturday and you’ll likely learn where hunting pressure is being applied on surrounding private lands. Stopping and knocking on doors to ask for permission to hunt is a good idea, because even though you are likely going to be denied, you will find out if others are hunting there or if the landowner doesn’t allow hunting. Make this knowledge work in your favor.

If you know there is hunting pressure on bordering private land, scout the public land to figure out where deer will cross onto it once they’re bumped from the private ground. Be in your stand early enough to catch deer leaving the private land as hunters spook them while heading to their stands. Also, stay in your stand late enough in the morning to be in position to catch deer bumped by the private-land hunters on their way out.

Once you find a piece of private land that isn’t hunted, you may have located a sanctuary for deer that spend portions of their life on the public land. Again, position yourself where you would expect deer to cross onto the public from the private. Even though the private land is unpressured, you might catch a buck chasing a doe onto the public property or traveling for food. You also may be able to lure one to your stand with calling techniques.

Photo: John Hafner

Inside Corners

On Midwestern public land, you do have to expect that other hunters will move through your area at some point. When they do, they’ll likely move deer. Inside corners are a prime location to put a stand because nervous deer won’t cross an open expanse unless they must. They’ll move inside the cover, and if you’re on an inside corner, you’re covering two different directions from which they can come and go.

Inside corners are located on the edge of agricultural fields, pastures, and other zones where habitat changes. If you can locate an open bedding area back inside the timber, set your stand on the inside corner so you can shoot into the open area, but also cover the trails running inside the timber alongside the field.

Approach by Water

Many public properties in the Midwest surround lakes or run along a river. Few hunters will put in the effort to jump into a boat to motor or paddle their way to a deer stand.

Remember, most public-land hunters are only going to walk a couple hundreds yards from their car. When they do this, they will push deer back into the remote areas. If you slip into a stand from the water, then you can be set up and waiting in one of these areas that aren’t easily accessible from the road.