Tips from The Hunting Public: How to Hunt Whitetails in Public Land River Bottoms
Aaron Warbritton of the THP on what he learned from hunting Wyoming whitetails on public ground
It’s every whitetail hunter’s dream to spend their fall traveling the country, chasing deer in unique locations, and utilizing a variety of different tactics. That’s exactly what the popular YouTube channel, The Hunting Public, does on their “Deer Tour” each fall. This team of hunters spends almost every day afield from September into the late-season. They know a thing or two, because they’ve seen a thing or two. To help share the knowledge, we’ll be sitting down with them after each stop and getting into the details on what they learned from each hunt. Most of their trips focus on public land hunting (obviously) but these tips and tactics will be useful to private land hunters, too.
For the first stop of the Deer Tour, the THP crew set out to Wyoming on an early season archery whitetail hunt with Aaron Warbritton behind the bow. They chose to target river bottom terrain, which provided the deer with ample bedding and a diverse habitat. With those factors on their side, the next step was to locate a good buck and get in close, which is easier said than done. Here are three lessons they learned on their first hunt of the year.
Understand Wind Behavior in River Bottoms
The crew arrived a few days prior to the season opener to scout some public land. Finding mature bucks proved more difficult than expected, but they persevered and ended up finding a river bottom loaded with canary grass and cottonwoods tucked alongside some rock bluffs.
As they were scouting, they noticed that they were bumping deer out of the bottom. They were having issues with light and variable winds which were swirling and pooling their scent down into the river bottom both in the mornings and evenings, even against the thermals.
“We always set up with the weather forecasted day winds in our favor,” says Warbritton. “But because it was light and variable, the wind might be good 80 percent of the time, but when it kicks, it’ll run up and down the river bottom and before you know it, you’re getting smelled down in there and busting deer out, and since we’re filming, that scent is multiplied with each person.”
To combat that, they chose to set up on knobs to glass from farther distances. This allowed their scent to carry, but not hit the bottoms where deer were bedded. They leaned heavily on their Vortex spotting scopes during the mornings and evenings trying to spot deer movement from almost a mile away.
They chose to glass from a distance, knowing that there weren’t many other hunters in the area. Through diligent glassing they were able to learn deer patterns and movements. Without other hunters pushing deer, it was likely their patterns wouldn’t change much from day to day.
“Once you find one, it’s not super difficult to keep tabs on them and you’ve got him to yourself,” Warbritton says.
On the third day of the hunt, the crew decided to bail off the high knob they were glassing from and get in closer. It wasn’t ideal looking through the tree canopy of the cottonwoods below, so they were only able to look through patches in the cover. With prevailing winds finally arriving, they could make a play on the river bottom without the wind blowing their scent to the deer.
Focus on Mid-Morning Movement
The crew learned that even in the sweltering hot conditions, the best movement was mid-morning when the winds picked up. Deer would stay bedded after daylight and wait for the day winds before moving to their mid-day bedding areas.
This goes against common knowledge for most whitetail hunters, as daybreak and last light movement seem to be the norm, but Warbritton has a theory for why these river bottom whitetails were taking a different approach.
“I think it might be because of the dead calm of daybreak,” he says. “They can see and hear everything around them and they’re preoccupied with that. When the wind is blowing, all of those senses are muted, making them less wary.”
The biggest takeaway? Don’t give up on your hunt during calm mornings, wait for the day winds to pick up. You’ll see more movement as deer shift their bedding areas for the day with a stable prevailing wind.
Warbritton and the crew spotted a nice buck mid-morning on the third day and followed him as long as they could until he bedded down in some thick cattails and canary grass in the river bottom. Knowing that this buck was bedded in a 150- to 200-yard area allowed them to devise a plan for their evening hunt.
The challenged was that there was nothing funneling the deer, they just meandered around and fed on natural browse. Through scouting, the crew noticed they favored the stands of young cottonwoods close to the creek, and when they got into those young cottonwoods, there’d be good pockets of bedding cover. It wasn’t large swaths of cover, but it was big enough to hold a deer or two.
When the evening hunt came around, the day winds were blowing at around 15 mph out of the southeast, coming right up the river. As Warbritton and cameraman Ted Zangerle got down into the bottom, they went straight into the wind toward the area they had last seen the buck. Their plan was to hang their tree saddle setup in a cottonwood overlooking the bedding area, about 300 yards from where they had last seen the buck.
As they approached the tree, they caught a glimpse of the buck feeding with a smaller buck where they had expected him to come out of the bedding area. This gave them options.
Option A: Get up into the tree with their saddles and observe the bucks feeding across the river bottom and hope for a shot.
Option B: Drop all of the saddle gear and make a play to get in range, spot-and-stalk style.
If you’ve watched The Hunting Public before, I’m sure you know which option they went with.
“We weren’t married to getting up into a tree with our saddles (Option A),” Warbritton says. “Once we got eyes on him, we realized it may be possible to stalk him with the conditions we had. With the wind blowing straight from him to us, we knew we wouldn’t have to worry about him catching our scent, and the winds were strong enough to cover our ground noise as we closed the distance.”
They dropped down into a ditch and hustled to him once they were out of sight. Walking the river bottom was creating a lot of noise and crunch because of the drought, but as they had predicted, the wind covered the noise.
As they closed the gap, they popped up along the edge of the ditch, using an old fallen tree as back cover and got within 70 yards of the feeding buck.
“He fed toward us for about 40 yards but I didn’t shoot,” Warbritton says. “I figured he was coming closer, but he turned and fed back into the cattails and bedded down.”
They chose to back out and glass him from the down-wind side. When the buck emerged with 20-minutes of legal light left, they ran back down into the ditch and got a shot opportunity with 15 minutes of light left.
“If we went in with the mindset that we had to hunt the tree, we never would have gotten a chance at him,” Warbritton says. “If it was calm, we would have had to have set up and not been able to sneak in on him, but the wind allowed us to make a move.”
By reading conditions on the fly, they were able to get into position for a shot opportunity. The wind (and the noise it created throughout the bottom) played a huge factor in their decision to close the gap on this buck, but another key was the ditch that provided them with enough of an elevation change to get out of sight when moving in.
The lesson here is simple. Always be aware of your surroundings and conditions and use whatever the landscape provides. There won’t ever be a “perfect” way to stalk a buck or set up over a deer trail, so be willing to make a change to your gameplan in the heat of the moment. Be willing to take a chance on stalking a buck if the conditions are conducive, and don’t get stuck in a rut of having the same game plan day in and day out. Sometimes you might make the wrong decision and be too aggressive, but when the conditions are right, it’s better to be aggressive and give yourself a chance, than to not make a move and never have a shot opportunity, Warbritton says.
Stay tuned through the season for more tips and tactics from The Hunting Public crew.