Lessons Learned: A Decade of Public-Land Whitetails

Video deer hunting on public land
Lessons Learned: A Decade of Public-Land Whitetails

Traveling to bowhunt public-land whitetails, whether solo or with some buddies, has reminded me just how much I love the mystery of new deer ground.

With nothing to lose, I tucked myself next to the base of a huge cottonwood tree and ranged a sagging, barbed-wire gate. A pounded deer trail perfectly bisected the lowest droop in the gate’s top strand. Over the past few days, I’d watched several deer use this crossing during my morning and evening glassing sessions.

My hope was for a buck I thought might be about 120 inches. The tall eight-pointer had been the most consistent buck at the crossing, and I knew that he was likely to keep to his routine, given it was early September.

Long before the sun set on that opening night in North Dakota, the buck did cross the river with his nose pointed toward the gate. Not only did I shoot him; I shot him poorly. But in a move I hadn’t seen before or since, he bedded in the middle of the river and gave me a redemption shot.

When I picked his head up out of the cloudy water of the Little Missouri River, I realized I was about 20 inches short on my estimation of his size. I also realized that not only was it possible to kill a buck on public land, but that my course as a bowhunter and outdoor writer had been set in a new direction.

The previous year, the housing market and the economy conspired to hand me a pink slip — ending my stint as a magazine editor. It was the push I needed to enter the world of full-time freelance writing.

To set myself apart from my competition, I’d decided I would focus on public-land whitetails. The market then felt like it was underserved by the hunting media. Today, of course, that’s a different story. At the very least, I figured it would serve me well business-wise while also making me a better hunter.

What I didn’t know was that bowhunting public-land whitetails would check all of those boxes, and many, many more.

Where To Next?

After killing one of my biggest bucks ever, with what amounted to minimal effort on my part, I started looking for more opportunities. Thinking that the North Dakota buck would set a precedent and wasn’t a fluke, I focused on hunting deer in the suburbs of the Twin Cities on public dirt. I also dedicated myself to researching states that would sell me an over-the-counter tag within about a half-day’s drive of my home state of Minnesota.

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In a decade spent bowhunting for public-land bucks, I learned that while it’s a grind, the rewards made my efforts well worth it.

Even with twin babies at home and the opportunity to only hunt during long weekends, the pull to go somewhere new and hunt deer on land that everyone has access to was strong. I honestly didn’t see that coming. I thought that bowhunting public land would serve as a useful strategy to make more money as a writer. But what it also did was stoke a fire in me to travel more.

The commitment to live in a tent and hang-and-hunt my way across new ground revived something in me that had gone mostly dormant by my hunting the same private parcels over and over. Don’t get me wrong. I loved that aspect of hunting, too. But traveling in search of public whitetails was different: It reminded me of so many days in my youth spent wading streams for trout and smallmouth bass, always anticipating what was around the next bend. My search for public-land whitetails had revived in me the old and welcome feeling of dislocation and contentment that would settle in when the sun set and my fishing buddies and I would realize just how far we were from where we’d started our day.

Hunting public whitetails also reminded me that it’s the mystery that makes it so special: Walking into a place where you’ve got no history with the deer, no trail-camera images, no buck inventory. It’s all just possibility and unanswered questions.

Seeking answers to the latter led me through the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and a few other states like Missouri and Iowa, where I scouted deer while hunting turkeys. While much of the whitetail world seemed to be shrinking, at least as far as access to hunting ground was concerned, mine grew by the season.

After a decade of wondering what’s next, I’d wrapped tags around the antlers of 20 public-land bucks, and added almost as many does to the cooler — all while learning a ton and not even scratching the surface of what’s available for all of us out there.

It quickly became clear that the value of millions of acres of whitetail ground that is open to anyone, is something none of us should take for granted, even though I had for much of my deer-hunting career.

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Public-Land Lessons

After spending 10 seasons hunting deer on public land, my beliefs that hunting pressure was the number-one enemy to success were solidified. I honestly think you can take any number of human hunters and four-legged predators together, and that combined total will affect deer behavior. The more pressure deer get — from both humans and natural predators — the tougher the hunting will be.

When it comes to any type of bowhunting, hunting pressure is the number-one enemy of success. This is no more noticeable than when you spend time trying to kill a deer in wolf country.

This is also highly variable and dependent on the type of predators the deer encounter. When I started hunting in North Dakota, the deer there didn’t seem to understand someone might be so sneaky as to climb a tree to kill them. They just didn’t look up much. However, if you tried to kill a buck from the ground, it was a different story.

In northern Wisconsin, where hunter density is high and wolves, coyotes, bobcats, and bears all have deer on the menu, it’s very easy to get busted — no matter your setup. In fact, I almost count on getting caught drawing whenever I’m hunting there, because I almost always do. I’d go so far as to say that a big-woods whitetail, whether close to the Canadian border or living in southern swamps, is one of the toughest bowhunting challenges out there.

No matter where you hunt, public forays will teach you how to really pay attention to the pressure. Sure, you’ve got to scout fresh sign and try to figure out the deer, but if you’re not in tune to what is going on predator-wise, you’re in trouble. Survival is a deer’s most motivating factor, and they are very good at it.

This is one of the reasons why mobile hunting has become so popular these days. Aside from it just being a necessity due to different state laws regarding stand usage, it’s a way for us to adapt to the daily reactions whitetails make to pressure. The luxury of creating a good ambush spot doesn’t exist on public ground. The burnout factor for areas is high, and it doesn’t matter who sets fire to any given area: The deer will respond, and then it’s time to start over.

Big Deer Are Out There

I’ve heard a lot of bowhunters say that big bucks don’t exist in any real numbers on public land. It doesn’t matter what state you consider; this is a common belief. In my experience, it’s also dead wrong. I’ve been lucky enough to kill quite a few bucks in the 125 to mid-150 range on public land, and I’ve also personally laid eyes on a few true monsters.

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In fact, of the legitimate 160-class bucks that I’ve seen while hunting, almost all have been on public land. They’ve been in the big timber of northern Wisconsin, the plains of the Dakotas, in crazy spots in Oklahoma, and throughout various properties in sleeper states like Nebraska.

They are out there, but it’s harder to believe without the easy option to run trail cameras. It’s also a mental thing for many of us, where we go to public land expecting a shot-out deer herd. If that’s our launchpad, it’s easy to fizzle out and not hunt the way we need to. In this case, our beliefs become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Better than the fact that big bucks are out there, is the simple reality that enjoyable hunts are available. I’d trade the chance for a 180-class buck any day, if it meant I’d have consistent deer activity to work with, and the confidence that when I walked into the woods, I’d at least get to watch deer.

That might be the most surprising takeaway from dedicating so much time to public land. It’s not always a grind. It can be, of course. But just like hunting varies from state to state and parcel to parcel on private land, it also does on public land as well. I will add the caveat that enjoyment is generally tied to a willingness to put in day-to-day effort during the season, as well as in the off-season.

Maybe the real lesson here is that even if it is a grind, it’s still way better than not hunting.


Public-land bowhunting is not for everyone. Not everyone likes hitting the woods with a crowd of like-minded bowhunters. That’s okay, just as it’s okay to get addicted to the challenges and feelings of accomplishment for arrowing a whitetail on ground where anyone can hunt.

Maybe the greatest lesson I’ve learned after a decade of hunting this way is that not only is the whitetail a gift, so is public land. The fact that the two exist together in so many different states, during a time when access to hunting land is one of our biggest threats, only makes it worth that much more.

So. Much. More.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>