Each year, K.C. Smith travels from his Texas town to states throughout the country in pursuit of public land whitetails. And each year, he punches a few tags. These are his top tips for traveling whitetail hunters.
Set Realistic Expectations While every whitetail hunter has dreams of tagging a 200-inch trophy on out-of-state public land, but Smith said you can’t count on such an opportunity and should adjust your expectations.
“I don’t think about trophy potential too much,” he said. “Realistically, I want to go up there and have a good hunt and kill a really respectable deer on public.”
If you can accept that states with over-the-counter tags and limited public access will mean a lack of age class, you can even have success on a 3-year-old in a place like Texas.
But the unpredictable challenge of chasing whitetails on public dirt just isn’t for everyone.
“It takes a certain value to be a traveling public land hunter,” Smith said. “You have to be able to appreciate what you’re doing, appreciate the landscape you’re in, appreciate the animals, and like it.”
Pick the Right When & Where Smith plays the points game in Iowa, but he prioritizes states with high tag availability and over-the-counter tags.
“I would rather spend my time scouting over-the-counter states and figuring something good out than spending a ton of time thinking about points and how to draw.”
He focuses on the season at hand, putting boots on the ground in the spring or summer as much as possible because crops and access points can change dramatically from year to year.
“Same-year scouting is super valuable,” he said. “Being on the ground is invaluable. You can’t map-scout that.”
Smith considers population density and how it plays into the amount of public land in a state. He says hunters underrate the amount of ground available to them, and you can still find pockets of deer in states with low densities but lots of public access.
Come fall, he hits the archery opener in states like South Dakota where he rarely bumps into another bowhunter. Hunting public land in a variety of states will help prepare you for when you finally draw that dream tag.
“Go hunt places that you have to find sign as opposed to interpret sign,” he says. “Go practice in a state that’s easier to draw or over-the-counter, that’s similar habitat, and learn how the deer interact there—it’s not going to be too different in Iowa or wherever you go.”
Push the Boundaries Smith says that while conventional whitetail wisdom dictates specific dates and locations for prime opportunities, these rules don’t always ring true across the board.
“There are so many arbitrary, imaginary lines that we place on ourselves that animals don't give a hoot about,” he said. “Don’t let human boundaries affect your deer hunting, in every sense of the word ‘boundary’—except for property lines.”
Deer will cross roads and even major interstates—and not just during the rut. Smith also believes there’s much more than just pre-rut, rut, and post-rut activity going on, and exact timing can vary from deer to deer.
“In any point in time in the month of November, you can have a buck who’s wanting to hang out with his buddies, you can have a buck that’s running around being crazy in zombie mode chasing does, and you can have a buck that’s hanging out with this girl making sure he is within five feet of her all day long,” he said.
Learn on the Fly & Adapt While Smith uses tools such as e-scouting apps and cellular trail cameras, he doesn’t bank solely on their intel and tweaks strategy when traveling to hunt public land on a tight schedule.
For example, he’ll find a piece of public ag land and hang a camera on an obvious trail where he’s confident deer are traveling at night. If he captures photos of a shooter, he’ll determine the direction that buck’s moving and head him off half a mile away during daylight.
“I try to be knowledgably aggressive,” he said. “You make the most aggressive move you can get away with and it'll still be a smart move”
But if the game plan fails, Smith says you can’t be afraid to scrap days of scouting and start all over.
“Being able to adapt and learn and change is super important. You cannot fall in love with a specific spot because honestly it’s not that you love it and think it’s a great place to kill a deer. It’s that you’re prideful and you think that you are smarter than the environment around you,” he said. “You have to put away the pride and do what it takes to maybe find a deer”
If you’re hunting where you have access to the whole state—as opposed to a single zone—set a deadline on an area and pull the plug if you’re not on a good deer with a set number of days.
Smith says you should never waste precious time for the sake of your ego and always be prepared with a solid backup. And that Plan B should be significantly different from your Plan A—not just a different spot in similar habitat.
No matter the end result, you’ll learn a lot.
“It’s all about accumulating knowledge,” he said. “And the way you do that is experience.”
For more tips on traveling to hunt public-land whitetails from K.C. Smith, listen to episodes 446 and 507 of the Wired To Hunt podcast.
Feature image via Captured Creative.