How to Scout for Overlooked Whitetail Hotspots on Public Land

How to Scout for Overlooked Whitetail Hotspots on Public Land

Whether you’re dealing with over-the-counter elk out West, or whitetails back East, the main public land strategy has been to get as far away from easy access as possible.

This works, until it doesn’t.

Out west, the outfitter with the horses can walk you down without even trying. This makes those dreamy elk drainages that are located seven miles deep, just as accessible as the aspen shoots right above the trailhead. With whitetails, this task is even harder due to the reality that most of the public that deer live on, is a fraction of the size of western parcels.

If you take a 30,000-foot view of this situation, it might seem impossible to get away from the crowds. It’s not, it just takes a different mindset and a willingness to scout—a lot.

Mapwork Matters

Finding overlooked whitetail spots starts with e-scouting. I don’t think there is a better use of onX than this, to be honest. A big-picture look at your ground gives you the access points, the trails, the easy terrain (and the nightmare terrain) all in one comprehensive picture.

If you know where the people are going to start the day, you can predict where many of them will spend their time. They aren’t going to get super far off of the trails. They are going to sit the openings. They will flock to obvious spots like food and water sources.

Much of this will be visible to you before you ever leave the comfort of your house. Once you start to figure this out while e-scouting, adopt a different mindset. One that relies on in-person scouting, while targeting areas with the right sign.

A Matter of Distance

The folks griping about how crowded public land is, are often the folks who want a hunt to happen where they want it to happen. But that’s not how hunting works, especially when it comes to pressured animals. They are where you find them.

In other words, they are where you mostly aren’t.

With deer, it’s not a matter of getting five miles into a National Forest as much as it is making an educated guess on where the pressure is likely to be concentrated. Then, you move a layer deeper into the cover. Or, you wade across a swamp to a spot that just isn’t that much fun to get to.

It’s not about simply getting far away from the parking areas, fields, and easy-to-walk trails. It’s about being in the cover, where movement takes work. This might be three miles deep in some places, and it might be 200 yards in others.

Deer, just like elk out West, leave you enough sign to show you where they are concentrated. If you want to find a hotspot now, get out and find that sign. Also, take note of where sign is in the immediate pre-season. You’ll find concentrations of it in the easy-to-access spots. This is because summertime deer are lazy, and they aren’t being hunted yet. In most cases, it doesn’t take long after opening weekend before you’re hunting ghosts in these areas.

Think Small, Hunt Small

People who want to become better archers, should aim small so they miss small, the old adage says. Likewise, people who want to kill bucks on public land where the competition is fierce, should think small and hunt small.

We often overestimate the amount of ground we need to be able to see when we set up. We overestimate the amount of willows along a river a buck needs for a bedding area. We think of woodlots and swamps as whole pieces of the landscape, without ever breaking them down into small, huntable chunks.

The average whitetail is intimately familiar with a section of land. He knows the patch of cover along the creek that no one wades into, which also gives him a good chance to stay hidden while monitoring all two- and four-legged predators. He knows about the bench covered in multiflora rose that only the late-season rabbit hunters will step into.

These tiny, microhabitats are the key to a deer’s survival. They use them to stay warm in the winter, cool and bug-free in the summer, and alive all season long when a bunch of hunters are trying to shoot them.

Do your mapwork. Think about proximity to easy access. Get out and cover ground, while looking for pounded trails, beds, and anything that signals habitual deer usage of certain locations. There are hotspots out there, even in the most heavily hunted parcels, you just need to find them.

For more information on scouting pre-season whitetails, check out these pieces: The Fool’s Gold Of Deer Scouting, Summer Trail Camera “Do Nots,” and How To Summer Scout For Public Land Whitetails.

Feature image via Captured Creative.

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