I have been a deer hunter for my entire life. Well, at least from the time I was tall enough to keep a gun off the ground and most of those years I have hunted on public ground. In fact, I still hunt mostly on public ground even though I own a small amount of acreage. It just so happens that my land is surrounded by The Mark Twain National Forest which is a huge chunk of The Ozarks that encompasses 2,331 square miles in mostly Southeast Missouri. The forest is wide open to all types of hunting and some areas attract large numbers of un-landed deer hunters. Most of the deer that I have killed over the past 40 years has been on public land in several different Missouri Conservation areas. So what is the secret to hunting on public areas?
First and foremost: Know the area you are going to hunt. You have to spend time in the woods. A lot of time! Or hunt with someone who does know the area. When I hunt a new area I start by getting a good topo map. The best is to order one from the U.S. Geographical Survey office. They cost about $10.00 per map. You have to know the legal description of the area you want to hunt, range and township. You can also get an area map from the county tax collector’s office that shows property boundaries and section numbers of the entire county. Each section is one square mile, so make sure that you order maps that cover the sections you want to hunt. These maps offer a wealth of knowledge. With practice and developing map reading skills you will save a lot of time. Some of the things to look for is obvious like roads around and through the area. Somewhat more subtle things are low saddles in long ridge, ridge points, steep ground and bluffs, choke points where tree lines meet, old fields, any streams or ponds and other topographical feature that either attract or repel deer. This can narrow your scouting down to a manageable size even in a large area. My favorite topo features are saddles, points and benches that run around a steep sided ridge. In the Ozarks, these benches are quite common and often lay right below what is referred to as the military crest of a hill. ( See sample map at the end of this article as a reference.) After this review, get on the ground as often as possible and mark the favorable spots that you find on your map.
Second: Be prepared to go the distance. Most hunters don’t get very far off the road. Very few actually scout the area and most fear killing a deer very far from easily accessed points. Get to your selected spot early. Beat the less dedicated into the woods and know your spot well enough to get there quietly and easily. If you are set up early, there is a good probability the late arrivers stumbling into the woods will drive deer in your direction. You never know where other hunters may be when the sun comes up, but your chances of not seeing a forest of hunter orange is directly proportional to your distance from the road. In spite of this, you may find yourself surrounded by orange when the sun comes up; particularly if it is the first time you have hunted an area. If that should happen make sure you make yourself extremely visible to the other hunters and get out of there. Always have a Plan B and Plan C.
Third: Don’t follow the typical pattern of most hunters. It always amazes me that by 10:00 A.M. opening morning at least half of the hunters have headed back to camp for breakfast. I’ve killed a lot of deer between 10:00 and 2:00. All of that moving around will once again drive deer even deeper into the forest. Watch for that to happen. Be prepared to retrieve your deer. A deer cart at the least makes life easier if there is no access by an ATV. In Missouri, you can quarter your deer and carry it out a piece at a time if necessary. It does have to be called in and registered with the Missouri Department of Conservation prior to quartering it and carrying it out. Check your conservation department’s policy prior to doing this.
Fourth: Get in the thick of it. The later in the season the deeper you have to go. Deer have a propensity to head for the thickets as soon as the shooting starts. Find the trails that go into these places. Look for cedar thickets or clear cut areas that have grown up with saplings. The thicker the better. If you can’t walk through it, the deer love it. Set up where they go in and watch those trails. At daybreak, they will be heading in and just before dark they will be coming out heading for their favorite browsing area. If there is a good stand of white oak or a brushy old field close by a thicket, you are set.
Fifth: Believe in your plan and stick to it. It is easy to waiver in your commitment to a particular stand if you don’t see anything right away. Patience is a virtue. Don’t give in to that old thought that the grass may be greener just over the hill. If you have done your homework and know deer are using the area around your stand, stay put. The earliest I would move would be the next day. It is sometimes hard to know if deer are coming to your spot in the morning or evening or just passing through at some other time of the day. Using game cameras on trails can help pinpoint those times if you have the time and money to invest.