By Adam Crews
November is an exciting time for deer hunters — The rut is beginning, cold fronts are pushing in, and our anticipation is high. These variables often cause the most significant influx of hunters to storm the woods, and if you’re a public land hunter, that means competition.
One goal, for most public land hunters, is to find a way to beat the crowd and hunt unpressured deer. So how do you do find that hidden gem?
Thinking outside the box
Around 2008, I moved out of my home state in Tennessee and found myself without any private ground to hunt. The months leading up to deer season had me excited because of the new opportunity, and the new adventures that would await on a piece of ground I’d never hunted. But when opening day rolled around a new reality set in — I was going to have plenty of company. That first morning there were no less than ten vehicles in the area I’d scouted prior, and I had no clue where everyone was hunting.
I will assure you that if a piece of public ground is easy to access — there will be plenty of hunters that use that area. If you’ve found easy parking, and easy to walk trails, that is where the hunters will be. Deer know this, you know this, we all know it — and sometimes we’re even okay dealing with it because we get lazy.
But sometimes we’re not. There are times when we are willing to go the extra mile to discover a mature buck. Sometimes it takes a little grit to do something different, but you’re not alone — no doubt that 10-20% of other hunters are just as hungry, if not more, than you and me. They are trying to discover the same areas that are untouched by human pressure.
That’s when it takes thinking outside the box to find areas other hunters cannot access.
One of the top ways you can start leaving other hunters behind is by finding the water.
Many Wildlife Management Area’s have creeks running through it, or the WMA might border a Lake. The former will often offer very little walk-in access, and in both cases, the WMA might not reach out but a few hundred yards past the shoreline. This scenario creates the perfect obstacle that most are not willing to work around.
The challenge for hunters
Water access only creates a real problem for many hunters because they do not own a boat, kayak or canoe. If they do own a boat, many are hesitant to leave it stranded while they venture off to hunt for hours at a time. In the case of the kayak and canoe hunters, they also have unique challenges: equipment, time prepping gear, hauling gear and the amount of time it takes to paddle a mile or more to their treestand location.
Not only that, but consider the opportunity cost of putting in all of that effort just to come home empty-handed. If you have the wrong attitude going in, then this type of hunting could burn you out quick. If you go in with an approach of creating a new adventure and learning a unique style to hunt — this might be right up your alley.
Where to look
Learning where to start is more than half of the battle in finding success when hunting water access areas. This style of hunting will require a significant amount of time commitment getting to and from areas. Not to mention, many new challenges (i.e., staying dry).
I use two tools to scout before I ever touch the ground:
1. Google Earth because it gives you great detail from an aerial perspective.
2. OnXMaps because of the landowner feature and I can also view the map in hybrid, topo, and aerial views. I can even share the waypoints with friends and family for safety purposes.
When using these tools, you need to know what to look for when virtual scouting:
Hard to reach access: Any ground that is accessible only by a vessel. When using this approach, remember that you’re not the only hunter in the woods doing this. Because of this, it’s also important to identify areas that are over one mile from the boat launch. Some of the more dedicated will hit the water, but not all will paddle past one mile.
Transition lines: When I’m looking at an aerial photo I automatically go thru, and mark the different transition lines. These lines represent a break in the habitat, and deer love traveling in these areas.
Topographical changes: Many lakes will have cliffs, so that is one thing you should consider and avoid. But you can also watch where the cliff starts tapering down and hunt this feature as a terrain funnel. Then, I will go through and locate fingers, spurs, and all the saddles that are on the WMA as these areas will produce deer.
Agriculture: This is a tough one because it will draw more hunters, but for excellent deer hunting — you need food. When I’m looking at this particular area, I’m usually looking for thick vegetation to hunt nearby instead of hunting over the field in hopes of catching a deer from bed to food.
If hunting water access only deer were easy, everyone would be doing it, but the reality is — most are not. This style of hunting could give you an upper hand on the competition and surprise the deer!
This November, consider picking up a paddle and floating your way to big bucks.