By Bernie Barringer
Whitetail deer have been a passion of mine since I started bowhunting nearly 45 years ago. A couple decades ago, I began to combine my interest in mature whitetail bucks with the thirsty boots I seem to have been born with. I have always had a great desire to see what’s just over the next hill. Traveling to other states to hunt deer started slowly at first, but then blossomed into a full-blown addiction.
I have had the good fortune to hunt whitetails in quite a few states, some successfully, some – well, let’s just say I have learned from each trip. One of the most important things I have learned is that I can do more trips if I save money. I have nothing against outfitted hunts, but they do not produce the same level of satisfaction that I get from a DIY hunt. In fact, the majority of my hunts these days take place on public land.
Allow me to offer you five important points that should help you increase your odds of being successful on a money-saving DIY hunt.
Choose Your Location Wisely
Once you start digging into the options, you will find there are a lot of excellent places to go where you can have a successful DIY hunt on a budget. First you must ask yourself some probing questions about what you want to get out of the hunt. What are you willing to pay for a tag? How long are you willing to accumulate preference points before going on a hunt? Are you interested in an early season hunt, a rut hunt or a late-season hunt.
The possibilities are complex; far more than we could cover on these pages. Here are just some examples. For an early season hunt where the deer are still unpredictable, late-summer feeding patterns, options like Montana, Wyoming, Kentucky, North Dakota and Nebraska are good choices because they each have seasons that start on or about September 1st. Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Ohio offer excellent rut hunting opportunities. A big buck could come walking through the hardwoods at any moment during the first two weeks of November.
Getting a tag is another issue. It might take you 3-4 years to draw a tag in one of Iowa’s most desirable zones, but tags are available over the counter in nearby Missouri. With preference points and fees, an Iowa tag is going to set you back about $700, while Missouri offers two deer and two turkey tags for $250. Wisconsin, South Dakota and Indiana offer similar bargains. Predictably, the hunting pressure on public land is much higher in Missouri than it is in Iowa.
Another factor to consider is the style of hunt. Do you want to experience something very different than you have at home or would you rather stay within your hunting style comfort zone? There are lots of options to explore, so the key is to decide what kind of a hunt you are looking for and start the planning process.
Once you have determined the state you want to hunt, use B&C and P&Y data to determine which general area has the best potential to put you in front of a mature buck. Internet research will lead you to more specific areas to check out. Using aerial photography helps cut down on the learning curve for a new area.
I spend a lot of time looking at aerial photos of public hunting lands. I am looking for off-beat locations that look good. I want to have a list of places that may be potential bedding areas, feeding areas and terrain features that might funnel deer travel during the rut.
I want to know how much hunting pressure a property is likely to get and the best way to find that out is to ask people from the area. Calls to biologists and conservation officers are an important part of this decision-making process. Be sure to ask about hunting pressure other than just the deer hunters. Are coon hunters running the property at night? Are small game hunters walking through it during the weekends? These will affect deer behavior.
Once you have arrived, it’s important to lay eyes on all those places we looked at online. I hunt much more aggressively than I do back home. I have a short time to make something happen, usually a week to ten days. I will check out bedding areas and walk the property out before getting in a stand. I want to know as much as possible before I ever start hunting. I will get scouting cameras out and check them every day.
Knowledge of the property cannot be overstated. Early on, I couldn’t wait to get in a tree stand. As soon as I found a great looking spot, maybe an area all tore up with rubs and scrapes, I put up a stand and started hunting. Over time, I have learned that I have better success if I wait until I know the area well before getting in a stand, especially during the rut. Success can require long hours of sitting in a tree and if you don’t have confidence that you are in the right spot, staying put is a lot harder. That confidence comes from a thorough familiarity with the deer movements and terrain.
One mistake many hunters make is to focus their efforts on finding a place to hunt without spending enough time finding the right route to and from the stand. When you are scouting, think about how you can sneak into the stand and sneak back out with a minimum of intrusion. Big bucks living on public land become masters at patterning the humans who arrive at the property. Find ways to keep a low profile from the deer and other hunters.
Most people who hunt at home go out a couple evenings a week and on the weekend. Some hunters might be surprised at the effort it takes to hunt hard from daylight to dark every day for a week or more. After a few days, especially if the weather is making things difficult, the temptation to hit the snooze button can be very strong. It can be hard to stay motivated.
One of the best ways to stay motivated is to be planning at least a day ahead all the time. Don’t go to the stand one evening not knowing where you are going to hunt the next morning. The time to set up a location for the following morning has past. Keep trying new things in new areas so your enthusiasm is high from seeing new sign and you remain optimistic. One of the best ways I have found to keep my optimism at a high level is to keep checking those scouting cameras and keep them on great spots. Seeing photos of nice bucks always helps me slip on my boots and step out into the cold with a positive attitude each morning.
Remind yourself that you waited a long time for this hunt and you are going to regret it for a long time if you do not give it your all.
Outdoor television has provided a fertile ground for many hunters to have unrealistic expectations about a DIY road trip hunt. You see a hunting celebrity pull up in his decal-covered truck and kill a nice buck all in 30 minutes. DIY hunts are for tough hunters who are willing to work hard and sort things out for themselves. If you are successful in killing a mature buck on 30-40% of you hunts you are above average.
Use your cameras to determine the top-end potential of the area. If your cameras are set in the high-traffic (feeding areas) and high-interaction (community scrapes) locations, you will be getting photos of the majority of the bucks in the area within 2-3 days. There’s no sense holding out for a 140-class buck if all you are seeing on cameras are 120’s. Trust your instincts when it comes to what you are willing to take home.
Once you have found a property you really like, you can increase your odds of success on mature bucks by going back to the same place again and again. Each year you hunt, you add more experience to your memory bank and you become more adept at picking the right place at the right time. That’s a trade-off with the excitement that comes from trying a new hunting area. I do some of each because I love the challenges.
My suggestion is to go with low expectations the first time you try this. Endeavor to work hard and learn as much as you can. Have fun while doing it, enjoy the overall experience and if you tag a buck, it’s a bonus. If you have this attitude, you will have a successful hunt no matter whether you come home with a buck in the truck or not.