4 Public Land Deer Hunting Tips

When the snow piles up, as it does far too often here in Michigan, I find myself counting down the days until warmer weather returns. When it does, the countdown resets with a new end date: Bow season.

This year, both countdowns seem to take a bit longer. I’m more than ready for spring to arrive. And this fall I’ve got a darned good change of drawing a coveted archery tag for Iowa’s whitetail season.

With a once-every-four-years tag on the line, the next few months carry just a bit more importance. My plan is to hunt Iowa at least twice: once in October and again in November. If necessary, a December visit might be in the cards as well. One of the greatest challenges of a DIY out-of-state hunt is time management. You only have so many days to hunt and so many hours of daylight in each day. Scouting is critical to success. But too much scouting can cause you to come home empty-handed.

That’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way and one I see repeated all too often. The majority of my away-from-home hunting time is spent on public land. In Iowa, public ground is in short supply, which means it can get crowded. Nothing can suck the time out of a hunt more quickly than having to scout for new stand locations after your first option (or two or three) is spoiled by hunting pressure.

I’ve had that happen more times than I care to recount once the season opened, and I’ve wasted far too much time scouting for locations when I should have been hunting. This is where pre-season scouting can pay off in a big way. But finding the time to scout before the season opens can be tough. Especially if the area you need to scout is located a day’s journey from home. Summer is a busy time for everyone. It’s also a terrible time to decipher deer sign. The foliage is thick, the air is filled with bugs, last year’s rubs and scrapes are nearly impossible to find, and fresh sign is not yet available.

The solution? Scout now. Shed hunting and turkey hunts create ideal opportunities to cover plenty of ground in preparation for deer season while providing you with a valid reason to make the trip. Here are four things I look for when spring scouting for new ground that I won’t hunt until fall.


Obviously, deer tracks always catch my eye. But what I’m really looking for are concentrations of tracks that relate to some sort of terrain feature.

In Iowa, those take one of three forms: ditch or creek crossings, the head of ditches/ravines, and fence crossings.

The area of Iowa that I’ll be hunting is hilly and full of ditches. These steep-banked impediments play a major role in steering deer movement. I’m looking for places where deer cross the width of the ditch. I’ll also cut along the ditch until I find the head where the ditch begins. There will almost always be a solid deer trail found there.

That said, my favorite public-land locations are fence crossings. Why? Because there are fewer of them, and they’re often overlooked by other hunters. Fences are abundant in Iowa, even on public land, and not all of the fences mark the boundary between public and private land (in case you thought I was trying to sit right on a property line). One of the best locations I found during this spring’s shed hunt was a fence crossing deep in a large area of public land. The fence, an apparent remnant from before the ground was public, featured five, tight strands of barbed wire. A tree limb had dropped from one of the area’s many oaks and landed on the fence. The deer crossing sign was impressive—and I saw zero evidence of any other hunters in that area.

Terrain features are far more reliable clues…

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