Hopefully you have already pre-scouted your area in the spring, driven past nearby agriculture during the summer, and bow hunted it all fall so that you already have a good idea of where to sit on the opener. If not, don’t worry! Here are 5 helpful things I’ve learned in my years of hunting public land during the firearms season:
1) Know the Access
The firearms season brings out everyone from the most die-hard of hunters to the guys who can’t tell you what caliber of gun they’re shooting – but could tell you how many cases of beer their gang went through the night before. During bow season, the experienced guys will know to get away from the main access, but during firearms, a boat-load of guys will be parking at the well marked trail heads and staying close to the trail. Use this to your advantage by being one of the few who gets off the beaten path. Even if you haven’t stepped foot on the land, look at a map. Mark the parking lots, the public property boundaries, and the known trails. The further you can be from parking and trails, the better. There are always exceptions to the rule however, and occasionally an overlooked block of brush 150 yards from the parking lot along the road could be a holding spot for deer watching everyone go right past.
2) Know the Cover
More than any other time of year, deer will relate to heavy cover during the firearms season. I have several spots where you won’t see a deer all fall, but they’re almost guaranteed to have deer activity when the droves of orange force them there. One thing all of my opening weekend firearms spots have in common is that they’re either on the edge of heavy cover, or in a funnel that leads to heavy cover. When hunting a marsh, these types of areas can be located by looking at aerial photos. Islands surrounded by cattails and brush, cedar swamps and tamarack swamps can all be hot. Lots of hunters will dress warm and be reluctant to get their boots wet or work up a sweat. The exception is when the marsh is frozen by the opener. In hilly country, north facing slopes tend to have good cover. Saddles or ridgelines headed towards those areas can be great. If you see other hunters walking through, don’t worry, because deer from other areas can still be pushed through at a later time.
3) Get there EARLY!!
Often there are rules dictating how early you are allowed to enter the woods before legal shooting light, so follow them at your own discretion. I’ve never in all my years heard of someone being ticketed because they decided to get in the woods before everyone else. When possible, I like to be set up 45 minutes to an hour before legal shooting light, just sitting in the dark quietly. Typically, some guys will get there really early, but most will arrive and start walking so that they can be set up right as it gets light, and they can more or less see what the area looks like as they get settled in. On top of that, guys will occasionally pop in at random hours throughout the day. Deer will often be following their normal routines until they see an abnormal amount of flashlights and noisy hunters stumbling through the woods. That pushes most of them out of the area before shooting light. I’ll give you a real world example: In 2009 my dad and I hunted an area that had several hundred acres of hardwoods surrounding the parking lot. Beyond that, there was 1/4 mile of cattails and brush before the start of an enormous cedar/tamarack swamp. We had both set up an hour before light, meaning we had started walking at least 2 hours before light. From my vantage point high in a large tamarack tree, I could see headlights as they pulled into the distant parking lot. Many came 0-45 minutes before shooting light. About 10 minutes after shooting light, I was able to shoot two does slowly working their way back to the cedar swamp. They had no doubt been in the hardwoods and pushed into the security of the cattails and brush by other hunters. Once there, they slowed their pace as they got close to the more secluded bedding, allowing for an easy, calm shooting opportunity. Had I shown up later, I may have pushed those deer from the cattails before ever getting set up.
4) Use a Stand, and DON’T MOVE
I am shocked by the number of hunters I can often see walking around during the opener. I think they have the idea that they’re “still hunting” and will magically see a deer before it sees them, or get a shot at a deer they jump. Still hunting can be effective, but it is an advanced technique, and most of the guys I see walking around are moving WAY too fast and noisily for it to be effective. I also think people walk around because they get cold, they get bored, or they honestly have no idea what they’re doing. All they’re doing in reality is helping out the guys who are posted up in a single spot. I prefer tree stands over ground setups because 1) I have a better vantage point, 2) I can get away with more movement positioning for a shot, and 3) it forces me to stay put. Make sure to pack extra clothes to put on at your tree, because it can be a long, cold all day sit, and deer could come through at any time.
5) After Opening Weekend, Consider Small Pushes
After the chaos of opening weekend, things can really slow down. If you’ve done your homework for #2, you know some areas that could be holding deer. Deer drives are one of the more popular strategies of gun hunting whitetails in groups, but many consider them to be disrespectful to other hunters when done on public land. Small 2 or 3 man pushes can be very targeted and very effective. Make sure to use the wind to your advantage. Have a stander set up on an exit trail downwind of cover. Have the other person or two then walk upwind of the cover and slowly and quietly walk through. The idea is not to bust the deer out at a million miles an hour, but to have them sneak out the back door when they smell danger. Dan Infalt uses this technique with wooden ladders in public cattail marshes. His small groups have taken a couple Boone and Crockett caliber bucks this way.